As Long As I’m At It…

Ok, so I’ve suggested to the American Historical Association (AHA) that they should eliminate formal paper sessions with extreme prejudice. That goes for all big professional meetings (MLA, AAA, what have you): no more formal paper sessions in which participants take 15-20 minutes to read a paper, ever. The intellectual content of big professional meetings should be more like blogging, frankly: roundtable responses to current issues in the discipline. Roundtables on controversial books, on the discipline’s encounters with the public sphere, on major internal disputes within the discipline, and so on. The kind of thing that doesn’t get talked about except between the lines in the ordinary business of scholarly publication. Papers or formal writings are for small, concentrated, topically focused meetings.

Next on the chopping block: any pretense by professional associations to exert leadership over a discipline. On the issues where that leadership might actually matter in internal terms, such as sanctioning practicioners for misconduct like plagiarism, the big associations routinely duck, avoid or explicitly abjure an active stance. That’s probably a sound legal strategy, and may even be a sage admission of the necessary limits of the association’s capacity. Often when disciplinary associations try to address the deeper flaws inherent in contemporary academic practice (say the overproduction of doctorates in the field, or the misuse of adjunct instructors), they either come off like a butcher trying to perform brain surgery with a hatchet, or they offer hopelessly meek, mealy-mouthed, everybody’s-got-a-point responses that do nothing to address the situation but also convince onlookers of the inability of academics to police themselves.

What annoys me more is when any of the disciplinary associations attempt to take a position on behalf of the discipline on significant public or political issues. Not because I’m apolitical, or even because I disagree with the positions taken, but because the associations usually have no basis for exerting meaningful clout, because they’re inevitably amateurs playing a game dominated by hardcore professionals, because they frequently end up making the professoriate look worse in the public eye in the process, and because this often leads to wasting money on payments to lobbyists or consultants who are content to spin some wheels and look busy.

I’m not always sure I want my professional associations taking positions on issues that are legitimately and narrowly within their domain (say, the AHA on K-12 history curricula in U.S. schools, or the African Studies Association on Title VI funding for African studies) but at least that makes good sense, and often has productive results.

What else? Drop any association journals that aren’t established, prestigious outlets for publication in the discipline. The American Historical Review is an established, prestigious journal: the AHA ought to keep that. However, plenty of professional associations, especially the smaller specialized ones, churn out weak journal-type publications that probably end up in the garbage of many members. Kill vanity publication lines, or well-meaning but pointlessly tree-killing pamphlets that are meant to communicate some worthy but self-evident sentiment to members or to audiences that well-meaning members think ought to be the targets of some sort of outreach.

On the other hand, constantly data-mine the membership for the kind of information that we’re constantly thinking about in the administrative side of faculty jobs: what the distribution of specializations in the discipline is, what the current demographics of the discipline are, what the average size of departments in the discipline are (on a kind of “per capita” level, in comparison to other departments at institutions), what the ratio of people trained to people finding tenure-track jobs in the discipline is. Track what Brian Leiter tracks for philosophy (what Lingua Franca used to track for everybody): major movements of personnel in the discipline at the senior level, and hires at the junior level. There are a lot of times where it would be useful for me to be able to make definitive statements about whether history as a discipline is growing or shrinking, what the current balance of specializations actually is and how it has changed over ten years, and so on. None of this matters, however, unless you make this information available quickly and regularly to the membership.

Every professional association should have an active web presence, maybe even a blog or two. That’s where the data being collected constantly could be published, just as regularly. You should be able to renew your membership and deal with all other membership details quickly and painlessly online. The way some professional associations come at it, you’d think maintaining an online presence of this kind is a daunting technical challenge that has to be custom-designed from the ground up. Or alternatively, that it’s some amateur thing to hack out over the weekend.

The problem with trying to make any of these suggestions beyond a quickly-dashed-off blog entry, of course, is that you’ll inevitably end up asked to sit on an associational committee or worse yet, told to run for an associational office if you care that much. I don’t care that much, so I have no interest in going beyond blog-kibitzing.

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31 Responses to As Long As I’m At It…

  1. savitri says:

    Oh gosh, all this is so, so true. In my limited experience with the (academic legal org.) AALS, I’ve found their mealy-mouthed platitudes to be simply insufferable. Bloggers who have discussed the field (Leiter, prawfsBlawg, Wendell at Cornell) have offered far more discerning discussions of the legal scholarship market than the AALS could ever produce. (Guess I’ve cause to be grateful, yet again, for the internet!)

    But I am somewhat baffled as to why such an organization – of legal scholars, no less – can’t come up with a good, coherent, pithy, and marketable set of responses to, say, a fairly obvious assault on the academy (from without their precincts, I mean, rather than an internal conflict). For instance, how hard is it to produce a party line on the reason(s) that David Horowitz is completely whacked? I mean, these aren’t a bunch of amateurs when it comes to legal reasoning; and some of them have in fact professionally crossed over into the murky waters of politics, so they know how to pitch their speech, right? Why can’t they “exert meaningful clout” on Horowitz’s despicable but apparently hugely popular polemic?

    When taking a position on a topic that could both defend academic practices and address political concerns (that is, politics in the academy), you’d think that perhaps we need not steer clear of taking a leadership stance. This is an area where we are not mucking about in our internal dilemmas (the production of doctorates, the misuse of adjuncts, etc.); nor is it one in which we might shrug and say “each case must be decided on its own merits” (plagiarism). So what, dear Tim, could be the problem?

    I would love to see the AALS come forth with the definitive anti-Horowitz position paper. I bet it would be (implicitly, at least) strengthened by the fact that law school faculties are probably among the most politically diverse bodies to be found (b-schools, engineering, also come to mind). After that, they can do what they probably do best – run the Meat Market, and hold an annual conference in which Napster and progeny can be discussed yet again…

    Thank you again for such a wonderful, invigorating blog.

  2. bbenzon says:

    I have been to one academic meeting, one, that qualifies as a genuine intellectual event. This was a small conference — workshop really — on cognition and the text held at the University of Tel Aviv.

    Consider that during the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was the institutional home of intellectual life in the so-called West. Along comes the Renaissance and what happens? Intellectual life moves to a new institutional home, the universities (which, of course, got started by the Church). I think the current system of intellectual systems is due for the same fate, I just don’t know what the new institutional locus is going to be. I don’t think the current system can be fixed; it’s too deeply entrenched.

    Maybe something “organic” will emerge half way around the world in the next 50 years.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I will say this is not unique to academia: most big professional associations have some of these problems. After writing this, I was bothered for a second by some deja vu sensation, and I realized that a bit of it sounded like my father griping about the American Bar Association. But legal and medical associations also have a much more legitimate general interest in public policy across a wide swath of issues, not to mention much more competency in engaging those issues, when compared to something like the American Historical Association.

  4. Perhaps it is how the AAA is structured, but the problem isn’t formal vs. informal papers – it is that most senior faculty have written their presentation on the airplane, while most graduate students have spent months writing theirs.

    I have also argued in the past that I believe all conference papers at any conference should be freely available online. I think it would help if people actually knew that what they wrote would live online after the conference.

  5. Timothy Burke says:


    Yeah, that too is a serious asymmetry. Though on the flip side, the graduate papers tend to be ones delivered with the least accomodation to the presence of an audience, for two reasons. First, because almost no one in the humanities or social sciences is trained by graduate professors to carefully write short “presentation versions” of longer papers where a premium is put on brevity, clarity, forcefulness of argument and a “spoken” cadence. Second, because there’s a sort of ease that comes from a combination of practice and tenure (you’ve done it before and what can they do to you anyway if they don’t like it) that makes it a bit more palatable to give a formal presentation with an audience in mind.

    On Cliopatria, a couple of people noted that scientists usually make all papers available (but peer review them). I agree that’s a good model. In fact, it might help limit the ability of certain unscrupulous senior scholars to “strip-mine” references and arguments out of conference papers given by graduate students.

  6. martinwiener says:

    To sound like an old fart… These ideas have been suggested before, but always seem to run aground on practical objections or vested interests. For example, pre-circulating papers: this works for small conferences of invitees, usually getting some or all of their expenses covered (and sometimes more), but for general meetings like AHA people just wont do it – as it is, papers rarely get sent to commentors as early as they’re supposed to. Similarly, putting open discussions in place of formal papers makes it difficult for some people to get funding from their schools to attend (and, to be frank, makes them less ready to attend anyway, if their name isnt going to be in the program).
    Ditto for some of your suggestions today: its either too much work (for people who are not getting any pay for doing it) or attacks vested interests: journals exist not only to publish quality scholarship but unfortunately also to publish whatever, so that people can get tenure. I dont like this, but I’m not sure I know how to solve it.
    One last point: “savitri” wants organizations to come out with “the definitive anti-Horowitz” statement. But I guess “savitri” cant imagine that “we” all dont already agree on loathing H’s Acad. Bill of Rights. He/she’s just the kind of academic that makes people sympathetic to Horowitz’s argument: “how could anyone with any intelligence have a different opinion from mine?” My view has always been that scholarly organizations should take NO general positions on anything except ensuring that the work of scholars can continue.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree on the point regarding the way that people get money from their institutions to attend, that some institutions only subsidize travel to conferences if someone’s giving a formal paper. I think that’s a bad local policy by those institutions, but it does put the AHA, etcetera, in a real bind.

    I actually think that a statement which narrowly critiques the Academic Bill of Rights as an idea fits the criteria of “ensuring the work of scholars can continue”.

  8. martinwiener says:

    But, Tim, suppose you are an AHA Council member (I was once) and some undetermined number of your members dont think so? Are you empowered to put your view forward in their name? Were you elected on that specific platform?

  9. savitri says:

    Martin Wiener,

    I am a woman, and my name is Savitri. No need for quotation marks, thank you. Also, I am not yet an academic; I am only an aspiring one (please don’t bother mocking my interest by saying I have a long way to go). I do respect Timothy Burke’s always-present civility, and in that light, will try to be respectful in turn.

    I don’t quite fathom the basis for your scorn. Perhaps you misunderstand what I am trying to convey – my fault, likely, for being obtuse. Please allow me to try again.

    I think there is a general consensus in the academy that while diversity of opinion (including but not limited to political allegiances) is indeed to be desired, it is not likely to be reached through the intervention and/or oversight of outside regulatory bodies. Such bodies, such as state oversight panels (to take but one possibility), seem highly liable to interfere with the workings of academic institutions and departments – and their interference seems more likely to hinder than to improve the balance that is struck within a faculty. This position may not be universal – some people think the academy is liberal but quite fine as it is, or that it is not as monolithically liberal as portrayed but stil only needs tweaking, and so on – but in terms of not wanting outside actors and/or agents to swoop in and issue dictates, I think there is a strong consensus. Is that unfair to suggest?

    Further, it is in fact to ensure that the work of scholars can continue – unimpeded by the meddlings of nonscholars – that I would hope academics would speak out on this issue. That’s not to imply that we cannot search within our precincts and ascertain whether or not there is, in actuality, enough of a balance, intellectually, politically, and otherwise. We are capable of doing so; eminently so. (We have made significant improvements in gender and race, which I think have strengthened us immensely.) But do we not feel that scholars themselves can address these issues, and that academic institutions can systemically resolve them (or at least strive to resolve them)? Wouldn’t that be what you call an “anti-Horowitz” stance, yet one on which we can agree?

    Moreover, I don’t see how what I am saying has anything to do with the “intelligence” of those who feel that the academy should be subject to external oversight. Rather, I feel it is a defense of an institution – an enterprise – to which I am committed, and in which I believe. But it’s a complicated enterprise, and one that is not, and perhaps should not be, readily subject to constant external control. Horowitz has shed far, far more scorn on academia than I have on him. This is, in part, what make me feel he is not committed to ensuring that scholarship continues.

  10. RCinProv says:

    I am nominating you for president, vice-president, and all other positions of importance in the APSA. My the force be with you.

  11. Timothy Burke says:


    I absolutely agree that if you’re an AHA officer, you can’t take these positions, that there are real reasons why your membership wouldn’t want any of these things to happen. Which is the reason why I say I wouldn’t care to try and push any of them beyond just kibitizing: because there are inertial forces and genuine countervailing sentiments that would keep them from coming to pass.

  12. martinwiener says:

    Savitri – I apologize for my rudeness. I have encountered people less thoughtful than you who say what you do and I transferred those encounters to someone (you) I did not know. However, I would just say that I have followed these arguments for some years and do feel that the argument for greater intellectual diversity in academe has been over-simplified by the use of David Horowitz, a man with some good ideas and also some serious personality flaws, as shorthand for all critics of the present lack of such diversity. Even his Ac. Bill of Rts is actually (if one reads it) careful to state that government should not prescribe or decide questions of curriculum. One can still say it should be scrapped, but it is not as pernicious towards academic freedom as it is represented as being. I believe it would be a useful prod to make academics look at themselves, and not a license for McCarthyite inquistions, as has been painted. Of course we can differ. But I hope people who denounce “Horowitz-ism” try to separate the issue from the personality.

    And I would reiterate my opposition to organizations like AHA or OAH (which has been indeed more prone to this than AHA) taking official positions on political etc issues, as they are always been called upon to do.

  13. Ennis says:

    How would you feel if these weren’t read recited papers, but instead presentations as a separate genre? Historians, Anthropologists, Classicists all recite their papers. Even when a paper is written for presentation, with attention to cadence, I find this a horrible way to learn. After the second paper, you start to zone out.

    OTOH, other disciplines do things differently. Economists, Political Scientists and others do presentations which are outlines of the work. They often use overheads and power point, not just to present documents / pictures, but to outline their talk and frame their major points. In Political Science, you will never see a job talk, no matter how qualitative and historical in nature the work, that isn’t outlined on transparencies. This makes a huge difference.

    Conferences can be a useful venue for finding out about work in progress, for observing trends within the discipline, and for learning about new approaches. I think it would be a mistake if people were to drop all presentation of work from conferences. Also, if you have only Roundtables, then only senior professors will expound, and honestly, that’s not always a good idea.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    I think junior people and grad students would be just as interesting in roundtables, in fact often more so. I think it would be good for a discipline to think that way as well, because right now some senior people tend to think that only they possess the magisterial capacity to think deeply and well about big-canvas issues, that this is a privilege of seniority. The kinds of skills that go into being on a roundtable are also important to develop for teaching, and so would be a way to think about training for teaching rather than just training for scholarship.

    I’m interested in the transparency/power point style of presentation, but I’ve noted before that I’m skeptical about whether people in the humanities can easily adopt some of the strengths of a presentation of work. Both because I think we’re not always presenting concrete “findings” and because our scholarship is much more dependent on persuasion. Still, it’s worth thinking about.

  15. Alison says:

    Am I the only person who sort of likes the formal 20 minute presentations, at least when they’re somewhat well done? There are so many historical topics that sound interesting enough to listen to a talk– especially if I can sneak out if it’s terrible– but not interesting enough to read a precirculated paper. I like being able to learn snippets about other scholarly worlds without any real time commitment, and I find I resent having to read precirculated papers unless they’re either quite good or quite close to my specialty– neither of which is likely at the AHA.


  16. hestal says:

    I am a retired mathematician/computer programmer who lives in the heart of fundamentalist Texas. I am surrounded by bigots and racists of the worst sort. On Thursday I played in our weekly “money” game with about two dozen others. At the end of the day, while we were settling the bets in the clubhouse, I was treated to a barrage of racist jokes spawned by the debacle of Katrina. Blacks and Cajuns were the targets of choice.

    I like to read this blog because it is comforting to me. You guys have so little to worry about.

    Also, I made my pile designing, developing, and implementing large-scale computer systems for some of the largest businesses and governmental organizations in the country. It was the same thing over and over. The same problems, the same solutions, the same politics, the same people — but the folks in each organization were sure that they were unique.

    My point is that what I read here is just more of the same that I saw and heard when I attended several colleges in the 50’s and 60’s. If you guys, historians all apparently, can’t learn and profit from the lessons of history then no one can. I’m amazed that the problems discussed here were not solved in the Kaiser/Willys era — they certainly existed then.

    I love you guys, keep it up.


  17. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, it’s possible that these are insoluble problems–but also not very important ones, and so their intractability is not a particularly worrisome thing. And as Alison suggests, some people do enjoy formal sessions. I’ve certainly been in some I’ve liked somewhat, and as a discussant, I’ve had quite a few where I’ve enjoyed them for the quality of the papers I read.

  18. hestal says:

    I should have added that I like to read this blog because my Pappy used to tell me to watch what smart folks are doing. I have tried to follow his advice all my life and it has been rewarding. No smart-mouth intended, it is a good thing to read what goes on here. I read the DailyKos as well, where all the lefties hang out, and it is a flippin’ mad house. Wear your goggles there because the stuff really flies. But here there is more reason. I only wish there were more action, at least maps for action.

    Again, no smart-mouth intended, but why don’t you historians have us standing waist deep in books on the lessons of history. Doesn’t what is happening today remind you of situations from the past? Can’t we do something about it? Can’t you tell us what to do?

    Or is it possible that history and philosophy are more than kissing cousins; neither can make a single useful prediction. The meaty parts that once were part of your theaters have been pulled out and made sciences leaving behind just the entertainment elements. At least historians get to see their books turned into movies, while poor philosophers get nothing.

  19. PeterB says:

    I agree that the 15-20 minute paper can be tedious to listen to and dull to present (though this of course also depends on the reader). But I think that the alternative you present (the open discussion on where the field is) would work best for more established scholars. For graduate students and junior faculty, there needs to be some kind of model for the presentation of research (IMO). I’m damned if I can think of a beter alternative to the 15-20 minute paper.

  20. bbenzon says:

    ” . . . our scholarship is much more dependent on persuasion. . . . ”

    Well, at the risk of being accused of being a Sophist, there’s nothing so persuasive as the well-used resourcs of voice, gesture, and posture. And that can get over, as they say, in twenty-minutes, easy. But you need to practice it. It doesn’t just happen.

    Formal training in presentation delivery in grad school would be a good thing; stick it in the course on “this is how to go about the business of our profession.” I never had such training, but I am a musician and so have had plenty of performance experience. Yeah, getting over at a night club at 2am on a slow blues is very different from delivering a talk on the concept of person in Shakespeare’s plays. But at some level a performance is a performance. You have to be at ease in front of an audience, or be able to fake such ease (makes no difference in effect if well done).

    I know that back in the 50s and 60s the RAND Corporation had a drama coach on staff. Anytime someone had to give a presentation outside the corporation, they did a practice run for the drama coach. Maybe universtities should do the same.

  21. bbenzon says:

    Oh, I just got back from another one of the good conferences. Small, everyone in the same room, plenty of time to talk before and after and at lunch and dinner. By no means perfect either, but worthwihle.

  22. Timothy Burke says:

    Now that I agree with, Bill: humanists aren’t trained to be persuasive with either word or voice, save in discursive environments where their capacity to persuade draws from their institutional markings (who your advisor is, what your institution is, what your past publications are). Learning how to present an argument succinctly and in an entertaining fashion isn’t just something grad students should be trained to do at conferences: it should be a basic part of their training for teaching as well.

  23. Ennis says:

    Tim – I disagree about PowerPoint. Any good argument has an outline of major points. Even putting that up means that people don’t get lost in the verbiage. If you get confused you look up and say: Oh, he’s talking about his third point, how Canadian rap is indistinguishable from American rap, but this isn’t true about pop or rock in the two countries.

    Even that would help.

    It would also help if people were forced to deliver their papers standing up.

  24. bbenzon says:

    I basically agree with Ennis about the Powerpoint, but . . .

    As an undergraduate I took a philosophy course taught by one Maurice Mandelbaum, who would put an outline on the chalkboard before each lecture, and then hit the outline points, one after the other, in order. It made for very lucid lectures and easy note-taking. He was so good that, if you had a flair for the material, you didn’t really have to read the primary philosophical texts all that closely.

    Not so good.

  25. savitri says:

    You may have seen this, but here’s Brian Leiter’s blog-kibitzing about the AALS:

  26. Ennis says:

    1. Bbenzon – you realize that your objection to this style of lecturing is that it’s too clear, and communicates too well? By that standard, a lecture should be completely impenetrable so that the audience is obliged to go and read on their own.

    2. In a conference setting, you don’t necessarily want people to have to read the paper.

  27. katrina says:

    I’m with Ennis on the requirement for people to deliver papers standing up.

    Sitting encourages people to ramble on (and this is surely the worst thing about ’20 minute’ paper presentations – we all know what we’re in for is likely to be closer to 40 minutes)

    And there should be some way to limit the question session to QUESTIONS. (ie nobody who begins with ‘it’s not so much a question as a comment….’ and then launches into their own 15 minute presentation)

  28. Timothy Burke says:

    I hear you on that point, Katrina, but I also feel a vague reluctance about it. Some of the best things I’ve seen happen at a formal presentation were pointed comments made about a paper and the responses they drew from the author. More I think chairs have to exert very strong control over the length of a question or comment and forcefully direct people to sit down and shut up when they’ve hit that length. 1 minute and then that’s it, sit down.

  29. katrina says:

    Hi Timothy, yes comments (and in some cases suggestions – eg ‘have you looked at author x’) can be helpful, and they have been helpful to me when I have presented papers. But as an audience member, one person hogging the (limited) question period with their own self-promotion is annoying.
    You’re right, the person chairing the session should take charge. But
    I have rarely (ever?) seen a chair with a strong enough will to do that, especially when the person with the rambling (and in many cases completely off-topic) contribution is a ‘big name’ in the field.
    And I have seen too many cases of chairs attempting to get speakers – and questioners – to wrap it up to no effect at all.
    Is this problem unique to history? My area is Asia/world and it seems to be something of an epidemic.

  30. Timothy Burke says:

    No, it happens at other conferences and disciplines, too. There’s two kinds of time-hogs who are especially hard to stop when they make comments from the floor: the mighty-famous big shot and the bizarro guy that no one knows or has seen before with weird theories or interests. The first because no one wants to offend him/her, and the second because everyone (including the chair) is sort of afraid of what Dr. Bizarro might do if the chair tries to shut him/her up.

  31. Ennis says:

    Interestingly, this happens less (IMHO) in fields with visual aids. I think that part of the reason people ramble is that they’re trying to locate their comments in the context of what somebody else has said over the 20 minutes of their talk. OTOH, if they can simply say: Could you put up the outline again? OK, concerning your third point … they’ve cut out a good deal of rambling right there.

    The other point is that I think the norms of history favor discursive exposition, even if what is being discussed is a fairly concrete empirical point. I think this is a cultural problem within the field, although hopefully one that is changing. Historians seem to behave differently in a multi-disciplinary setting, since they’re not trying to impress non-historians with their opaque long-windiness. (Unfortunately, anthropologists usually remain long-winded from what I’ve seen)

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