Let’s Get Rid of Paper Panels

After attending a few conferences this summer, I have a suggestion. Let’s get rid of traditional paper panels. But I don’t believe in bringing problems without offering solutions. So here are the reasons we should get rid of paper panels and what we should do instead. This post is the first of four that I will share in the coming weeks about conferences, panels, and more.


1. How many people are really listening? Let’s say you are determined to share a paper and get feedback. Best case scenario at a busy conference you will have 30 people in the room. Maybe 10 came for your paper, 10 came for another, and 10 came for the subject. So you have 15 people who really care what your paper says. I’m not trying to be mean, but how many of those people are really going to listen intently for the entire 20 minutes it takes you to read the paper? Even if you read it perfectly and are crystal clear, most people really struggle to listen for 20 minutes and catch every word. Personally, I am not an auditory learner. Even if my best friend is sharing a paper, at some point my mind wanders and I get curious about a sports score or the weather. Other audience members may have better-trained minds, but are they really going be able to listen for ideas, sentence structure, and historiography? Probably not.

2. Even if audiences do listen perfectly, there is never much time for feedback. Assuming each paper takes 20 minutes, if the panel is 90 minutes that only leaves 30 minutes for introduction, a comment from the chair, and feedback from the audience. There must be a better way to get feedback.

3. They are boring for audiences. Let’s be honest, most papers aren’t read perfectly and aren’t crystal clear. It’s not the most riveting experience for audiences.

4. If your paper is great, it’s probably farther along and ready for submission to a journal, or pretty close. Isn’t the whole point of a conference to share ideas in progress? Why don’t you take that awesome paper and workshop it, then submit for publication?


1. Roundtables: I love a good roundtable. Good conversations, debate, discussion, audience participation, and questions from the panelists for each other. I think it’s a much better way to discuss new ideas, approaches, and historiography. I’ll share a post next week about what makes a good roundtable and how to cultivate one.

2. Workshops: Conferences have workshops and special events all the time that require pre-registration. Why not offer workshops on specific papers? It’s the same concept as a paper panel, but the papers are pre-circulated and attendees register ahead of time to receive the papers. Everyone arrives and then instead of hearing the papers, they discuss them, ask questions, and actually give meaningful feedback. Perhaps a few printed copies could be available for last-minute additions so as to not discourage participation. I don’t think attendance would be a problem though. Surely some people would sign up and then bail, but doesn’t that always happen? I always intend to go to more panels, but things come up. I don’t think it would be that big of an obstacle to attendance.

3. Skills workshops: so many of our friends and colleagues have skills that others would like to learn. Whether it be digital skills, mapping, editing, public speaking, networking, publishing, etc. It doesn’t need to just be all online stuff either! Maybe a few journal editors could offer brief presentations and Q & A sessions to help make the process less mysterious? Same with book editors. Just a few ideas off the top of my head.

If you want to learn more about how to make the most of your conference experience, down my step-by-step guide for conferencing here. For early access to resources, posts, tips, stories, and more, sign up for my Spot of Parchment.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Get Rid of Paper Panels

  1. I agree with your post, and I love your alternate solutions! Listening to someone reading their paper does not engage the audience. Engaging the listener’s senses is what aids the listener’s retention and helps the speaker emotionally connect with the listener.

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