- Better Shorter, but Better
We have all sat in on interesting conference panels, eager to engage the presenters, only to find—often after two hours of presentation—that there is no time left for discussion. The chair of the program committee for the 2006 American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies annual convention in Washington, DC, Eric Lohr of American University, has formulated some new guidelines for participation in the flagship conference in the field. By the time this column appears or shortly thereafter, they will have been publicized. They call for paper-givers to plan for 15-minute presentations and for chairs to hold them to a maximum of 20 minutes. The rationale for strict time limits on presentations is simple: time devoted to papers and commentary at panels and roundtables at the conference, much like grade inflation, has been creeping up; and therefore time for discussion has been reduced. Yet this one simple measure has potentially far-reaching implications. The problem of long-windedness is connected to a more fundamental and subtle issue: seeking to convey the results of their research, presenters often lose sight of the larger goal of sparking debate and discussion with the other panelists and the audience. Then there is the problem of chairs who, out of a misguided sense of collegiality, do not hold the speakers to their time limits. The draft guidelines also call attention to the way papers are delivered: "One way to keep a presentation concise is to think of it not as 'reading a paper,' but rather, as presenting the research questions, methods, results, and implications of the research. If you strongly prefer reading a paper, try to write it as a presentation and think about how to perform it rather than just read it."
We strongly endorse these recommendations. If they succeed and have a discernable impact, the result will undoubtedly be a better and more interesting conference. Sometimes, the quality of a large scholarly conference depends not just on the participants or the program but on the unwritten conventions that govern the exchange, which develop over many years and are rarely discussed publicly. Certainly, academic culture cannot be changed by decree or even by recommendation. But we applaud the way these guidelines focus more attention on presentation and [End Page 1] interaction, aspects of scholarly exchange that may not be seen as a top priority. We have all, we think, witnessed cases where panels and their commentators have talked at the audience, rather than engaging it. One of the great values of professional gatherings is not simply to communicate new research—although this is one feature—but to foster discussion within the field.
Humanists and social scientists in the academy are from one perspective professional "talking heads," but American academic culture in a number of ways heavily favors written rather than oral forms of expression. Unlike Russia, for instance, where tests are oral throughout the educational system, the system of graduate education in the United States, outside the oral part of comprehensive exams, often allows students to escape public presentations. One can be a good student without becoming adept at oral expression or academic presentation. To be sure, U.S. higher education combines teaching and research, giving researchers a certain breadth they would otherwise lack and providing them with a large amount of classroom and lecturing experience. However, judging by the problem the guidelines under discussion tactfully attempt to address—the surfeit of presentations painfully and artificially read line by line, in which the paper-givers' eyes rarely lift up from the page—this has not dramatically heightened attention to the issue of scholarly communication. Bravo, Comrade Lohr!
On the convention front there is also some positive news to report. In this column three years ago we discussed the "sad showing" of Russia/Eurasia-related panels at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in January 2003. Then, among 168 panels, there were a total of two individual papers presented on Russia and the Soviet Union. This showing led us to decry our field's "failure" to engage with the "broader historical profession."1 Here the situation dramatically improved at the AHA's 120th...