Today I'm off to Chicago to attend the Urban History Association Biennial Conference. For the first time, I'm attending a conference without presenting my own work. Without the distraction of performance anxiety, I am especially looking forward to sitting in on a variety of panels and learning about the newest scholarship. It is also an opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends, and to make new acquaintances. I'm optimistic that it will be a worthwhile and fulfilling experience!
After last year's AJS Conference, I blogged about my experience and the benefits of participating in a Graduate Student Lightening Round Session. This year, I coordinated and presented on a panel, which I found even more beneficial than presenting in a Lightening Round Session. Unlike a lightening session, which was more of a grab-bag of grad students from different disciplines researching very different topics, a panel session is only three people presenting papers on one topic. This singular focus was valuable for a few reasons. First, I learned what my colleagues' have discovered through their research on Jewish communal surveys. Now I can apply their findings to my own scholarship. Second, the senior scholar who responded to our papers could offer more than just a few comments on each of our individual papers. She also commented on how our papers fit together and how, as a group, we are contributing to a larger historical debate about how Jews understood themselves and their communities. Finally, several scholars with interest and experience in surveying Jewish communities attended our session. They asked very insightful and pointed questions about our research. In addition to identifying some aspects of my paper that could have used more elaboration or emphasis, the questions also helped me realize the value of my project to the broader field of Jewish Studies.
The benefits have continued after the conference. After reflecting on the respondent's comments and some of the points that came up in the Q&A portion of the session, I have refined some elements of my dissertation's argument. I have also extended, through email correspondence, several of the short conversations I had with scholars at the conference. Extending these discussions has given me even more great ideas for how to revise and strengthen my project. Most tangibly, one of the attendees at my session told me that he had an extra copy of the JWB Survey that I could have, and he sent it all the way from California to Pittsburgh. I now have my very own copy of the JWB Survey!
Before this, I've always had to use a library or archival copy of the text. Apparently, the JWB Survey originally featured a dust jacket!
I'm thrilled to have my own copy that can travel with me across the country and through the years. Never again will I have to return to the library and beg for just one more renewal because this one book is the basis of my entire dissertation!
Thank you to Dr. Bruce Phillips, for generously providing this book in addition to decades of wisdom about Jewish communal work, and thank you to everyone else at AJS 2015 who provided helpful feedback and made suggestions to improve my work. I'm already looking forward to AJS 2016 in San Diego!
Although 2015 was my second year attending the Association for Jewish Studies Conference, this was my first year presenting a paper as a member of a panel (last year I participated in a Graduate Student Lightening Round Session). In preparing to write my paper, I did some research about what distinguishes a successful conference presentation. This blog post from the American Historical Association was most helpful, as was advice from several colleagues. In addition, I turned to academia.edu to find conference papers posted by other scholars that I could use as a template.
As it turns out, very few scholars in history or Jewish Studies have uploaded their past conference papers to academia.edu. I was able to find only one example, from a former graduate student in Jewish Studies, and I relied on it as a model for how to approach my own paper. I was nonetheless left wishing that I had other examples against which to compare it. It is difficult to take the narrative and argument from a dissertation or book chapter and reduce it down to a coherent 15-20 minute bite, and I had hoped to see several different strategies for how to do it! In the end, I think I did a fine job considering that it was my first time turning a chapter into a shorter paper--the presentation seemed to go well. With the hope that it may benefit other graduate students or young scholars, I have posted my paper to my own academia.edu profile.
Earlier this week I had the distinct pleasure of assisting the staff of the Association for Jewish Studies with conference registration. Running a conference is labor intensive, and the conference organizer asked graduate students if they were willing to help staff various tables on the first and second day, when most registrants arrive. I wish I could say I volunteered out of a sense of altruism and dedication to the Jewish Studies community, but they offered to reimburse my conference registration fee in exchange for my labor. The experience ended up being much more than just remuneratively valuable, though, because I was assigned tasks where I could meet many of the academics in my field.
The first day, I worked at the registration table printing new badges for attendees. As scholars shuffled up one by one to apologize for losing or misplacing their badges, I put faces to names of authors whose works I read for my doctoral exams or for my research. On the second day, I handed out tote bags and badge holders to newly arrived registrants. I had the pleasure of meeting a historian whose article on Oscar Janowsky--the scholar who directed the Jewish Welfare Board's 1947-48 study of Jewish Centers and thus shaped the postwar agenda for JCC programming and growth--helped me understand the politics at play in the Janowsky Survey. I also met two of my "academic crushes," historians whose work lead me towards the big questions that animate my research.
I also met many of the staff members of the AJS, who run many academic programs and workshops in addition to the annual conference. They were all so lovely to me and provided words of support when I got nervous before my presentation. They ran such a tight ship, and I was impressed by their foresight. I enjoy event planning and organization, and it was helpful to see how the sausage gets made, per se, when you host an event of this size. Additionally, it was a great opportunity to meet the other graduate student volunteers. We chatted throughout our shifts and it was an easy way to make new colleague-friends.
I would highly recommend that other graduate students take advantage of volunteer opportunities at conferences. I'm sure that the experience varies across conferences and disciplines, but volunteering is an easy, fun way to network. The registration table was an invaluable place to introduce myself to scholars. The informality of the setting made the interaction less intimidating and more social. Volunteering also fostered a sense of involvement with the wider organization--you feel that you are actively creating a communal atmosphere and facilitating scholarly engagement. Finally, it's the best kind of productive procrastination. Volunteering at a conference is a great opportunity to feel like you're working on your career and your research even though you're not staring at the screen of your laptop!
Yesterday I gave my first presentation at a major professional conference. The Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies is taking place right now in Baltimore (it opened yesterday and concludes on Tuesday). It is an international and interdisciplinary gathering, and panel topics range from new interpretations of ancient texts to recent sociological changes in 21st century American Jewry.
As this is such a large conference, the AJS requests that graduate students participate in lightning sessions rather than presenting in a traditional panel format (where you and two or three other scholars deliver 20-minute papers and answer audience questions). Lightning session presentations are limited to 5-7 minutes, which is just enough time to introduce a project, discuss a question in the field, or propose a methodological problem. The goal is to familiarize grad students with the newest work being done in Jewish Studies, and to foster connections between grads at different universities.
My paper was titled "Jewish Adjustment and the Professionalization of Jewish Social Work," and in it I defined how a concept in mid-twentieth century social work was used by leaders of Jewish Community Centers to justify their authority as the providers of Jewish leisure-time activity.
This is not only the first major conference I have attended, it was also my first time trying to distill my work down into such a tight time limit. All academics know that more time is better, and that 20 minutes always seems to fly by before you manage to make your point. To condense an argument down to five minutes required a lot of trial and error! I began by carefully structuring my paper. I included a very brief introduction of my dissertation topic and the historiographical importance of the project. I offered my argument up front and provided and overview of what I would discuss. I briefly reviewed the theoretical background and answered the question I posed at the outset (what is Jewish adjustment?). I shared a case study from my research to demonstrate how the concept was used to defend the JCC's authority within Jewish communal life, and concluded by reiterating my argument. After all of that, I still barely cleared 7 minutes, and had to remove all but the most essential context.
I spent hours rehearsing over the past week, and the more I practiced the more nervous I became! I knew I was going to be the only historian on the panel, and the only one doing a topic on American Jewry. I was really worried that my paper was concise but not cogent, or that it flattened reality and made the past appear too simple, too pat.
In the end, it went well. The panel was more informal than I expected, and I was sufficiently prepared and stayed close to the time limit. My respondent--an academic whose work I really respect--gave me excellent feedback and made several valuable suggestions (my favorite was that I should explore the content taught to rabbis in American rabbinical schools during the mid-twentieth century and compare it to the Jewish training given to Jewish social workers). It was informative to hear the wide variety of topics being studied by my peers in Jewish studies, and I benefited from hearing about the various themes and questions they are exploring in their research.
I am relieved that I was able to present on the first day, and feel like I can now relax while other people present. Conferences are like a blitz of short classes, you learn or are reminded of interesting questions or themes or issues. Presenting was nerve wracking but such a valuable experience, and I feel that the lightning format prepared me to participate in a more traditional panel at a future conference. Twenty minutes will feel like such a luxury!