New Ideas for Creative Formats at the Annual Meeting

Debbie Ann Doyle, September 2013

It has now been 10 years since Roy Rosenzweig, then the vice president of the AHA's Research Division, called for changes to the format of annual meeting sessions to encourage more audience engagement. As Rosenzweig pointed out in his article in Perspectives(September 2003), this was not a new problem: In 1925, American Historical Review editor J. Franklin Jameson had observed that "'the absence of lively discussion from our annual meeting is an old story and has been dwelt upon perhaps to satiety.'" Yet, patterns established over the course of more than 80 years are not easy to break. Each year respondents to our annual meeting survey lament that sessions are dominated by the formal reading of written papers."Mr Minton & Mr Lloyds, Circus on spiral rail"  A. H. Poole Studio c. 1900. National Library of Ireland, NLI Ref.: P_WP_0912. Image courtesy Flickr Commons.
"Mr Minton ? & Mr Lloyds, Circus on spiral rail" A. H. Poole Studio c. 1900. National Library of Ireland, NLI Ref.: P_WP_0912. Image courtesy Flickr Commons.

In 2004, in response to suggestions from the membership solicited by Rosenzweig in a subsequent article inPerspectives (September 2004), the AHA Council revised the annual meeting guidelines to increase the diversity of session formats and encourage presenters to leave ample time for audience discussion. Session organizers may now propose roundtable discussions, thematic workshops, posters, practicums, and experimental sessions. There is some progress: slightly more than 30 percent of the sessions on the 2014 program will use the roundtable format. Sessions with a chair, three or four papers, and a commentator-a format dating to the 19th century-still remain the most common at the meeting.In an effort to encourage members to think creatively about dynamic and interactive formats for presenting their topics at the 129th annual meeting in New York, the Research Division offers this short list of options. This list is intended to be suggestive rather than comprehensive, in hopes that it will inspire creative submissions from the membership.

  • Precirculated Papers. The most common suggestion in response to Rosenzweig's call for ideas was to circulate copies of papers in advance and devote session time to discussion. However, experiments with precirculated papers foundered because presenters rarely turned in their papers and attendees failed to read them. Could new technology offer opportunities to make this idea work? What if presenters created a blog to post materials in advance of the face-to-face meeting? Could an online discussion board feed into a face-to-face conversation at the meeting?

  • Variations on the precirculated paper format. The National Council on Public History has had success with "working groups," a seminar-like conversation between eight to ten people on a subject of common interest (see the NCPH website for more information). Participants share documents analyzing a theme in advance and convene at the meeting to continue the conversation. Another option might be a "seminar session" in which scholars working on related topics share drafts in advance and gather at the meeting to discuss their work with their peers and a senior discussant.

  • "TED Talk"-style presentations. The American Association of Colleges and Universities has successfully experimented with this format at its meeting. The short, highly visual presentations are modeled on the TED conference, where presenters give brief illustrated talks designed to be as engaging as possible. There is a huge online audience for the talks. See "TED Talks You Should Be Watching" for a list of 10 talks of interest to historians. (AHA Today, 4/23/2013). How would this format look if adopted by AHA members? A session might comprise five presentations and then 30 minutes for questions.

  • "PechaKucha" sessions. Japanese for chit-chat, PechaKucha originated as a way for architects and designers to share their work through a series of very short visual presentations. The idea is simple: speakers show 20 slides timed to display for 20 seconds each, for a total of six minutes, 40 seconds. It is particularly appropriate for projects based on visual evidence or material culture. The Society for the Historians of the Early American Republic and the Society of Architectural Historians both organized successful PechaKucha at their 2013 meetings (AHA Today, 4/30/13).

  • "Lightning talks." A popular format in the digital humanities, participants deliver two- to five-minute presentations on a project, an idea, a tool or application, or a problem they are trying to resolve. The rest of the session is devoted to a discussion of the ideas presented in the talks.

  • Paired sessions. A panel on the state of the field in a particular topic, followed by a roundtable discussion of the teaching implications of that research.

  • Guided discussions. Facilitators invite attendees interested in a particular issue to join them for small group conversation. We have successfully used this format for our interviewing workshop and the department chairs' luncheon. Could it be applied to topics suggested by our members?

  • Digital sessions. Are there new ideas that draw on the capacities of digital communication? For example, sessions that emanate from an online conversation that begins before the annual meeting and continues beyond? All sorts of things are possible now that were not even imaginable in 2003.

How should the annual meeting evolve in the 21st century? What can historians accomplish face-to-face that we cannot accomplish online? How can we make our meeting useful to everyone, from graduate students seeking feedback on the research that will become their dissertations, to teachers looking to enrich their classes, to senior scholars considering broad trends in the field? How can we engage historians across the discipline in conversation about the professional, technological, and cultural changes that affect us all? If we were inventing the annual meeting from scratch, instead of organizing our 129th meeting, what could it look like?

-Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA's coordinator of committees and meetings. She staffs the Research Division, Program Committee, and Local Arrangements Committee.