The discussant’s art

A colleague and I were lamenting the state of paper discussants the other day. Seldom do we faculty teach graduate students how to be professionals. Even more seldom are we examples of brevity and wit. With that in mind, we came up with a list of tips for the budding academic:

1. Start by telling people why they should care. It is seldom obvious. What’s the big question, and what’s at stake if the paper gets it right or wrong?

2. Then summarize the paper. Break it down differently than the presenter. Pretend you are explaining it to your grandmother. Or, rather, your adult-attention-deficit-disorder grandmother. Keep it short.

3. Say more with less. Mathematically, everything you say after your best point lowers the average quality of your comment. Pick your three best points, say them briefly, then stop talking.

4. Now, say even less. Those three comments? Write out, in bullets, exactly what you plan to say. Now cross out half. What you think will take eight minutes will take fifteen. Bring it back to eight.

5. Be constructive. A colleague once said to me: “I like it when people find problems with my paper, but I like solutions more.” Finding solutions makes you think (and displays it too).

6. Don’t discuss the small stuff. Write your little comments down, and later give them to the author. Don’t bore the audience with footnotes and trivia.

7. Feel free to entertain. A discussant need not merely list ideas. You can weave in an anecdote, or frame a point with a story. At least speak from a personal point of view, not a monotone benevolent overlord.

8. Have fun, don’t make fun. If you use humor, let it not be at the expense of anyone but yourself.

9. Spell it out for us. Tell us why your comments matter. Say precisely what we learn.

10. Aim for profound. The best discussants rotate my brain 90 degrees. They reframe the problem, or propose a novel idea. I can’t tell you how to be deep. I seldom succeed myself. For me, a few things usually help. I read the paper, walk away for a day or two, then return. I ask myself questions: Do I think about a big question differently now? What convinces me, and what would convince me more? Where should the field be going?

Comments welcome.