Everything in Moderation

Recently our school put on a conference highlighting our undergraduate's research. It's a nice affair that probably says as much about what the interests of professors are here as anything. My department usually puts up a pretty good showing, though this year we've tried taking students out of the barnyard a bit.

As part of all of this, I was asked to moderate a panel of, shall we say, eclectic papers (including one by my Honors student). Glad to do it. But it seems I might've stepped on a toe in the midst of it.

There are different schools of thought to moderating panels, even when undergraduates aren't involved. Under normal circumstances - when the panel is one composed of seasoned academics or graduate students - I see the job as having the following responsibilities:
  • introducing folks and setting expectations
  • keeping time and attempting - but only attempting - to ensure that time expectations are kept
  • drawing parallels/themes/etc between presentations
  • throwing out a question or two - sometimes the first question - to make sure there's some discussion
In a situation where the job is expressly about moderating student presentations, I'd say there's an additional duty
  • to offer instruction along the way (gently, of course)
In exchange for these duties, I think the moderator gets some small right of editorial comment - if only to generate thought and conversation (unless there's a specifically named respondent, I suppose).

In the panel I was moderating, one of the papers was from history, and in the midst of it, a couple of things happened that I felt needed comment. First, the student referenced doing a Google search for a historical figure who interacted with the focus of their study (say, around 1917). The student said, and I quote, "According to Google, he was also a hockey player in the 1960s, which is pretty cool." Now simple math will tell you this is an embarrassing mistake for a historian to make, but it seemed like one that I could mention after in a more lighthearted manner.

But the other thing that the student said was essentially "It seems like there could be some parallels between my event and current events. But I don't want to make them."

This seemed a much bigger issue to me, and worth a comment because it was a research conference. And when there was a moment for me to speak after the presentations, I said, "I'd hope that if there are parallels between history and today that we'd point them out - isn't that a goal of history, after all? We want to hear your thoughts."

To my way of thinking, a college history paper that doesn't analyze and suggest isn't really a college level work. If you're just going to describe when events happened and who was involved, then you're doing the sort of work I did in fifth grade social studies. It'd be like being asked to look at a text and merely summarizing the plot. It's shallow. And maybe it's even fin for some classes, but for a conference about research, it's shallow.

So imagine my surprise when the student's sponsoring professor from the history department pulled me aside at the end to tell me in a tone that didn't seem happy to me that - and I'm paraphrasing - he didn't understand or appreciate my comment to his student.

And so now I'm in my office, doing a little of this and a little of that, wondering if my question was somehow unfair. Did I torpedo a student presentation? I don't think I did. And yet I can't help thinking maybe I've just made some bad blood.


9 Responses to “Everything in Moderation”
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Poor Charlotte said...

Your comment sounds appropriate to me. The prof was probably embarrassed because maybe she or he ok'd the paper; therefore, the prof took it as a criticism of the guidance he or she gave the student...which sounds warranted.

But, I'd probably be questioning myself the way you are. Sigh.

April 25, 2008 at 5:32 PM

I think for a student (or anyone) to say, "There could be some parallels, but I don't want to make them," is bad form; if you don't want to make them, then don't bring them up to begin with! But as a historian, I also usually try actively to suppress my students' desire to draw such parallels, because often they're really terrible and anachronistic (I did a directed study with a student on twelfth-c. religion and this student kept insisting on saying, "so because the Catholic church was like x in the twelfth-c., the Republican party is like y today." Um, no. Really, not. And I'm seriously not exaggerating). Partly because for students, parallels usually means cause-and-effect rather than what I really think of as parallels.

I also wonder to what extent the student's statement was a response to advice like my own - that is, the student had *wanted* actually to make parallels, but had been told not to by their professor.

Because the thing is, while it's important to address the significance of an argument and often that's done by pointing out how the historical subject is relevant to today, if the student is studying whatever past period it is, *that's* what the paper should be about - as a historian, I really really really hate when a student takes a perfectly nice argument and analysis of whatever past period they're addressing, and then says, "And we can see the same thing happening with the US presidency today." Is it a paper about the US presidency? Have you done research on the US presidency? Then perhaps you should avoid talking about it? I think there are a lot of ways that history papers "analyze and suggest" that don't have to be connected to current events.

Sorry, hope that doesn't sound too ranty, but it's something dear to my heart!

April 25, 2008 at 7:19 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

No need to apologize - it didn't feel like a rant to me. Part of why I posted about it was because I wondered whether maybe it's a difference in the disciplines, so it's particularly interesting to hear how - and why - you'd ask a student to do something similar.

My thought on a research conference is that I'd only push my best students to do it, and so the students who were making good inferences from their research would (hopefully) be there. And might it be that the history methods courses I took as a graduate student represented a particular view on how history is done?

April 25, 2008 at 7:45 PM
Dr. Crazy said...

See, my question was about how this thing was organized, in part. My university does a similar sort of thing with undergrad research, but you have to apply to do it, have a faculty sponsor, etc. and it's taken pretty seriously on the front end. That said, it's touted as a "celebration" of student research, and so at least in my context, it would be inappropriate to call a student out during the panel - however kindly - if you were moderating. The moderator really is just a master of ceremonies, not a commenter. All the moderators really do is introduce the students, and at the end maybe say something about how wonderful it is that our students are doing such interesting things.

So while I don't think you were wrong, I do see how the sponsoring prof might have taken what you did as inappropriate depending on how such things are normally conducted.

April 25, 2008 at 8:13 PM
Margaret said...

I was going to kind of say what New Kid said... In my experience, the historians I know do get a little touchy about making easy analogies to the present. They kind of take it as a point of pride that they DON'T read history through the lens of the present, or at least they try not to; it seems to be one of their favorite criticisms of non-historians and historians they don't like.

April 25, 2008 at 10:47 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Fair points all, though it's funny that it does make me want to laugh at every time someone ever gave me that quote about being doomed to repeat history if you don't know it. I'd characterize my comment as asking the student to look at the present through the lens of things that have come before.

Dr. C's point about the goals of the event are interesting. I imagine the event here is probably organized similarly. That feels dog-and-pony show-like to me, and so makes me uneasy, but it's certainly not an unlikely - or bad - position to take.

In any case, I've done a couple of things. First, I sent an e-mail to the folks on the panel and their advisers thanking them for participating and mentioning specific things I liked from my notes. Perhaps that'll ease some discomfort, and it doesn't feel like I'm selling out my views on anything.

April 26, 2008 at 3:43 PM
dance said...

Ditto to new kid---as a historian, yeah, papers cannot just describe what happened, but making parallels to the present is not analysis either. Events have to be analyzed on their own terms. It sounds like you felt the paper lacked analysis, but that's a different issue from connecting it to the present, and in fact, connecting it to the present is the lazy sloppy way a student might pretend to have analytical claims/thesis that they actually don't have the data to back up. In my view. :)

That said, I tend to encourage my students to end essays with a speculation that might make connections to the present, but that's not the analytical thesis, just putting a little kick in the conclusion. I can't decide whether such a kick might be more appropriate for a oral presentation, or just distraction from the real meat of the student research. Orally, I would probably start with such a parallel, not as a claim, but as drawing my attention to the larger topic.

Tim Burke's recent post on how historians answer "so what" might interest you. But a lot of the things he lists are rarely within the capability of undergraduates, and thus professors tend to avoid them. Likely your colleague reacted badly because you encouraged something he has been at pains to beat out of them.

April 27, 2008 at 10:50 AM

dr. c(urmudgeon, not razy ;-D) - no, I understand what you mean. I do think there's a lot to be said for looking at the present through the lens of the past, and general, that is what I hope my classes help my students do - but on their own time, not in their research papers. ;-) Part of it is that I'm well aware of my own ignorance on current events, and so I feel highly unqualified for students to wander too far into any exploration of them. And partly it is that if students are going to draw those parallels, I want the current events stuff to be as well-researched as the past stuff (I mean, my students are rarely better informed than I am), and then it turns into a whole different paper! I like Dance's point about using speculation either to kick off a paper or conclude it, but that's as far as I'd want them to go.

And there probably are differences of opinion among historians about how to approach this, yeah. I think some of it depends on your subfield - as a medievalist, while I definitely see elements of the Middle Ages that are relevant for understanding things today, I also probably have a different perspective than someone who studies Vietnam or civil rights or something.

And honestly, I do laugh at the quote about being doomed to repeat history if you don't know it, because no one's ever been able to give me good example of this in action! Besides, the history one "knows" in such contexts is invariably pretty contest-able.

April 27, 2008 at 11:56 AM

Oh, I also feel compelled to add that in my grad program, the "historical methods" graduate class, which was required of all entering grad students, was unanimously regarded as one of the worst classes our department offered. So if you'd taken it at my U, you'd definitely have ended up short-changed! (I'm sure your U was better, though. ;-D)

April 27, 2008 at 11:59 AM