January 22 2018

Interview with Outgoing Program Unit Director, Nelly van Doorn-Harder

Nelly van Doorn-Harder was born and raised in the Netherlands where she earned her PhD on the topic of women’s monasticism in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. Before moving to the USA, she was director of a refugee program in Cairo, Egypt and taught Islamic Studies at universities in the Netherlands (Leiden) and Indonesia (Yogakarta). She held the Surjit S. Patheja Chair in World Religions and Ethics at Valparaiso University from 1999-2009. She then moved to Wake Forest University, where she has been a Professor of Islamic Studies since 2009.

She is the author of several works on Coptic Christianity and Indonesian Islam, including The Emergence of the Modern Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership from the Ottoman Period to the Present (AUC Press, 2011); Attitudes to Human Rights and Freedom of Religion of Belief in Indonesia: Voices of Islamic Religious Leaders in East Java (Kanisius Publishers, 2010); and Women Shaping Islam: Indonesian Muslim Women Reading the Qur'an (University of Illinois Press, 2006).

Nelly has served in the leadership of a number of program units in the AAR. She served as chair of the Study of Islam Section from 2004–2008. She founded and has chaired the Middle Eastern Christianity Group since 2009. Nelly served on the AAR's Governance Task Force, which revamped the AAR's entire governance structure, from 20082010, and became the first Program Unit Director under that new structure from 2011–2013.

RSN: You are the first “member chair” of the Program Committee (previously the AAR executive director served ex officio in this role). How did this come about?

Van Doorn-Harder: My position as chair of the Program Committee was the natural outcome of a complete overhaul of the AAR governance structure that started in 2008. When the Governance Task Force began its work, I had been one of the chairs of the Study of Islam Section, which after 9/11 became the fastest growing program unit in the AAR. In fact, we spun off three new units focusing on Islamic mysticism, the Qur’an and contemporary Islam. I had been a member of the Program Committee from 2005–2007, and these two ways of experiencing AAR bureaucracy were formative in my ideas about the role of the members. In particular, I realized that those of us who served as program unit chairs shape the Annual Meeting program and are instrumental in steering the intellectual and academic discussions. We create the interesting panels and the platforms where people can discuss their work and build communities that energize and lead to new initiatives. So it seemed curious at best that the executive director chaired the Program Committee and not someone who had been involved in this work at the grassroots. In the new governance structure the chair of the Program Committee is being elected by the entire AAR membership and its members, who used to be handpicked by the President, are now being elected by the Program Unit Chairs. 

RSN: How has the Program Committee reacted to the explosive growth of the field?

Van Doorn-Harder: The focus of public attention on religion in the post-9/11 era led to an enormous growth in the number of Program Units and the expansion of the Annual Meeting program. For example, the number of program units grew 70%, from 87 in 2005 (when I joined the Program Committee for the first time) to 148 in 2013.  One of the reasons for this increase of new program units was that when we made the decision in 2003 to hold meetings independent of the SBL, we needed to cover some of the gaps left in the program and cater to the members who used to attend sessions at both societies. For example, when we split, the Coptic Studies Group moved to SBL and in order to cover the gap we decided to launch a unit on the broader topic of Middle Eastern Christianity at AAR.

Naturally, this healthy growth has also called up a range of questions and issues to consider since it was accompanied by a parallel 69% increase in the number of proposals (from 1,918 in 2005 to 3,236 in 2013) and 56% increase in the number of sessions (from 310 to 484). One benefit to the rapid expansion of the program has been that many more members are participating on the program. In 2005, 1,364 people appeared in 1,691 roles on the Annual Meeting program. In 2013, 2,024 people are appearing in 2,570 roles on the program. That’s about a 50% increase in program participation! So many more people are getting a chance to present their research, and (hopefully) have their institutions fund their travel.

However, we are still among the most competitive academic associations within the humanities and social sciences (with only about a 30% acceptance rate on average). This is why the Program Committee has spent so much time reconsidering how we plan the meeting and how we can support colleagues whose career track requires they give regular presentations at professional meetings.

The downside of this growth has been the greater difficulty of scheduling the meeting, not only for the AAR’s Director of Meetings, but also for attendees. There is much more thematic overlap in any given time slot than there was eight years ago.

The Program Committee has looked at this as an opportunity to encourage collaboration between groups working on similar topics or related fields or for those looking for some sort of cross-fertilization when pursuing certain themes that can range from the impact of the environment to issues connected to urbanization or migration. As a result, cosponsored sessions have increased an amazing 250% since 2005.

In 2010, when the Program Committed looked at overlaps and shared interests, it occurred to us that some units might prefer to work in clusters or other types of networks. We piloted three clusters in 2012, and two of them decided to keep going. Currently, three units are working together around the topics of social theory and religion and four other units are working together around the topics of religion in art, literature, popular culture, film, media, and visual culture.

In conjunction with SBL’s Annual Meeting Program Committee, we are encouraging program unit chairs to reach across the divide and partner with SBL program units as well.

RSN: Other than encouraging more cooperation, how is the Program Committee dealing with the growth of the Program in the context of a three-and-a-half day Annual Meeting?

Van Doorn-Harder: One other way the Program Committee has tried to deal with the overcrowding of the program is in creating shorter sessions. In 2006, we instituted three 90-minute sessions on Sunday afternoon in place of the two 2.5 hour sessions that had been scheduled at that time. Reaction was initially mixed, but these slots now host some of the most well-attended and creative sessions of the Annual Meeting.

For the past two years, we have included questions in the post-Annual Meeting survey in order to gauge attendee’s opinions about the length of Annual Meeting sessions.*

In 2012, when we asked about the ideal length for an average Annual Meeting session, 39.4% responded 120 minutes, 25.7% responded 90 minutes, and only 11.6% responded 150 minutes. A grand total of 83.4% of respondents felt that the ideal length of a session would be 120 minutes or less.

In response to these numbers, the Program Committee took the following steps:

  1. We offered optional two-hour session slots concurrent with the 2.5-hour slots on Saturday, Sunday morning, and Monday. In 2012, we held two-hour sessions on Monday afternoon, and these were well received. We have thirty two-hour sessions on the program for 2013.
  2. We also introduced optional ninety-minute sessions on Tuesday morning, 8:30 a.m.–10:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m. We have eleven of these ninety-minute sessions on the program for 2013.

Believe it or not, it took days of debating and comparing schedules to decide on these small changes, such as the format of sessions and the length of presentations, since they have quite far reaching consequences.

RSN: You mentioned that the AAR has one of the lowest acceptance rates of any of its colleagues. As such, a lot of great scholarship is not being presented. How is the Program Committee dealing with this?

Van Doorn-Harder: Shortening sessions—while still wanting to expand the number of people who can appear on the program—naturally means that we need to rethink how we can host more speakers per session. One option that the Program Committee has made possible for program units is to have presenters post their full papers online a few weeks before the Annual Meeting. The AAR posts the papers behind the member firewall, so that only current AAR members can log into the AAR website to see them. They also add code to those pages so that they cannot be accessed by search engines. The papers are removed shortly after the Annual Meeting. Last year three program units engaged in a pilot of this program to great success. This year a dozen program units are hosting sessions in which papers will be pre-posted. In a session with this format, each presenter can summarize his or her paper in 5-10 minutes, and most of the session time can be left for discussion.

RSN: What is the Program Committee doing to improve presentations and stimulate discussion in Annual Meeting sessions?

Van Dorn-Harder: The Program Committee has been very concerned with the quality of presentations. In our classrooms we wouldn’t dream of reading a dry, academic paper to our students for 20–30 minutes, so why would we expose our colleagues to this? When brainstorming about which sessions were most productive, we agreed the discussions that were the most engaging were the ones that made us all feel involved. We also found that those sessions facilitated networking with other colleagues—one of the reasons many of us attend the meeting.

During last year’s program unit chairs’ breakfast, we asked the program unit chairs for suggestions about how we can improve the program and the sessions. To our pleasant surprise, most chairs agreed that we should move away from the traditional format of reading four papers. Instead, they preferred to explore alternative forms of presenting and to encourage models that leave more time for discussion. In fact, many of our peer organizations are using the model of summarizing and discussion.

RSN: You've served two terms on the Program Committee, from 2005–2007, and then as chair from 2011–2013. How has the operation of the committee and the Annual Meeting program changed?

Van Doorn-Harder: The changes I’ve mentioned so far have profoundly impacted the work of the Program Committee to the extent that one weekend-long meeting a year no longer suffices to cover all the issues that need to be discussed. So we have gone from one to three meetings. In December we meet to evaluate the last annual meeting, review program unit applications and renewals, approve the Call for Papers for the next year. In April we spend two days discussing new plans and policies. For example, this past April we looked at the handbook for program unit chairs to see what type of information would be useful, especially for newly elected chairs who are trying to find their way in the maze of rules and directions.  We also spent quite some time going over a “best practices” document that chairs can refer to when reviewing proposals, creating sessions, and running their business meetings. We plan to share these ideas with our members shortly. The third meeting is during lunch on the Monday of the Annual Meeting: at that time we assess how the meeting is going and if there are any issues that need immediate attention.

RSN: What other new topics is the Program Committee trying to address?

Van Doorn-Harder: Currently there are two other large topics we have started to address and that will have to be taken on by my successor. It concerns our members who work outside the Academy and the growing number of international members who don’t reside in the USA.

With the shrinking number of positions in our field of study, many of us at one time in our careers might work outside the Academy. This reality has moved us to look into new activities that are of interest for members who do other types of jobs. One of the options we are looking into is to hold panels or discussions about the public understanding of religion on the dreaded Tuesday morning and invite non-members who are interested in the themes and could use the experience for their continuing education. This year we will have a session on religion and philanthropic giving on Monday, 5:00 p.m.–6:30 p.m.

This type of public outreach also ties in with our ongoing attempts to keep conversations about the relevance of studying religion in the public sphere. Integrating specific concerns of the cities where we have the annual meeting is just one part of a larger strategy to highlight the relevance of our field.

Finally, having started as an international member when still living in Amsterdam, I sympathize with the challenges those of us who live outside the USA face to stay in touch with the networks here. Currently, 10% of our members do not teach in the USA or Canada. Especially now—across the globe as budgets get tighter—finding the funds to attend the Annual Meeting has become as difficult for them as it is for many of us. So we are considering ways to organize panels that involve speakers who join via an electronic meeting platform such as Skype, WebEx, or a Google Hangout. We have had to try out these ideas since in most of the conference venues the internet connections were too unreliable. But the availability and cost of technologies is rapidly changing.

At the same time, we are trying to develop closer cooperation with internationally oriented organizations. One of the new networking opportunities allows for members to apply for grants to work with colleagues outside the USA. We also have joined the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), which is a large network of affiliated organizations whose meetings our members are invited to attend. For example, members of the AAR attended the South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion (SSEASR)’s meeting in Manila about “Healing, Belief Systems, Cultures and Religions of South and Southeast Asia” in May and the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR)’s meeting in Liverpool on “Religion, Migration, Mutation” in September.

RSN: What advice will you give your successor?

Van Doorn-Harder: As the outgoing chair my advice to my successor would be to focus on one of the many future policies first. The annual work of the committee evolves in peaks and in valleys—during which time there is little else to do than address whatever comes on our plate since we are all busy with our regular jobs as well. So focus on one new policy, since every change has a domino effect which can absorb quite some time.

And when attending the Annual Meeting—although there will be meetings connected to being the Program Unit Director—keep enjoying the sessions you are interested in as well!


*AAR 2011–2012 Post-Annual Meeting Survey Results Length of Session Questions

What is your opinion of the length of regular AAR sessions (2.5 hours)? 2011 2012
Much too long 4.9% 6.7%
A little too long 43.5% 44.8%
About right 50.2% 47.2%
A little too short 1.3% 1.3%
Much too short 0.1% 0.0%


What is your opinion of the length of Sunday afternoon AAR sessions (90 minutes)? 2011 2012
Much too long 0.1% 0.3%
A little too long 1.9% 1.4%
About right 68.6% 73.3%
A little too short 25.4% 22.2%
Much too short 4.0% 2.8%


What do you think would be the ideal length for the average Annual Meeting session? 2011 2012
75 minutes 2.3% 2.2%
90 minutes 19.5% 25.7%
100 minutes 11.3% 10.2%
105 minutes 7.8% 5.9%
120 minutes 38.6% 39.4%
135 minutes 5.9% 5.0%
150 minutes 14.6% 11.6%