What Should Scholarly Society Meetings Look Like in the 2010s?

Unlike some of my blog post titles, this one really is a question. What do you think they should look like? I ask because I am now on the program committee for the American Historical Association and this Saturday we begin planning for the January 2012 meeting. Committee members are encouraged to bring five “panel ideas” with them to the initial planning meeting; I, of course, plan to agitate for non-panel forms as well (think: THATCamp), and I suspect that the audience for this blog has even more creative ideas.

So: What would you propose? Let me know in the comments.


Cassandra Good says:

What about having presentations that actually use the meat of our work–primary sources? Each presenter could share several key sources (preferably with images of or related to the sources) and tie them together with several test-case arguments. That would be a lot more productive for presenters and more engaging for the audience–and it could still fit within the traditional panel form.

Sherman Dorn says:

Two ideas:

1. Virtual or blended panels — designed either for graduate students who cannot afford to travel (e.g., workshop-style on topics that non-advanced graduate students would appreciate) or international scholars for whom travel to the U.S. would be prohibitive in either cost or time (think grand meta-history roundtables). This would require some investment in meeting connectivity, but this would provide much warmer, fuzzier feelings from graduate students and international scholars towards the AHA, especially if the “virtual conference” registration fee is in line with the reality of graduate-student income. In the end, AHA is more threatened by apathy and alienation of graduate students (i.e., its potential future membership) than by anything else.

2. Late-breaking topical panels: reserve a few slots for open discussions of historical perspectives on whatever is the news of the day. (This is a compromise between the “submit proposals 12 months in advance” habits of AHA and an unconference.)

Sheila Brennan says:

I was thinking of something similar to what Cassandra suggested: unfinished works or work-in-progress sessions. Perhaps the format could be a working group, similar to the digital-jumpstart group we did for NCPH but with for different areas of study. Individuals “apply” to be part of a working group merely to manage numbers, and then work through their ideas & sources with others sharing a similar specialty. No paper reading allowed, just thinking aloud and working with colleagues.

I also agree with Sherman’s suggestion to leave a few spots relating to “news of the day.”

One of the high points of the AHA for me was the Asian history panel – already a rarity at the AHA – that a group of bloggers put together. It was an all-blogger panel that had nothing whatsoever to do with blogging, which was great fun, a living example of what the technology really can do for scholars.

We also pre-circulated the papers – outlines and abstracts, anyway – through a wordpress installation, so potential audiences could participate more fully in the discussion. As it turned out, we had a very small audience, but the potential was there.

Anyway, what I’d like to suggest is that the AHA conference website include a discussion board for each panel, including abstracts (or full papers if participants are willing), so that panels and audiences can prediscuss, and non-attendees can join the discussion. The website should persist for a while after the conference, but there should be a clear ‘delete by’ date so that anyone concerned about sharing the papers pre-publication, or about a lingering discussion out of their control, would be assured of some clarity.

Mark Sample says:

One of the easiest shake-up in forms might be a Pecha Kucha style presentation. Twenty slides at twenty seconds per slide is very structured and very short, and requires more than simply reading a paper. You can even make it more interesting by following a 1/1/3 rule: at least one image per slide, only use each image once, and never have more than 3 words on a slide.

And if you want to have more people on a panel, you could do a lightning version of Pecha Kucha, say 10 slides at 10 seconds per slide.

The advantage of the Pecha Kucha presentation is that, technically, panelists are still delivering named presentations, meaning they can still get travel funding from their institutions.

You can go with a lo-fi version of Pecha Kucha too. Have a 5-notecard panel, in which the only material the speaker can use are 5 index cards.

I’m also thinking that there’s something to be done with a crowdsourced panel—a set of short talks that each engage social media on-the-spot to help solve a research problem. This is similar to what you’ve done with The Spider and the Web, but for AHA, the research problem would a genuine research problem; the presenter wouldn’t have the “right” answer in his or her back pocket.

There are other ways to shake things up too. The architecture and set-up of a typical conference room heavily influences how we interact in that space. I wonder how much the simple act of rearranging chairs into a circle might change the dynamics of the panel. The reconfigured space would reconfigure the relationship between audience and presenters, and make it feel more like a seminar or unconference.

Or, even more radical, hold some panels in the hotel’s open spaces (lobbies, hallways, smack dab in the exhibit hall). The most engaging discussions often take place outside the conference rooms anyway, so why not take advantage of that?

Finally, going along with the idea of reserving panels for late-breaking history (an interesting topic in and of itself), how about having a counterfactual history panel? A set of papers delivered, say, on the Great Zombie Insurgency of 1872 or FDR’s remarkable health recovery and his election to an unprecedented fifth presidential term. In short, a panel that would seriously engage in what Rob MacDougall calls playful historical thinking.

Chad Black says:

Last year for San Diego I helped put on a roundtable for the Andean Studies section of CLAH that worked pretty much like Jonathan described above. We used a wordpress.com site to pre-circulate 1500-word pieces. We used the meeting time for discussion. I liked that the pieces were short, which did away with the ever-present running over time problem. And, the vast majority of the panel time was used for discussion.

I would love to see the AHA have a wordpress multi-site installation dedicated to running a bunch of panels in this manner. Since the pieces are short, it’s not that hard to get them up ahead of the conference with enough time for people to read them, and comment on them ahead of time. And, it’s always refreshing to have actual discussion in panels rather than hurried comments or that particular type of grandstanding comment that’s more about the commenter than the work!

Or, how about a TEDxAHA?

Also, along the lines of Mark’s comments, it’d be cool to see more experimental stuff, drawing for example on the digital storytelling practice of using just 3 images.

Alex Leavitt says:

The most beneficial addition would be live streaming every session and then archiving the video publicly for anyone to view later. Larger audiences, especially for small or distant conferences, is the best thing that could happen, especially if more people could provide constructive criticism for research or papers in writing (or potentially collaboration with unknown people in similar fields).

Bruce D'Arcus says:

I’ve been asking this same question of my own disciplinary conferences for the past few years, where there’s often talk about alternative formats, but where I seldom see it operationalized.

I like Mark’s suggestion of the Pecha Kucha format, which is something I’ve thought about as well. This was a format developed in the architectural community in Tokyo for a similar purpose: to democratize and diversify the ideas presented in a meeting. The strict time constraint by definition means more people contribute in a given session, and the fixed format seems to at least ideally make possible more efficient, concise, delivery of content. I also like his point about the practicalities of funding.

Maybe I’ll give that a go next time I organize a session! Come to think of it, maybe I should introduce the format to my grad students, just for fun.

Jana says:

Yesterday as part of a Digital Research Methods workshop at the Western History Association Conference I had each participant do a 1 min talk about their favorite tech tool (a la Dork Shorts from THATCamp). I learned a lot from the various participants and realized that we need more spaces for discussing research methods (not talks about research methods, but actual sitting down around a laptop and looking at each others’ stuff).

I suspect that the sharing part of the workshop was even more valuable than the part where I was teaching new tools. I could imagine this could easily be incorporated into some THATCamp-like hands-on AHA sessions.

Steven Lubar says:

Some great ideas already – if you can get sessions to capture some of the excitement of the lobby discussions, where you find out what folks are working on, and what they are enthusiastic about – you’d make the meetings a lot more interesting. Elevator pitches about why we should care about the work would be a good start – Pecha Kucha or other very short structured presentations would be good – I think shooting for TED talks is asking a lot…


Larry Cebula says:

I blogged about this last year in relation to the OAH. I think we begin by banning the reading of papers, shortening presentation time to no more than ten minutes per presenter, ditch the round tables which are actually more boring even than traditional panels, and push hard for free wireless so we can interact with people beyond the conference walls. Also make a complete video archive of all the sessions available on Vimeo or YouTube–not expensive and it would vastly increase the scholarly influence and relevance of the conference. My post is here: http://northwesthistory.blogspot.com/2009/09/my-plan-to-revive-oah.html

Good luck, Dan, the AHA is the most deadly boring of all our history conferences!

Larry Cebula says:

Oh, and some “Dork Shorts” sessions for people to show off their digital projects, and a THATCamp immediately preceding the conference.

MIke O'Malley says:

Roy and I used to talk about this a lot.

Work submitted in advance (yeah,I know, but suck it up!)
Work posted online and searchable well in advance
Session consists of audience dialogue, no papers read.

The best part of a conference is generally the social/intellectual part. The actual sessions are generally comic in their fatuousity.

Mike O'Malley says:

I just made an extensive post about this myself:


The big conferences are really pretty grim for the most part: they give off the odor of mortality. And why not: it’s a mode of social interaction devised in, and appropriate to, the age of gaslight and telegraphy.

There’s no reason why they could not be better. But the AHA needs to make sharing information easier. The AHA website ought to just be a social networking site for academics, a place where info is shared before the conference, so that the personal exchange is enlivened.

Just have everyone submit paers in advance–and not just papers: smaller, less formal things–research findings, queries, historiographical commentary. And generate a tag could, or a word frequency cloud, that would show what the AHA was talking about.

[…] What challenges, and what opportunities, accompany scholarly communication on the scale of a topical, methodological, or chronological subfield, as opposed to something of the magnitude of an entire field or profession? Put another way, how are the dynamics here similar to and different from those of, say, the AHA (which Dan Cohen and his readers have been discussing lately)? […]

[…] of communication and presentation methods? Though not specific to the sciences and engineering, Dan Cohen of the Digital Humanities Blog and his readers offer several great […]

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