The chair/discussant problem of the #CIES2019 Annual Conference
Why do we need chairs and discussants at the conferences? Who benefits from having chairs and discussants? And how can we do better as comparative education scholars and practitioners?
The function of conferences in the academia is to serve a role of forum for intellectual exchange and a place for polishing ideas, receiving feedback, improving our scholarship. Having chairs and discussants at the conferences is the main mechanism to facilitate such enriching intellectual discussions.
At the 2019 Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Annual Conference I observed a pattern of missing chairs and non-existent discussants. It made me wonder whether it was a conference-wide issue or just the sessions I attended. Thus, I analyzed the conference program with a specific focus on the formal paper and panel sessions.
According to the call for contributions, formal panel sessions are “submitted by a group of presenters (at least 3) who also designate their own chair and discussants” (CIES 2019). Similarly, formal paper sessions are “assigned a chair who moderates and monitors time; a discussant may also be assigned by conference organizers to offer commentary and critique, and to elicit discussion following the individual presentations” (CIES 2019). The reality, at least according to the conference program, is somewhat different.
Assuming that everything went as planned, there were 192 paper sessions and 281 formal panel sessions in total (see Figure 1). Out of 192 paper sessions, 139 had chairs and only 17 had discussants. On the other hand, from a total of 281 panel sessions, 192 had chairs and 178 had discussants. In other words, more than 27% and over 91% of paper sessions were not assigned a chair or discussant. Similarly, almost 32% and 37% of the panel sessions did not have a chair or discussant, respectively (see Figure 2). If one adds the reality of travel logistics, forgetful academics and other extenuating reasons, the actual chair/discussant representation might be an even bigger problem.
Missing chairs or discussants are not a novelty. This happens quite often at conferences. However, the fact that non-existent discussants and missing chairs have become a norm rather than an irregularity should be concerning. Not having chairs/discussants means that presenters are not preparing full papers and are not getting the feedback expected of a discussant that will improve the paper.
This brings me to the most important question: who benefits the most from having chairs/discussants at every paper/panel session? Graduate students, emerging scholars and academics new to the field. Those of us who are one of the most vulnerable groups in the field and attend conferences not simply for the visibility but mostly for the academic training need to have chairs/discussants as a way to advance our knowledge.
In light of the recent privatization efforts pursued by the CIES leadership reported extensively by Dr. Will Brehm, I urge the senior academics and leaders of our field to create a culture that is pursuant to enriching intellectual discussions rather than profit. We can and should do better for our field!