Military History Conference

I went to the annual meeting of the Society of Military History this year, because it was in the DC area, if way out in Crystal City. It was good to see and talk with people, especially a particular outside reader of my dissertation, who I was glad to run into. The book display was also interesting, because I discovered titles that the same publishers had not shown at the AHA meeting in January.

Less interesting were the panels, which are actually the main event of conferences. The problem was not the quality of scholarship but rather the fact that I have a low tolerance for being read to. I try to be patient and grown-up and stuff, but my mind starts to wander in this format. I wish that presenters would let go of the notion that they need to fill their 15 or 20 minutes with as much text as possible and instead just focus on pitching their main points and the central evidence that they are using to make them.

When I complained about this on Twitter and Facebook, I heard other scholars feeling the same way. We should not be reading our papers, but most of us do. One colleague on Facebook also shared a link to an interesting paper on “How to Give an Academic Talk” (by Paul N. Edwards). The trick, I think, is to adopt as much of the advice in this paper as one can without feeling so intimidated that one resorts to the crutch of reading to an audience. The result won’t be perfect, but it will be far better for listeners than the standard alternative.

As boring as the reading format is, though, the panels in this conference were particularly well-filled—standing room only in the couple I visited (one with senior historians and one with graduate students, both with papers read to the audience), which I have not seen at any AHA or BHC conferences (where papers, unfortunately, are also read).

A few other impressions: the conference seemed to include both people who call themselves military historians and those who just happen to be doing a related topic. It also included members of the military itself, as well as professors who teach the military at the War College and related institutions. The mix reinforced my opinion that military history and business history share analogous positions within the field of academic history and relative to the occupational fields that they study.

On the other hand, whereas we had the teachers of our future generals at the conference in Crystal City and the teachers of future CEOs at the conference in Philly, I saw practitioners (officers) in Crystal City but no practitioners (business leaders) in Philly. This might have been due to the proximity of the conference to the Pentagon and other military installations in the area, but I wonder if this one difference says anything about different attitudes towards history in the military and business. Few doubt the importance of history for cultivating critical thinking in our military officers, especially not the officers themselves, but I wonder how passionate about history business executives are. It would be interesting to find out.


  1. Mark I think one of the problems with public speaking is that academics are not trained to do it. It sounds stupid given that many of us will do it but there is a barrier that needs to be crossed. I consider myself very lucky that in my professional life, I am a trained lecturer, ahs helped me get over that hump. I know that sounds odd given that many academics are lecturers but you can tell the difference between those that are and those that aren’t. Even if a PhD is teaching it is usually seminars with small groups where they are sharing ideas rather than delivering coherent analysis to an audience as we do in lectures.

    It is a real problem for young PhDs who do not have any professional experience and lack confidence. It is a chicken and the egg problem and SMH is a big stage for a first time paper. Here in the UK the British Commission for Military History run a New Research in Military History conference that is aimed at PhDs and early career scholars. It serves two purposes. The first is obviously to help them to get their ideas out into the wider sphere of military history. However, I think it is the second one which is its most important facet. To give people the oppurtunity in a conducive enviroment to practice a skill that they need to develop.

  2. Re your comment about wondering ‘how passionate about history business executives are’.

    I worked in the investment industry for over 20 years and most people were unconcerned by the past. For many, anything that happened before they entered the industry was irrelevant. There were exceptions, who tended to be better than average at the job because they had learnt from the mistakes of others as well as themselves.

    Stock market booms are always followed by busts; sometimes the fall is a sudden crash, sometimes a gentler decline over a number of years, but it always happens. Just before the fall, people will be earnestly explaining that the boom is going to continue, Yes, prices are very high by historical standards, but ‘it is different this time;’ the most dangerous five words in the stock market according to a former boss of mine, who did understand the history of investment.

    Before the most recent crash we could allegedly manage the cycle better because we now had better systems and tools to do so. Before the previous one the boom was caused by new technology which had created a new paradigm that meant that stock market valuations would be permanently higher. Before each previous crash there will have been a different but equally wrong reason why ‘it is different this time.’

    Histories have been written of past crashes, going back to the Dutch tulip mania in the 17th century and the South Sea Bubble in Britain in the 18th century. They tend to be popular after crashes and to be ignored in booms.

    I must stresss that the above relates to the financial sector in general and the stock market in particular. Exectutives in other industries may have a different attitude. BP and Royal Dutch Shell both commissioned official histories, written by academic economic or business historians, which I found useful when writing my PhD thesis on British government strategy and oil.