Conference themes: why, dear Lord, why?

Miss Shields says you must write a theme today.

Miss Shields says you must write a theme today.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about conference themes, specifically organizing themes for some of the really big conferences like the AHA, the OAH, the Berks, etc., as opposed to smaller conferences focused on more specific subfields. He wondered why historians bother with coming up with themes, when the themes tend to be so broad that pretty much anyone with a brain can figure out a way of making their research fit the chosen theme, which ends up making the conference about everything and no specific theme in the end.

I think I agree with him. What would you say to a five year “time out” on conference themes? What would be the advantages and disadvantages from your point of view?  Do science-y or anthropology people do this?  Is it just a humanities thing, or what?

32 thoughts on “Conference themes: why, dear Lord, why?

  1. Great question. I’ve sometimes found the thematically linked panels at AHA interesting, but then I usually spend more time in the book exhibit than in panels!


  2. I agree completely. Conference themes and themes for fellowship residencies can make my head spin. I also find that pretty much they can be condensed to a sentence or two in my mind, which I barf back out in the proposal to say why they should take my panel. No disrespect to conference planners, who work hard on these things, but I htink: if I can do that, why can’t you? Far better to do what Susan is suggesting: have some thematic tracks and hten let the other chips fall where they may.


  3. I’m on board with this. I tend to be for the “why don’t we just put on a show,” and see who comes and with what, approach. There’s been a long run of sometimes impossibly-cutesy dyadic conference titles with plays on words embedded in them, like “Scenes and Seens” (bad example, but what I can come up with now). I think planners have better use for their time than ginning these up, and also would-be presenters, who struggle to fit their necessarily gnarly stuff into the titular wordplay. I’m in general for as much anarchy as possible.

    What really drives me crazy are these humanities centers (and now sometimes whole universities) who devote entire years to amorphous things like “Directions,” or “Impact.” Then you read the actual talks scheduled and it’s like, WHAT?!? I think it’s the “Year of Proof” in Philadelphia. What does that make it NOT the year of?


  4. I am also appalled by the theme for the American Studies Association meeting for 2014. “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century”, which includes this gem: “So how do we have fun at the ASA conference, or let fun leak from the various recesses (the off-site parties, the hotel bars) into the panels as both object and method? The ossified form of the conference panel, with three unevenly related papers read aloud in sequence, a pro forma or perfunctory comment and a usually desultory and brief Q&A, needs some creative attention. We encourage experiments with the aesthetic form and performative nature of the presentation, with an emphasis on the live spoken word setting and the possibility of more extended engagements than are possible when simply reading aloud the publication ready paper. One paper and three responses perhaps? A presentation in a ball gown with piano accompaniment, commenters arrayed like backup singers, interacting during the course of the lecture?”


  5. When I organized a conference a few years ago, I refused to have a theme. I wanted to open things up to everyone, instead of shoe-horning people and panels into a theme they don’t really comply with. It worked out just fine!


  6. Yes! Especially since the longwinded description of the theme inevitably ends with “Proposals on all topics are welcome.”

    If people want themes, invite them to submit a set of interconnected panels.


  7. @tea: next year’s ASA call is, indeed, especially cringeworthy. I’ve seen a good deal of mockery on facebook.

    While I certainly see a value to one-off themed conferences, and to some thematic threads in larger ones, I’m with everyone else (I think it’s unanimous) above: ditch or at least downplay the themes.


  8. I’m on a panel at the upcoming Berks in May, and found their category structure to be frustrating. My fellow panelists and I really struggled with which category or categories we could fit our project into. Before my project collaborator and I were asked to be part of a panel, I had no intention of considering the Berks I couldn’t see for the life of me where my actual research would fit into any of their categories. I’ve heard several other people say this about their CFP.

    Do themes really influence whether people will attend? I tend to go to conferences to meet/reunite with people and to hear scholarship that interests me. I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to a conference’s theme, other than trying to stretch a proposed panel/paper topic to fit it.


  9. “A presentation in a ball gown with piano accompaniment, commenters arrayed like backup singers, interacting during the course of the lecture?”

    Yes! yes, yes, yes. I love it. And the theme, of course, would be “Aristophanes: Always Relevant.”


  10. Apropos Tha Comrade Physio comment, in my area of science they have sub-conferences (themes) and in particular conferences about nonexistent sub fields by faux trail blazers trying to make a name for themselves. (Ex. 19th Century on Mars or Feminism Perspectives in Antarctica.)


  11. The idea that there are no meaningful thematic scientific conferences is strange. There are many, for example, the Geological Society of America’s Penrose Conferences (recently including Deformation, Fluid Flow, and Mass Transfer in the Forearc of Convergent Margins and Coastal Processes and Environments Under Sea-Level Rise and Changing Climate), American Geophysical Union Chapman Conferences (Soil-mediated Drivers of Coupled Biogeochemical and Hydrological Processes Across Scales, Low-Frequency Waves in Space Plasmas, recently), the European Geosciences Union Von Humbolt Conferences in South America, Africa and Asia. There are many and in my experience they are very productive. None of these are organised by “faux trailblazers.”


  12. I think in many cases the themes are there to help manage the numbers, given that (perhaps especially in broad disciplines like History) a group of organisers have to make difficult decisions about who to accept or not. They pick a theme they feel comfortable assessing for quality in to allow them to make semi-rational decisions over who to select and who to reject, and (for those where you submit individual papers, not panels) makes it easier to put together a programme. It also allows them to select keynote speakers from a wide array of potential experts. In addition for the more ‘mid-sized’ events that often feed into particular journals, it means you can have a special issue on the topic selected from the best submissions.

    I notice that quite a number of big events still do the ‘we would prefer you did the theme’, but will consider all options.

    I would also note that while I do pick various conferences based on my networks and friendships, the years that I skip often relate to times where I’d need to work really hard to engage with the theme.


  13. Conference themes: on conference organizing committees I’ve been on, the idea is to get people excited about going to the conference and perhaps stimulate new ideas about ways to look at their work. The themes are dreamed up in a cloud of good intentions, but as Feminist Avatar says, it’s easy to shrug off a conference that has a too-specific theme. Without the back door of “papers on other topics are welcome,” too, there’d be fewer really interesting papers.

    Also, thanks, Tea and Contingent Cassandra: I’d paid zero attention to the ASA theme for next year and have spent a few enjoyable minutes trying to picture the notably earnest members of ASA trying to enact as well as deconstruct the concept of “play.”


  14. Feminist Avatar: the only major upside to a conference theme that my friend and I arrived at was that it gave at least a formal criteria for accepting or rejecting papers or panels. And at big conferences, you do need some kind of sorting mechanism–“excellence” or “cutting-edge” being a bit fungible and subjective.

    Recently, they’ve become ubiquitous, even in some of the smaller sub-field conferences. (“Borders” and “boundaries” and “edges,” oh my!) Maybe let’s have a moratorium for a few years and see what happens (or at least until we have some newer, more exciting buzzwords to deploy.)

    Something else that I’ve heard repeatedly over the past several years is that the big conference themes selected by historians are almost inevitably modern history ideas or themes, so that premodern historians–already very marginalized–have an even harder time fitting their papers into a conference theme, which ends up marginalizing them even more. I agree with this critique.

    I think it would be cool to have an entire Berks or AHA run by ancient and medieval historians. Then let the modern historians see if they can fit their papers into premodern conference themes! You’d better bet that would change the look and feel of the conference pretty darn fast.


  15. On Historiann’s last thought: how about a conference themed around “Anal/ogies/(yses?) and Anachronisms.” Wherein successfully selected presenters will be required to address the interpretive relevance of their date at least two centuries before and/or after that data could have been plausibly created? Force everyone out of their comfort zones, where the usual coverage schemes break down, and its “everybody go long and try to get open.” I’d pay to see something like that. 🙂


  16. I’ve never cared for the themes, myself. Pseudology is stuffed to the gills with conferences like this, for reasons totally beyond my understanding. I submit abstracts for papers based on work I’ve been pursuing for years, and I’m not about to throw together some new piece of crap proposal just because a conference organizer had an attack of whimsy.

    More to the point, I have never submitted an abstract that even pretends to address a conference theme, and none has ever been rejected. Since the Big Giant Pseudology Association is always strapped for cash and doesn’t want to end its conference in the red, they’re not going to turn down a reasonable-sounding abstract for not fitting the theme — not when they can wring membership and conference registration fees out of everyone. And since we junior scholars have a compelling need to lengthen our CVs and try to get jobs, we have little choice but to attend the BGPC and present our work there. In the end, the themes seem to be meaningless constructs, and the conference is what it is because of overriding professional obligations.


  17. I’ve been a member of ASA since 1983, and have served as a Local Arrangements chair and as a Program Committee member. The theming of the annual program has changed greatly over that time, from attempting to highlight new approaches (material culture in the 1985 meeting), to more content-oriented themes that one expects to find in symposia and smaller conferences.

    In the last two decades, themes have originated out of literary and cultural studies, reflecting the majority of members in the ASA–it’s MLA Junior (although ASA has become recently an umbrella organization for ethnic, hemispheric, and transnational studies–a good thing).Though many fields may be represented on the board and in the program, those fields are based/represented, more often than not, in/by scholars who were trained in and work in departments of English. Not that that’s bad–ASA has always worked at the leading (to some, fashionable) edge of scholarship. What goes on at the national ASA meeting is quite different than what goes on at the regional chapter meetings. ASA’s constituency reflects the boom in literary and cultural studies in the late 1980s and 1990s.

    What this means is that folks in other disciplines feel dissuaded from participating. And ASA has acknowledged that. ASA has taken to invite candidates for the presidency from non-literature fields, and has, in its annual calls, emphasized its wish for more participants in history, sociology, anthropology, etc. To little avail.

    Especially for national associations, one would wish to see in this symbolic annual ritual a more even representation of the discipline or the field. As an interdisciplinary scholar with an interdisciplinary American Civilization degree, I will always support the ASA. But I find myself identifying more with, and benefiting scholarly and professionally from, my participation with OAH and the Berks.

    For me, then, themes are problematic if they become exclusive, in practice, rather than inclusive.


  18. Anthropology and archaeology do this too. Often for historical archaeology the conference themes are related to locations or anniversaries – e.g. one in Delaware this year is focused on “comparative colonialism, especially New Sweden”, and one in Baltimore in 2012 related to war, conflict, independence, and “especially the war of 1812.” I’ve been to one small conference with a narrow theme that was just dynamite in terms of engagement, discussion, cross-pollination of ideas. I’m not sure it works as well with really broad themes like “borders,” or really large conferences.


  19. Kalamazoo and Leeds (the big medieval conferences) don’t do themes. Neither does the Byzantine Studies Conference or the Assoc. of Ancient Historians.

    I’d love to see an AHA put on by premodernists, if only because we’re pretty much excluded now. The premodern panels are always a joke- it’s papers that couldn’t get into a real conference. And all the theory and practice panels are on things like US archive policies and oral history, which are irrelevant to us. I was on a panel at the AHA last year, on copyright, and that was worthwhile, but I don’t remember anything else I went to. I do remember being disgusted by the quality of the premodern panels at Chicago. My plan this year has been to go to interviews if I score any, and otherwise get some work done at Dumbarton Oaks.


  20. I think it’s worth distinguishing between specialized conferences designed to being together scholars working in a particular area (whether topical, methodological, thematic, etc.) and those more generalist conferences intended for a whole discipline or broad subdiscipline. for the former, sure a clearly define theme and collective problematic CFP make sense.

    But, at least in history these days, with travel funding tied to appearance on the program and conference organizers trying to be more inclusive and graduate students and hunior scholars trying to build up CVs, it seems like most generalist (subfield) conferences I attend (or have worked on organizing) have a de facto practice of accepting all proposals except the totally batty/incompetent. Not everyone is happy with this–it can make for programs that are very crowded, with lots of parallel sessions, and of highly uneven quality. But if inclusivity is SOP, then why bother with a theme, if you don’t really mean to do something meaningful and substantive with it?


  21. Rustonite – Leeds *does* do themes, but you don’t have to adhere to one of them. (For 2014, it’s “Empire.”) That’s the way to do it, I think: have a body of panels that address the theme, for some coherence in a giant conference, but leave things open enough for everyone else not working on that theme.

    The way *not* to do it is to have just about everything under one theme or a body of themes and then come up with themes that are obviously tied to the interests and approaches that you and your friends have or use. I’ve seen that, too, and it drives me mad. It’s akin to what H’Ann said above about the modern historians picking the threads/themes that only apply to them and shutting the early people out, except that I’m seeing it on a more micro level, at more specialized conferences. Boo.


  22. Yes, it’s Miss Shields from A Christmas Story–Ralphie’s, Schwartz’s, and Flick’s teacher. I was looking for a youtube clip of the scene in which Miss Shields instructs the class to write a theme and the whole class groans!


  23. @tea: had not seen the ASA theme, and it makes a lot more sense if you consider the source.

    That said, what is particularly silly about the ASA is that it doesn’t relate the work it says it want to do to anything more academically significant than the ASA, making it even more an insider-y conference than it has ever been. One of the great things about past ASA themes has been, as someone else asserted, that it has made a statement about expanding the field and bringing new knowledges into the fold.

    Are we really not worried that the ASA is “fun” enough? Did last year around the pool in Puerto Rico, and serious conversations that traveled from the conference room to the beach really just bore the $hit out of next year’s leadership? The people who wrote the theme are, I predict, the same people who will expect job candidates to stand and deliver for 45 minutes of heavily theoretical jawboning followed by questions designed to ascertain whether said candidate is “smart” — not fun.


  24. A-HAhahahaha, Tenured Radical! A few seconds of googling explains it all.

    You are right: we can (and did) have serious conversations in fun places like Puerto Rico, and then go have the fun in informal conversations and field trips and at the beach & around the pool. And no one wants job candidates to have fun at all, ever. To suggest otherwise strikes me as irresponsible, if not malpractice.


  25. Isn’t it going to start being fun at some point?!? I keep thinking that’s “light” I’m seeing at the far end of the assessment and outcomes tunnel, but maybe it’s just a team of accreditors from “Middle States” coming at high speed in the other direction. Bummer.


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  27. Here’s the thing: I’m on the job market for the first time, I’m actually *trained* in Cultural Studies, and American Studies makes sense for me as a larger conference for interviews and networking. Yet I cannot for the life of me figure out how to connect my work to the theme, and many of my colleagues feel the same way.

    so the theme both seems incredibly marginalizing and like some kind of brutal ritual where “fun” is had at the expense of other people’s livelihood.

    In other words: this shit is hard enough as it is. you want me to dance for you too?


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