By Amanda Friesen, IUPUI
In the lead up to an academic conference, advice circulates, frustration emerges, anxiety builds, and cynicism abounds. Engaging in our professional organizations, with hundreds to thousands of colleagues in our field, is an important part of what we do. We learn best practices, latest trends, emerging questions, and who is working on what. Setting aside the very important criticisms of resource disparity, environmental impact, and structural discrimination (which have been and continue to be necessary to discuss and address), I want to offer a positive experience with the behind-the-scenes development of conference content – serving as section chair.
I am a tenured professor, now seven years out from my PhD. In the fall of 2018, I was asked by the MPSA Program Chairs to serve as the Religion & Politics Section Chair. I was baffled (I knew neither of the chairs), humbled, overwhelmed. I am realistic; I know this is a job that few people want, and it’s very unlikely I was a first choice. I am very unbothered by this (usually just happy to be playing the game, folks).
So I did what I normally do when asked to complete an important, yet-untried professional task, I consult a mentor. In this case, the indomitable Paul Djupe was the perfect Obi Wan for the job – as he has served in this role many times and has been attending MPSA since the 1990s (sorry, PAD, you are a literal institution). Paul ran me through how long it could take and what was involved, depending on the number of panels v. abstracts, etc. – which is a vital piece of information before taking on this service appointment.
From there, I considered that taking on this task would be a good way to demonstrate in my annual review and eventual dossier for Full that I am nationally recognized as a religion and politics scholar. Hell, they made me a gatekeeper, right?! And as gatekeeper, I could also work hard to be inclusive of scholars from a variety of institution types, at all levels of career, and from a variety of demographic backgrounds. There are no manels on my watch! And in the end, the idea of reading through the latest research abstracts and piecing together interesting panels sounded fun. So I said yes.
There is a lot of communication and written resources/guidelines from the MPSA staff, and they were quick to answer my questions and help me through some of the quirks of the online system. After the abstracts roll in, you have a compressed amount of time to accept/reject papers, put together panels, and pass papers on to other sections. You also have to select two discussants for each panel, early on. The main reason to pick two is that these assignments might get rejected or never accepted, and you have to keep filling the roles. One particular of the system I had not previously understood is within my R&P portal: I have a list of every person who submitted a paper to the section, and I am free to simply assign them to panels in that section. There is no formal ask. So if you have found yourself randomly assigned as discussant, that’s what happened. But this became problematic when there weren’t enough non-graduate students or people with at least nominal expertise in each of the areas I needed them to serve. If you want to ask non-submitting-to-the-section-people, you have to send personal emails and have them give MPSA permission to add them as discussants. In trying to pursue gender and racial/ethnic/national diversity on the panels, I used Women Also Know Stuff, People of Color Also Know Stuff, and personal emails asking for recommendations. I ran into some difficulties in a couple panels because folks from that area either do not usually attend MPSA or were not going to this year.
Now getting to the good stuff – how did I decide who to accept/reject and how did I group papers? First, I went through and made decisions about whether I thought the papers were appropriate for the section and sent a handful on to other sections. Then I was lucky that the number of submissions nearly matched the number of spots I could accommodate on the panels and in the junior scholar symposiums. I could have rejected more papers and created four-paper panels, but if there was room, I included as many folks as possible. I find this particularly important for graduate students and scholars from smaller institutions – this line on the CV matters!
From there, many of the papers grouped themselves by sub-sub-field (e.g., public opinion, political communication) or area of the world. Some of the combinations may be puzzling to my audience, but I enjoyed thinking about how each of the authors and their ideas would be in conversation with the others on the panel. I warned you I would be positive in this post! I have been a part of some awesome panels where wonderful and creative conversations led to helpful ways forward and new things to consider. I did my best to create what conditions I could. They are not perfect – I have already realized that one paper I included on a geographic area panel is not about that area, even though one of the authors is. So that was not a close read on my part. But maybe a method or theory will be exchanged that would not have had they not been mixed! Kismet happens.
As section chair, you also get the option to field a roundtable on any topic you choose. What freedom and responsibility! I decided to ask the editors and authors of The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical Republican Coalition to have a broad discussion about the nature of their findings and implications for studying this important religio-political group going forward. For those of you who have read about those contributions on this site, you may be interested to hear more from the authors and questions from the discussants.
Finally, you are going to notice I chose a particular titling scheme. I really, really hate puns. There is a marquee in downtown Indianapolis that features a different pun each week, and I avoid that street when possible because of the physical cringe-pain I experience from pun-exposure. So there was never going to be “Cute Phrase: Description Sentence” in the Friesen Administration. Yet, I wanted to lighten things up a little bit and not draft dry, wordy titles – after all, there’s a lot of Taking Oneself With All The Seriousness at academic conferences. Thus, I attempted to strike that balance. No one will cringe, no one will snore, no one will be that impressed. That’s the tone you want to set in a panel title (listen to me creating criteria after one go-round).
In sum, this was a tremendously positive experience; I was honored to be asked and entrusted to make these decisions. If anyone has questions about the process, etc., I love meeting new folks (warning: Academic Extravert here. With the emphasis on EXTRA) and would love to chat this week!
I would also encourage you all to choose some panels below to hear about amazing new research in theory development, a variety of populations, using the latest methods and tools, with significant implications for the study of politics. For more details on the panels and participants and papers, follow this link and check out the schedule below:
9:45 to 11:15 a.m. Let’s talk about communicating religion and politics
3 to 4:30 p.m. An Evangelical Crackup?: A roundtable on the book and its implications
8 to 9:30 a.m. Let’s talk about elite influence in religion and politics
9:45 to 11:15 a.m. Let’s talk about nationalism, religious leaders, and the state
1:15 to 2:45 p.m. Let’s talk about religion and European politics
4:45 to 6:15 p.m. Let’s talk about religion and political behavior
8 to 9:30 a.m. Let’s talk about religion and political mobilization
11:30 to 1 p.m. Let’s talk about religion and U.S. foreign policy
3 to 4:30 p.m. Let’s talk about religion and prejudice
4:45 to 6:15 p.m. Let’s talk about the methods of religion and politics
9:45 to 11:15 a.m. Let’s talk about theories of religion and politics
11:30 to 1 p.m. Junior Scholar Symposium: The role of religion in comparative politics
11:30 to 1 p.m. Junior Scholar Symposium: Exploring the role of religion, nationalism and conflict
Amanda Friesen is Associate Professor of Political Science at IUPUI. She researches the political psychology of religion, gender and politics. You can find her on twitter and her work on her personal website.