Starting this Thursday, the Organization of American Historians will be having its annual meeting in Atlanta. I’m delighted to be on the program this year as one of the participants in a roundtable that will address the question “Is Blogging Scholarship?” Also taking part will be John Fea who blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Ann Little of Historiann fame, and Mike O’Malley, who blogs at The Aporetic. The roundtable will be moderated by Jeff Pasley, who has blogged at Common-Place. I’m really looking forward to what should be a fascinating discussion, except…
They’ve scheduled the roundtable for the very last session of the conference on Sunday morning at 10:45 am. The primary purpose of this post is to encourage any of you who will be in Atlanta and who have late flights home to come to the roundtable. That purpose having been served, follow me below the fold if you’re interested in thoughts on roundtables and conference scheduling.
Having run one moderately sized academic conference and having served on organizing committees for a number of others, I have a very good sense of how hard it is to put together a conference program. If you’re lucky, you get more people applying to take part than you have places on the program. But then you have to make difficult decisions about who gets a slot and who doesn’t. Organizers need to consider which panels to schedule against each other and attempt to minimize the possibility that two similar panels will take place simultaneously. And everyone knows that the very first and especially the very last slots tend to be less desirable, both because of participants’ travel schedules and because the audiences are likely to be significantly smaller. This is especially true if the conference goes through Sunday morning, as most conference attendees have to be at work on Monday and have planes to catch.
I’ve also, over the years, participated in a number of panels at various conferences that have, for various reasons, drawn extremely small audiences. Some of these panels have gone wonderfully despite the light attendance. Three interesting papers can easily launch an exciting conversation among the panelists, even if nobody else takes part. And they can also inspire interesting questions and thoughts from even a small audience. My panel at the recent Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy conference, for example, was very lightly attended but nonetheless very successful for just these reasons.
Roundtables, however, are much more audience-dependent than traditional conference panels. Participants in roundtables are asked to make very limited opening remarks and the audience is asked to take part for much more of the allotted time than in a traditional panel.
Indeed, my all-time worst conference presentation experience was at a roundtable that I helped put together about a decade ago at the AHA. Scheduled for the very final slot of the conference, late Sunday morning, our audience consisted entirely of two local high school students, one of whose father happened to be taking part in the conference. Good thing they didn’t check badges at the door! At the time I thought that scheduling a roundtable for this slot was so obviously a bad idea that I was unlikely ever to have to go through that experience again. Obviously I was wrong. With any luck, this coming Sunday’s panel will be better attended. And I suspect that the four of us would be able to have a pretty good conversation even if it turns out not to be.
But seeing as what I took to be common sense several years ago apparently hasn’t yet become the industry standard, I figured I’d make the suggestion here and maybe our readership can spread the word to the organizers of future conferences, big and small: if your conference concludes on a Sunday morning, try to avoid scheduling roundtables for those Sunday morning sessions. I know nobody wants to give a paper on Sunday morning and somebody has to. I’ve done so in the past and I’m certainly willing to do so in the future when I’m taking part in a traditional panel. But roundtables are especially audience dependent and should not be scheduled for these slots.