Perspective: Presenting a Roundtable Discussion

Today we present thoughts from Sarah Benoot, who regularly coordinates special programs for Sirens, on why presenting a roundtable discussion worked for her.

For me, roundtable discussions are my favorite way of hearing from lots of different people, all at once, and having discussions that start out in one place, but surprise me, too.

I’m going to be blunt: it’s not always easy to moderate a roundtable discussion. It can be tough to interrupt people, and it’s tough to figure out if that person on the other side of the (small) room—whose nametag you can’t quite see from your seat—is gathering her thoughts, or if she would have lots to say if you asked if she had anything to add. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the topic, if you are passionate about it, and you have to remember to give yourself some distance so that you can listen to everyone. Sometimes, the audience members are coming from really different places, and they’re trying to negotiate what might be a really complex conversation, and you as the moderator have to help them do that. You have to decide, on the fly, if things are healthily in disagreement—or not. And you want to have at least a couple of questions that will generate some conflict!

At the same time, that’s part of the fun. Sirens attendees are really thoughtful, and have a lot to say. If you’re energized by great discussions, and you don’t mind taking the lead in a group, you should consider proposing a roundtable discussion.

One of my first roundtable discussions for Sirens was pretty general. (I’ve led two roundtable discussions related to Game of Thrones, and those worked because the series is widely read; they would have had a lot of dead air, otherwise. Your roundtable might have to address a theme or topic in several different books or series so that the audience has a way in to the discussion.)

This was my summary for “Not Overshadowed by Awesome: Girls on the Side”:

Sidekicks. Backup. Whatever name you use, they serve the same purpose: to help the main character succeed in their quest. Without them, the world would not be saved, the crime would not be solved, the quest would not be successful. Despite being relegated to a secondary role, the girls on the side can be an important part of a story in their own right. What would Harry have been without Hermione (J. K. Rowling), or what fate would have befallen Olympus if Percy hadn’t had Annabeth (Rick Riordan)? What lessons might Beka have missed if not for Clary Goodwin (Tamora Pierce)?

My abstract, which uses the sample questions format:

  1. Is the female sidekick the “heart” of the male hero by default?
  2. Does a female sidekick tend to serve as a tool for exposition more often than a male sidekick? (For example, Harry Potter often gets his information from Hermione’s reading rather than Ron’s experience actually growing up in the wizarding world.)
  3. In the case of a male hero supported by a female sidekick, there is often a romantic component in their relationship. Does this tend to have a negative or a positive effect on the story?
  4. The roles of sidekick and mentor are rarely filled by the same character. What impact does it have when they are?
  5. What happens when the sidekick comes into power of her own?
  6. Does she become a hero herself, or a villain? Is she more likely to become a villain than a male sidekick in the same situation?
  7. Is a female sidekick more likely to be sacrificed “for the greater good” than a male sidekick?
  8. Which do you think tends to be more successful: a partnership where power of the hero-sidekick relationship is often based in friendship, or one where previous enemies are forced to work together? Can you argue for a more successful partnership?
  9. Is the success or lack thereof affected by the genders of the characters?
  10. When the hero professes to prefer to work alone, is it usually the female sidekick who convinces him otherwise? If so, why?

If you love to talk through big ideas with people, consider leading a roundtable discussion!

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