a seat at the (conference) table

Part of being a good institutional citizen of your school/university is attending paper talks. No, not just those free food ones sponsored by this and that student org or law firm. Go to those too, although you will get sick of pizza. If you are the type that goes just to get food but not from interest, well, that’s a little mercenary of you, but who am I to parse and judge motives?

No, I am talking about the true test of intellectual interest and commitment: the brown bag paper talk. Like, you bring your own lunch and listen to people talk about their work, and ask questions.

I like brown bags. I don’t go to nearly enough of them, mainly because they’re all on Monday, when I don’t have class and prefer to camp out at home with my stuff all around me. But again, I advise you (and myself): be a good citizen of your school. If you are not otherwise occupied, take two hours out of your day/week to go to a paper talk. Trust me, I am scolding myself. They are usually scheduled around the lunch hour, and so they don’t even violate my annoyance at scheduling things in the late evenings, when people would rather be with their families (if they have them, and yes, they have them, even in “school”).

But it’s always interesting to me to go to a roundtable brown bag, because I never know where to sit in the room. I feel bad, as a still-student, sitting at the table. I feel like the kid who is sitting with the grownups, although some of these people are not that much older than I am (I am 27; to me, <+15 years = you are not that old). Do I consign myself to my second class citizen status and sit in the back, in the chairs that circle the table? Or do I sit boldly at the table, and feel weird about all the crusty old academics sitting in the chairs in the back? Does it matter where you sit?

What say you, crusty old academics and young academics? Do students belong at the same table as the faculty? Is it first come, first sit? Is it appropriate, nay, encouraged, for students to come to paper talks, sit at the table as “equals” (at least, as an audience to the talk) and ask questions?

Your answers shed light on institutional norms and culture. My Organizations prof last semester was abrasive and weird, but she sat at the table with us and frequently changed her position at the table, so that she was never at the head of the table or in the same position. She said that an easy to think about indicia of org culture was where people sat in the room, and how. In the sociology department, students and faculty shared the table, and everyone participated in the Q&A. In the business school, things were more stratified by implied hierarchy. Interesting, is it not?

Also, do you want comments from students when you present your papers to your colleagues? Who do you consider a colleague? Who is co-equal to you in the intellectual enterprise of workshopping a paper? What you respond will be indicative of your conception of hierarchy and the intellectual life of a school. Do you learn as much from your students as from your colleagues? Do you want to learn anything at all?

Sometimes, students need a little encouragement to feel welcome at the table, and welcome to comment and question. I am more shy than you might suspect in real life, and occasionally intimidated. Only when I am very consciously the student in the faculty/student interactions am I like this. When I myself go on the conference circuit, I think “hell, I have a JD too” and go with my “Aspiring Law Prof” persona. You would think that I could retain this identity in other interactions, but alas, no. Only when I’m presenting a work, or attending a conference as a nearly co-equal member. I should really stop thinking like this. I give tons of comments at colloquiums and conferences that I attend, why not the faculty brown bags? Probably because these are my professors, from whom I take classes. It is hard to shake myself of that relationship, even though by now I’ve studied law and organizations enough that I might be able to give actually valuable comments. I have started to attend the same conferences as my former employment discrimination prof, and that was a little weird. We’re almost colleagues! But not in my head. My head is stupid. So, props to TM for raising her hand and asking interesting questions, because it inspired me to do the same. Unfortunately, by the time I got the chutzpah, the session was over. Alas. Next time I’ll summon up the chutzpah.

5 thoughts on “a seat at the (conference) table”

  1. At a recent talk, I (a first year graduate student, effectively) ended up sitting between my probable future adviser and the department chair at the table. In the end, most of the younger graduate students sat in the back of the room, while two or three older graduate students (well into their dissertations) joined much of the faculty at the table. But I think that may have had as much to do with individuals’ need to leave right at the end of the talk as with the departmental hierarchy. More data needed is all I’ll say for now.

    For workshopping purposes, I am more interested in broad comments from faculty and nitpicky details from graduate students. A grad student, I think, is more likely to catch you making small slip-ups, or having somewhat unclear explanations of central concepts, things like that. Faculty are great for helping you slot your work into the broader field. When I make my own comments, I try to aim them that way – I am no expert on any particular field, but I can offer a close reading that tries to actually make sense of the paper internally.


  2. this totally happens in my dept, at least as far as seating arrangements go. there’s a big rectangle of tables designed for seminars, but there’s also a couple of chairs/couches along a far wall, and a little round table in a corner by the coffee machine. this little table gets consistently over-filled by grad students, even when there are open seats at the seminar rectangle, while the couches are usually filled by (the same) 2-3 faculty members, who sometimes leave early but also sometimes just seem to want to be a bit more marginal to the presentation/discussion. i definitely have felt the “kids’ table” dynamic happening, especially when i want to sit at the “adults’ table”. that’s all for more formal colloquia, though.

    for our more informal paper presentations, we meet in a lounge with couches, and end up sitting pretty mixed fac/stu. there are also periodic attempts by faculty to institute some kind of rule by which 3 students have to talk before any faculty can; those usually fail but i appreciate the sentiment.


  3. One great thing about NU sociology is that someone keeps the list of questioners and grad student questions have priority. it is viewed in our department as part of the professional socialization — helping students feel comfortable being in these interactions. And, they sit at the table – especially byt he 4th year or so.

    Yes, sit in the back if you must leave before the session ends (or, near the door if that is not the back). If you are trying to eat take-out sushi and need the wasabi-soy sauce ratio to be absolutely perfect, you need to be at the table.

    The bigger problem from the institution’s point of view is (1) filling the room (especially at a place where there are so many talks like NU) and/or (2) making the q & A lively and interesting.

    Let me assure you, most faculty can hear a talk and then predict the question (or a close version) of the question of many of their colleagues. We LOVE a new interesting question. And, sometimes a grad student asks a question of a speaker and I find them later to ask them about it or to tell them something I know about the question. it is a good way to be known in the department.

    Go Belle.


  4. At my school, the grad students who have been here longer feel more comfortable, especially those who are ABD. I have a different problem from Belle Lettre – I’m a grad student who is rapidly closing on 40, which means I am actually the same age as the younger professors. That brings in its own weird dynamic, but means I sometimes think of myself as having higher status than I do because I’m older.


  5. We have a mixture of patterns. At the seminar group for my particular research cluster, we have a graduate student and faculty discussant for each presentation. The graduate student always goes first. It’s a smallish group, so most people sit at the table. At larger department colloquia, it’s a little more stratified. Some graduate students sit at the table and some hang out on the periphery.


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