Moderation in all things

Like many of you, I’ll be attending Sunstone this year. I’m looking forward to many of the panels. Kristine and Janet and Jana and Bored in Vernal will be speaking. Armand Mauss and Claudia Bushman and John Dehlin and John Hamer and Lorie Winder and Paula Goodfellow and Newell Bringhurst. _Nobody Knows_ will show. Really, the only thing that worries me is the moderation.

I’ve been to two symposiums so far. Both times, I’ve attended wonderful talks and panels. And both times, at least one session has been seriously undermined by a commenter run amok.

Typically, the speakers talk for a period of time, and then the floor opens for Q&A. This is a great opportunity for the audience to get involved. (And at some of these sessions, the audience is Richard Bushman!) Ideally, the Q&A allows a variety of audience members to ask questions and engage with the speakers.

Sometimes, though, a commenter decides to take the mike and run — and run, and run, and run. The result is never good.

I sat through one great session last year that essentially ended up having no Q&A, because the first audience commenter proceeded to go on a fifteen minute rant about various doctrinal issues — becoming, in effect, an unfortunate fifth speaker for the four-person panel. Another panel I heard this spring saw only very limited Q&A, since the Q&A period was mostly dominated by a fifteen-minute travelogue reminiscence from the first audience member to make it to the mike.

Sunstone Q&A periods are not testimony meetings, where possession of the mike often means a green light to ramble. They are, in theory, a time for the audience to ask questions of panelists who are often experts in their fields.

And yes, I know, to some extent, this probably taps into the Sunstone-as-scholarship versus Sunstone-as-therapy debate. If Sunstone is all just a big group therapy session and group hug, then perhaps it’s appropriate to allow any rambler to grab the mike for a fifteen minute monologue. But in recent years, the symposium has pushed hard to be more scholarly — appropriately, I think.

It’s not 1990 anymore, and today there are a multiplicity of other places that one can let loose an unhinged rant or travelogue. (Blogs, anyone?) In contrast, there are not many other similar venues where audience members can engage in substantive dialog with Armand Mauss or Claudia Bushman.

So, this post is a plea to Mary Ellen and her cadre of enforcers. Please, let’s lay down the law and rein in the rants and travelogues. I think that a stated policy can help a lot — I see these at academic conferences sometimes — such as simply having the moderator say, “please keep all comments to two minutes or less, in order to allow other audience members to participate in the Q&A” at the same time that she tells commenters to be sure to speak into the microphone.

And then, of course, enforce.

What do people think? How should Sunstone moderators walk the line required in order to facilitate good Q&A while not letting rogue commenters run wild?


  1. Mark IV says:

    Huh. Some things never change, I guess. It’s been a couple of decades since I attended, and while there were some outstanding presentations, one of my most persistent memories of Sunstone is the annoyance I felt at people who simply would not shut up already, and insisted on taking 15 minutes to state their question/cridecoeur/complaint/rant/whatever.

    I think your sugggestion is a good one, and ought to be adequate.

  2. You hit the nail on the head, Kaimi. I think any comment that can’t fit under two minutes can probably be shared with their neighbor to the side or with the presenters in-between sessions.

    Maybe Sunstone could hire some of BYU’s “suspicious males” to enforce the rule…

  3. Just get some bishops to be bouncers and give them a list of phrases (like “generals in the war in heaven”) to key off of.

  4. Questions or comments should be written on 3×5 card and given to the Moderator, who will then pass them on to the panel.

  5. Bob’s suggestion is perfect, imo.

  6. I think Kaimi’s volunteering to moderate some of those sessions, Mary Ellen!

  7. Eric Russell says:

    such as simply having the moderator say, “please keep all comments to two minutes or less, in order to allow other audience members to participate in the Q&A” at the same time that she tells commenters to be sure to speak into the microphone.

    Kaimi, when I was there a couple years ago, they did. I don’t recall if a specific timeframe was given, but questioners were frequently reminded to keep it brief and to get right to their question. It didn’t help.

    In addition to enforcing a time limit, the repeat offenders (who makes themselves manifest pretty quickly) need to be personally spoken to by someone with some authority. They need to be told directly in clear, unequivocal terms to cut it out.

  8. Eric Russell says:

    Or what Bob said.

  9. I think the tone of the comment section is probably what drives away your run-of-the-mill Latter-day Saints from the forum, more than anything else.

  10. An announcement that all commenters that take longer than 1 minute must attend Kaimi’s karaoke party should do the trick.

  11. Since I’m responding to a speaker, I plan on putting Bob’s idea into practice. I’ll try to remember to buy the cards. I think that’s a great solution.

    Kaimi has a karaoke party? I want to go! Kaimi has NEVER invited me. I want to do a duet with Kaimi. Something Clapton.

  12. I’m both speaking and moderating next week and I appreciate your comments and I like the 2 minute proposal. I’m less worried about q&a during my own presentations, since I imagine only 3 or 4 in the audience, than the session I moderate.

  13. I’m reminded of Brigham Young’s advice to the woman who complained that her husband told her to go to hell.

    “Don’t go!” Brother Brigham said.

    Applying his advice (to Sunstone, that is), I don’t think I’ll have any problems with the commenters at Sunstone.

    (Anybody who thinks that I have implied that the Sunstone Symposium is the moral equivalent of hell is reading more than I wrote.)

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Kaimi, you’ve put your finger on one of the things that really annoys me about Sunstone. When I’ve done my open threads on the symposium, inevitably I include a comment lamenting this state of affairs. I seem to recall your polygamy panel last year being marred by such a comment hostage-taker. I think your idea of announcing a two-minute limit is terrific.

    I’m only going to make it to Saturday this year, but I am responding to a paper (Chris Smith’s JS and hermeneutical crisis paper), and I will definitely keep my remarks short so that there will be ample time for Q&A. (Long, rambling responses that are not to the point and needlessly cut off the Q&A time are another complaint I have.)

  15. Of course, this problem isn’t unique to Sunstone. Remember Louis Midgeley’s attack after John-Charles Duffy’s MHA panel presentation. And there, the moderator made the seemingly obvious mistake of soliciting Midgely’s attack. (I think it started out with Midgely passionately proclaiming, while poking a finger in JC’s direction: “You’re not one of us!”)

  16. Moderation in most things. After all, moderation in all things is a little bit, well, extreme.

  17. molly bennion says:

    Another solution: attend the Dialogue-sponsored sessions because they will be packed with so many good presentations that I doubt there will be time for any rants. Claudia Bushman has been overseeing our panels chaired and further organized by Armand, Jana Riess, Levi, Mack Stirling (the Mack Stirling whose Bk of M. institute notes have been up on FeastUponTheWord lately,Bob Rees and Brian Birch. It’s the strongest lineup we’ve ever put together for Sunstone. I think you will find them of the highest quality. I also will tell our chairs to be on the lookout for abuses and squash them (politely, of course).

  18. Plea heard! I’ll pass these suggestions on to session chairs and moderators in hopes they can better manage the folks who mistake an open forum for an open mike.

    And I welcome all who would like to be part of the solution by chairing and moderating at future Sunstone events!

  19. What Molly said! And also come to the Saturday morning hymn-singing session, where all questions will be required to be presented as recitatives–that always keeps things pithy.

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    There is nothing uniquely “Sunstone” about this problem. I think it’s a problem everywhere you give regular Joes the opportunity to pose questions to academic or quasi-academic speakers. I saw it in graduate school, particularly at public fora. I see it with callers on C-Span interview shows. I see it everywhere. Give someone a mike, and he or she often can’t resist the urge to pontificate endlessly about this or that topic, often incoherently.

    Kaimi’s suggestion is a good one. I sometimes think it would even be worthwhile to say something sterner to an audience before they are given the opportunity to speak. Something like, “We will now open this up for questions from the audience, as opposed to speeches or longwinded comments from the audience, which are not welcome, and which will not be indulged.”

    Of course, where I’d often really like to say this is Gospel Doctrine class, except that (a) that wouldn’t be nice (and niceness really matters in GD); and (2) GD is a forum where comments are as kosher and questions.

    Aaron B

  21. Aaron Brown says:

    P.S. In fairness, sometimes the presentations at Sunstone really are worse than the commenters. But only sometimes, thankfully. :)

    Also, I’ve read a lot of Midgley over the years, but I’ve never seen him in person. But I’ve heard so many stories about his public behavior over the years that I really feel I’m missing out by not seeing it first-hand. Would someone please tell me where he’s going to show up next, so I can be there? I assume the Sunstone Symposium isn’t the place.


  22. Hmmm, fast and testimony meeting is this Sunday…I think some of this could be applied to that, too. Sister so-and-so, you get up and “bear your testimony” (if that’s what you call your ranting and not-so-subtle condemnations) every month. Give someone else a chance. Same goes for you, Brother Former Bishop. We all love you but how’s about taking this month off?

  23. StillConfused says:

    I have never attended this event. I am not a big fan of Q&A session and round table discussions so it sounds like this is not the place for me. When I go to hear someone speak, I want to hear that person speak and not others who are not on the agenda. I guess and occassional question from the audience is fine. But it must be phrased in the form of a question. maybe even limited in the length of said question.

  24. John Mansfield says:

    Aren’t security guards with tasers the standard solution for this problem?

  25. There is a scene in a SNL skit a few years ago where at a GWB press briefing Helen Thomas stood up to ask a question and a SS agent shoots her in the neck with a dart from a blowgun and she falls over.

    That may be a good model to follow.

  26. Don’t tase me, bro!

  27. Mary Ellen,

    I’ll be happy to moderate a few sessions. I want a machine gun. Or at the very least, a long shepherd’s crook to yank people off stage.


    That’s a great suggestion. (And for any particularly annoying people, you could give them a miniature tape flag and tell them to write their comment on that.)

    Mark B.,

    Brigham also said, “go to California, and be damned.” And here I am.


    Your invite is in the mail. I’m thinking we could sing “Cocaine” together. Or perhaps a Dylan tune. I’ll bet you do a mean rendition of Forever Young.


    But it’s so much easier just to complain!


    Youtube link, please.


    Youtube link, please.


    Actually, maybe it would be best to go Ken Jennings style, and make people ask questions in the form of an answer. And the the panelists would have as phrase their answers in the form of a question.

  28. By the way, everyone, check out the snazzy new final program, at

  29. Kaimi–“Cocaine” is exactly the song we should sing!

    My husband, while in England, has been concluding his e-mails to me with phrases from Beatles’ songs. I tried to think of phrases from Clapton to end my e-mails with, but dear Eric doesn’t lend himself quite as well. “I shot the sheriff…”

  30. Surely you’ve realized by now, Margaret, that Clapton really isn’t much of a lyricist — he’s not in the same league at all as Dylan, or Lennon, or Paul Simon, or Townshend, or Roger Waters, or the Boss, or Neil Young.

    Clapton is a lot like Hendrix, really. No one pays attention to Purple Haze or Foxy Lady for their lyrics. No, it’s all about those kick-ass guitar licks. And Clapton’s exactly the same way. (He’s not a great singer, either — also like Hendrix.)

    Of course, Clapton (or Hendrix) could make a guitar gently weep, in a way that few others ever could.

    So if you’re going to be citing lyrics, just switch to Dylan. He’s American, too, and there’s no end of good lines. :)

  31. Aaron writes:

    Also, I’ve read a lot of Midgley over the years, but I’ve never seen him in person. But I’ve heard so many stories about his public behavior over the years that I really feel I’m missing out by not seeing it first-hand. Would someone please tell me where he’s going to show up next, so I can be there? I assume the Sunstone Symposium isn’t the place.

    You can meet Lou at this year’s FAIR conference, which happens to overlap Sunstone this year. Thursday and Friday at the South Town Expo Center in Sandy.

    He’s really a pleasant guy. Grandfatherly, with lots of stories.

    But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, I’ll say that much.

  32. Thanks all for the heads-up. I’ll try to put on my no nonsense face for the commenter-run-amok. I will be speaking on Sephardic Jews and the LDS connection in the presentation _Adventures in DNA_. I look forward to meeting ya’ all, since I am a major fan of most of you.

  33. To SMB (comment #15). Well, then, just tell Duffy not to say stupid things.

  34. Louis Midgley says:

    Mike Parker alerted me to rather inaccurate comment about comments I made over a year ago at an MHA session in Salt Lake. I will respond to some quite rough comments about me by SMA in #15, above.

    The fellow who was conducting that MHA session specifically invited me to respond to the comments that John-Charles Duffy had included in a paper that he had just read. I would have said nothing, if I had not been asked to respond. That fellow, who explained to me after the session that he had been my student and was amused by Duffy’s remarks about me, turned the last fifteen minutes of that session over to me. I was pleased to be able to be given the opportunity to correct two of the claims that Duffy had made in his paper.

    In Duffy’s morality play he had fashioned an heroic New Mormon History that he pictured as being suddenly trashed by David Bohn and me, as we set in place an deplorable Faithful History. Then he went on to speculate about what Mormon historians can and cannot do, if they are to be taken seriously by the secular academy. In addition, Duffy had Bohn and me doing this terrible deed at the specific request of–gasp–Elder Packer.

    Duffy has this all wrong. The expression Faithful History was first used by Richard Bushman as a title to an essay he published in 1969. That essay did not generate some movement in the fledgling Mormon history community. One than as a casual title to a one page note in a popular magazine that carried the title New Mormon History, the first use of that label as a description of some movement going on among Mormon historians was an essay in 1974 by Robert Flanders who thought he saw the possibility of a movement flowing initially from Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith that would hopefully somehow allow those RLDS and others, including cultural Mormons, who essentially reject or at least radically question Joseph Smith’s prophetic truth claims, to find a way of setting out their explanations of a faith they essentially reject. When understood that way, it is clear that Jim Allen, Davis Bitton, Leonard Arrington and most others then making important advances in doing Mormon history were not New Mormon Historians. And the fact is that Allen, Bitton and Arrington and others did not describe themselves as New Mormon historians. Arrington flatly reject the label; he never used it in anything he published and I could not find any evidence in his papers that he employed the label for his work or that of his associates, and neither did Bitton.

    My point is that there has never been a contest between a New Mormon History and a Faithful History, except in the minds of David Bohn and also journalists and ideologues wanting to embarrass the Church. The point I emphasized when I was asked to comment on Duffy paper is that he has fabricated essentially out of whole cloth a kind of morality play for his own ideological purposes. I admit to being a bit annoyed to have been linked with Bohn in this essentially silly game. Bohn is a former colleague and also a friend. But the fact is that we do not agree on much of anything when the topic of Mormon history comes up. And we approach the topic differently. In my department at BYU there were several of us who constantly debated these kinds of issues. And if anyone is aware of Alma Don Sorensen, Noel Reynolds or Ralph Hancock, they will sense that I am on most issues much closer to them than I ever have been to David Bohn. If Duffy had read carefully the relevant literature, he should have figured this out.

    What exactly was wrong with my former student allowing me the opportunity to respond to what were from my perspective absurd remarks aimed at me in Duffy’s paper? Duffy had a lot to say about me, was it not proper that I be given an opportunity to respond?

  35. Louis Midgley says:

    It seems that I neglected to respond to Aaron Brown’s comment at #21. I would be pleased to meet you. If you are in the Provo area, give me a phone call–801-225-6680–and we can have lunch together. Or, folling Mike’s recommendation, just come to the Fair conference. I will be there, I hope.

  36. Daniel C. Peterson says:

    What Lou said.

  37. Lou,

    If you can’t keep your blog comments to two minutes or less, I may be forced to inflict karaoke upon you.


    That’s a better length, thank you.

  38. Aaron B, you lucky dog. You just got Lou Midgley’s phone # and a lunch invite. What a coup.

  39. Just as a follow-up, the first audience member to get up during the first session I went to this morning rambled on for about ten minutes.