Letters to the Editor

Are Historians Uncivil?

Melvin Small, September 1990

Roy Rosenzweig's provocative essay, "An Old Complaint Rekindled: Why Do We Read Papers at Historical Conventions?" (Viewpoints, p.20, May/June 1990 Perspectives) concentrated on presenters on panels. A recent conference experience started me thinking about a reassessment of the discussant's role as well.

The University of Toledo History Department and the Council on Peace Research in History sponsored the Charles DeBenedetti Memorial Conference on the Vietnam Antiwar Movement at Toledo on May 4–5. DeBenedetti's widow Sandy, who attended many of the sessions, wondered why discussants sometimes were so critical of the paper givers. Their behavior, unusual in her profession of nursing, struck her as illogical and occasionally uncivil.

She maintained that scholarly sessions should be held for the benefit of the audience, not the panelists. The audience should be entitled to the best possible papers from the presenters. When discussants find things wrong with papers they receive weeks before the conference, why don't they inform presenters of their criticisms in advance? Their quibbles, large and small, could be answered at the conference in the formal presentations and then the sessions could move on to broader issues posed by the papers, and not just their shortcomings or omissions.

Undoubtably, this would leave discussants with the more difficult task of synthesis and indeed the creation of mini-papers of their own. Moreover, such an approach might eliminate the titillating fireworks produced by bruised egos that provide the occasional bit of drama at historians' gatherings. Nevertheless, like the work of her gentle and sensitive husband, Sandy DeBenedetti's sensible critique of our conference manners might contribute to greater civility in the profession and even improve the quality of discourse at our meetings.

Melvin Small
Professor of History
Wayne State University