The Southern Intellectual History Circle gathers this week as we do almost every third Thursday in February to convene a professional discussion about southern history and literature. Founded over thirty years ago by Michael O’Brien, the Circle brings the brightest minds on the American South together to present original research and to discuss those presentations.
The somewhat unique format creates an intense intellectual couple of days and enough down time to enjoy colleagues. A keynote on Thursday evening is followed the next morning with panelists whose job it is to engage the keynoter’s argument and expand the discussion with their own expertise. Keynotes are not unique in conference settings, but the panel engagement the following day after folks have had time to digest the content has led to some momentous intellectual sparing. The remainder of Friday is two additional panels (topics change every year) with three presenters and two commenters. Again, not a completely unique format, but no questions are allowed after the panel presentations. Only after folks have had dinner, beverages of moderate proportions, and a good night’s sleep do the participants enter into discussions of the two panels in something known as the circle, with a designated circle for each panel. The discussions are wide ranging and involve the best minds in studying the South.
I realized the seriousness and amazing nature of the circle discussion several years ago when I defended a position that Michael O’Brien disagreed with and he let me know it. But when I pushed back, he conceded the point, and invited me to dinner. The other great thing about this conference is that it takes a sensible pace. Two hours for each session, but no formal work occurs Friday evening so folks can enjoy one another. And there is a long lunch break between the two circle discussions and a lovely evening of dinner with conversation moving freely from discussion of an idea to talk about families and back again. The circle, known commonly as SIHC (pronounced like sick), will meet at Mercer University next year and hosted by the Spencer B. King, Jr. Center for Southern Studies.