What’s your ideal AJS conference?

Syracuse University

I’ve been going to the AJS conference just about every year for the past twenty years. I keep coming back for the small venue and intimate scale. If you go for long enough, you get to know everyone. Year in and out, you run into her, him, or them in the lobby, on a panel, at the hotel bar, or wandering around the book exhibit. The proximity makes for a sense of community-citizenship and close bonds of scholarly-human fellowship, which I think is special to a forum like the AJS conference with its parochial character, and which makes the conference precious. What would be an ideal conference? One where I get to see my friends, meet colleagues, make new friends, and hear something new. Not the same old lines of analysis that I’ve heard over and over, but something, anything, that I’ve never heard before, at least not at the AJS conference, some kind of intellectual connection that might force me to rethink the study of the Jews and Judaism, the human condition, in some new light, from a skewed perspective and larger frame.

Taub Center for Israel Studies & Skirball Department for Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University

As an anthropologist, I find it very exciting to share my ethnographic and theoretical work with scholars from a range of disciplines who might not normally come across it. This is, in part, why I have enjoyed attending AJS conferences. Over the past several years I have delivered papers at AJS’s annual meeting on organized panels spanning a diverse range of topics: Jewish music; the economics of Jewish education; mysticism and spirituality; Israeli culture and nationalism; and Mizrahi pop culture. This has meant gaining perspectives and feedback from scholars who view issues from diverse vantage points and methodologies, and I know that this has enriched my research. I believe AJS could do more to facilitate such important interactions. Perhaps AJS could encourage a
formalized “speed-dating” type of academic networking during a reception, where attendees might meet a range of scholars over hors d’oeuvres; these brief interactions
would likely lead to new collaborations.

At the same time, it is very important for the more specialized caucuses to have a
space to meet. My ideal AJS conference would also offer a forum/meeting for scholars who
examine contemporary cultural studies (such as anthropologists, sociologists, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, and scholars of film, dance, and literature). We—who study the very recent past and present—are a small minority at AJS, and it would be wonderful to have an opportunity to discuss our work and shared theoretical interests and concerns.

In short, the ideal AJS conference would provide attendees with more opportunities for interaction and exchange beyond our disciplinary boundaries while also allowing further communication and connection with scholars in our own specialized fields.

Finally, I feel a responsibility to voice what so many of us feel: if we continue to meet at the beginning of winter vacation, why not occasionally hold the meetings in sunny Florida? Laura Levitt and David Shneer’s annual AJS party could only be improved if folks were sipping margaritas with an ocean-side view.

York University

Thinking about my ideal AJS conference, I face a pleasant challenge: there isn’t much I would change or add. I came to Jewish Studies after a midcareer reorientation from the history of modern art to Jewish visual culture, modern and contemporary. From my first AJS conference in December 2000, I knew I had found my way home. But what makes the annual conference better or more effective than other scholarly meetings? Well, the AJS conference is relatively small and heimish (I hope not clannish), and that suits me fine. Even though our annual breakfast is at 7:00 a.m., I really value the wonderful work of the Women’s Caucus. I do a lot of schmoozing with what I think of as “the-only-Jewish-community-where-I feel-at-home”; as a secular Jewish woman, it’s my ideal beit midrash.

Still, with schmoozing and committee meetings, I get to fewer sessions than I’d like. I’m not sure how to resolve this embarrassment of riches. I’m looking forward to this year’s new program formats—the seminars, in particular. I love the idea of precirculated or posted papers from a group of scholars, more discussion, and lengthened or multiple timeslots. I’m concerned, though, that this might be an elite conversation; I’d really enjoy a more open seminar discussion with a fixed number of participants—maybe twenty to thirty—who sign on in advance, study the work, and bring prepared voices to the discussion. Digital projects are important teaching and research tools for me. I’d like to learn about them in the more intimate setting of a scheduled display booth encounter, much like the book display, rather than using up dedicated session slots. Finally, I ‘d love to attend an annual session devoted to “second thoughts,” in which senior scholars think aloud about the changes, revisions, and vagaries of their earlier scholarship. It would be part methodology, part experience, and a view of how our intellectual practice works.

The AJS conference is a great intellectual and community gathering. Can’t wait till December!

Monash University

The heart of the AJS conference lies in the hallways, conference rooms, and cafés of the hotel. My ideal AJS conference would involve finding myself listening to a panel that may not be directly associated with my area of work, but piques my interest methodologically or because of the eclectic and unexpected composition of the panel. I too am guilty of organizing panels around a specific topic. And yet I find the most thought-provoking panels are those that are bound together around a methodological question or debate. Having said that, some of the most rewarding intellectual exchanges and moments of professional development flow through the conversations that take place away from the panels, in the hallways and coffee shops of the hotel. The majority of AJS conference participants use the conference as an opportunity to catch up with old friends and informally meet senior scholars who can help guide their professional paths. An ideal conference could find a way to formalize those types of conversations—through mentoring sessions and programs; informal interest group meetings based on subfields (French Jewish history, for instance) where scholars can exchange ideas, archival knowledge, and learn about developing research projects; sponsored social functions for faculty with shared social and professional experiences such as untenured faculty, faculty at large state institutions, or those working at universities with large Jewish populations; and, finally, more working groups based on research fields that are scheduled during prime conference time. Having recently moved from the rich Jewish Studies community of New York to the significantly smaller (yet vibrant) one of Melbourne, ultimately the most rewarding AJS conferences allow me to reconnect with a supportive and energetic academic community.

Duke University

An ideal AJS conference is no different from other annual disciplinary conferences (in contradistinction to small conferences that focus on one theme or issue). The main questions for me are not only what conference format (or formats) allows participants to attend talks by their friends, socialize with colleagues from other universities, and spread around the latest gossip, though all are worthy ends in and of themselves. An ideal conference also provides a space for divergent activities, not all reconcilable. For one, it should allow for an easy survey of the state of the field at the present. Given the fact that Jewish Studies is anything but a coherent discipline, and that it is much more a loose network of scholars from divergent disciplines who espouse divergent scholarly agendas brought together only by their subject matter, such a survey is anything but simple. An ideal conference would thus highlight works that have the potential to have a wide impact beyond the particular pale of the discipline and research agenda of their authors. Simultaneously a conference should also generate intensive scholarly exchanges both within the particular disciplines that make up Jewish Studies and within the field (however it is defined) at large. Such exchanges, inasmuch as they require time and engagement and perhaps even particular disciplinary knowledge, do not always go hand in hand with a survey of the field as a whole. Still, most important to me are unexpected intellectual encounters, ones that lead me to think anew and from a new perspective about the questions on which my own research focuses. Often such exchanges take place with people outside my own discipline. Indeed, a successful conference leads people to engage productively with presentations in areas they would not normally follow. This is the biggest challenge to conference organizers, the most difficult to achieve, yet one that turns the conference experience into a most satisfying one.

An afterthought: much of this depends not so much on the conference organizers, on the format (or formats) of the conference, and on the selection of papers presented, as on the institutional culture of participants. Are they interested in crossing over their disciplinary boundaries or do they rather stick to their familiar setting? Do they look to reinforce what they believe in or, rather, are they willing to challenge and question it?

Vanderbilt University

AJS conferences consistently provide all the elements that make for an ideal conference: an array of high quality presentations by a diverse group of scholars, excellent exhibits, and a first-rate hallway experience. The question is, do I make the most of these opportunities? In any given year, the answer to that question determines whether I leave feeling that the conference has been ideal.

Over the years, I have approached the conference in different ways. In some years, I have immersed myself in the sessions of my particular division. In others, I have spent my time in conversations and meetings outside the sessions. Both approaches, however, have generally left me feeling that I was missing too much, surrounded by treasures of which I was hardly partaking.

Lately, I have been trying to spend much more time in sessions that are far afield from my actual area of study. The AJS conference provides one of the few opportunities to encounter Jewish Studies in its full breadth. I try to experience the field writ large, beyond my four cubits. Are there leading minds who have trained my friends and colleagues in other subfields but whom I have never read nor heard in person? I try to see them. Are there smart young scholars whom I meet in the halls and who might feel supported by an interested person at their sessions? I go to hear them, too. Are there people working on similar questions as me but from a radically different disciplinary vantage point? Circle those on my program guide.

We are, by dint of our profession, specialists. And while the AJS conference provides an opportunity for us to delve deeper into our respective specializations, it affords a wonderful opportunity to listen in on others’ conversations, to expand horizons, and to experience the much larger scholarly enterprise of which we are all a part.

The Ohio State University

I remember my first AJS conferences well. As a new mother and recent PhD, I was impressed by the intentional creation of a community of communities. There, in the not-so-heimish context of Chicago and Boston corporate hotels, parents like me dropped off their very young children at on-site childcare and hurried off to sessions that we had efficiently mapped out in the program booklet text. I can remember excitedly noting that a session on queer theory had managed to make its way into what I had expected to be a more narrowly imagined Jewish Studies rubric. I also remember attending the oh-so early morning women’s caucus where a Mizrahi feminist scholar spoke with passion and poise.

Over the years, my initial concern over the privileging of “mainstream” Jewish Studies gave way to a sense that AJS celebrates the multiple streams that coexist within the porous boundaries of “the field.” I watched music and art colleagues reimagine the AJS conference by creating new panels and sections that reflected our research interests—and I was reminded of something African American culture historian Bernice Johnson Reagon had said to me years earlier—“If you feel something is missing, it is probably the sound of your own voice.”

In other words, AJS seems to have succeeded in fostering a structure that allows for new voices to enter the conversation. My ideal AJS conference then, would be one that continues to nurture this inclusive sense of tradition and transformation beyond what we can now imagine. If I were to suggest two areas for further development, they would be:

Global reach: find resources for increased numbers of Jewish Studies scholars and students from countries outside of North America to add their voices to the mix.

Multimedia teaching: For seven years I have been teaching a course that is based on blog-bridging, videoconference sessions, and conflict transformation. I coteach the course and study tour “Living Jerusalem: Ethnography and Blogbridging in Disputed Territory” with a Muslim American colleague. I would enjoy a forum devoted to multimedia teaching. If I take Dr. Reagon’s words to heart—I guess it’s time for me to add my voice to the conversation and get this idea off the ground!

Dickinson College

Working at a small liberal arts college, AJS keeps me connected to the broader field of Jewish Studies—its people, its trends, and its politics. The conference comes once a year as that rare opportunity to network, compare notes, and get my scholarly wheels turning. I learn what my colleagues are doing and how they are doing it; and if I’m presenting my own work, I get valuable feedback from knowledgeable peers. And yet, as much as I look forward to the AJS conference, I have noticed that lately, I tend to spend less time in formal conference sessions and more time in the lobby and the hallways. And considering the spotty attendance in the sessions I do attend, it seems I’m not alone.

My ideal AJS conference is a meeting where we eliminate our guilt over the inclination to skip out on formal sessions by making informal, spontaneous conversation a legitimate and driving force of the conference program itself. This vision of the AJS conference conceptually flips the hotel lobby and the meeting room, thus shifting the “buzz” of the hallway—the informal networking that is so important to our professional development—from the margins to the center of the AJS conference experience.

Imagine a block of time in our conference program that is driven by ideas and questions generated spontaneously, without any formal presentation to shape the discussion. A scholar working on a particular project might “host” a session in which she raises some questions she’s thinking about in her work. Those who share her questions might join in and stay for a while before moving over to a nearby discussion about pedagogy, or another about gender. Meeting facilitation styles like Open Source Technology or World Café, popular in the business and nonprofit sector, are useful tools that foster “structured spontaneity”—sessions where the issues that matter to the scholars in the room drive the conversation.

Now, there are lots of reasons to maintain the traditional presentation model. Let’s face it, many of our institutions fund our travel only when we present our research publicly, and many of us need that momentary spotlight. But, if new technologies are forcing higher education to rethink the nature of the academic classroom, maybe it’s time for us to rethink the way we share our work at the AJS conference?

Temple University

Admittedly I have an unusual perspective on this question. For the past fifteen years or so I have hosted a party on the Monday night of the conference and have increasingly spent much of my time at the AJS conference—when not in sessions—handing out invitations and simply encouraging any and all to come to the party. For my ideal conference we are in a beautiful hotel where we have access to a lush penthouse suite for the party. This is not a dream—we have done this in L.A. with the generous support of AJS and my amazing cosponsors! Of course, to make this vision sing requires large and diverse participation in the conference, many scholars of Jewish Studies and related fields and subfields all gathered together in such a hotel. In this ideal hotel there are lots of communal spaces, lobbies, and lounges where people at the conference can bump into each other and just hang out. These are crucial aspects of my ideal conference, but I also want to be able to go to sessions.

I want to attend sessions where I learn new things, where I hear new voices as well as great papers by people I know and by scholars whose work I have admired for a long time and want to hear and finally meet in person. I also want to attend sessions where there is lots of time for questions and discussion and where those in the audience contribute and enhance the session. And I want to be able to continue the conversation after the session is over as we spill into the hall and find some of those communal spaces to continue to talk in passionate and engaged ways. These visions of enriching sessions also come from my experiences at recent AJS gatherings. I had an amazing two-plus hour conversation just this past year with two presenters I had never met before, two early career scholars on a panel about Argentinian Jewish life. And, at my ideal conference, I also want to be able to see the works of those I have heard and met on display in the book exhibit. I want to be able to buy their books at the conference.

I have to say, as I write these reflections, it is less about ideals and more about what I now experience at this conference each and every year. I love the size, the scale of this gathering as opposed to the AAR, the religion conference I also regularly attend. I like that we are in a single hotel (more or less) in any given city, and I am grateful to the energetic and inspired leadership of AJS, who for the past number of years has made these ideals a reality.

Hebrew University

Communication has improved so dramatically over the past few years to the point that most of us are in constant electronic contact with fellow scholars throughout the year. As such, the ideal AJS conference is one where human contact with colleagues, mentors, and friends is at the center. A great conference is one where the papers are more than transcripts read aloud but constitute real-time dialogues. There are more roundtable discussions, more seminar-like presentations, etc. More than that, the places and times available for professional meetings outside of the session rooms are ample. Most of all, an ideal AJS conference is one where the conversations about the texts and theories that brought us to academia in the first place spill into coffee shops, bars, and those “epic” AJS parties.

Brandeis University

I try to strike a balance among the following: attending several sessions in my most immediate fields of interest, sitting in on at least one session in a field I know little about (heard a great one last year on Irano-Judaica), scheduled professional and social meetings (which should involve sushi and white wine), and at least one unplanned adventure (which should also involve sushi and white wine). And of course, books, books, books.


My ideal conference is one in which people leave with connections, insights, information, and possibilities that they didn’t have when they arrived. I am acutely aware of the cost—in time, family arrangements, and money—that members pay in order to come to the conference. AJS has to earn people’s participation each year, and make it worth their while. The availability of video conferencing and online forums for sharing research means making the case for in-person conferences is even more urgent. So the question is, why not just move the AJS conference online? Why not arrange for a massive exchange of papers over the internet? It would certainly save everyone (including AJS) a lot of money and travel time. But scholarly communication happens differently in person than online or over the phone or by reading a journal article. The conference is a unique form of scholarly communication because of its very social and spontaneous nature. You can’t replace the opportunity presented by putting five scholars on a podium for an unscripted roundtable discussion, or of presenting a new theory to an audience of experts, and having them bounce ideas and responses off each other. Nor can you replace the opportunity created by bumping into someone in line for coffee. Corporate leaders like Google are structuring their cafeterias to create the same chances for informal interactions (a lunch line that lingers a bit) that happen naturally at the AJS conference, whether in the lobby or book exhibit or hotel cafe. Yahoo’s recent decision to bring telecommuters back to the office highlighted a slew of research about how innovation happens when people interact face to face. Scholarship is often, by necessity, a solitary endeavor, but the conference offers a respite from that, and an opportunity to put ideas to the test, get feedback, speak informally, and connect with someone who you have been meaning to connect with, but couldn’t find the time or right approach. So, an ideal conference to me is one in which people leave thinking “I could never have done that by email.”