Roundtables: when they’re good, they’re very very good; but when they are bad they are horrid

littlegirlwithcurlMegan Kate Nelson at Historista reports today on her recent gallivanting at the Southern Historical Association.  She says that because she’s an independent scholar and gets all of the solitary writing time she wants, she “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)”

Alas, some people haven’t gotten the memo on what constitutes a roundtable!  Megan reports that “what I attended were not roundtables, but panels disguised as roundtables.”  She continues,

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.

But lo, she finally attended a roundtable where people shared their ideas for 5 minutes, listened to one another and responded to each other’s ideas as they shared.  She concludes:

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.

It’s probably no coincidence that this was a roundtable led by feminist scholars:  Entitled “Reckoning with Histories of Racial Violence: Trauma, Memory and the Archive,” it featured Monica Martinez (Brown University), Adriane Lentz-Smith (Duke University), and Marisa Fuentes (Rutgers University), with Jennifer Morgan (NYU) as moderator.

Megan is emphatic about people talking rather than reading papers, but I’m not as dogmatic on that point.  We’ve all seen people talk off the cuff and drag 5 minutes of thoughtful commentary into a self-indulgent 10-minute ramble, so having a script or even just some bullet points jotted down can help us stay focused on our main points and keep us from droning on.

This is something for me to consider as I prepare for “Historicizing Feminism and Patriarchy: Reflections on Historical Scholarship and Careers,” at the upcoming American Historical Association annual meeting in Denver next month, a “panel” featuring seven commentators plus a chair!  I’ll be sure to pass Megan’s post along to my colleagues.  I know that for me, the most valuable part of these roundtables is the audience comments and questions, and the discussion that evolves from them.  I like to preserve maximum time for that free-form conversation, and will work to do so on this panel.

10 thoughts on “Roundtables: when they’re good, they’re very very good; but when they are bad they are horrid

  1. I once joined a roundtable that a colleague had organized on a new book in my field. A famous jerk in the audience actually said this to the author: “I haven’t read your book, but other people are criticizing it, so let me chime in with my own concerns.”

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  2. I’m sort of an agnostic, too, on whether reading papers makes much sense, but it does impose some kind of a frame on the presenter. Some of the worst times happen when an over-long reader finally catches the hand-motions from the chair, tears five pages out of the script, and says “I’ll just summarize the next PART here,” rambles on about that, then rejoins the concluding pages in (slow) motion. The volume problem knows no ends, or formats. I just looked at the password-protected pre-circulated papers for a conference. They were supposed to be ten pages, and a lot were, or just a little over that. But there were 26-pagers, 40-something pagers, and somebody just put on-screen about seventy power-point slides, without context or correction. There was even one with snarky “track changes” balloons in the margins. As for the “I haven’t read your paper, but this is what I think about it….” really.

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  3. Roundtables that have structure – some pre-circulated discussion points, questions everyone agrees to tackle – are great. Especially when the moderator is on point. I do wish that regular panels came with an ejection button to remove presenters who run over time without any care for others!

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  4. re: ejection button. I’m now remembering at an archaeology conference in Philadelphia many, many years ago, I saw a long-winded and impossibly obtuse speaker get forcibly silenced by the chair of the panel or round table, who was a friend of mine, after ignoring too many hand signals. He left the table, in a large auditorium, and retreated up the center aisle, turning around as got near the doors and bellowing “I’ll be back next year in Denver, to finish up this presentation….”

    I’m certain nothing like this will happen in Denver this year. This guy was doing something about non-evidence based existential archaeology, or something like that. It was actually kind of fun.

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  5. I wish your panel could be one of thosse CSPAN3 covers. I have seen some great lectures and panels.

    And a few stinkers. Like the one last weekend where some man was relating Lincoln’s philosophical statements that formed an argument against slavery. All references to the degradation of slavery were to the institution undercutting the slaves’smanhood. I figured, since I’d missed the beginning, maybe that matched Lincoln’s words. Then this guy went off on a tangent promoting the personhood of unborn babies, no matter how undeveloped, and I wasn’t so sure. I quit listening after that.

    I’m tempted to look up his name and send congratulatios to him for being the first volunteer to have an artificial womb created and carry those undeveloped people. Wonder if I’d get a “But but but I didn’t mean that!” reply.

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    • If you’d get any reply at all. Daft person!

      I’ll bring your request to Kit French, who put together this panel and is on the program committee. (She also reads the blog, but just in case. . . .) I’ve had panels recorded before–so long as no one on the panel said they don’t want to be recorded, there shouldn’t be any structural barriers. But getting C-SPAN 3 to move away from Presidential biographies and the Civil War will be a challege, too.

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  6. Historiann, remember that poor junior staffer in Toronto whose job it was to come into session spaces just as the panel started to order presenters to stand at the lectern, to make sure that the session was properly audible to what were probably some pretty bottom basement microphones? I was the only one who caved, but I like to stand anyway when reading something. I bought the tape the next day, and everyone was loud and clear, including you, and especially including the chair who chased the poor guy from the room. I probably still have it, too, but it’s maybe been riding around in the trunk of my car for well over a decade now. (That’s two evicted-from-the-room conference stories in two days–probably too many)!

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  7. Another consideration, which might not apply to all conferences–sometimes, travel funding is only available for people serving on panels (not roundtables). For my upcoming conference, we’ve just disguised our roundtable as a panel (this meant writing longer abstracts for the application and the conference book), but we’ll “spontaneously” decide to have a roundtable at the conference. (And I’ll be able to offset my travel expenses by a pittance.) But others may not be willing to flout the rules like this.

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