Anyone who has attended recent APSA conferences knows that the “audience” for many panels, even on the official program, is now no more than the panelists themselves.The above quote is from Lawrence Mead's "Scholasticism in Political Science" (gated), out in the recent Perspectives. Mead's overall point is about the declining relevance of political science due to hyper-specialization. I'll have more to say about that soon enough. But he's right -- even while conference attendance is up, attendance at individual panels is quite low. So what to do?
I propose a panel in the style of "Iron Chef" or "Chopped" in which four scholars have to produce a piece of scholarship in a set time period (say, 20 minutes), to be judged by a small panel. The model I have in mind works best for quant types but could probably be adapted to qualitative work quite easily. Basically, at the beginning of the time period, the scholars are given a small dataset consisting of four variables. Ideally, these variables have little or no obvious relationship to each other. (e.g.: Annual GDP in the U.S., Florida's alligator population, undergraduate acceptance rates at Ohio State, and incidences of flooding in the Lower Mississippi River.) Then the scholars must each produce a graph or table that manages to incorporate all of the variables in some compelling way. Their laptops could all be connected to an LCD projector, which would alternate between each of them showing the audience how the projects are developing.
At the end of the appointed time period, the judges would render a decision. I'm not sure whether it would be best to eliminate one scholar at that point and then do two more rounds, or whether two or three repeated rounds of the four scholars would work best. Either way, a winner would emerge.
Trivial? Sure. Insulting to the pursuit of science? Possibly. But I tell you that the section that tries this will experience a substantial boost in its panel attendance and will be rewarded with more panels the following year. And God help us, it might be fun.