The Magical Unicorn Roundtable, and How to Find It

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.

7 thoughts on “The Magical Unicorn Roundtable, and How to Find It”

  1. Just sent a link for this to Kevin Levin”s blog, and to John Hennessey’s blog, as they are discussing this topic right now. You are, as usual, spot on. Huzzah!

    1. Thanks for reading, Meg! I think that Kevin and John are talking about a different context – Civil War Roundtables, and their membership. But we all share a concern, I think, with the ways that scholars and students of history (in particular) are sharing knowledge with one another, and how we can do it best.

      1. We are indeed talking about different specific roundtables, but the message is still clear–you have to hit the audience! A CWRT is as close as most folks will get to an academic conference. That all being said, we just got home from looking at the site for a brand new CWRT in Central CA, and with all this great convo fresh in my head, the meeting was very dynamic! From out small group of three came ideas such as Where to Take a Great CW Vacation, What have YOU Read Lately?, How To Research Your CW Ancestor, Letters Home, and one of my faves so far–taking in a game of Vintage Base Ball this coming summer at Golden Gate Park!

        I am reading and rereading everything I can to help launch this project, and your comments concerning the discussion formats was met with cheers. If we give a topic (or better yet, give 3 & choose one!), have a month to let members do a little research on it, and then try a discussion–it just might work–and everyone who wants to add something would have the chance. Ah well–nothing ventured . . .

  2. This is a great reminder as many of us prepare to convene in Denver for the AHA.

    My guess is that it’s not an accident that the “real roundtable” you report on here was all women, and mostly women known for their feminist scholarship. IOW, feminist/womanist pedagogy is what undergirded their approach to roundtabling–that is, sharing and listening over speechifying and pronouncing.

    1. I don’t think it’s an accident either. Although a few of the terrible roundtables were also all-female panels, so I hesitate to make any blanket statements on that score. And it did not seem to matter how experienced the scholars were either. The plenary, chock full of super-star scholars of the South (both women and men), was a “read at followed by stilted conversation” roundtable that wasn’t a roundtable.

      The essential ingredients seem to be: scholars who have some experience with the sharing/listening pedagogy you reference + a moderator who asks the right questions + an engaged audience who buys in.

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