The scholar/blogger Historiann (if you are a young Mormon scholar interested in academia, you should really read her blog) has a new post on the ethics of conference participating. Partly because I am lazy, and partly because I think we can generate a good discussion, I’d like to bring part of that debate over here.
I remember my first MHA experience, which was also one of my first conference experiences, is vivid in my memory. I was a Junior at BYU, and I submitted a paper on Mormonism and Romanticism, primarily comparing Joseph Smith’s thought to Romantic poets. (I was a literature major, after all.) Somehow, my paper was accepted. (Likely because it was part of a panel with two excellent and respected historians.) Looking back on my paper now…oh what a mess. I’m embarrassed for having delivered it, and I hope there were no recordings that would come back to haunt me at a later day. Our session’s commenter, Steve Harper, was as generous as possible in (justifiably) critiquing some of my main arguments. I thought it couldn’t get any worse.
Except it very well could have. The more I’ve participated in conferences, and the more stories I’ve heard from others who participate at conferences, the more I realize how some general and common-sense notions of etiquette are often broken. Though my first MHA paper was conceptually horrible, I at least followed basic guidelines by turning in the paper on time to the commenter and not exceeding my allotted time, for instance. This is how Historiann introduces the problems in her post on conference etiquette:
I’ve been hearing rumblings from different friends and colleagues lately about an erosion in history conference etiquette specifically focused on the performance and attitude of speakers on conference programs. The complaints usually fall into two categories: first, participants aren’t sending their papers to panel chairs commenters with sufficient lead time, and/or they’re sending 40- or 50-page article or chapter-length discussions rather than 10-12 pages that can be read adequately in 20 minutes or fewer. Second, panelists and roundtable speakers–and some Chairs and commenters too–aren’t crafting their papers or comments to fit within their allotted times, and are taking time away from fellow panelists and/or the time allotted for audience discussion.
As Historiann goes on to correctly point out, things like this are simply a matter of respect: respect toward the commenter to get things in on time so that they can craft an adequate response, and respect to the audience and other panelists in finishing on time so that a proper discussion can take place. On the first problem, it is very tempting (and all of us are guilty) to claim that we need more time, but that excuse often translates into, “I didn’t start on it until a week before the deadline.” On the second problem, there are few things more uncomfortable and frustrating than when a presenter (whether knowingly or unknowingly) goes over on time; a majority of the audience is then thinking “boy I wish they would end” rather than “boy this is fascinating stuff!”
I think Mormon conferences are rife with these kinds of problems, mostly because we have a mix between academics who should know better (but still do it anyway) and lots of amateurs and first-timers who merely haven’t had a chance to learn. Here are just a handful of common problems that come to mind, other than the problems listed above:
- Commenters sometimes think their job is to present another 20 minute paper rather than respond and review the papers already given.
- Mormon topics can sometimes be a bit testy, and often people think that “engaging with an argument” means “defending the faith” or “uncovering hypocrisy.”
- Some people thinks a “presenter introduction” means “every worldly accomplishment–even if it has nothing to do with history”–ever achieved in one’s life. I vividly remember one commenter being introduced with what seemed like a ten-minute paper on how their non-history research has led to changing some form of medical practice that I had know idea about.
- Audience comments. Oh, the audience comments. I don’t even know where to begin with those.
Have you experienced these same problems? What are some other matters of etiquette that should be improved at Mormon conferences?
Also, if you just want to share some fun conference stories, those are welcome too.
[And if this post does nothing more than to get more people to read Linda Kerber's "Conference Rules," I'll consider it a success.]