At the Southern Historical Association last month, between stops at the beachside bars and breaks to fill out my Beach Blanket Bingo cards, I went to sessions.
I know, it seems crazy. But after working at home or in cafés alone for months over the summer and fall, I needed to be a part of some vigorous academic conversations more than I needed a swim in the ocean. And so I went through the program carefully, and chose sessions that fit my two criteria:
- Subject matter that addressed my current interest in cultures of violence, Civil War history, and southern identity
- Roundtable formats (if you’ve read my previous pieces on academic conferences, you know how I feel about the traditional 3+1 panel and my interest in other, more dynamic formats)
But during the opening plenary on Wednesday and throughout my chosen roundtables on Thursday, I became increasingly angry. Because what I attended were not roundtables, but panels disguised as roundtables.
For two hours, more than the usual number of panelists read papers at me for slightly fewer than 20 minutes. Audience members asked questions (or made comments) directed at one person only, and the moderator/chairs only rarely tried to get their panelists to talk to each other.
It was excruciating.
And then, Friday morning. The first session. Another roundtable, entitled “Reckoning with Histories of Racial Violence: Trauma, Memory and the Archive.” Right up my alley. And a group of superstars at the table: Monica Martinez (Brown University), Adriane Lentz-Smith (Duke University), and Marisa Fuentes (Rutgers University), with Jennifer Morgan (NYU) as moderator.
As the room quieted down and someone closed the door, I girded myself for more disappointment. But then Marisa started talking – TALKING! – about her research project, and the challenges of building complete and compelling histories out of primary document fragments. And then Adriane, before she even began to describe her project, turned and said, “If I could just respond to something Marisa just said …”
I almost cheered. Glory be! A real, live roundtable!
As the session went on, I became increasingly ebullient, despite the subject matter. I learned about each woman’s research projects, her research methods, and her approaches to writing. There was a vigorous discussion of how to write ethically and with “empathetic imagination” when narrating unconscionable acts of physical violence. There were tips for scholars who want to work with public historians bringing such histories to life. I left that session feeling like I had just been a part of an intensely intellectual exchange of ideas about history and the study of it.
So how did this happen? How did this roundtable succeed when so many others had failed miserably? What made it so special? Here’s what:
- Even though the panelists were sitting next to each other at a long table, there was no lectern obscuring their views of one another.
- The panelists’ initial comments were capped at 5 minutes – and they took that time limit seriously.
- They TALKED in this initial segment, rather than reading short papers at us.
- Even in their introductory remarks (as noted above) they responded to each other, and then continued to do so without prompting from the moderator.
- The moderator was relaxed and spontaneous, asking thoughtful questions in the moment.
- It became clear that the panelists had also circulated questions and thoughts amongst themselves before the conference. But their conversation did not feel rehearsed or practiced, probably because they did not feel bound to stick only to the questions they had already discussed.
- The panelists addressed both content (the subjects of their own projects) but also methodology, pedagogy, writing, and research – topics that everyone in the audience could connect to in some way.
The only thing that could have improved this situation was if the panelists had been sitting at an actual round table, and had been mic’d. But even the layout of the room could not keep them from being awesome.
I went to a few more sessions during the conference – most of them panels. I didn’t get angry, because they had been advertised as panels, and the work was good. And, quite frankly, I was still feeling buzzed from the “Reckoning with Histories” session.
As I was tweeting this panel, Elizabeth Lehfeldt (@school_tales) tweeted back, “sounds like you’re getting to see the magical unicorn of roundtables.” This was true. And will I ever find this magical unicorn again?
That’s up to you, future roundtablers and moderators of roundtables. Don’t revert to the panel format, even if some of your participants don’t show up. Have enough confidence in yourself and your work to discuss it without reading. And actually talk to your fellow scholars, and to audience members.
Only you can make conference sessions a more exciting and edifying place.