How WisCon panels are born

Elliott Mason
Programming

tl;dr: What can I do to improve WisCon programming?

  • If you have a panel idea anytime between May and January, tell us! (If it’s between January and May, write it down and tell us in May.)
  • If you like copyediting and fixing words, volunteer to be a program wrangler! The work gets done in January/February, but you can add yourself to the team any time of year.
  • If you want to be on panels, make sure your wiscon.info bio is up to date and accurate, and reply to the big Programming Interest survey when we send it out! Please use the “why you’re interested in being on this panel” field and the “enthusiastic/interested/willing” radio buttons.
  • If you attend the con, note down one or two “this was good/this was bad” comments about panels you attend. Tweet them, using the panel’s hashtag, or share them through the post-con survey or via email directly to program@wiscon.net

How are panels born?

There are nine key steps along the way from spark to full fruition, many of them involving input from the wider WisCon community or from interested volunteers.

1) Idea

Everything starts when a member of the WisCon community has a spark of an idea. It might be during a panel at the con itself (“Hey, they don’t have time to get to this right now, but if you went down this tangent, it’d be a neat panel!”), out on a dinner run, just after the con when talking to friends, or at any time between June and January, but there we are: an idea.

2) Suggestion

Anyone with an idea can go to the WisCon Idea page and fill out the form between Opening Ceremonies of the convention and the following January. At this stage, it may be a fully-formed and eloquent panel description, or it might just be a title and some bullet points, but all ideas are welcome. Even duplicate submissions are no trouble: far better to accidentally input something three times over the course of the year than forget to put it in even once.

3) Basic vetting

Program staff do a quick pass through the submissions when the Idea page suggestion box closes in January, culling the obvious robot-generated spam and any simple duplicates.

4) Wrangling

Our talented and valiant staff of program volunteers dig into the submissions, making them better in every possible way. This is when we do everything from fixing typos to putting things in the format that the Publications department needs to deep reconfigurations of panels. We turn bare sketches into the sort of rich and chewy morsels discerning attendees are used to from WisCon programming. You can volunteer to wrangle: you just need some availability in January/February and access to email and a web browser. Contact program@wiscon.net to be put on the list for next year.

5) The Big Survey – the Programming Interest form

Once the panels all look as good as we can possibly make them, we run them up the flagpole for the entire WisCon community to look over. This is the Big Survey – the Programming Interest form – upon which everything else depends! A link goes out by email, or you can get to it by logging into your account.wiscon.net account. On that page is a long list of every panel we’re considering putting on this year, and you are invited to tell us if you’re excited to attend it in the audience, if you want to be on it, if you want to moderate it, and so on. If you volunteer to work the panel, please DO use the field provided to tell us what special expertise or angle you bring, and make sure your program-book bio (on your main account.wiscon.net account) isn’t blank. Both those things will make our jobs in the next step much easier.

The Big Survey is the single largest factor deciding which panels will or will not run in a given year, so it’s important that as many WisCon-goers as possible take a look and give us their honest opinions. It’s spatially and temporally impossible to run all the panels suggested in a given year — not even all the amazing ones! — so prioritization has to happen, and the Big Survey pulls input from as much of the WisCon community as we can manage.

6) Staffing

The survey closes in early spring (Madison time), and the most complex stage of making programming happen begins: putting panelists and moderators on panels. A crack team of skilled and doughty volunteers gather via video chat to confer and share expertise and workload as we do our best to get not only the best available slate onto each and every panel, but also to put each volunteering panelist onto the panels they are most excited to do. Very nearly everyone who volunteers is empaneled for at least one item, so don’t be shy: volunteer! The “why you’re interested in being on this panel” fill-in field from the survey is key here, as it helps us balance expertise and lived experience, and make sure the entire panel isn’t full of people with only one slant on the question.

7) Pre-Con discussion

When the preliminary schedule is finalized, moderators and panelists are sent their assignments. Conversation (sometimes very extensive) occurs via email among each panel’s participants pre-con, guided by the moderator, to help get everyone prepared and excited about what will be discussed at the convention. Sometimes panels decide they need handouts or bibliographies; moderators can coordinate with program and publications staff to get what they need lined up and ready in time. We do our best to give the panelists a month to prep, depending on deadlines, though with late cancellations and unavoidable rearrangement of schedule it’s not always available.

8) Last-minute staffing

Life happens: sometimes people who were planning to come just can’t, or things need to be rearranged. Sometimes one panel just didn’t get four awesome panelists volunteering for it on the Big Survey. Never fear! Even if you only know you’re coming to the con at the last minute, you can be on programming. In the weeks leading up to the convention, the Panels Needing Panelists page goes live, and you can volunteer to be parachuted onto a panel in desperate need of your experience. The program staff are always grateful that people volunteer last-minute, because it helps us patch up holes and make things the best they can possibly be.

9) Panel

Where the magic really happens: live, at the con, in front of your very eyes. Some panels use A/V equipment or other visual aids; some have handouts and flyers; some have ground-rules for the discussion written on big signs posted up front. Every panel is different, depending upon the needs of the moderator and panelists, and it’s up to program staff to support those needs.

Lather, rinse, repeat

Everything starts when a member of the WisCon community has a spark of an idea. Say you’re at WisCon and you’re struck with an idea for a panel for next year’s convention…

In that case, go to step 1.

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