Being a Good Discussant

The Hidden Curriculum is now well-rested, and ready to resume our normal activities. With ASA almost upon us, we thought it would be good to return with a conference-related post about how to be a good discussant. 

riegle-crumb_cAuthor: Catherine Riegle-Crumb, University of Texas

Q: I was just asked to be a discussant on a paper. What is the best/correct format? How does one critique a senior scholar (as an advanced graduate student)?

Being asked to be a discussant is flattering, and sure, it can be a little intimidating if your status is junior to the presenters on the panel. But the folks organizing the session were surely aware of that and picked you for a reason. Critiquing a senior scholar’s work is really no different than critiquing the work of a peer at a parallel career stage—basically, you want to be collegial and respectful in your delivery, and most importantly, have something constructive and relevant to contribute to the discussion.  That is, after all, your role as a discussant! Below are a few quick suggestions:

#1: Read all the papers in your session –carefully—and not the night before. This is more than a lot of more senior folks who serve as discussants actually do- so, you are already off to a great start!

#2: Your comments should be focused on helping the authors see what they might be missing, not in playing a game of academic “gotcha”. Perhaps the authors are telling a story that is broad in scope but could be more informative by going into more depth (e.g. talking about broad racial/ethnic trends in educational trajectories but not considering how this could vary by gender). Or, their argument could be strengthened by pulling on a body of literature that they have not yet considered. Or, they are making substantive or empirical assumptions that are not (currently at least) adequately supported or explained. In other words, don’t get hung up on details (did they make sure to try at least 3 different ways of imputing missing data?). Reserve your comments to issues that are related to the paper’s overall effectiveness. You can always communicate the “small stuff” to authors after the session is over, either in person, or in an email.

#3: Don’t spend too much time talking about how all of the papers “fit together” or how they are all related to each other. If you find some interesting parallels or contrasts among specific papers, you should of course mention those points in your comments. However, don’t go overboard and spend ten minutes talking about “where the subfield is headed.” Your main priority is to give constructive feedback to the authors – and also make sure that there is time left for questions from the audience!

#4: Remember: being a discussant is really not about you—i.e. don’t spend your time talking about your own research. This happens sometimes with more senior discussants who seem to forget that they are not in fact there to present their own work. Only mention your own research if it is HIGHLY relevant—and then do so VERY briefly.

#5: Finally, try to relax. Sure, there may be a few senior scholars who have forgotten that graduate students can give excellent comments. (You are, after all, being trained to read critically.).  But don’t worry about offending them. The reality is that they will likely be ignoring you anyway. JK! But seriously, most scholars do appreciate a careful reading and a constructive discussion of their work. If you do that, all of the presenters will surely be grateful for your efforts.



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