Because of Homostorian Americanist’s recent correspondence with a silly high-schooler who was fishing for someone to do her homework, reader Nervous Ned writes in to ask, ” What is the appropriate way to contact another professional historian and ask hir to participate in a panel as a chair or commenter?” This is a great question–it’s something that lots of us are doing these days, because of all of the calls for papers that emphasize transnational this and comparative that. The odds are that crafting a panel these days will require reaching far beyond one’s sub-field. Ned explains his problem:
I have been working with a couple of other people to assemble a comparative, modern history panel for the next American Historical Association annual meeting. Myself and another panelist are junior faculty at distinctly un-prestigious state schools. The third panelist is a grad student. We did not personally know any prominent scholars with a reputation for working on [the nominal topic of the panel], so we decided to e-mail scholars whose work we admired and thought would be able to critique our papers. The Grad Student offered to email a couple people because she had met them tangentially at a conference. These did not pan out, so I emailed a scholar I admired who had written about [this field] in [my area of geographical expertise]. But after reading your post on student XXXX and hir insistent e-mail pestering I realized that we may have acted inappropriately, by emailing senior faculty and associate professors out of the blue.
Is there a good way to go about talking to scholars you are not acquainted with and asking them to help you out with your panel or work, especially for someone like a grad student or junior faculty member who is not really well connected? More importantly, I have not heard from the person I emailed. I probably should have worked the grapevine and gotten some sort of introduction, but its a little late now. Should I apologize?
Apologize??? For doing your job and also helping to mentor a graduate student? Banish the thought from your brain immediately! While it’s true that Historiann and many of the commenters here sometimes lament the “world is flat” effects of our universities publishing detailed descriptions of our teaching and research interests alongside our e-mail addresses, your e-mails (and those from the graduate student on this panel) are exactly the kind of professional correspondence that most professional historians actually enjoy receiving. So long as you and your colleagues on this panel write briefly and politely to explain the panel and which role you’d like your correspondent to play on it, it’s all good. (Bonus points for actually being familiar with hir body of work, and for complimenting hir sincerely. No one ever gets tired of hearing how inspiring this book or that article they’ve published was to you. I’ve made some of my very best friends and professional contacts that way!)
Also, don’t apologize because your fellow panelists are a grad student and/or junior faculty and/or “at distinctly un-prestigious state schools.” Guess what? So were and/or are most of the rest of us, including most Associate and Full Professors once upon a time, if not for the rest of our careers. One of the nice things about the “world is flat” effects of e-mail and conference travel is that these distinctions really don’t mean that much in the long run if you’re producing interesting scholarship. (And if it matters to Professor Snootypants somewhere–that’s hir problem, not yours. But ze’s unlikely to say “yes” to your invitation anyway.) Hold your head up proudly and confidently. (Besides: you have a job. That will automatically earn you props among the many grad students and/or unemployed recent Ph.D.s you’ll meet at the AHA. Your job might be teh suckity-suck, but they don’t know that–all they know is that you’ve got a place to go every morning, health insurance, TIAA-CREF, and a paycheck every month.)
Your problem in filling out this panel may be that you’re trying to get people to come to the 2011 AHA. In Chicago Boston. In January. No one goes to AHA just to be on a panel–most people there are people who will be interviewing for jobs, or interviewing other people for jobs, or people who must attend business meetings for the AHA. So, don’t take it personally if it takes more than one e-mail to find a willing soul. So, you might see if there are any AHA officers who are appropriate to your interests who will be there anyway, and/or you might see if there are Chicago-area scholars who might be appropriate–they’re the kind of people who might like something official to do while they’re “dropping in” on the conference to meet up with old friends. If you haven’t heard back from the eminence gris/eyet, don’t take it personally: ze might be ill, or away from e-mail, or checking hir schedule, or thinking seriously about your offer. It seems like a week is a reasonable window for replying to an e-mail like yours–both for you to wait, and a deadline for the correspondent’s reply. (If any of you get an e-mail like this, it seems like some kind of reply–even an “I don’t know what my schedule will be–what’s the deadline for the proposal?”–should be easily managed within a week.)
Ned, you and your fellow panelists are working members of the historical profession. You can e-mail any damn historian you want to. Always remember: “a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met.”
Readers–over to you. Do you have any advice for Nervous Ned? Do you have any funny or humiliating stories of e-mailed invitations gone awry? Dish!