How to be an Effective Chair

By Gabriel Oak Rabin

Chairing a conference session isn’t glamorous and doesn’t pay well (or at all). Few give it much thought. This might lead one to think that chairing is easy and/or unimportant. Unfortunately, it’s neither. In this post I’ll try to address philosophy’s dirty work: chairing, the ways it can go wrong (or right), and how one can be a more effective chair.

After attending a few conferences, one could be forgiven for thinking that the chair’s duty begins with uttering the words “Let’s start the session. I’d like to introduce Professor XYZ from McRandom University, who will talk to us about (pause to look up the talk’s title) ABC” and finishes with, “That’s all the time we have for today. Let’s thank our speaker!” A few chairs might go beyond this, and run the Q+A by haphazardly pointing at members of the audience.

First and foremost, the chair, not the speaker, is in charge of the session. The speaker and, to a lesser extent, the commentator(s), are the star(s) of the show. But the chair is the boss. They’re responsible for ensuring that the session proceeds in a timely and organized fashion. This includes starting and finishing the session on time, helping to ensure (and insisting) that the speaker and commentator stay within their allotted time, and running a timely, fair, and disciplined Q&A that allows, as far as this is possible, for all those who desire to ask a question.

If you’re going to be a disciplined chair (which you will be from now on, after reading this article), it’s good to warn the speaker ahead of time. Let the speaker know that they have x minutes, and that you’ll hold them to it. Offer to give the speaker warnings when they have 5 minutes and 1 minute remaining. Actually give the warnings. Try not to interrupt the speaker mid-sentence when you do so. If the speaker wants an extra 30 seconds, acquiesce. You’re a stern chair now. But you still have a heart.

On to the Q&A. Don’t let the speaker run their own Q&A. The speaker has enough on their plate without managing the session. The speaker’s interests are not the same as the interests of the session as a whole, which the chair is better positioned to protect. It’s very hard for a speaker to cut themselves off when they talk too long. But a chair must sometimes do exactly that.

Start the Q&A by announcing the ground rules. Let participants know whether follow-ups will be allowed. Encourage everyone to be brief, especially with follow-ups. Start the Q&A by requesting all would-be question-askers to raise their hands. Let participants know that they can be added to the end of the queue mid-session by raising their hand and catching the speaker’s eye. Call on someone right away. While they are talking, put the remaining hands in a queue.

The queue allows participants to focus on the current exchange rather than on asking their own question. Without a queue, some participants will inevitably spend their energy jostling for position instead of listening, with hand-raisings carefully calculated to occur at the moment most likely to catch the speaker’s eye. Work your way through the queue in a way that balances selection and perspectives. Do your best to control for your own implicit biases toward or against, e.g., individuals towards the front of the room, men, faculty, tall people, long-limbed persons who raise their hands high, etc. Be egalitarian when addressing the question-askers. Don’t call the first person, “the esteemed Professor X” and the next person, “you there with the funny hat”.

Manage the speaker and the question-askers. They can make this task easy or terribly difficult. If they are reluctant to cease talking, you must stand firm. Cut participants off if necessary. Including the speaker. But do your best not to be rude. Remind all participants that there are many questions and little time. (If this is true. If not, let them talk.) In exchanges, let the speaker have the last word.

In sparsely attended sessions, or sessions in which few questions are asked, it’s your task as chair to step in and ask the speaker a question. It helps greatly to have read the paper ahead of time.

I’ll end with two more sophisticated chairing techniques, for those who really wish to step up their game. First up is the Donaldson technique, so-called because I learned it from Tom Donaldson [Cambridge]. This strategy is for those want to be extreme in their egalitarianism. The Donaldson technique requires that one never acknowledge the name, position, or rank, of anyone other than the speaker (or commentator). I saw Tom call his own colleague and good friend, “the gentlemen with the blue shirt”! This technique has the nice effect of leveling the playing field, and discourages the bias among audience members who think, “oh, the chair knows this person well, they’ll probably say something intelligent.”

The Australian system is next. In the Australian system, raised hands mark full questions and fingers signal follow-ups. The chair should allow follow-ups as time permits, and revoke follow-up rights for those who abuse the privilege. Asking a follow-up does not replace one’s “full” question or demote one on the queue. A question-asker can allow their follow-up to replace their question. The question must still be a genuine follow-up. The Australian system places more demands on both the chair and the question-askers. The chair has more to manage, and the question-askers must be judicious in their use of follow-ups, and use good judgment and be honest about when a question is a follow-up. Starting one’s statement with “that reminds me of…” does not make one’s statement a follow-up. Because of these additional demands, the Australian system is better suited for smaller and less anonymous events, in which the set of participants is iterated. The system is not at its best in an APA-style conference.

When used, correctly, however, the Australian system provides a variety of advantages over the traditional method. Brief follow-ups can add a lot to a discussion. By allowing question-askers some control over when they ask their question, they can ask the question at a point in the discussion when the topic is germane, or when some of the setup for the question is already on the table. A twenty-minute wait spoils the moment. One result is that, somewhat counterintuitively, the Australian system, when used judiciously, saves rather than costs time. (The “Australian system” is so-called because it originated in Australia. I learned it at the Australian National University. At this point, the technique has spread well beyond the antipodean continent.)

A good chair can make or break a session. Taking chairing seriously. Be assertive. Be the one to make, rather than break, the next session you chair.

(I’ll also point to the reader toward an excellent article on the APA blog, authored by Bradley Retter, that covers similar issues and makes some nice points.)

Gabriel Rabin is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at New York University Abu Dhabi. He works primarily in philosophy of mind/language and metaphysics. You can find out more about him here.


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1 thought on “How to be an Effective Chair

  1. I would add that (a) I think that the Australian system is useful in more contexts than Rabin thinks, and indeed that I have never attended a talk when it hasn’t been (or wouldn’t have been) superior to just hands, BUT THAT this is only so when everyone understands the system, which chairs typically neglect to introduce (mea culpa!); and that (b) following all the excellent advice in Rabin’s article, and so being a good chair, is in fact very simple, and so chairs should not feel proud of themselves for successfully following it.

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