Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been engrossed in CV Advance Strategizing Sessions with many clients. The work has gone well, and we quickly move through all of the elements required for a powerful and effective academic record for next year’s job market. All, that is, except for my injunction to organize a panel for the major national conference. That one, without exception, stops clients in their tracks. “But HOWWWWW????” they wail, by email. “How do you organize a PAAANELLLL????”
I’m always surprised by this. Organizing a panel is not that hard, and in some ways its actually kind of fun. Why don’t people know how to do this?
Well I could ask that about many things I write about here, until the cows come home. For now, I’ll just explain how.
The first thing you do is find your major national conference, and check the website. The conference will likely have a theme. If it does, think about the theme. Is there a way to relate your scholarly project, in a broad sense, to that theme? If you can, that helps your chances of acceptance. But it’s not absolutely critical.
Note the deadline, and start work about 2 or 3 months before submission deadline. You need to start early because you are a small person with no social or academic capital. Thus, to grab participants to your panel, you must act early and quickly.
Note that many conferences have a special kind of status for some panels, ie, an “invited panel” or some such. Those are typically reviewed by sub-disciplinary units, and have earlier deadlines. If you feel your work fits beautifully into such a sub-disciplinary unit, then try to make the earlier deadline. It is a smaller review pool and your panel with get more attention.
Think of a panel theme. It should derive organically from your dissertation research, but be bigger and broader than the research itself. It should be an “umbrella” concept that can hold both your dissertation research, as well as 3-4 other related papers. It should not be so broad as to be entirely dull (Gender and Asia, for example). But it should not be so detailed as to be impossibly narrow (Japanese Women Who Study Abroad and Marry Foreign Men). It has to hit the sweet spot of a topic broad enough to appeal to a decent audience, while being specific enough that it marks your particular and memorable scholarly world view. Let’s say “Women and Globalization in Japan”, or, “Gendered Transnationalism in Japan”, or, stepping a bit wider, “Gendered Transnationalism in Asia.” The first would get the smallest audience, the second a slightly larger one, and the third larger still.
Once your theme is decided, you choose a title, and write a panel proposal abstract. This will follow the instructions for panel proposals given on your national meeting website. For some insights on writing a proposal abstract, see this blog post. It is about individual paper proposal abstracts, but it will help orient you in the right direction. Start with a broad topic of general interest, refer briskly to the existence of scholarship on this topic, note a gap in the scholarship, observe sternly the scholarly stakes of such a gap, declare the thematic of the panel addressing the gap, give examples of projects that the panel will cover, and end with a gesture to the wider contribution and significance of these projects and the panel theme writ large. As commenter MB notes below, you might actually wait to write the final panel abstract, or at least tweak your earlier version, AFTER you have solicited and received all of your participant submissions, as you’ll undoubtedly get new insights and inspiration from them.
Now, armed with the title and panel abstract, you solicit participants. This can happen in several ways. First, you can ask friends and colleagues. Second, you can send out a “Call for Papers” to your disciplinary listservs, discussion boards and the like. Third, you can find people around the country whose work you like and admire, and email them to ask. All of these are legitimate means of acquiring participants, bur for graduate students the first should generally be avoided.
This is because the most important thing is that you DO. NOT. ASK. OTHER. GRADUATE. STUDENTS. First off, because the point of this exercise is to launch you as a highly visible young star on the year that you first hit the job market. Huddling around the fire of an obscure little panel on Wednesday night or Sunday afternoon with a group of other unknown graduate students is going to do nothing to achieve this goal. Secondly, the “graduate student panel” is a kiss of death conference-wise—I’m not saying you won’t get accepted; you might. But your audience will be miniscule. And that is demoralizing, for you and for the audience.
So, focus your efforts on young assistant professors. More senior people will probably already have panels lined up with old friends and so on, but some young assistant professors will still be up for grabs, and getting increasingly anxious as the submission deadline for the major annual conference nears.
Make sure that you have a good topical range (ie, if the panel is on an “Asia” theme, don’t have all the participants working on Japan). Get provisional titles from your participants, as well as paper abstracts as early as you can.
Once you have collected your participants you need to find a discussant. [Please note that disciplines do differ in their conference panel structure, so my advice here may not apply perfectly to your disciplinary context.] You will scan the national horizon and think about what famous tenured professors are working on themes similar to that of your panel’s. You will compile a list of candidates. You might ask your participants for their recommendations. You want a well known, indeed famous if you can manage it, discussant because that discussant draws audience to your panel that you—unknown graduate student that you are—cannot equal, and also lends credibility to the whole project. You will then put them in order of preference, and you will take your package of material—the panel abstract, and list of participants, and the paper abstracts—and you will send an email of inquiry to the first Dr. Famous Professor on the list, inquiring politely but not obsequiously if she will serve as your discussant. She may say no, and you may need to move through 3-4 discussant candidates before you find one who is not already engaged. Don’t take this personally.
In choosing both panel participants and the discussant, attend to the institutional location. Don’t choose a set of participants all from one single institution. This is very common with inexperienced and frightened graduate students, who often will organize a panel with 3 other graduate students from their own department, and then a professor discussant FROM THEIR OWN DEPARTMENT. This is another kiss-of-death move for a panel. If you’re wondering—do people even notice this? Yes, they notice, and they avoid like the plague.
[Parenthentically, if you are a professor and you are asked to serve a discussant for a graduate student panel that is comprised entirely of students from your home department, be a mentor and tell them “no,” and tell them why: because they need to put their big girl pants on and go find a famous and potentially intimidating discussant from another campus whom they don't already know.]
Once you have collected all the participants and the discussant, you can then submit the whole package to the conference review committee. You may have to solve small organizational problems such as, “who will serve as chair of the panel.” As organizer, you will likely want to serve as chair, as long as it does not prevent you from delivering a paper. You need to deliver a paper. And Dr. Famous Professor needs to SPEAK, because in speaking she will draw the audience that you want.
Et voila, you have organized a panel. If the panel is accepted, you hope that you will be given a decent time slot, ie, not Wednesday or Sunday, but as a graduate student, you don’t always get that wish granted.
Once the panel is accepted, then you have the task of setting a deadline for your participants to submit their papers to you, which must be early enough to be able to give the discussant PLENTY of time to read and think on prior to the date of the panel. You do not want an angry or alienated Dr. Famous Professor on your hands, and late papers are one of the leading causes of anger among discussants who probably feel they are doing you a favor just agreeing to be on the panel in the first place, and certainly want to be treated with considerable respect and appreciation, not to mention professional courtesy.
Being the panel organizer gives you one other ace in the hole, and that is the panel get-together. This can be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even just drinks, but as the organizer you do get to bring your little group together, with Dr. Famous Professor, for a little socializing at the conference. And this is good, very good. You get to know the young assistant professors, and they get to know you, and you all get to know the famous professor. This is how reputations are built and careers made.