Tonight I dropped a note to the WorldCon people asking if I could be on their program, and I filled in the WisCon programming form.
This is the first time in about three years that I've successfully filled in the entire WisCon form. I think it helped that I used Firefox this time; I think last year or the year before the form choked on Safari.
When I'm filling in these forms, I'm always tempted to say I'll be on all sorts of panels. But then I think about it more, and realize that I wouldn't be a good panelist for most of them.
That's not modesty; that's the voice of experience. There've been several times when I've thought "Hey, that's a topic I'm interested in, why not sign up for it?" only to realize, when I sit down behind the table, that I really only have one thing to say about it. Like: "I think stories about squid are a good idea, and here's a funny saying I once heard on that topic." And then I sit there for the rest of the panel wondering what I'm doing there. And sometimes the audience doesn't even laugh at the funny saying.
Also, there are a lot of panel topics of the form "Why doesn't X appear in modern science fiction novels?" And I'll sign up for those, and expound for a few minutes on the sad and troubling lack of X. And then I'll spend the rest of the panel fielding audience suggestions for books where X does appear, books that I've never read and in many cases have never heard of.
Which is funny--I'm probably better-read in 1930s through 1970s sf than most people my age (though I've certainly missed several major classics even in those periods), but I'm woefully ignorant of various more recent important books. It's one reason I still haven't written my important monograph on single-sex societies in sf; I still haven't read at least half of the books people recommended when I last asked for suggestions.
More generally, I like to think of myself as well-read, but often when I talk with other people who consider themselves well-read, even people who share a lot of my tastes, there are huge areas of non-overlap. Karen M., for example, sometimes comments that a particular submission we're considering is a topic that's been done to death, while I'm commenting that it's the first time I've seen this nicely unusual topic. And sometimes vice versa. I always have a moment of bewilderment, of stepping on a missing stair, of wondering if I've slipped into an alternate universe. My canonical example of that was discovering that Runyon isn't as well known as I thought he was (see also followup and survey results), but there've been plenty of others on a smaller scale.
But I seem to have drifted far afield from the topic, so I'll stop here.
My real point was meant to be that I should sign up for panels only when I think I have, say, 20 minutes' worth of things to say about them, and when I feel I have a strong enough background in the topic to be able to discuss most of the audience questions that might come up. (Not saying everyone should follow this guideline, just that I should.) If I'm really interested in a topic but don't have much to say about it, I should just attend it as an audience member.