David Greenspoon, a doctoral candidate in the Richards Center, contributes this post on the logistics of creating and proposing panels for conferences. Mr. Greenspoon currently resides in the Baltimore area, so we took the liberty of posting this on his behalf. He is finishing his dissertation, "Children's Mite: Juvenile Philanthropy in America, 1815-1865," which examines the commercial overtones of children's philanthropy in the mid-nineteenth century. Mr. Greenspoon has presented his research at the Society for Historians of the Early Republic annual conference in Rochester, New York and the Society for the History of Children and Youth in Berkeley, California. This coming weekend, he will be presenting a paper at the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians in Houston, Texas.
David Greenspoon, conference presenter extraordinaire
Presenting papers at conferences can be a rewarding experience, providing an opportunity to receive feedback from a new audience and meet people in your field. However, getting your paper accepted into conferences is not automatic. More competitive conferences normally privilege conference papers that have already been organized into a ready-to-roll panel with two to four papers, a chair, and/or a respondent. When you are a grad student and do not know many historians outside your department, putting together a panel can be a daunting process (at least it initially was for me), but if you go in with an idea of the kind of panel you want to assemble, and a plan of how to find additional panel participants, it can go much more smoothly.
When you are a graduate student finding other panelists can be tricky, because your network of academic connections is not as extensive as it will become later in your career. In fact, this is where you can start to build that network. One of the best ways to find people in your area is to post a call for panelists on relevant listservs on H-Net
. H-Net is a collection of listservs related to the humanities and social sciences covering topics such as the American Civil War, the Early Republic, women's studies, slavery, and childhood studies. If your research is in the humanities, it is a near certainty that there is an H-Net listserv relevant to the paper you intend to present. The size of membership and volume of messages on H-Net listservs vary, but normally they include relevant calls for papers, book reviews, inquiries from scholars pertaining to their research, and calls for panelists. I have found excellent panelists, chairs, and respondents through H-Net, by outlining the topic of the panel, the issues addressed by papers already on board, and mentioning who (if any) has agreed to chair or comment. I also recommend you give listserv subscribers a deadline by which to respond so that you have time to complete your panel and submit it to the conference. Because these forums are moderated by scholars, who are otherwise busy, anticipate that it will take several days for your call to appear on the listserv.
Once you have a couple of conferences under your belt, and have had the opportunity to meet people who do similar work, finding panelists will become easier. Besides being useful venues to share portions of your work, conferences are great for meeting other people with whom to share ideas and collaborate at future conferences. Not surprisingly, a lot of the other young scholars at conferences are also looking for potential co-panelists. I have found several wonderful people at conferences whom I have later joined on subsequent panels.
Unless you are putting together a roundtable for a conference, your panel will need a chair to introduce speakers and moderate the questions and answers following the presentation of the papers. You will probably also want a respondent (though not all panels have one), who can offer feedback on the papers, and draw out common larger themes. It can be nerve-wracking to critique your work for several minutes in front of an audience of scholars. A respondent adds a new dimension to your panel, however, and because they receive your paper several weeks prior to the conference, the respondent can offer more thorough feedback than the audience. I have received helpful feedback from commentators who would have never otherwise read my work, which has allowed me to push my work in new directions.
If you are preparing a panel for a professional conference, the chair and respondent should be established people in your field. I have found great chairs and respondents through H-Net, but have also arranged for this part of the panel through direct emails to professors from other departments. This can be an intimidating process, especially because these are often going to be professors you do not know at all, or, perhaps, have met only once or twice. Though it is scary to email professors out of the blue, in my experience, they are very gracious in their responses, whether they can participate in your panel or not. When I write to a professor, I always remind them if we have met, or note that I am familiar with their work and explain why they would be a good fit for my panel. This way they know that I am not flooding hundreds of professors' inboxes with the same request. I also end my emails by asking them to suggest someone else, should they be unable to participate. This way, if they are unable to join the panel, I may receive a new lead for someone who can. This also helps broaden the network of academic contacts that you're beginning to build through this process.
Contacting potential panelists, chairs, and respondents can be time consuming, because it is appropriate to wait at least a couple of days for their responses before contacting other potential participants (of course, you can ask a panelist and chair/respondent simultaneously). Though I like to imagine that the scholar I contact is waiting by their computer for my email, this is, of course, not the case. Agreeing to participate in a panel is a big commitment; they are agreeing to travel to a conference location and either write a paper or offer feedback, so, it might take them a few days to see if they have done appropriate research for your panel, cleared their schedules, and make sure they have the funds available.
Waiting for email responses can mean anxiously checking email repeatedly, but not giving a potential panel participant a reasonable amount of time could have far more unpleasant consequences. If you ask multiple people to chair your panel at once, you might end up with multiple positive responses, and be put in the uncomfortable position of telling a senior professor that even though he or she responded promptly to your email, you will not be able to include him or her in your panel. This, of course, is an outcome you would like to avoid at all costs. Because unavoidable delays in correspondence make it impossible to put together a panel in a hurry, you need to plan your panel far in advance. I try to put panels together at least one month
ahead of the deadline listed in conferences' calls for papers, and I prefer, when possible, to do it much earlier than that even. As a general rule, it's best to ask for participants as early as you can, so you can catch them before they might agree to join other panels.
Once you have a panel put together each panelist will be required to write a short proposal, normally a couple of hundred words. The proposal should outline what your essay will examine and what your paper will contribute to the historiography in your field. I find it effective to begin a paper proposal with an especially engaging anecdote that will catch the attention of the program committee, and then connect the example to the larger issue that my proposed paper will address. I usually conclude a proposal by stating what I intend for my paper to argue (this might be speculative, since the conference paper does not yet have to be written), and why this is significant.
Writing a proposal for the entire panel can mean a very different process from the regular lonely work of historians, since it usually is a collaborative task. Normally, one panelist will write a rough draft of the proposal and then the other panelists take a crack at it, until all of the panelists agree on a finished copy. I find the template of opening with a historical anecdote less effective for a panel proposal, because it is difficult to find an example that neatly captures the significance of all of the papers. Instead, I have had greater success opening the panel proposal with a prominent historiographical debate, or a well-known argument by a senior historian which will be addressed, in some way, by all of the paper proposals.
Finally, there is the matter of money. For graduate students, going on a trip and spending several days in a hotel can be pricey. However, there are a number of ways to receive financial assistance. Check with your department, or affiliated units in your institution (such as the Richards Center, in Penn State's case) to see if they offer funding for conferences. Also, look at the website of the organization sponsoring the conference, because some offer support to graduate students to encourage attendance. Some organizations offer merit based scholarships while others are first-come first-served, which means it is important to investigate scholarships quickly after you have been accepted. Receiving funding for your trip will help ease the financial burden of a rewarding experience.
In the end, all of the advance planning, the anxious waiting for responses from potential panel participants and respondents, and the search for travel funds are well worth it. At the conferences in which I have participated, I have received useful feedback, met terrific people, and have had a lot of fun. I've also been able to connect with a lot of great, young historians and kept abreast of exciting, new research in our field. Ultimately, that is the main goal of conference participation: to further your scholarship and introduce yourself to a scholarly community whose own work will influence yours and vice versa.