Okay, now all of that is true, but individuals attend these conferences for a number of other less intellectual reasons. Depending on the conference and where it is held, people are at these gatherings to take part in early job interviews, meet with publishers, buy books at reduced prices at the book displays, do research, and develop contacts. (That last point cannot be overestimated. A friend of mine who is the editor of a small journal went to the American Historical Association conference to find potential authors for his publication. I recently did the same when I became a book review editor.) Sometimes people go to these meetings to do nothing more than just see old friends. With all that said, conferences are neither the most cost effective or important of professional activities for a historian—publishing is, but that is the subject for a later entry—these meetings are important nonetheless and grad students and new Ph.D.s need to have a plan, a strategy for participating in these gatherings.
The first point of your strategy should be to attend regularly the meeting of the main organization in your subfield. If you are a diplomatic historian that is the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, if you are a military historian it is the Society for Military History, if you are a southern historian then it would be the Southern Historical Association, and so on. You should begin doing this even before you are ready to present or publish.
Why? Well, early on you need to make contacts with senior people in the field and with others that are your peers at other institutions, and you also need to get a feel for the atmosphere in the field and just how things work at that particular conference. Then, once you have something to contribute, which can and should be while you are still in grad school, present a paper.
Why? Well, you need to start developing a reputation in the field. You want people to read your stuff and consider your argument when it comes time for you to be published. Another consideration is that when it comes time for you to apply for jobs, the people on the committee will be historians, but usually of different time periods and areas. As a result, they will be entirely unfamiliar with your topic and even the historiography of your subfield. They will be cutting corners to evaluate the candidates and one of those will be looking at the conferences in which you have participated. A strong candidate in diplomatic history will have presented at that SHAFR outfit, a strong candidate in military history at the Society for Military History, and so forth.
How do you go about getting on a conference program? Well, most programs committees prefer to see proposals for entire panels. So, you have to spend some time putting together a panel. Sometimes people will contact you, asking you to participate in a panel they are assembling. Both of these approaches are generally the product of having gone to conferences beforehand just as an audience member. In short, you either need to know people or you need to be known.
A second point in your strategy should be to get on the program of the major umbrella organizations: the American Historical Association, and/or—if you do U.S. history—the Organization of American History. (If you are a historian of Japan, the other major organization might be the Asian Studies Association. The important point is not which organization is your umbrellas and which is the main group for your subfield, but that you are going big.) It might be very tempting to present only at the annual meeting of your subfield. That inclination is understandable after all this gathering is usually full of people that have similar interests as yours and a meeting in which you will find many papers and panels to your liking, but this inclination is wrong. You need to go big in conferences.
Why? Presenting papers at the annual meeting of organizations like the AHA and the OAH are important exercises in professional development. It will also have an important impact in the job hiring process. The people on search committee quickly realize how little they know about other fields—trust me, I know of what I speak. Conference names and journal titles on a resumé mean little if the field is far from the research and teaching interests of the individual committee members. For instance, does the average U.S. diplomatic historian know what the best forums are in Texas history, agricultural history, or medieval European history? Do you?
Everyone, though, recognizes the significance of organizations like the AHA or the OAH. Put bluntly, it is to your advantage to have a major presentation on your CV. These achievements also impresses tenure committees and deans. One last point, engaging with the larger historical community is a good way of enhancing both your own reputation and the reputation of your area of specialty. Active engagement with the rest of the profession can persuade historians in other fields that their home departments need to add positions in the area of your sub-field, and the growth of your sub-field is ultimately in your interests.
Now to be more specific, here are some of the insights I have to offer in putting together conference panels for the major umbrella organizations:
1. Be patient. I applied three times to the AHA before getting a panel accepted. Since then I have gotten a second and third panel accepted there and another at the OAH.
2. Play by the rules. Abide to the letter of the panel requirements of each organization. Sometimes they vary significantly.
3. Be optimistic. Getting the program committees of these major conferences to accept your panel is not as impossible as you might think.
4. Be concise. Remember that program committees are a good deal like search committees. The members might not know the important figures, issues or journals in fields other than their own. Make sure to state clearly and concisely the major issues your panel is addressing.
5. Go historiographical. You should emphasize the impact your panel will have in your subfield. Acceptance requires more than having three papers on topics that relate well to one another. Given the specialization in the history profession these days, one can argue that it is possible to have a successful and rewarding career without ever participating in an AHA conference or publishing in the American Historical Review. That organization and journal, however, still matter. Proposals should stress the historiographical significance of the panel. Program committees are a lot like search committees, the individual members quickly realize how little they know about specific subfields. As a result, imagine, for example, a submission for the 1980 AHA meeting that included the early pioneers in Eisenhower revisionism: Robert A. Divine, Stephen E. Ambrose, Richard Immerman, Fred Greenstein, and Burton Kaufman. This proposal would have said something like: “The individual research and findings of these papers challenge the dominant belief that Ike was a Nimrod.” Another point worth noting, I do not think that having a proposed panel where every member has had at least three books published is going to have as much impact as a panel that makes a notable contribution to historical understanding. As a result, a panel with a graduate student as a presenter is not dead on arrival even at a major conference.
6. Keep it short. Keep your panel proposal as short as possible. The submission guidelines for the AHA suggest that a five-person panel proposals can include fourteen pages. If every proposal for an AHA conference submitted fourteen pieces of paper, the program committee would be looking at going through roughly 4018 pages, or slightly more than eight reams of paper. I doubt every member of the committee has time to look at every page of every proposal. Accordingly, the cover proposal, the synopsis of each paper, and each CV should be no more than one page long. A good deal of time and craft should go into the cover proposal, since it might be the only part of the submission that gets much attention.
7. Go Big. Try to address some issues that affect the profession as a whole. I found that the program committees of major conferences are receptive to proposals that address big topics. In one of my proposals, I stressed globalization, internationalizing U.S. history, and the use of new sources. In this particular situation the new sources were the Lyndon Johnson telephone tapes. I also asked the paper presenters to stress these issues in the synopses of their papers. Other members of the history department where I worked had similar experiences with the AHA program committee.
8. Know the stats. If your proposal is rejected, try to keep your panel together and resubmit for the next meeting. Statistically speaking, the odds are in your favor. During the time I was sending in proposals, the acceptance rate at AHA meetings fluctuated between 45 percent and 80 percent. There is also a good deal of turnover in membership of the program committee from year to year, so your submission will be new to many of the people serving on that body.
9. Talk to others. Talk to a lot of others that have put together panels for the big conferences and ask to see their proposals. Weigh and evaluate this different information, and come to your own conclusions.