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Don't Skip a Step! Own Your Role as Moderator

Don't Skip a Step! Own Your Role as Moderator

Reflecting on what I observed at the recent 2018 MLA conference in New York City, I've come to realize that the role of moderator is more important than ever as we try to revolutionize academia. In a conversation with my colleagues at the HASTAC meet-up, we all expressed our anxieties about panel moderating--it's a tough job. A moderator's tasks are to: start and end on time; introduce the panelists; make sure panelists have equal time to speak; and facilitate discussion. 

The problems a moderator faces

I've moderated a few panels and tried different approaches. Fearing a silent audience, I've asked for papers in advance to come up with my own questions. Fearing running out of time for Q&A, I've asked panelists to time themselves at least once so I don't have to interrupt them. Fearing one audience member taking up too much time, I've asked them to be mindful. These approaches to moderating came from a place of fear, not confidence.

As moderators, we usually take the back seat in a session because people are there for the panel papers, not for us, and we want the audience to have as much direct interaction with panelists in the Q&A as possible. A question means more if it comes from the audience. But slipping into the background or allowing oneself to be timid does a disservice to both the audience and the panelists.

A moderator is there to be a facilitator of conversation 

What exactly does that mean? Now that I'm unlearning how to moderate a panel, I looked it up so I could relearn. According to Google, "facilitate" (v.) means, "make (an action or process) easy or easier." I used to think that by stepping back and letting other people do the talking, I was making things "easier" by disappearing. But a good discussion, we know from Cathy Davidson, needs structure. That means taking the wheel and doing the foregrounding (laying out the format, the rules, the process) for everyone else involved so that their job (discussion) is made easy. In other words...

Don't disappear!

Everyone looks to a moderator for ground rules for the Q&A, so don't skip over this teachable moment. Let's all pledge to take a minute to explain how the Q&A is going to work. Yes, that means taking up some time, and bringing more attention to ourselves, but after observing tons of panels, I think it's the only way to increase our success rate and revolutionize not just the classroom but academia, one conference at a time. Taking time to structure the Q&A also gives audience members some time to think of good questions, and it makes them aware of your presence as a facilitator. 

What does the audience need to unlearn most?

What I've noticed (as a panelist and as an audience member) is that moderators often call on the first person to raise a hand. We need to stop that. Tell the audience that you will not call on the first person, that you will wait for more hands before you call on anyone. The best questions are often never asked because they come after time for reflection; they're developed later than the first one but the first one is given the most time and freedom. So the first thing everyone needs to unlearn is calling based on order. 

Why is that important? Calling based on order prioritizes people likely used to speaking first. There's a wonderful leadership quality in that practice, but it's not the only way to participate so I think this is a habit worth altering to include other ways of participating that stem from stepping back and having more time to reflect before stepping up. It can change the dynamics of conversation when you stop calling on the first hand. For example, I've noticed that the first hand-raisers at academic conferences (and in my classrooms) are often male. Even senior scholars who identify as women tend to wait a beat and observe or gauge the room before raising their hands. This happened in every panel I went to at MLA. The first person to speak, even in a room of 300+ people, was male. Every time. 

We're accustomed to going in order but if we're not critical of this practice, we'll never question the social hierarchies we've internalized, and if we don't question this process, we'll miss an opportunity for structuring change in academia. Structuring the Q&A will give audience members a new tool to use in their academic communities. We should stop calling based on order in our classrooms, too.

There are several ways you might structure Q&A

None of the suggestions below are mutually exclusive. You could try one at a time or make a hybrid version by combining a little from one and a little from another. Pick and choose based on what you're most comfortable with! Or do something else that works for you. My basic point is that moderators should be active, and aware of who is given time to speak and who hasn't spoken up yet.

Use a Progressive Stack 

This is a great way to structure equality into the discussion by foregrounding voices that are typically marginalized in dominant culture. It's a method that accounts for everyone--a moderator takes note of every person who wishes to speak--and it even takes into account the power of the moderator because others in the room can take over "taking stack" if they want to. Here's how Danica Savonick "takes stack," and you might also check out this gender analysis tool to measure #WhoTalks.

Take 3 Questions First, Then Answers 

Tell the audience that you will take 3 or 4 questions and then hand it over to the panelists to answer them. (If there's still time left after that, do it again!) But make sure the panelists know that they can't jump in to answer until the audience has had their 3 turns to ask! If the audience is quiet, tell them that's okay, but that you want to wait for those that are usually more quiet to have a chance to speak up. Sometimes the last question is the best one. While you buy the audience some time (this is a huge responsibility!), remember that this is valuable reflection time. If you only get one question, you might add one of your own, and then ask if someone else has a question. Get cozy with silence before trying this one. Don't panic!

Collect Written Questions

This requires more materials. Bring scraps of paper or note cards and some pencils or pens with you to the session. Conferences often have loads of these lying around, especially when they're held at hotels. Explain to the audience that they can write their questions down as things pop into their heads and tell them you'll collect these papers at the end. They can ask the questions anonymously or leave their names at the bottom. To start Q&A, explain that you want the audience to take an extra moment to think of some burning questions--things they want to hear the panelists talk about before they leave the room--and to write them down and hand them up. This gives more introverted audience members or those who don't feel comfortable speaking out loud to ask questions without standing up. It also gives you an opportunity to read them, identify similarities, and avoid reading statements that aren't actual questions. You could also do a modified version of this by asking the audience members to read their questions out loud themselves if they choose.

Think Pair Share

This requires materials and is similar to the option above. Give audience members 90 seconds to write down their burning questions and another 90 seconds to workshop those questions with someone sitting next to them. Together, pairs come up with a workshopped question that they want to ask the panelists. These questions are a lot stronger than ones that are still budding while speaking during Q&A in a more traditional format. For an example, read Cathy Davidson's post on Pedagogies of Dissent.

Try it in your classroom before the conference

Whatever method you use and tailor to your needs, you can try it out in your classroom first to get more comfortable with the silences between questions and answers. You'll then be speaking from a place of confidence when you introduce your audience to the new format. The key will be adapting any of the above practices to fit a specific time constraint. I'd suggest getting used to having a stopwatch on hand to gauge how much time it takes to do the activity of your choice. 

Make sure the panelists are on the same page

Prepare the panelists for how the Q&A is going to go and notify them that they must keep to time to leave a certain amount (ideally 15 minutes at minimum) for questions at the end. You might consider allowing only 2-3 minutes per answer and only 1 minute per question. Whatever you decide to do, tell the panelists and the audience why you're doing it so they know you mean to be an active, not a passive, moderator. That in itself might get everyone onto the same page and spur people in the room to be cognizant of others and share their time. It'll also make them more aware of your presence when you're trying to get someone's attention. 

Keeping time isn't rude, it's part of the job

When a speaker goes over time, it's a moderator's job to interrupt. Going over time means taking time away from someone else. It's a moderator's job to keep time. I love Danica Savonick's post about keeping time as feminist pedagogy. Explain, from the outset, that you will have to interrupt a speaker if they/she/he goes over time and/or that you will ask an audience member to get to a question instead of making a statement. 

Many thanks to my HASTAC Scholar colleagues who inspired this post about moderating and to MLA for a great conference!

Featured image via sluggerotoole



Wanted to note that this post was quite helpful to me as I moderated a panel at the American Planning Association national conference this morning. I felt I was more effective by being a more “active” and communicative moderator.. Thank you for sharing it.


That is so wonderful to hear! I'm glad it was helpful. Thank you for reading and for commenting!