Choosing Keynote Speakers


A couple of graduate students are seeking advice on how to select keynote speakers for a conference they’re organizing.

They’re seeking advice about a decision procedure for the choice and were wondering how faculty and other graduate students at other departments went about it.

They write:

We considered just polling our fellow graduate students. But this could be problematic. Here is one reason why. It seems plausible that when picking a speaker us graduate students should keep an eye to the needs of those particular graduate students on or near the job market. In particular, it seems plausible that a speaker should be someone who works in the area of the graduate students near or on the job market. For if we got a speaker with similar interests, then that would be a great networking opportunity for them. Yet if the majority of graduate students are still in coursework and do not share the interests of the grad students on or near the market, then the speaker will not work in the area students looking for jobs. So, those students will lose some valuable, in-area networking.

I think that when it comes to criteria for selecting a keynote speaker, how good a networking opportunity they provide is itself not all that important, because, first, the effects of such networking are likely to be negligible, and second, there are other more important factors in the decision, such as, “does this person give lively talks about interesting stuff?” and “do enough of us know enough about what this person is interested in to make their visit worthwhile?”

I think reflection on those questions and asking around about the quality of the talks given by the philosophers under consideration should be part of the process.

Do you have further advice for these students about how to make their choices?

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John Buridan
John Buridan
2 years ago

Wanting to provide a networking opportunity for graduate students on the market is a good reason to choose a speaker. Wanting to provide a networking opportunity for the greatest number of graduate students is also a good reason to choose a speaker.
It sounds as if two possible courses of action are judged equal, and the will cannot break the deadlock. I recommend dithering until the travel calendars of almost all interesting potential speakers are booked up. Then the choice will be made for you! Report

Matthew
Reply to  John Buridan
2 years ago

I stopped. I re-read. Then I looked at the name.

Well done.Report

Jeremy
Jeremy
2 years ago

I agree with Justin. The networking point seems to be receiving way too much weight in their judgment, given how unlikely it is that there will be any meaningful networking in that context.

When I saw the title of the post, I thought it was going to go a different way: I thought they were going to ask about prioritizing speakers from groups underrepresented in the field, or with ideas or perspectives that are underrepresented in that particular department. I’d encourage the authors of this question to consider this when making their decision. It can be an incredibly valuable opportunity for everyone.Report

Anne jacobson
Anne jacobson
2 years ago

They do seem to assume thaat the invited speaker will be impressed by some students. That may not happen.Report

Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

Why introduce democracy into this process? The two organizers are spending the time and effort to put the conference together, they should pick whoever they want to interact with or whose work they find interesting. For me, the most important thing about selecting a keynote speaker is someone who is not going to read a paper or otherwise act like Lurch. See if you can find videos of the person giving talks online. The other thing to keep in mind is to think about who you might be able to get based on the resources you have available. That almost certainly will narrow the list of speakers down considerably, if not eliminate every single person who starts on that list.

Organizing conferences and public lectures is usually a thankless job. The one great thing about being the organizer is the opportunity to spend time with the speakers you’re bringing in. No matter who you pick or what the process is, make sure as the organizer that you get to spend some quality time with the speaker–take him/her out to lunch or dinner, and budget that into the conference expenses. From a strategy standpoint (since they seem interested in this), that’s far more important than trying to play Mistress Cleo and figuring who is going to have a job opening in some narrow area 9 months from now.Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

Putting in all the effort is not usually a sufficient condition for being the one (or the group) that *should* choose what affects a group. What assumption(s) are you making about what considerations count in favor of the organizing parties being the ones that should choose in the relevant circumstances? Is it just that organizing is usually a thankless job? This on its own is not very weighty. Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Kenneth
2 years ago

When isn’t putting in all of the effort not a sufficient condition for making decisions that affect a group, when that group’s members can opt-out rather easily with no, or almost no, negative consequences?Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

That’s easy. There are many. Here’s one: When many or most of the group will not opt out, and they can be negatively impacted by a self-serving decision.Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  Kenneth
2 years ago

Feel free to answer my question, Chris Surprenant…Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Kenneth
2 years ago

Your reply misses “when that group’s members can opt-out rather easily with no, or almost no, negative consequences.” Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

No it doesn’t. Even when the members can opt out, they sometimes don’t. Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

Sure, I agree. But we’re talking about cases where when they don’t opt out there are no or minimal negative consequences. Who is selected as a keynote for a graduate student philosophy conference, and someone who choose not to opt out of attending, fits this description rather well.Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

So that is one of the assumptions you’re making…Report

Thinker
Thinker
2 years ago

Inviting a keynote speaker based off the hope that they might be of use to students about to enter the job market just seems oily and disingenuous. Report

Emily Vicendese (formerly beauvoir's baby)
Emily Vicendese (formerly beauvoir's baby)
Reply to  Thinker
2 years ago

That’s a bit unfair. If postgrads have the impression that anything less than servile careerism is imprudent, I doubt they are to blame to for it. Report

runtownexpress
runtownexpress
2 years ago

Another criterion to keep in mind when inviting keynote speakers: don’t invite known harassers, plagiarizers, and criminals. A concrete way to implement this criterion would be to double-check any list of names to invite against places like the Philosophical Misconduct blog.Report

A.
A.
2 years ago

It seems these grad students are making things way too complicated. Forget the networking opportunity thing…for so many reasons. Here is just one: if there really is a grad student who is both talented and charming enough to gain any meaningful connection from a key note, they will soon, or already have, made those connections themselves.

Doesn’t the conference have a theme? It seems you would pick someone appropriate to the theme. And I don’t really see a need to vote, but you can -that is a fine enough way to do things.Report

M
M
2 years ago

There are philosophers out there whose written work is quite good but who use speaking opportunities to give talks that are not even half-baked. Not even parboiled. Organizers might want to ask around a bit to avoid wasting keynote slots on such as these.Report

James Lethbridge
James Lethbridge
2 years ago

Hello Friends,

I am currently organizing Binghamton University’s second annual graduate conference, and was closely involved in the organization for the first. I thought I might outline the process that we used, in the hope that it might prove useful to other graduate students organizing conferences of their own.

First, we assemble a conference planning committee composed of graduate volunteers in the philosophy department. We generally have a group of about 8-10 volunteers, with roughly 3-5 of these have well defined roles and responsibilities (Finance , Media, Paper curation, etc.) With the fully assembled group, we will spend about an hour brainstorming about a possible topic, putting all possibilities up on a white board, and gradually narrowing it down to something which has a specific title and focus. This will then be re-worked into the conference title and theme, which will in turn become the CFP.

Second, once we have settled on a title and theme, each of us spends some time researching scholars who would be a good fit for the theme. We each select possible keynote speakers based either on our own familiarity with their work, or through simple google searches and the like. Each volunteer then writes up a paragraph summary of the scholar’s work, which is then emailed to the entire conference planning committee. We take some time to read over the summaries, and then reconvene to discuss each scholar individually.

Third, and likely most directly related to the OP, we choose our keynote, based on the following concerns, ranked in no particular order. 1) We want a scholar who has done significant work in the area of the conference theme. 2) We want a scholar who we think has a reasonable probability of accepting our invitation (here we operate similarly to how one might apply to grad schools; we have an informal grouping of ‘reach’ scholars, who we think will be unlikely to accept our invitation, and other scholars who we think would be likely to accept.) 3) Due to budgetary constraints, we also try to choose scholars who are relatively close regionally (at the very least, a scholar located in the US). 4) We then use all three sets of concerns to construct an ordinal ranking of our proposed speakers. We also survey the faculty at our department to see if any of them has any personal connection to any of the proposed speakers, so that we can reach out to them through our own faculty members (either through facilitating an email introduction, or simply by mentioning us to them so that our invitation is not simply out of the blue.) 5) We then send out our invitations, beginning with our top pick, and working our way down the list until we get an acceptance. 6) Once we have an accepted keynote speaker, then, and only then, do we concern ourselves with networking opportunities. We will survey the conference planning committee to see if there is any member who has a particular desire to work with, get to know, or otherwise network with our speaker, and try to arrange things so that they get a bit of extended face-time with them. This generally means that the student(s) looking for the network opportunity will be the one to pick the speaker up from the airport, or the one who brings them from their hotel to the conference, or from the conference to dinner, or the one who corresponds with them via email about travel arrangements. The networking opportunities therefore function as a kind of bonus or side-benefit to the entire selection process, and has no function in the process itself.

This method should by no means be considered normative; rather, it is what has worked out well for us. Our conference last year was incredibly successful, even as an exclusively graduate student process, to the point that our department expressed an interest in making sure we were able to run one every year. How much of this is due to our keynote selection process I cannot say, but it was certainly a large part of the reason why our conference went so well. I hope that a look into our process might be illuminating to the grad students in the OP!

(PS, here’s a shameless plug for our conference: https://philevents.org/event/show/61938. There’s still 10 days to submit papers!)Report

mrmister
mrmister
2 years ago

As with many above, direct job networking strikes me as a weak concern. Nonetheless, I think it still makes sense to pay particular attention to the interests of students who are posed to benefit most, and also that this group will still be likely to be those close to the market—because they are likely to have mature work that may in certain ways already have outgrown their committee, and because bringing in an outside scholar that they’ve engaged with deeply in writing could be an excellent opportunity for them to gain from conversations in the Q&A, or, perhaps even more so, over lunch and dinner.Report

Serial Grad Conf. Organizer
Serial Grad Conf. Organizer
2 years ago

Having organized many grad conferences myself, I’m strongly in favor of considering whether the grad students are interested enough in the potential keynote’s work to have a good, productive (and perhaps impressive) philosophical conversation and Q&A with the speaker. You don’t want the person to come to your conference and feel like it has been a waste of their time.

Also, based on my past experience, I have found it also incredibly helpful to consider if the keynote will actually be interested in talking to the grad students. Some keynotes of grad conferences past have very little interest in actually talking to the grad students at the conference (and end up talking almost solely with the faculty during social times like dinner and coffee breaks). Figuring out if someone is grad student-friendly is a little challenging, but we’ve relied on grad student past interactions with potential keynotes at other conferences, or asking grad student acquaintances at their university. Some of our best and favorite keynotes have been the ones that were actually interested in getting to know the grad students, asking questions about their work, and doing a little mentoring about how to be successful in the field of philosophy along the way.

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