Creating the SCWH 2016 Conference Program: A Q&A with Aaron Sheehan-Dean

In June 2016, the Society of Civil War Historians will meet in Chattanooga, Tennessee for three days of panels, meetings, receptions, and plenaries. How did the program committee determine which panels to include on the program? What kinds of trends did the committee see in submissions? A few weeks ago, I talked with the 2016 program committee chair, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, about the selection process.


MKN: If the proposals for the biannual meeting can be seen as a snapshot of what historians of the Civil War Era are interested in at this moment in time: what are they interested in?

ASD: Everything. The books published by the major presses in our field demonstrate this as well but the range of approaches taken by Civil War Era historians is truly remarkable. In addition to military, social, political, and cultural history there is now an even wider range of ways that scholars are investigating the meaning of the war. We had proposals on urban, environmental, and material history, and others. To paraphrase Maris Vinovskis’s old question, social historians have won the war and everyone else is winning the peace. The result, I hope, will be a really invigorating conference in Chattanooga.


MKN: Did you receive a lot of proposals from graduate students and early career historians? If so, were there any obvious generational shifts in interests, methodologies, approaches, etc.?

ASD: We did receive a good number of submissions from graduate students and early career historians. One of our goals of the conference committee was to balance these so that attendees could see what people at different points in their careers were working on. As we might expect, it’s younger scholars who are adopting more innovative methods, including panels on health and what might be called the psychological impact of the war, on veterans and other participants.


MKN: Given that the SCWH conference does not have a theme, how did the committee strive to find balance in the program, in terms of panel topics, gender of presenters, seniority, affiliation, etc.?

ASD: With a very large spreadsheet! We considered all the factors you list above, as well as the format of the event (paper panel or roundtable), regional distribution of presenters, and still more. The committee worked hard to balance a variety of factors to create a program that will offer something of interest to all our members. The result was that we turned down senior scholars and good proposals on topics for which we had multiple submissions.


MKN: What was missing from the pile of submissions?

ASD: I would like to see a still broader chronological range. For a long time the SCWH maintained a pretty narrow focus on the war years. Over the last decade, that has changed and (as the Society’s journal indicates in its name) the emphasis has been on the Civil War Era. This means that we need to be recruiting people to the society that don’t consider themselves Civil War historians but whose work centers in the mid-nineteenth-century. One of the other exciting aspects of many of the papers being presented in Chattanooga is that they connect the war years or war experiences to ongoing processes in American history – attitudes about race and gender and politics most obviously, but also western expansion, changes in the structure of American capitalism, and the growth of the state.


MKN: Did anything surprise you about the submissions?

ASD: The return of political history. This has been underway for a while in our field and others but it was exciting to see such a variety of proposals that adopted new approaches for the study of politics. We couldn’t accept all the political history proposals we received (in the interests of balance across the whole conference) but I was inspired to see how a new generation of scholars has moved beyond the older frameworks of parties and votes and policies to think more capaciously about political culture and practice at all levels of American life.


MKN: What would your advice be for historians who want to submit a proposal for the 2018 meeting?

ASD: We had at least 40 applicants who submitted just paper proposals. Although several were strong it’s hard to assemble a coherent panel from these and it’s often difficult to add them to an existing panel. So my advice would be to submit as part of a full panel proposal. That makes the committee’s job of crafting a balanced conference much easier.


Aaron Sheehan-Dean is Fred F. Frey Professor of History at Louisiana State University and the author and editor of many Civil War books, including Blackwell’s “Companion to the U.S. Civil War” (2014-) and “Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia” (2007).