“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.
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.
Empire State College (SUNY)