If you embark on an academic career, chances are high that at some point you will be expected to organize and participate in an academic panel at a conference. There are multiple benefits to this facet of academic life:
- It’s a chance to not only “workshop” a paper in progress, but do so on a panel of your own design.
- It’s a way to demonstrate engagement and participation in the scholarly community.
- You will almost assuredly meet and interact with other specialists in your field.
- Organization of a panel at an academic conference is a sign of scholarly productivity. If it’s a major conference, it also carries an element of prestige.
- If you are going for a tenured faculty position, it will probably be expected of you.
Getting Started: Organize and Invite
Unfortunately, there is no single instruction manual on how to successfully organize a panel. The process is actually less intimidating than it first seems, keeping in mind that different conferences will have different expectations, requirements, and deadlines.
Though you should always defer to the directions of a specific conference, the core of a typical panel proposal consists of three papers from different scholars organized around a common theme.
You should view the task of assembling this panel as you would any other academic activity—you are presenting a formal proposal, and contained therein is the case for its acceptance by a committee of scholarly peers.
In addition to the presenters, it is standard practice to invite a designated commentator to join your panel—usually another established expert in the field—who is tasked with providing brief and constructively critical remarks on the papers. It is also acceptable to select a panel chair—usually a senior scholar—to moderate the panel, though this is less crucial to the initial proposal itself and often a conference organizer will assign one or assist you in finding such a person after the panel is accepted.
Submit Your Proposal
Panel proposals are usually submitted to a designated program chair or committee by a specified deadline, usually set well in advance of the conference. They usually consist of (1) a panel title or theme, (2) paper titles and abstracts, (3) contact information for each participant, and (4) a condensed CV for each presenter or commentator. As the panel organizer, you will also serve as the main point of contact for the program committee should your panel be accepted.
A few tips to keep in mind while submitting a panel:
- Watch the calendar. Proposal deadlines are set well in advance of the conference itself. For a major conference such as APSA or the AHA this deadline may be a year or more in advance, so plan accordingly. Smaller conferences usually set their deadlines between 4-8 months in advance.
- Pay close attention to the conference theme. As with academic journals, most conferences are organized around a theme or topic. This could be something as broadly defined as a methodology or subfield. It could be as explicit as a single defined topic, such as “New perspectives on the American Civil War.” While conference themes tend to be somewhat less rigidly enforced than a journal’s stated scope, panels that fit well with the theme do generally have an advantage in being selected.
- The more complete the panel proposal, the better chance it has of being accepted. Conference program committees are often swamped with proposals of widely varying quality and content. Their task is largely thankless and usually consists of an unpaid volunteer position—effectively a type of “academic service” to the conference. Many of the proposals they receive will consist of incomplete or partial panels. They will also likely be flooded with “orphan” papers—individual submissions that do not have a home. You will greatly ease the workload of the program committee and increase your chances of being selected by submitting a complete and polished panel, i.e. three well-defined papers and an identified commentator.
- Keep it concise and to the point. Program committees are also flooded with materials—abstracts that exceed the word limit, CVs that drone on for 10+ pages, proposals that are poorly formatted and disorganized. Conference organizers usually impose word and/or page limits for the specific reason of easing the burden on their volunteer program committee. Adhering to those limits will almost certainly preempt one common reason to place your submission on the “reject” pile, and possibly earn you the gratitude of the committee.
- The panel organizer is also an editor. When preparing a panel proposal, it is your job to make sure all of the components are properly formatted and prepared for the final submission. You will accordingly have to serve as an enforcer of word and page limits and an editor of the proposal text. Be up-front about this role when you solicit other participants and include them in the process (note: this does not mean altering another scholar’s paper proposal without his or her consent). Sometimes you will have to ask for a condensed CV or a shortened topic proposal. Also do so well in advance of the deadline, so as to avoid a last minute rush and allow time to review or seek approval for any necessary changes.
- Don’t be afraid to invite senior scholars onto your panel. While there is no guarantee that you will land a Pulitzer-winning historian or a Nobel laureate on your panel, many senior scholars welcome the opportunity to serve as commentators and chairs. Some of these scholars will be in attendance anyway and will view it as an easy opportunity to participate in an organized session. Others will decline the invitation, but it never hurts to try. There are many positives—if you succeed in landing a senior scholar you will gain the acquaintance of an established expert in your field while also strengthening the chances of your proposal.
- Above all else, follow directions! Calls for papers are usually posted on the conference website and in email announcements well in advance. Following instructions, meeting deadlines, and appearing organized from the outset signals to the program committee that you are a reliable choice for inclusion at the conference.