Getting with the Program
By Alex Roland

Most historians have suffered through the experience. Having recruited the dream panel for next year's annual meeting, the organizer collects abstracts and c.v.s, prepares a proposal in just the format dictated by the program committee, and sends the package off well in advance of the deadline. Three months later comes the letter reporting that the Program Committee, under the press of too many good proposals, must regretfully reject the dream panel.

It is difficult to resist the temptation to blame the program committee. The committee must be biased. It is filled with Cretans who do not appreciate the importance of the work being done by the scholars on the dream panel. Personal enemies are lodged in the decision-making chain in the society. An artificial quota system has been imposed on the selection process. Maybe the program committee lost the dream proposal and wrote a form letter from the list of submissions.

Having recently served on the Program Committee of the American Historical Association, I can report that none of those factors appear to have been at work. The theme for the 2004 meeting of the AHA is "War and Peace: History and the Dynamics of Human Conflict and Cooperation." I was the only military historian on a committee of thirteen members. Seven members participated in a two-day meeting to make the selections; another member submitted written evaluations of some proposals. Five members were not heard from. In spite of the poor participation, the committee members who did take part worked hard and without any undue bias that I could discern. Several members felt we had more war in the world than they would prefer, and by the time we were done more than enough war on the AHA program. They did not, however, evince any of the mindless bias against military history that members of SMH have come to expect from the AHA. If proposals for military history panels were rejected by this committee, it was not for lack of due process or fair judgment. The members of the Program Committee may well have erred in weighing the scholarly merit of the various proposals, but it was not for want of trying.

My experience suggests several guidelines that SMH members might want to keep in mind when proposing a session for SMH or for any other historical society, such as the American Historical Association or the Organization of American Historians.

  1. Think of the audience for your proposal. The members of the program committee most probably serve voluntarily at considerable sacrifice of time and energy. They probably have no other agenda than to put together the best program they can from the proposals they receive. Everything you can do to make your proposal clear, timely, and accessible will put them in the right frame of mind to believe that your panel will enhance the meeting
  2. Read the call for papers carefully and follow instructions to the letter. No matter how unnecessary or irritating you may find the requirements, failure to comply can needlessly irritate selection committee members.
  3. If there is a conference theme or special focus, and if your panel addresses that theme or focus, be sure to explain its relevance in your proposal. The connection may be clear to you, but not intuititvely obvious to the committee members.
  4. Encourage your paper presenters to provide abstracts that make clear why the attendees at the meeting will want to hear their paper. It could be new sources, new ideas, revision of the existing literature, synthesis of existing materials, or an original line of investigation. Whatever the special appeal of the work, ensure that it does not come across as rehashing of work that the presenter has already done, especially if it is published and widely accessible. If the panel is specifically designed to bring together authors of existing work whose interaction on the panel would provide the value added, make sure that is clear in the proposal.
  5. Try to propose a balanced panel. Avoid a panel in which the majority of members are from a single institution. If paper presenters are primarily junior scholars, try to find senior scholars for chair or commentator. The AHA stresses gender balance, though it is not an absolute requirement. If possible seek one or more panel members from another country, another discipline, or even another profession, provided, of course, that they can make a real contribution to the goal of your panel.
  6. Write a substantive proposal that explains the purposes of the panel, the contribution that each member is expected to make, the dynamic than can be expected from bringing together this particular mix of people, the issues or questions that might arise from the presentations, and the discussion that might ensue. Program committees are especially interested in audience: who might be drawn to this session, what they would likely learn, and what kind of discussion they might join. Be sure to suggest ways in which your panel will appeal to the largest possible audience, not just the handful of scholars who might follow a narrow field. Not all panels have to be of general interest, but panels that are have a natural advantage over those more narrow in their appeal.
  7. Make sure that your complete proposal, with all the required documents and information reaches the program committee by the published deadline and in the required numbers. The chair of this year's AHA program committee had to distribute more than 200 proposals among thirteen committee members in a matter of weeks. If you can make that job easier, you will have the chair and the other committee members in the right frame of mind to think positively about your proposal.
  8. Beware of accepting a weak third paper to fill out a session of two strong papers; the weak one can undermine the entire proposal.
  9. Most societies have guidelines limiting repeat performances in successive years and multiple appearances at the same meeting. Be sure you find out what these are and adhere to them in putting together your panel. You may have panel members who are also included in other proposals, but if such members are selected for multiple appearances, they may have to withdraw from one or more panels. You should have back-ups in mind for panelists in this circumstance.
If you really have the dream panel, and if you follow all these steps, you will likely find your proposal accepted. But remember that Program Committees have many conflicting demands to balance when putting together a program. They do not want too many panels on the same topic; keep in mind that in the final decision your proposal might not be competing with the entire field but with one or more other proposals on similar topics. Make sure that yours will be seen as the best of those. Program committees may also want to achieve balance in participants; the more diverse your panel the more likely it will survive.

In my recent experience on the AHA Program Committee, we filled half the slots on the program by simply going through the proposals and accepting outright those that had been highly ranked by three or more committee members and not ranked poorly by any committee members. I was very proud to see that some proposals from SMH members were in that happy category. If you follow these guidelines, you will increase your chances of being selected in that way. Failing to make that first cut increases the risk that your panel will fall by the wayside in the ensuing, necessarily subjective process of choosing among proposals that all begin to look like those B- papers we get from students at the end of the semester.