mrissa: (Default)
[personal profile] mrissa

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux. You can comment here or there.

I was talking to someone who is planning on doing programming for a convention, because I think everyone, or nearly everyone, who is on panels has opinions about how they should be done–certainly everyone who has helped with programming, which I have. And I wanted to say this in no uncertain terms: if you do not have a moderator, you do not have a panel.

I don’t care if you choose to have a participating moderator or a non-participating moderator. That’s up to you, your con, your topic, whatever. Do that as you will. Use your own judgment. But I can count on one hand the number of panels I have ever seen that would have done all right with completely freeform participation from the panelists and in the panelists’ interactions with the audience. I have seen several where the participants said they’d do fine that way. And generally having someone moderate either turned out to be the best decision or would have turned out to be the best decision; and quite often which person mattered a great deal.

Let me say that again: which moderator matters a great deal.

I know that it’s really hard to know who will be a good moderator if you’re doing programming for a large convention and you don’t know all the personalities of your panelists. You don’t necessarily know who will be shy, who will be balky, who will tend to ramble and then stop completely, who will talk over other panelists, who will talk over audience members, who will talk over audience members who absolutely need to be talked over…who will get a good balance of calling on rambly but interesting pros in the audience with calling on concise question-askers…moderating is hard, and moderating each specific panel is different. I know it’s hard to know. I’m sorry.

But you need a moderator. And you need to know more than five minutes in advance who is moderating, because panel prep is a thing for everybody, but it’s really, really, truly a thing for the moderator. The questions that keep a panel from being shallow and surface-driven can arise naturally and organically–but they don’t always. Sometimes the moderator brings them up. Sometimes the moderator brings them up in such a natural way that it looks like they’re natural and organic. The pitfalls that will make a panel truly dreadful: a prepared moderator can sometimes start to see them coming and steer frantically away.

And lately (at multiple conventions! I am not calling out any one convention!) I have seen a lot of “who wants to be the moderator?” as a means of choosing the moderator, and I’m sorry, but that is not enough. Quite a few people want to be the moderator who should not be the moderator. It is not quite to the level of “anyone who wants the job shouldn’t have it,” but…there are at least a great many obviously experienced people who have not been practicing using that experience to boost insightful voices with less experience. This is one of the cases where “I’ve done this ten million times and am comfortable with it” is maybe not always the thing to reinforce. Sometimes! Sometimes experience combines with awareness to give you a moderator who will help bring out new ideas, and that’s great. And other times you get someone who makes the panel their own personal pulpit, or who has vast experience with moderating badly, or any of a number of other problems. So: “I’m comfortable doing it” doesn’t always map to doing a good job.

Which may mean that I, personally, should not always be the moderator. I will try to do a good job when I moderate, but guess what? I will be the right moderator for some panels. And I will be the wrong moderator for some panels. I think that when someone comes in saying, you need a moderator to do these things, it can get read with an implication of like me, me, I would do this perfectly, I am the right choice, me. I want to explicitly say: nope. Sometimes it’s absolutely me, sometimes it’s absolutely not, and sometimes I’m the least of evils for the panelists you have. Me, personally.

But the worst panel horror stories invariably have someone asking, “And what did the moderator do?” And the answers are either: “Nothing!” or, “That was the moderator.” So: convention programming staff. Please, please, please. I know it’s a difficult question, I know you will not be able to get it perfect, and I don’t blame you when you try and it goes wrong. But I do blame you when there isn’t a moderator assigned. Please at least try. Think about the moderator as a careful part of how you do panels.

Date: 2017-08-08 07:30 pm (UTC)
ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)
From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon
And in fact if you have a good mod and a good audience the panel is completely optional. Panels at transformative works-centered cons very rarely have panelists; they're usually seminar-style, with one or two moderators leading a discussion among all the attendees.

When fans from fanfic communities started adopting WisCon, this was a big cultural barrier--a lot of people who had only experienced seminar-style panels found the traditional panel format uncomfortably hierarchical. This was not a criticism the established crowd at WisCon had expected to hear.

Date: 2017-08-08 08:58 pm (UTC)
jesse_the_k: those words in red on white sign (be aware of invisibility)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Oooo! What a useful comment! Where do I go to hear it?

I've got copious experience moderating but the more I do it the less satisfied I am with my work.

Date: 2017-08-08 08:59 pm (UTC)
jesse_the_k: Rubik's Cube puzzle with all-white faces labelled in braille (Braille Rubik's Cube)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Amen! And selah

Date: 2017-08-08 10:52 pm (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
FWIW, my guideline for moderating is that I will only do it if I am prepared not to state my own opinions. If I really want to talk about the topic, I won't enjoy moderating: I'll have a hard time balancing between not letting other people talk, and saying nothing at all in an attempt to avoid that.

I've done the "OK, the other panelists and the audience get to talk and I don't" style of moderation a few times. Two of those were panels where we hadn't had a moderator assigned: Once was at the 1995 Worldcon, where one panelist was trying to be the only one talking: I grabbed the reins, cut off the person who thought "panel" meant "monologue," and called on the other two panelists and the audience. That was a nothing-to-lose situation: I wasn't going to get a say anyhow, and it felt like interrupting to say "Sandra, what do you think?" would go over better than interrupting to talk about my opinions.

The other was at a Minicon, where I lost track of time, walked into my panel slightly late, and [personal profile] rysmiel smiled at me and said "you're moderating." Of the five of us, I was probably the best choice to moderate, but advance notice would have helped.

(I've also been an emergency drop-in moderator at Wiscon: that was interesting, because I wasn't expected to know anything about the topic, just direct traffic and make sure everyone got a say. As with a lot of last-minute substitutions, it's not as good as having an informed and prepared moderator, but the theory was that it was better than no moderator at all.)
Edited Date: 2017-08-08 10:53 pm (UTC)

Date: 2017-08-10 11:01 pm (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
I think I overstated this. It's not "I don't have opinions" so much as being prepared to step back and make sure the other panelists get a fair chance to state theirs. Emergency drop-in moderator is an odd thing, and I probably wouldn't take on that specific job, of moderating a panel I know almost nothing about, again.

Date: 2017-08-09 02:16 am (UTC)
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rushthatspeaks
Amen, amen, amen.

I had an aggravating amount of energy tied up this year at Readercon in 'am I going to have to moderate xyz? welp, no way to find out till I get there!', with in at least one case the addition of 'dear God don't let me have to moderate this it will be a circus please please please can anybody else do it'. As things turned out, I did not have to moderate anything that I wasn't warned about in advance, but I did not enjoy worrying about it.

And it's not that I think I'm that amazing a moderator, it's just that I've done it a lot and a lot of people know I have, so when there isn't someone pre-assigned, I am one of the people who starts getting looked at with puppy-eyes. Which, the puppy-eyes are hard to resist, and that's another large amount of energy I have to keep setting aside in case I need it, the energy needed to say a polite firm no even if it looks like everything is going to go to hell otherwise.

The least stressful panel I had this Readercon was, amazingly enough, the one which had a moderator assigned ahead of time, and the mod got all our email addresses and we started discussion some weeks in advance.

I have no idea why there was only one of those. I would prefer strongly that more panels work this way.

Date: 2017-08-10 02:00 am (UTC)
rosefox: The Readercon logo flipped to read R F. (readercon)
From: [personal profile] rosefox
I can assure you this will not be a problem at Readercon in 2018.
Edited Date: 2017-08-10 02:00 am (UTC)

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