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.