We are one month away from the deadline for MHA’s call for papers, so I thought this was as good a time as any to talk about the conference in general and conference papers in particular. I hope every reader of JI has had the privilege to attend MHA’s annual conference. It truly is a phenomenal time, with a mixture of solid papers and warm comraderie. It is quite unlike most historical conferences I attend where few people actually attend sessions and most people remain in the halls, at restaurants, and doing anything but hearing papers. There is certainly plenty of socializing and networking at MHA, but the thing that sets it apart is people actually care about the sessions, papers, and presenters. It’s refreshing, honestly. There are at times poorly-attended sessions, but more often than not the rooms are mostly filled, and not too infrequently they are overflowing with more anxious attendees than there are chairs. This is one of the conference’s great strengths.
Part of that virtue stems from the fact that MHA is a complex blend of different types of people, all tenuously united in their interest in Mormon history, broadly defined. This mixture includes ivory tower-based academics, devoted amateurs, eager revisionists, and committed Mormons who wish to expand their knowledge of their faith’s tradition. Some people fit into several of these categories; others probably believe they don’t fit in any of them, but should be characterized as something else entirely. The tension between some of these segments sometimes bubble to the surface, as MHA hardly ever matches the personal expectations of each individual member. Indeed, if the organization were to cater only to one group, it would alienate many others. For an especially helpful perspective on this issue, see Ardis Parshall’s smart post on the need for MHA to be “scholarly” instead of academic. In general, I fully agree with her argument and see it as crucial for MHA’s continued success.
I have the great privilege, along with Melissa Inouye and the rest of the program committee, of helping organize MHA’s conference next year, which will take place June 9-12 in Snowbird, Utah. The theme for the conference is “Practice,” and the call for papers is found here. Since we are just about a month away from the deadline for submissions, I thought I would offer a few suggestions for prospective presenters. Most of these come from previous program chairs who offered their advice and passed on their wisdom from past submission seasons. In talking to the great people who previously looked over MHA conference submissions, most expressed regret that the mechanics of a conference proposal weren’t more widely known. Indeed, given the makeup of MHA’s membership, it is unfair to expect people to know much about the unwritten order of things prevalent in scholarly conferences.
Note that these are merely a small number of ideas, and they are not, unless otherwise specified, hard and fast rules. Submissions may diverge from these guidelines and still be accepted; other submissions might follow these guidelines perfectly and still be rejected. But I hope that these tips might prove helpful in making proposals more competetive.
- First, and most importantly, a panel proposal has a much stronger chance at getting accepted than a single paper proposal. This is true for any scholarly conference, and it has become especially true at MHA in recent years. There are several reasons for this, but I’ll outline only a couple: first, it makes for a more cohesive session when all the papers are centered around a shared theme, so that the panel makes a stronger and more cogent point (this especially helps the responder, who will be much more able to tie the papers’ message together in her/his remarks); second, it makes things easier on the program committee, because it is quite difficult to group independent papers together in a way that makes sense. Sometimes, a committee is forced to choose three papers that work well together instead of another paper that might have been better overall yet is not a match with other potential co-panelists. And overall, it is much easier to judge the quality of a proposed panel than it is to compare individual paper submissions. So while individual papers will always be considered, submitting as a complete panel will substantially increase your odds of acceptance.
- Now, I know that this is difficult. I have firsthand experience that it can be tough to get two other papers, a chair, and a respondent. You might be new to the field and not know other people, you might be working on a particular topic that does not connect well with many other historians, or you might be someone generally not comfortable reaching out to people. I’d love to hear brainstorming on how to help alleviate this problem. Should program co-chairs keep a list of potential topics with names of people who are interested in submitting papers, and then serve as matchmakers for people who email in saying they are looking for other co-panelists? Should there be a message board where people can post their panel ideas and others can join in? (The Society for US Intellectual History, for instance, always keeps a running thread going for this very purpose.) For the time being, please feel free to use the comments below to try and find co-panelists, if you so choose.
- In putting together your complete panels, make sure you have actually contacted your proposed chair/commenter. This might not seem to be specified, but several former program co-chairs said they’d receive panel proposals that would just mention people they’d like to serve as chair or commenter. That isn’t how these things work, so please make sure everyone on your proposal is on board. And further, make sure each person is only proposing one paper for the conference; while it is okay for a person to deliver a paper on one panel and serve as a chair on another, it is not okay for a person to propose papers on two different panels.
- When providing a description of your proposed paper, be as specific as you can about your topic, your approach, and your potential findings. It is not reasonable for you to have your entire paper written at this time—heaven knows we all submit paper proposals as a way to jump-start future research—but it is pretty obvious when a proposal is written without much thought. As a program committee, we want to know that you have given the topic serious thought, that you are familiar with the sources you will consult, and that this is something that will turn out to be a fine finished product. Put simply, your paper proposal should not be something you write on a whim an hour before you submit it, perhaps with a bit of academic jargon thrown in, but should rather be a reflection of your engagement with, knowledge of, and excitement for your topic.
- Building on top of point #4, both the paper and panel proposal should cover what makes your submission relevant. What will be new in these presentations? What stories are you telling that have previously been ignored? How are they filling a space in the field previously overlooked? We sometimes like to cover the same stories, arguments, and theories again and again, so it is crucial to show what is going to be novel and important in these new presentations.
- In putting together your panels, try your best to be as diverse as possible. This diversity includes not only demographic background, though that is always important, but also institutional or occupational backgrounds. For example, a panel on a particular person or event could include papers from an academic professor, a public history employee, as well as an interested observer. And it is always to crucial to ask if your panel could benefit from a different gender or racial perspective, a sensitivity that MHA has recently tried to address more frequently.
- We are also very interested in considering proposals that break the traditional three-papers-and-a-commenter structure. Now I’m one of those that still very much appreciates that approach, but I think it’s safe to say that it can often get a bit tired. Last year at AAR, Steve Harper and Anne Taves did a very effective presentation that was a scripted dialogue dissecting Joseph Smith’s earliest First Vision accounts, and they would go back and forth pushing each other on particular questions or issues. (The printed version of their presentation will appear in Mormon Studies Review later this year.) The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic always have a Pecha-Kucha session where presenters have to cover 20 slides in 20 seconds each, a fun way that keeps the presenters efficient and nimble. These are just two examples, and we’d love to hear others. If you have an especially innovative idea, contact Melissa or I prior to submission so we can talk it through.
- This may seem common sense, but it still needs to be said: if you submit a panel and are accepted, it is expected that you will show up, barring extreme cases and emergencies. Please make sure you do not have scheduled events (graduations, etc.) that will keep you from participating. Every single past program chair said they were amazed at the sheer number of presenters pulling out a few weeks before the conference.
- Finally, and this doesn’t have so much to do with preparing your submission, but if your proposal is not accepted, please don’t take it personally. MHA’s annual conference has received more and more submissions over the last few years, which puts a lot of pressure on the program committee. While there was once a time when, if you put together a competent proposal, you could just assume it would be accepted; however, we are now near the point where there are more people rejected than accepted.
I think that’s all I have. What suggestions would you like to share? What have you seen works well at conferences, and what doesn’t? What has been your experience with both submitting panels/papers or working on a program committee, either for MHA or some other organization?