The Mechanics of Applying to MHA: The CFP, Writing Abstracts, and Forming Panels

By October 13, 2019

It’s hard to believe that we are only a few weeks away from the Mormon History Association conference deadline! Anne Berryhill, our committee, and I are anxiously awaiting when we get to look at proposals and fully plan out the 2020 conference. I suspect that I’m preaching to the choir when I tell blog readers that MHA is one of the best conferences out there. It’s well-attended, features fantastic scholarship, and I always walk away feeling academically rejuvenated. As Ben once wrote, one of the best things about MHA is that people show up to panels. Many conferences have low session turnout, but that’s an exception rather than the rule at MHA. I remember the first time I presented at a national conference of another organization and feeling disappointed that only a dozen people attended my paper. Accordingly, the Q&A portions are also rich and engaging (although, like all conferences, there can be some wacky questions!).

So how do you get to the point where you’re presenting at MHA? How do you submit a paper proposal? And, ideally, how do you submit a panel proposal? Like many things in academia, folks are often told to do something but specific processes are not fully explained. In this post, I hope to make the process less opaque. I will explain why you should submit to the MHA Annual Conference, how to “read” a Call for Papers, how to write a good abstract, how to write a paper proposal, and how to write a panel proposal. The process isn’t complicated, but I remember well not feeling confident about sending in a proposal.

Important Consideration

This is important to put at the beginning of the post: not everyone is accepted to every conference to which they apply. I remember receiving a rejection letter from MHA and wondering if that was the end of my academic career. Thankfully, wise mentors like Ken Alford and Spencer Fluhman told me that receiving a rejection is a part of the process. Sometimes a proposal doesn’t “fit” with the program. “Fit” is a nebulous term, but it’s a complicated process to balance a conference lineup with a variety of topics, themes, formats, and so on. A rejection says nothing about your intellectual capabilities or your place in the field of Mormon history. Everyone from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich to the least-experienced undergraduate will face rejection in their scholarly career.

Why Should I Submit to the Mormon History Association Conference?

Conference participation is the lowest bar-to-entry into the scholarly world (Ardis Parshall has written about MHA being “academic vs. scholarly” here). There is room for dozens of speakers at MHA’s annual conference, for instance, versus roughly 20 articles published per year in the Journal of Mormon History. Conferences give you a chance to show off your research, meet with others who are interested in Mormon history, and make connections with others.

MHA is the friendliest conference I’ve ever attended. It’s a collegial environment with smart people who know the field. You couldn’t ask for a better place to receive feedback on your work and sharpen your future research and writing questions.

How Do I “Read” the Call for Papers?

First, take a look at the Call for Papers or CFP. You can pull out important information from a relatively short document (most important details in bold).

  • “The 55th Annual Conference of the Mormon History Association will be held June 4-7, 2020, in Rochester/Palmyra, New York.”
    • Make sure you can attend the conference!
  • “The 2020 conference theme, “Visions, Restoration, and Movements” commemorates the 200th anniversary of Mormonism’s birth in upstate New York. Joseph Smith’s religious movement has grown from a fledgling frontier faith to a diverse set of religious and cultural traditions functioning across the globe.
    • Having a paper that addresses the theme in some way, and/or that addresses the 200th anniversary will fit in with the conference committee’s vision for the program.
  • The Rochester/Palmyra conference will be an opportunity to walk where Joseph Smith, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and other such luminaries walked, a place to be reminded of the visions, visionaries, and movements that came out of western New York in the 19th century.
    • Papers that address secondary themes like suffrage and abolition are likely to score well when the program committee reads your abstract.
  • Though the program committee will consider individual papers, it will give preference to proposals for complete sessions, whose participants reflect MHA’s ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion.
    • It’s easier to be accepted as a panel than as individual papers. Having women, people of color, and folks from disparate institutions reflects well on your panel for several reasons. First, it shows that you worked to find a panel that fits well together. Second, the panel will address different topics or themes according to different researcher’s questions.
  • Please send 1) a 300-word abstract for each paper or presentation and 2) a one-page CV for each presenter, including email contact information. Full session proposals should include the session title and a 150-word abstract outlining the session’s theme, along with a confirmed chair and/or commentator, if applicable. Previously published papers are not eligible for presentation at MHA.  Limited financial assistance for travel and lodging at the conference is available to volunteers, and to some student and international presenters. Those who wish to apply for this funding may do so upon acceptance of their proposed presentation.
  • The deadline for proposals is November 1, 2019. Send proposals to program co-chairs Joseph Stuart and Anne Berryhill at mharochester2020@gmail.com. Acknowledgment of receipt will be sent immediately. Notification of acceptance/rejection will be made by January 15, 2020.
    • Make sure you follow directions! Write your abstract(s), include a CV, and list chairs and commentators.
    • If applicable, be sure to apply for travel funding if your paper/panel is accepted (the program committee and MHA’s executive director won’t know how funding will work until after the committee is set).
    • Hit your deadlines!
    • Don’t expect to hear back from MHA until January 15, 2020. If you haven’t heard by January 16, 2020, THEN send a note to the panel co-chairs’ email.

How Do I Write a Quality Abstract?

Using the information above, you can now craft your abstract, meaning your proposal with tentative ideas about your findings. You don’t have to have your paper complete before submitting; you’ll have time to write it afterward. Still, you should have a solid hypothesis for what you expect to find in your archival research and perusal of the secondary literature.

Remember that you only have 20 minutes to present. Focus in one a single idea that you hope to develop and explain to your audience. Here’s one way to go about it (and here’s an example of mine from a previous MHA conference):

  • Set the scene (who, what, when, where, why)
  • Briefly explain what others have said about your topic (if they have said anything)
  • “Based on [primary sources, data, etc.]” or “through an analysis of [events, persons, ideas]” I will show [argument].
  • Ask a friend, mentor, or colleague to take a look at your proposal to make sure that it’s clear and concise.

How Do I Submit a Paper Proposal?

Write your abstract and send to mharochester2020@gmail.com by 11:59 PM on November 1, 2019. You’ll receive confirmation that the committee received it—if you haven’t received one send a follow up!

How Do I Form a Panel?

This can be especially daunting for new scholars or those who haven’t previously attended MHA. You can find those who have published in your area of interest at mormonhistory.byu.edu using a search term like “Japan” or “Book of Mormon” or “Civil War.” You can also consult womeninmormonstudies.org or globalmormonstudies.org to find others to team up with. Finally, this Google Doc lists the names of those looking for panelists with their topics and how many panelists they need and has their best mode of contact included.

Most people are flattered to be asked to join a panel. If they are rude then you didn’t want to present with them, anyway.

How Do I Submit a Panel Proposal?

Compile abstracts, cvs, and other relevant information and send to mharochester2020@gmail.com by 11:59 PM on November 1, 2019. You’ll receive confirmation that the committee received it—if you haven’t received one send a follow up. Also, be sure to actually contact your chair or commentator and confirm they can take on the role. Don’t put people forward for work they haven’t agreed to do!

Other Resources to Consult:

North Carolina State’s “Tips for Writing Conference Proposals

Ben P’s “Proposing Panels for MHA’s Annual Conference: A Few Thoughts

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, J. My memory isn’t perfect, but so far as it extends I don’t recall ever seeing such a comprehensive and easy-to-follow explainer of the process. This may well encourage new voices to join in — those new voices are always wanted in the world of MHA.

    And I concur in the friendliness and collegiality of the conference. That extends to the proposal phase — no one need ever fear a rude or disparaging response from the program committee, even if they have to turn down a proposal.

    Comment by Ardis — October 13, 2019 @ 4:23 pm

  2. Just a gentle tip that if you are one of the interdisciplinary folks presenting at MHA your panel will probably not be well attended, but that is okay. MHA is a pretty welcoming place to those of us working in other fields, but the interest understandably goes to panels staffed by historians. As a cultural studies person, I have had panels attended by half a dozen folks and by a full room–it really depends. But even the panels with low attendance are worth it for the engagement you do get!

    Comment by Mees Tielens — October 14, 2019 @ 10:27 am

  3. Thanks, J!

    Comment by Jeff T — October 17, 2019 @ 11:42 am


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