Crafting an Effective Panel Proposal
The 2015 annual meeting in New York elicited a record number of panel proposals. The result was an extraordinarily difficult selection process that highlighted, among other things, the strengths and weaknesses that we have observed in the writing of proposals. As historians begin contemplating panels in response to the call for proposals for the 2016 annual meeting in Atlanta, we thought it might be helpful to provide some advice on what makes for a strong panel proposal.
1. Even if in practice many panel proposals grow from the bottom up—that is, from the collection of individual papers—you should view the overall process of putting a panel together, writing the panel abstract, and choosing an appropriate title as more similar to writing a grant proposal than to preparing a proposal for a specialized conference in your field.
2. The proposal will include a panel abstract as well as abstracts for individual papers. The panel abstract is an extremely important part of the proposal: in it, you will explain the overarching rationale of the panel—the themes, problems, and questions that unite the different papers into a coherent session. What is the panel about? Why is it a panel, as distinct from a series of papers that possess some diverse points of intersection? What kind of conversation do you hope to elicit by bringing these particular speakers and these particular papers together? This rationale will tell the reviewer what the panel is about, so it needs to be explained clearly and succinctly. The panel abstract should emphatically not consist of a sequential summary of the individual papers. In fact, there is no real need to refer to those papers in any detail. After all, reviewers will be able to read all sections of your proposal.
3. Remember that the American Historical Association is an organization for historians in general. Your proposal should therefore be addressed to an appropriately generalist audience. This does not necessarily mean that it should not be specialized in its geographical or temporal focus (although, it must be said, panels that brought together speakers from a number of different areas on the basis of a clear and coherent framing were particularly compelling). Rather, the stakes of the conversation you are proposing to stage should be clearly framed in ways that will make sense to historians outside your particular or regional specialty. As always, avoid technical jargon. If you have to use terms that will be unfamiliar to people outside your specialty, make sure you explain their meaning clearly. Don’t presume that the historiographical stakes are obvious to historians of other fields.
4. Titles matter. But titles need not be cute. Choose a title that is immediately understandable to those who are not versed in the intricacies of your subject. This can mean something as basic as not forgetting to mention the geographical areas or time periods covered in your panel.
5. In proposing a panel, you are inviting people to listen to and ultimately to participate in the conversation your panel proposes. Everything you submit in your proposal is in this sense not only an exercise in persuading the program committee of the intellectual worthiness of your panel and its component papers, but also an exercise in persuading a potential audience to choose to attend your panel rather than another one. There are normally 30 simultaneous panels in any time slot of an AHA convention! So making your proposal persuasive even to nonspecialists is crucial not only to having it accepted, but also to ensuring that not too many seats in the room will be empty.
The AHA’s new online forum allows members to create open or closed communities, build a professional profile, share documents and files, and connect with other users. There are numerous possibilities for using the system to simplify the process of putting together an effective proposal.
The Program Committee strongly favors proposals with presenters from a diverse range of institutions and specialties. A session organizer looking for a presenter to fill a gap in the coverage of a proposed panel could use the “advanced search” feature to find AHA members whose research interests would complement the session.
Once the panelists have been identified, the organizer might set up a private discussion thread to facilitate conversation about how the presentations will flow together into a cohesive argument. Having that exchange in advance would be of enormous help in crafting a coherent and compelling abstract.
Presenters could also use their private forum to share copies of presentations with each other. In a variation on the precirculated paper format, the panelists could also post their presentations to an open community for people interested in attending the session. Audience members could read the presentations online before the meeting, allowing more time for discussion during the session.
—Debbie Ann Doyle
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