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Sep 13, 2005 10:17 am


The AHA Program



The current issue of Perspectives includes a call for comments on the mix of modes of presentation at the meeting. I'm glad to see the AHA soliciting advice. I was on the Program Committee a few years back and I wasted everyone's time at a busy meeting by yapping about this topic a bit. It's nice to think about it in advance so that a future Program Committee might be able to work it into the call for proposals.

Here's what I've suggested (same thing I suggested at the Program Committee meeting): the third category of presentations, the"formal" session, should be eliminated entirely. Sown under with salt. An ex-presentation type. A mode of history-conferencing made truly historical.

The formal session is a kind of loathsome ritual of humanities and social science academia, a lacerating gesture of masochism. Three, sometimes four, panelists read dully through a pre-written paper. Every once in a great while, one of them has actually written a shorter version of the paper designed to be read aloud, that has some vague hint of a performative gloss to it. Mostly though presenters just put red lines through paragraphs they want to skip, rush through the end, make amendations on the fly, read prose intended for formal publication.

Most presenters overshoot their allotted time (I'm as guilty as anyone). Sometimes grotesquely so (I've never forgotten the panel I attended where the chair was also a presenter and timed everyone aggressively except for himself...) The discussant takes up another fifteen minutes, sometimes with great comments, sometimes with pedantic chiding (usually that's when a senior historian takes upon himself to correct minor errors in the papers of grad students). The audience may have five minutes or a bit more to actually react to or discuss the papers.

I suppose someone could say that's not how it should be, that formal sessions could be run better, but why reform it? The formal session is an inevitable bore. The only time conference meetings on papers work is when papers are precirculated (and read by the audience), and there will be some of these at the next AHA meeting. That's it. Just have those, dump every single other formal session. Just have workshops, roundtables, precirculated papers. Poster sessions are fine (though I sure as hell hope that the grad professors out there are prepared to sit down and advise students who have a poster session on how to do it: it's an unusual format for people in the humanities.)

But kill the formal session. The AHA meetings are dreary and depressing enough already with the gloom of the job market hanging over them like a fog: let's at least try to put on a real show for the people who want to sit through two hours of listening to scholars talk about history.




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Timothy James Burke - 9/13/2005

Not necessarily: there are plenty of small grad-student or junior-prof dominated workshops. I just think that's the environment where formal papers work. I agree that every now and again there's an exception at the big professional meetings in formal sessions. I've been to a few that were really exciting or interesting. But they're very definitely the exceptions, and even the best ones were sparsely attended, often by a crowd of people who were already friends, which was often the reason there was a lot of energy in the session--it was mostly people who already knew each other's work, and were continuing an ongoing conversation.


Caleb McDaniel - 9/13/2005

My experience at conferences is obviously much more limited than the experience of those who have made the rounds for longer, and it's limited to smaller and more specialized conferences (like the OAH and SHEAR meetings). But I've found many of the formal sessions I've attended helpful. I've found others less helpful, of course, for many of the reasons you've outlined, but I do think that some of the panels I've seen have done valuable intellectual work for the audience, particularly "state of the art" sessions that include readings of papers on particular fields.

Maybe my more or less positive experience is mysterious or unrepresentative, but I do think that such experiences exist and are legitimate. While I would welcome changes to the session structure, I think we need to be careful not to make a version of the Tribble mistake, and assume that certain uses of a particular medium discredit the medium as a whole, and make anyone's attraction to that medium probably irrational.

For clarification's sake, you mentioned that you would favor "invitation only" workshops in place of formal sessions. I have to confess such an idea worried me, as someone still on the bottom rungs of the professional ladder. Wouldn't this make it harder than it already is for graduate students to find a way into conferences?


Timothy James Burke - 9/13/2005

A couple of times when I've made this observation to AHA staff or officers, I've been told that "opinion is divided", that there are some members who strongly support formal paper sessions.

I keep wondering who those people are. I don't think they're actually *at* the formal paper sessions, which usually have low attendance.


Timothy James Burke - 9/13/2005

A couple of the cyberculture conferences I've attended and given presentations at have followed that model. It has a formality that's a bit off-putting, but it's also effectively a publication model as well as a conference model: the conference essentially creates its own anthology. It's pretty routine for people in the sciences to cite conference presentations as "finished publications" for this reason. On the down side, it tends to increase the cost of the overall conference, I think, due to the effort that has to go into vetting papers and then distributing them.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/13/2005

My brother, the scientist, has a very different sort of conference hurdle. Selection for conferences in the sciences is not based on abstract and c.v. -- abstracts that do not become full-blown papers until or after the conference -- but is based on the paper itself.

Selection of a paper is a peer-reviewed process, and inclusion of a paper in conference proceedings is considered a form of publication, though admittedly lower prestige than more specific or wider circulation journals.

It isn't the full-bore journal review process, I don't think, but paper submissions are scrutinized by reasonably relevant qualified individuals and rejections are much more common than in the History and Asian Studies fields I'm familiar with.

Circulating papers beforehand would be considerably easier if the papers were indeed written months before the conference. You would lose a bit of the raw "cutting edge" factor, but our field doesn't move that fast, anyway... besides, it works in hard sciences, which do.


Sherman Jay Dorn - 9/13/2005

For years I've largely avoided AHA because of the graveyard stench of the job registry. There are some good paper sessions, but to be honest, I haven't seen a higher signal-to-noise ratio in roundtables or workshops in any conference. We just notice the low-quality paper sessions more because of the format.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/13/2005

I've participated in dozens of formal sessions at conventions, but for 30 years I've wondered why we (voluntarily?) subject ourselves to the torture and, too often, boredom of formal paper sessions. I don't see how we could abandon, say, the AHA convention altogether because it plays too large a role in job marketeering, book exhibiting, kibitzing, etc. But the internet does offer an opportunity for pre-circulating papers and that should eliminate the necessity of our being "read to."


Rebecca Anne Goetz - 9/13/2005

I'm not unopposed to precirculating papers for conferences like the AHA, to solve the problems you mention, Tim. In fact, the web could solve the logistical problems: log on to historian.org, put in your member ID, get access to papers, download the ones you want. (Of course, I do recall your own website advises grad students against giving out copies of their papers! :) )

But I do fear that the WIP aspect of conference papers would be lost with precirculation...

I'm wondering if maybe enormous conferences like the AHA annual meeting should go by the wayside anyway.


Timothy James Burke - 9/13/2005

I think paper presentations should be entirely, rigidly limited to small invitation-based workshops. That no one should ever be presenting a formal paper at a large professional meeting of any kind, unless it's a special-format precirculation panel. The program at AHA should be almost entirely composed of roundtables and workshops.


Manan Ahmed - 9/13/2005

As a veteran of almost 4 conference papers, I cannot agree more. But.....how?

As someone organizing two conferences this year, I am at a wit's end on how to do them without the dreariness. In one, I am having the papers pre-circulated and a presentation/discussion around that - with panelists commenting on each others papers. Still, they have to present something to the audience. I don't think we can pre-circulate to the audience and poster-boards are not the answer for humanities.