Changing the Annual Meeting Format: Some Responses

AHA Staff, November 2003

Editor's Note: We print below some of the responses that Roy Rosenzweig received to his essay, "Should the Format of the Annual Meeting Be Changed?" published in the September 2003 Perspectives.

Letters from

1. Before coming to the profession of history (I am currently a second-year PhD student), I was in medicine for 20 years. During that time I attended medical conferences held under the auspices of several organizations: such as the American Medical Association, the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, various state medical associations, and the first 10 of the International Conferences on AIDS. It was not until I began attending history conferences in 2000 that I first saw (heard) a presenter read a paper verbatim.

Most of the medical conferences that I have attended have "poster sessions." Large-type posters similar to those you described in your article were posted throughout the convention facility for the duration of the meeting, with the time and place of discussion for a given poster indicated on it. Those interested in a specific topic then attended that session and an interactive discussion of methodology, results, and implications for future research or clinical treatment was held in a "roundtable" format with the authors (almost always plural) of the poster. No papers were ever "read," as far as I can remember.

You mentioned in your article the phenomena of reading-against-the-clock and rambling remarks or off-point questions. I have witnessed both at history conferences, plus a multitude of other embarrassing moments for readers/presenters and audience members alike. Frankly, I find the experience of being read to insulting, an experience made all the worse by a "reader" who has poor presentation skills (monotone, lack of cadence and inflection, etc.). Any relief from this format would be most appreciated. I have presented at only three history conferences, though each was for graduate students rather than faculty. Yet I have always given my papers as a prepared presentation more closely resembling an informal "talk" or lecture; I have never "read" a paper verbatim. I hope to be always able to follow this style. So, you may record my vote against reading papers and for any alternative that the AHA finds reasonable and workable.

—Stephan Edwards, University of Colorado at Boulder

2. I would like to see all professional meetings change their formats. The current "reading" of papers too frequently leads to dull sessions, even when they involve interesting research. While I'm a little leery of poster sessions, I do like the idea of posting work prior to the meeting so that the session time can be used for engaging the audience in a discussion.

I would also like to see (though I don't know how to do this) a move toward changing the climate of the sessions. To me, one value of presenting a paper at a conference is to get useful feedback. But I have seen people savaged. Such criticism can be demoralizing, even if rare. So scholars often couch their research in carefully guarded terms and try to present work that will not lead to a firestorm. But that discourages experimentation and will lead to stagnation. Rather than a "free fire zone," could we somehow create a "fire free zone" in which people could exchange ideas, warts and all, and ask for help? (And maybe that's what poster sessions, and electronic postings could do.) Certainly, sometimes "help" could mean someone saying, "maybe you should work on something else." But more frequently, I'd like to think, criticism could lead to fruitful discussions about how to improve the works presented. Any criticism, however well deserved, can always be delivered tactfully, especially when done by articulate, well-trained professionals. Providing a "safe" environment will (I hope) encourage scholars to take risks, and in the process, stretch our collective imaginations.

—Anthony Quiroz, Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi

3. Should the AHA should change the format for presentations? YES, yes, and again yes. I know how to read. I don't need to fly hundreds of miles to be read to. By contrast, in conferences where speakers acted more like the good teachers they often are, I have found myself fascinated and wishing for more than the 20 minutes allotted. Let's have more "teaching" and less reading.

—Sam Mustafa, Ramapo College of New Jersey

4. I write to endorse your suggestion that we experiment with different formats at the annual meeting of the AHA. Although I have not found the standard sessions as stultifying as Peter Novick claimed, improvements seem quite possible given our now almost universal access to the Internet. I think it would make sense to designate some (or, perhaps within a couple of years, most) sessions as those offering the papers in advance to all members of the AHA—or to those registered for the annual meeting—by, say, December 15, via the Internet. Then, at the meeting, the panelists could summarize their arguments briefly, in no more than 10 minutes; the commentator could raise questions and offer criticism for 20 minutes or so; and more than an hour could be reserved for discussion. To prevent those who have not read the papers before coming to the meeting from dominating the discussion (or taking off on tangents interesting to themselves but unrelated to the papers), the chair or commentator could invite those who had read the papers to speak first, and then open the floor. Another option would be to allow those who had read the papers to send their comments in advance directly to the chair and paper givers, which would allow those on the panel to know who has read their work and—if necessary—enable the chair to identify some participants who have particularly valuable comments and give them a few additional minutes to speak. A third option, which might develop after people become accustomed to this form of communication, would be to provide for ongoing discussions of sessions either before or after—or in some cases perhaps both before and after—the session itself. I do not have any idea which of these formats would be most productive. I think all might work, and I think all might take time to succeed. But I do think we should try various experiments to make use of the opportunities now available to us as a result of technological advances. I applaud your effort to begin this important conversation. It's time for the AHA to enter the 21st century.

—Jim Kloppenberg, Harvard University

5. I think I like the idea suggested by a colleague, Jeffrey Stewart, best—have the Program Committee state in the call for papers that strong preference will be given to those proposals that do not adhere to the three papers and a discussant model. I think that alone will generate a fair number of new proposals/types of proposals. Then the trick will be to get the Program Committee in line with that statement. If they pick mostly "three papers and one discussant" panels after such a call, everyone will throw up their hands in disgust.

I had another idea that might be worth considering. One of the things everyone "knows" is true, but has no actual knowledge of (and so is likely very wrong) is that the Program Committee is capricious, bound up by adherence to political correctness, and dominated by the big doctoral programs. Of course, this isn't the case, but how many times have you heard of the perfect panel—heavy hitters, gender balance, geographic balance, etc., etc., that gets rejected. Each person takes the example they know as proof of the Star Chamber nature of the Program Committee. So, perhaps just a bit more transparency would help.

Obviously, the PC cannot possibly write individual notes to each of the panelists explaining why their particular panel was rejected. But, it would be easy (with a good database) to produce a report that can help people contextualize their individual circumstances. For example, such a report could say that in a particular year:

Proposals Received: 558

Proposals Accepted: 158

Proposals Rejected: 400

Specialty Area:




Early American:

1 1 0

Latin American:

48 4 44

Eastern Europe:

2 1 1

Gay / Lesbian:

37 9 28


12 0 12

and so on.    

Reason for Rejection:

Failed to follow instructions: 27

Missed deadline: 68

Poorly written proposal: 52

Too many in your area, others were just better: 130

and so on.

This simple amount of additional information would make it possible for those rejected to say to themselves—"Oh, so there were 48 Latin American panels and mine was one of the 44 others rejected." It would also help solve the perception that certain areas are not represented on the program because the PC doesn't like those areas—"Oh, so there was only 1 proposal on Early America." In short, I think it would (a) go a long way toward demystifying the process and (b) would provide the AHA and its members with very valuable data on trends in the profession.

Having said this, I wish you well on this endeavor. It's something that really needs to be done, because so many historians I've spoken with in the past few years have simply given up on the annual meeting as being nothing more than a job market, and spend their scarce travel budgets on more narrow disciplinary meetings instead. Also, I think people are getting seriously bored with the seemingly eternal cycle, Chicago/DC/Boston/Chicago/ DC/Seattle/Chicago/DC/. How about somewhere that's actually fun? Las Vegas? New Orleans? Honolulu? We're not such a stodgy bunch that we must go to places with great galleries and symphonies. After all, how many times can one go to the Art Institute of Chicago? Plus, I'm told that the Bellagio Casino has quite an art collection of its own these days. Other associations manage to go to fun places, why not us?

—T. Mills Kelly, George Mason University

6. I strongly support your proposal to create alternative formats for our annual meeting. When I left the AHA Council 10 years ago, I too made this suggestion, proposing we move toward the political science and European models of having panelists prepare substantial papers (which they can far more easily publish after some revision than the short works they now read) but of which they give only a summary at the formal sessions. I also like the idea of introducing other formats, including real round tables, poster sessions, and interactive meetings to go along with the traditional "big hall" presentations and debates among leading historians. To make annual meetings a valuable experience for scholars and teachers, I think the Program Committee needs to place far more emphasis on historical methodology than in the past, making sure that there is not only more field balance at our meetings but also that there are more cross-disciplinary panels and discussions of historiography, quantitative history, archival issues, translation, and so on. Our annual meeting is the Association's front porch for several thousand historians, and we should present an exceptional and diverse program that inspires our young members.

—Carole Fink, Ohio State University

7. Let me add my voice to the chorus of those calling for changes in the mode of presentation at the AHA annual meeting. Attending the 1994 meeting in San Francisco as a first-year graduate student, I was shocked that famous scholars simply got up and speed-read their papers. It was jarring that renowned undergraduate lecturers refused to speak clearly to one another.

Perhaps the Program Committee could allocate prized plenary sessions to people who promise to speak and not read. Just as an increasing number of colleges are reintroducing public speaking into their curricula, the AHA might reintroduce academic oratory to our conferences.

I support the wording of the ASA call for papers—offering an improved chance of acceptance to panels that promise something different. The AHA might provide Web space for posting and precirculating papers.

Please keep pushing historians to communicate with one another at conferences. Insofar as the AHA annual meeting has a reputation for being dehumanizing (vis-a-vis the job market), any effort to facilitate meaningful scholarly interaction could help remind us why we're historians in the first place.

—Seth Rockman, Occidental College

8.I agree with your Perspectives piece on reshaping the annual meeting sessions. Making the papers available online seems the way to go—mixed with more panels of comments on a burning issue. But how do we avoid shutting out people who just want to drop in and browse a session, rather than plan far ahead?

—Michael Kazin, Georgetown University

9. I have just read your article in the September Perspectives with great interest. Let me pass on to you a format that has been used successfully for 15 years at an event called the Junior Scholars Training Seminar, held annually at the Aspen Institute facility at Wye Woods (Maryland). This conference brings together about 15 young scholars in various fields of East European studies along with five or so senior scholars for a four-day seminar. The format of the scheduled meetings (unscheduled events are important to the cohort-building that is another purpose of this meeting) is this: at each two-hour session (could be 1.5 hours) two, or at most three, young scholars are asked to tell the group about what they are working on. They are asked not to "present papers." They are given at most 10 minutes (some use only five) to tell the group about their dissertation, their research, and their plans. The remainder of the session is devoted to discussion—there is a discussion leader, but no formal commentator.

We have found this style of meeting extraordinarily successful. The presenters may not relate every detail about their work, but as the discussion moves on (there is never a shortage of comments and interchanges) the essential points of the work become clearly illuminated. The presence of senior scholars who see their function not as critics but as mentors helps, of course. But the general involvement of most of the participants in almost every session leaves them all feeling as if they have learned a good deal during the weekend, and with a positive sense of contribution. Almost invariably, the participants look back on this weekend as a highpoint in their young scholarly careers. In my view, sessions organized in this way would prove very popular at AHA meetings, at least in those sessions where the size of the audience was not so large as to prevent real interaction. Thanks for raising this question again.

—Gail Stokes, Rice University

Roy Rosenzweig Responds

I am deeply appreciative to all of the members who have written. Members of the AHA Research Division have also informally polled colleagues and have generally heard similar calls for change. Based on that, we are moving ahead on developing some concrete proposals for changes in the meeting, which we will bring to the AHA Council. In the meantime, however, I would welcome further suggestions and comments from members.