For early Americanists, fall is conference-planning season. Proposals for the Omohundro Institute Conference were due in mid-September, SHEAR is accepting proposals until December 1, and a bevy of other conferences have posted CFPs in recent months. Watching this flurry of activity has led me to think about the intellectual goals that structure the formation of conference panels.
Of course, the conference panels we form—and whom we invite to participate in them—are partly functions of pragmatism. Each of us wants to find our way onto the program of our desired meeting, and mobilizing our networks is one way to do this. We scramble to find friends, colleagues, friends-of-friends, and acquaintances from research trips and prior conferences to join us on our panels. But if one of the goals of conferences is to enter into scholarly conversations, rather than simply to share our work with academic audiences, then it is essential to think about the kinds of questions our panels are asking and answering.
As I reflect on panels that I have recently attended as a presenter or as an audience member, I can loosely identify four (rough, overlapping) different “kinds” of conference panels.
First, panels reflecting established subfields. The organizing principles of these panels may be geographic, chronological, methodological, or some combination of the three. A panel on commerce in eighteenth-century Jamaica or on women during the era American Revolution would fall into this category. These kinds of panels are among the most common, and for good reason. They extend ongoing scholarly discussions and build upon our existing connections with those in our immediate subfields.
Second, panels examining narrow, well-defined topics. Here I’m thinking of panels like one entitled “Measuring the Power of an Almanac” at the 2013 Institute Conference. While it might be surprising that three scholars are simultaneously investigating the eighteenth-century almanac, the three panelists—Susan Branson, Molly McCarthy, and Robin McMillin—each offered different but complimentary takes on how almanacs’ content and circulation worked to define community in early America.
Third, panels forging new connections. I participated in one such panel, “Material Cultures of Exchange in Eighteenth-Century America,” at last summer’s Institute conference. At first glance, my panel’s papers were hardly related. Indeed, how often can one propose a panel that purports to consider horses, pigeon-hole desks, bonds and account books? Yet, by linking these diverse subjects, my panel suggested that looking closely at objects that were central to practices of exchange and documentation sheds new light on early modern economic practices.
Fourth, panels subverting our expectations. At the recent PEAES conference, “Ligaments: Everyday Connections of Colonial Economies,” I presented on a panel entitled “Economic Authority of Special Knowledge.” “Women” and “gender” were nowhere in my panel’s title, but all the three papers on this panel examined economic connections forged by women through their exercise of specialized skill and knowledge. This slight-of-hand in our panel’s title foreshadowed the Q&A. There, discussion centered on the extent to which our papers examined specifically feminine skills, and on whether historians have over-emphasized the on-the-ground import of coverture, the legal principle that barred wives from engaging in independent legal and economic activity.
How we structure and title our conference panels are particularly pressing questions for me, a historian of women and gender in early America. Initially existing on the margins of the historical profession and gradually entering into the mainstream, women’s and gender history has long possessed an unstable, even ambivalent relationship to other fields. Is gender history a subfield, or a methodology? Is it a bounded area of inquiry, or are its findings and methods broadly relevant to historians of early America? The conference panels in which I have participated have, whether explicitly or implicitly, offered a range of answers to these questions.
Similar issues, I think, could be raised about other subfields and methodologies in early American history. No one conference panel conclusively defines the relationship between a scholar’s work and her field, and, I would argue, it is productive to participate in many different kinds of conference panels. But, as we form and join conference panels, it is also important to evaluate the intellectual and political work that our panels are doing. At the very least, this will give us something more to say as we write those dreaded “panel descriptions.”