What is the role of a paper commenter at a conference, symposium or colloquium? The answer depends on the context. If you’re asked to comment (whether in public or a faculty-only forum), ask the organizer what his or her expectations are. Ask others who have served in this capacity in the same venue. Different conferences have different vibes. Each faculty has its own (often unspoken) norms. If you can be intellectually honest and fit within identifiable norms, do.
With those disclaimers, here are my own reflections on a commentator’s role generally:
(1) Use the paper(s) on which you comment as an opportunity to make broad comments about issues that are of concern to all scholars. How does the piece fit into the”big picture”of the scholarly enterprise generally? The scholarly enterprise in the particular field? How does the piece advance the project? How does it link up to related questions? Other areas of inquiry?
(2) Constructively critique the authors’ papers. What worked and what didn’t work in the paper? Comments that go to big issues that an author missed, the internal logic of the arguments, the implications of the arguments, how the paper could be strengthened are all”fair game.” Try to take the paper on its own terms. If it is a Law & Economics piece, for example, or a feminist piece, for example, offer your critique from within the paper’s own framework. Rarely will a paper commentary be the appropriate venue for critiquing all of Law & Economics or feminist theory generally.
(3) Try to say something both complimentary and constructively critical about the paper. The balance depends on the paper, the personalities and the context.
(4) A commentator’s job is to up the intellectual ante of further discussion of the paper. Offer reasoned consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. That requires us to point out in each other’s work what is/is not working, what is/is not yet done as well as it could.
As scholars, I don’t think we make much progress by just patting each other on the back or, conversely, by tearing each other apart. In my ideal world, we would do neither, and strike a delicate balance (easier said than done, I know). A commenter diminishes his or her own credibility with critiques that are personal or unnecessarily unkind. If you are wondering whether a particular comment you might want to make will cross the line, it does.