Rethinking #UHA18 and the Academic Conference

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“The play’s the thing wherein I will catch the conscience of the king”
– Hamlet in Hamlet

I have to confess, I kind of dug William Shakespeare in high school and college (Measure Per Measure anyone?). Admittedly, it might have been because he was great at rhyming couplets and the like. Still, Hamlet’s decision to stage a performance simply to gauge the King’s alleged involvement with the poisoning of his late father always seemed like an incisive move by the Danish Prince, or a sign of his increasingly tenuous grip on reality. I suppose Hamlet’s motivation remains colored by whatever baggage the reader brings to the table.

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Of course, the UHA, AHA, SACRPH and others don’t conduct conferences as a means to root out nefarious crimes or as means to determine the motivations of its participants, be they speakers or audience members. However, in the glowing radiance of #SACRPH17, which by all accounts appeared to be a great success, questions regarding the efficacy, organization, and goals of academic gatherings remain well-traveled topics of discussion; such questions persist as points of debate and worth consideration as we draw attention to the CFP for #UHA18 in Columbia, SC and consider its own meaning for conference goers and the larger field of urban history.

With this in mind, we would like to draw your attention to a recent comment submitted to the blog by Jim Wunsch of Empire State College (SUNY). Professor Wunsch raises some great questions and points of debate regarding how we organize, conduct, and process conferences, including: accepting fewer papers for presentation; rethinking how historians present research (and the context in which they are presented); and posting papers earlier to encourage greater engagement and debate. We’d love for UHA members to chime in with their thoughts on Wunsch’s comments (at the risk of redundancy, in the comments section itself) but also the larger topic more generally. After all, the conference might not capture the field’s conscience but it does embody its direction and thrust.

With SACRPH in Cleveland and the SSHA in Montreal concluded and with planning for UHA’s Columbia, SC conference under way, it might be appropriate to consider for a moment how conferences might be improved.

Although expensive, they continue to be reasonably well attended because making a conference presentation remains for many academics a still useful way to demonstrate your academic interest and activity to those making promotion and tenure decisions. The problem is that since the success or failure of a conference is largely determined by how many attend, all too many papers of questionable value are accepted. And with so many panels scheduled during any given time slot, attendance can be disappointing. Then too by clinging to the ancient convention of reading papers out loud, sessions often prove tedious beyond words.

A modest reform would give priority to papers posted in advance. The presentation would entail explaining the basic ideas and argument and how they might fit into the larger historical framework; you know what you are supposed to do in a decent class.

This blog could play an important role in sustaining and strengthening conferences not only by celebrating them as joyful convocations, but also by singling out a few worthy and perhaps exciting papers and exchanges in various sessions.

Jim Wunsch

Empire State College (SUNY)

 

One thought on “Rethinking #UHA18 and the Academic Conference”

  1. From Professor Tracey K’Meyer (History; University of Louisville):
    “I’ve tried to think about what I do learn the most from when I go. I like the idea of posted papers in advance with more of a chance to discuss at the session. Also, posted papers with access for all members regardless of whether they were able to attend would make the information available to those who do not have access to travel funds (perhaps those folks could post comments in advance as well?). It would also guarantee a little more quality I think. Let’s be honest, we’ve all heard that conference presentation that was clearly thrown together on the plane! I would get rid of commentators on panels as they often don’t add that much and they take up time for audience discussion. I get that the tension is how to get more butts in the seats, especially as people usually can’t get travel funds if they aren’t on the program. So what has been most valuable to me at conferences? Probably the networking, chance to meet people in person whose work I’ve read, that sort of thing. If I was going to run a conference again (which, frankly, I’ve done my time on and probably wouldn’t do again!), I would focus on networking opportunities to make attendance worth it. newcomer breakfast, dine arounds, mentoring programs, “affinity group” sessions, poster sessions, meet and greets with award winners…the big conferences are alienating and the small ones can be cliquey. There needs to be structured ways for someone new to a field to walk in and make contacts.”

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