This past weekend was my aforementioned seminar on Agamben at the American Comparative Literature Association, at which I delivered this paper (PDF). It was an excellent panel all around — all the papers were substantive, and the discussion was easily the best I’ve ever experienced at a conference.
In large part, this was due to the quality of the participants and the well-defined nature of our topic, but I believe that the unique format of the ACLA’s annual conference is a big part of it as well. Instead of having one-off sessions, the ACLA is organized around multi-day seminars, and all presenters are expected to attend all the sessions. This allows for an extended dialogue and — especially crucially in my view — allows everyone to know basically where everyone is coming from. In my experience, one of the things that makes conference Q&A sessions so futile is the fact that there’s no real back-and-forth that can allow you to know where a person’s question is coming from (a gap which people understandably, if lamentably, try to fill with the “more a comment than a question”). People other than presenters also attend at most sessions, but having a core group provides a center of gravity for the converstaion.
I’ve been told that the format doesn’t automatically lead to good results, as there are lackluster and disappointing sessions. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the ACLA’s format gives a superior baseline expectation — as opposed to the traditional humanities conference session format, where a really good panel is experienced as something of a miraculous event.