Thanks to Fletcher Warren ’15 for sharing this report on his experience earlier this month at the annual meeting of the world’s largest professional society for historians.
A couple of weeks ago, I jetted off to sunny Atlanta for the 130th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA). The AHA Annual Meeting is the largest professional meeting of historians in the world and attracts more than 5,000 scholars each year. At the core of the conference are the 400-odd panel discussions, each organized around a unifying theme. These panels require the space of multiple hotel convention centers and are interspersed with various other events — receptions, workshops, poster sessions, and of course, the exhibitor hall, featuring the largest academic publishers in the world, all hawking their wares at often deeply discounted prices. In short, the conference delivers four days of unrelenting historical revelry.
I decided to attend for many of the same reasons that other scholars go: to network and see the latest research in my area (and play the dilatant in other areas), but mostly, because I thought it would be enjoyable. Of course, as a recent B.A. graduate, I was somewhat out of place; a full 80% of the meeting attendees have PhDs or are seeking them, and only 2% have attained a B.A. as their highest credential. Most historians first attend the meeting as late-stage PhD candidates interviewing for their first academic jobs, but starting earlier has benefits, not least being able to actually enjoy the meeting while not worrying about job insecurity.
What tips would you recommend for getting the most out of the Annual Meeting?
First, I would suggest attending the “How to Get the Most Out of the Annual Meeting” session. Run by the executive director and several other staff of the AHA, this session delivered (as promised) many helpful tips for first-time attendees. It was also a good chance to meet other first-timers, many of whom were relatively young — i.e. more approachable than senior scholars.
Second: talk to as many people as you can. The conference and affiliated societies organize a great number of evening receptions and soirées that are excellent places to meet people who share your interests (and eat free food). I found the poster sessions were also good opportunities for meeting other attendees in a relatively informal setting. Actively talking to other historians is not only good networking, it’s enjoyable. For example, I met a graduate student who is writing his dissertation on ghost experiences in 12th century Italy. While my research is in a totally different area, learning about his work was utterly fascinating.
Beyond meeting people, I suggest intentionally attending a mix of sessions, both in format and subject matter. While most of the panels I attended were on late 19th and early 20th century central European history, I also attended a sessions on topics as diverse as the Silk Road, U.S. foreign policy, and the Culture Wars. Seeing scholars discuss their work in a variety of fields can be intellectually engaging and also gives insight into the differing methodologies and concerns of the many types of historians. Besides, there are few venues that can offer the breadth and depth of subject matter that the AHA meeting does. Take advantage of the opportunity to both engage your interests and satisfy curiosity.
Finally, if flying, leave room in your suitcase for books. Many of the publishers in the exhibition hall sell deeply discounted books (some as low at $3 per paperback!). My own haul was somewhat embarrassing.
What was it like to be a recent B.A. graduate at an event dominated by PhD students and professors?
I return to this subject only because it might be a hurdle that discourages some from attending a meeting. The first few hours of the conference were quite subduing. Soon though, I reminded myself that most people are friendly and perfectly happy to talk. In fact, most people I met were delighted to find a younger person at the meeting. And while rare, I did meet several current undergraduates and first year M.A. students. In short, don’t worry about not fitting in — you won’t be alone as a first time attendee, and your initiative in attending the meeting will impress.
What did you take away from the Annual Meeting that was most valuable?
Two things come most directly to mind. First, the panels and sessions I attended were inspiring. I was struck by how varied the field of history is, both in scope and method. One of the panels I attended (on the Silk Road) featured a roundtable of historians and archeologists — a reminder that in much of ancient history, material culture and its attendant skill sets (e.g., numismatology, epigraphy, etc.) are as important as textual analysis. Indeed, the data material artifacts present is often at odds with textual sources, making it a primary concern of historians to reconcile the two. In another panel, a historian of the Cold War examined records from Soviet bloc summer youth camps in an effort to trace the ideological impact of intra-bloc transnational youth movements. Other panels blended aspects of critical theory, sociology, and ethnography. Each of these approaches represents a valid way to do history. The Annual Meeting is an excellent place to become at least minimally acquainted with the breadth and variety of the historical profession.
Second, as someone considering PhD programs in history, the meeting provided an unvarnished look at the profession in (much) of its variety — both good and bad. For example, the conference was filled with the ubiquitous agonization about the state of the academic job market and funding. Perhaps most interesting to me was the degree to which the conference presented a total academic culture. I finally realized just how acclimatized I had become to overhearing buzzword-filled conversations between the PhD-educated only at the end of the four-day weekend when I ventured off-site for food. Hearing the conversation of “normal” young adults for the first time in several days was somewhat jarring. I consider this aspect of the conference to be more amusing and entertaining than anything, and I thought strongly at times of Kate Fox’s tongue-in-cheek ethnography of the English; someone ought to pen a similar volume about historians (or any group of academics) in their natural element. The conference, if nothing else, is a fantastic primer of the socialization process and outcomes of history graduate school.
If the state of jobs is discouraging and the culture at times eye-rolling, the vast majority of my experiences at the meeting were inspiring and energizing. For as many challenges as the profession faces, the meeting showcased hundreds of people who are actively breaking new ground, both in research and in rethinking and repositioning the discipline for the 21st century. The ongoing Tuning Project was evident in a number of areas, including the panel sessions and poster presentations. Digital history was featured heavily as well. From what I saw, historians are clearly grappling with the new challenges and possibilities that medium offers.
What is the cost?
The cost of attending the meeting can vary quite a bit depending on the number of people splitting expenses and whether or not students can ride on a sponsoring faculty member. As a current member of AHA, I was eligible for the $82 student member conference rate. (Student memberships are $40 per year and include the monthly Perspectives magazine and the quarterly Journal of the American Historical Association — a good deal.) Current students would do well to convince a Bethel history professor to attend the conference next year; professors can bring students to the conference for only $10 each in addition to the professor’s registration costs. This makes the actual expense of the meeting negligible.
Airfare and hotel lodgings were the most significant expenses for me, although I was able to split the hotel with a friend I met while studying at Oxford. Next year’s conference is in Denver, a convenient location for Minnesotans as Frontier airlines operates direct service from MSP to Denver for less than $100 if purchased in advance. Alternatively, the 13-hour drive is very reasonable, particularly if a group attends together. I met a group of M.A. students from SUNY-Buffalo who had done exactly that. For those wishing to lower the the cost of lodging, Airbnb may be a good option, although staying on-site at the conference hotel is certainly more enjoyable and convenient.
In all, the conference was a blast. I highly encourage attendance at next year’s conference in Denver, especially for those who are:
- Considering a career as a history professor
- Preparing to be secondary school social studies teachers
- Seeking to become archivists, librarians, or public historians
- Enamoured with all types of history and history-related areas
- Hoping to purchase an obscene number of brand new and pre-release books at bargain bin prices
In particular, I encourage current social studies education/history majors at Bethel to consider attending. While they were few in number, I found that local high school teachers consistently asked some of the most stimulating questions of panelists, particularly questions of pedagogy. For example, one question prompted a panelist to describe a semester-long learning simulation focused on the lived experience of World War I. It is as important for secondary school history teachers to be familiar with the latest research and approaches to teaching history as it is for professors. After all, secondary school teachers often have the first opportunity to instill basic historical skills and dispel erroneous ways of considering the past. The considerable number of panels on pedagogy that were presented attest to AHA’s focus on making available the resources to teach effective historical reasoning.
I’d be happy to answer further questions in the comments below. Otherwise, see you next January in Denver!