From the mailbag: How to assemble a conference panel with complete strangers?

A stranger's just a friend you haven't met!

Because of Homostorian Americanist’s recent correspondence with a silly high-schooler who was fishing for someone to do her homework, reader Nervous Ned writes in to ask, ” What is the appropriate way to contact another professional historian and ask hir to participate in a panel as a chair or commenter?”  This is a great question–it’s something that lots of us are doing these days, because of all of the calls for papers that emphasize transnational this and comparative that.  The odds are that crafting a panel these days will require reaching far beyond one’s sub-field.  Ned explains his problem:

I have been working with a couple of other people to assemble a comparative, modern history panel for the next American Historical Association annual meeting. Myself and another panelist are junior faculty at distinctly un-prestigious state schools. The third panelist is a grad student.  We did not personally know any prominent scholars with a reputation for working on [the nominal topic of the panel], so we decided to e-mail scholars whose work we admired and thought would be able to critique our papers. The Grad Student offered to email a couple people because she had met them tangentially at a conference. These did not pan out, so I emailed a scholar I admired who had written about [this field] in [my area of geographical expertise].  But after reading your post on student XXXX and hir insistent e-mail pestering I realized that we may have acted inappropriately, by emailing senior faculty and associate professors out of the blue.  

Is there a good way to go about talking to scholars you are not acquainted with and asking them to help you out with your panel or work, especially for someone like a grad student or junior faculty member who is not really well connected? More importantly, I have not heard from the person I emailed.  I probably should have worked the grapevine and gotten some sort of introduction, but its a little late now. Should I apologize? 


Nervous Ned 

Dear Ned, 

Apologize???  For doing your job and also helping to mentor a graduate student?  Banish the thought from your brain immediately!  While it’s true that Historiann and many of the commenters here sometimes lament the “world is flat” effects of our universities publishing detailed descriptions of our teaching and research interests alongside our e-mail addresses, your e-mails (and those from the graduate student on this panel) are exactly the kind of professional correspondence that most professional historians actually enjoy receiving.  So long as you and your colleagues on this panel write briefly and politely to explain the panel and which role you’d like your correspondent to play on it, it’s all good.  (Bonus points for actually being familiar with hir body of work, and for complimenting hir sincerely.  No one ever gets tired of hearing how inspiring this book or that article they’ve published was to you.  I’ve made some of my very best friends and professional contacts that way!)  

Also, don’t apologize because your fellow panelists are a grad student and/or junior faculty and/or “at distinctly un-prestigious state schools.”  Guess what?  So were and/or are most of the rest of us, including most Associate and Full Professors once upon a time, if not for the rest of our careers.  One of the nice things about the “world is flat” effects of e-mail and conference travel is that these distinctions really don’t mean that much in the long run if you’re producing interesting scholarship.  (And if it matters to Professor Snootypants somewhere–that’s hir problem, not yours.  But ze’s unlikely to say “yes” to your invitation anyway.)  Hold your head up proudly and confidently.  (Besides:  you have a job.  That will automatically earn you props among the many grad students and/or unemployed recent Ph.D.s you’ll meet at the AHA.  Your job might be teh suckity-suck, but they don’t know that–all they know is that you’ve got a place to go every morning, health insurance, TIAA-CREF, and a paycheck every month.) 

Your problem in filling out this panel may be that you’re trying to get people to come to the 2011 AHA.  In Chicago Boston.  In January.  No one goes to AHA just to be on a panel–most people there are people who will be interviewing for jobs, or interviewing other people for jobs, or people who must attend business meetings for the AHA.  So, don’t take it personally if it takes more than one e-mail to find a willing soul.  So, you might see if there are any AHA officers who are appropriate to your interests who will be there anyway, and/or you might see if there are Chicago-area scholars who might be appropriate–they’re the kind of people who might like something official to do while they’re “dropping in” on the conference to meet up with old friends.  If you haven’t heard back from the eminence gris/eyet, don’t take it personally:  ze might be ill, or away from e-mail, or checking hir schedule, or thinking seriously about your offer.  It seems like a week is a reasonable window for replying to an e-mail like yours–both for you to wait, and a deadline for the correspondent’s reply.  (If any of you get an e-mail like this, it seems like some kind of reply–even an “I don’t know what my schedule will be–what’s the deadline for the proposal?”–should be easily managed within a week.) 

Ned, you and your fellow panelists are working members of the historical profession.  You can e-mail any damn historian you want to.  Always remember:  “a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met.” 

Readers–over to you.  Do you have any advice for Nervous Ned?  Do you have any funny or humiliating stories of e-mailed invitations gone awry?  Dish!

0 thoughts on “From the mailbag: How to assemble a conference panel with complete strangers?

  1. Three comments:

    First, it is not at all unreasonable or annoying to ask, and you don’t have to apologize for it. The key–with requests from people of any rank ranging from middle school students on up to Distinguished Named Chairs–is that they know what they’re talking about. I won’t respond positively to to “hi ruth i need to intervew about medevil queens how powerful were they?” but I will to “Dear Professor, I am a student at George Washington Middle School researching medieval queens. I have read that Margaret of Anjou led an army into battle but I am having trouble finding more information. Do you have any suggestions as to where I can look? Would you be willing to talk to me about it, as an interview is a requirement for this paper?” Similarly, if your e-mail to a senior scholar sounds like you are just looking for a big name so the panel will be accepted, ze is not likely to be interested, but if you explain to hir why the topic fits in with hir work and why ze is an appropriate commentator, ze is more likely to want to do it.

    Which leads me to the second point. Unless the person is already planning to attend the conference (for example, if ze is on an AHA committee), it will be more attractive to hir if ze thinks ze is likely to get something out of it. Present it in such a way that ze’ll think “Wow, this sounds like a fascinating session, I would love to respond to those papers,” rather than “Hmm, is it worth cutting my vacation short to do these people a favor?”

    Third, if you do have connections, use them. Flattering me will not make me more likely to do it, but telling me that my name was suggested by Prof. Goodcolleague, or that you noted I was in the audience when you gave a paper on [topic] at [Conference] might. That’s not to say that if you don’t have a connection, you shouldn’t ask. Many (most?) of us feel an obligation to the profession generally to help out junior people in the way we were helped , or would like to have been helped. But it’s even better if we have a person (not necessarily a face, but a body of work) to associate with the request.


  2. The major difference between the two scenarios–e-mail from undergrad looking for someone to do their work for them versus e-mail invitation to serve on or chair a panel with one’s professional peers–is that the recipient would receive no academic credit whatsoever for doing the former, while the latter goes right onto the fucking CV, as it fits right into one of the important categories of “evidence of status within your field” considered by hiring, promotion, and tenure committees.


  3. the other bonus about Boston (besides the fact that that it is home to the Red Sox)is that there are tons of schools in the area, so some might be willing to drive in for the day.


  4. Agree with everyone’s comments on this being fundamnetally different from random emails (and love the Queen example).

    Random Additional Advice on forming panels:

    1) I always say, ‘if you are unable to do it, it would be great if you can recommend someone who might be interested.’

    2) How I sometimes handle the No Response: to avoid getting stuck in a holding pattern waiting to hear back from person A, you can send a follow up email a week later saying, I am sure you are very busy, so wanted to check whether you got my previous email (forwarded below). I hope you would consider our request. If we don’t hear from you in X time, we’ll assume that you won’t be able to participate. Thanks for considering it, blah blah blah.

    Personally, I do occasionally lose an email, or put it aside to think about and forget to go back to it. I never mind a follow up reminder. And some people, I’m afraid, just delete emails they aren’t interested in — this gets you out from being at their mercy.

    3) You can always submit a request to an H-Net listserv and see if anyone bites that way.

    4) Don’t take rejections personally — besides the Boston in winter issue, with current budget conditions, many people aren’t conferencing as much, and at my public institution, you can’t use University funding unless you are giving a paper on your own research; NOT commenting on/chairing someone elses.


  5. The lack of funding thing is making it harder to find chairs and comments for conference panels. Conference organizers need to recognize this, but in my experience are being slow to. Last fall I and my my co-panelists had words with the program committee over doubling up our comment and chair because of that very issue. The conference considered canceling our panel because we weren’t “following the rules.”


  6. The fact that people aren’t being funded for conference travel for “just” a comment or chair role is troubling, and indicates that research unis aren’t willing to use their resources to permit their faculty to participate more broadly in the life of their profession and to help mentor and encourage junior scholars. And Katherine and Shaz are exactly right–this should be recognized by conference planners and program committees. (I say this as someone who helped plan a conference recently, and we tried to enforce the same rule! We ended up finding a lot of chairs and commenters on our own.)

    The only thing I’ll say about having a separate chair and commenter is that if/when one of them drops out, then the other one can play both roles. (And as the conference date drew nearer, that’s what happened to a number of our sessions.) If a panel is submitted with one person as chair and commenter, there’s no backup plan.

    Perhaps program committees from now on should have a list of people who plan to attend anyway and/or locals who may be coaxed onto the program, and just fill out the chairs and commenters themselves.

    Oh, and Boston is a terrible AHA site, although as Katherine says, there’s a good slice of locals there who might pitch in to help fill out panels. *I* like it better than Chicago because I have family nearby and research there to do, but it’s always spread from hell to breakfast between 2 or 3 hotels, so you’re always schlepping a giant coat around and marching around in the cold. Again, I say: Southwest or Bust!


  7. Dear sir Madam
    I would like to you ,with great respection, my wish to attend this conference presenting my papers about (the reparations of world war I 1919-1932) so please tell what necessary should I do and what are the required things or the terms and conditions regarding the attending this conference.
    Karbala university


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