What’s your ideal AJS conference?

Shai Ginsburg

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?