From the 126th Annual Meeting column of the February 2012 issue of Perspectives on History
The 126th Annual Meeting: A Retrospective Album of Snapshots from the Staff
AHA Staff, February 2012
A Retrospective Album of Snapshots from the Staff
Editor's Note: No single essay or set of essays can attempt to capture the extraordinary richness and range of the AHA's annual meeting with its multitude of activities that include sessions, receptions, job interviews, film screenings, tours of historic sites, and so on. Inevitably, even those who attend the meeting can only get frenetic and partial, if often fulfilling views. The impressionistic snapshots we provide here cannot, therefore, be substitutes for being present or give a complete picture of the missed events. Indeed, a more comprehensive portrait of the annual meeting can be obtained—although still in the form of a kaleidoscopic mosaic—from the AHA's blog, AHA Today, which not only contains many posts but also links to tweets, blog posts, and other internet sources. Not surprisingly, the following article also draws heavily from that from rich fount of facts and opinion and readers are encouraged to visit AHA Today to form their own selective impressions for themselves.
The 2012 annual meeting held January 5–8, 2012, in Chicago brought together 4,670 people (including historians, exhibitors, media persons, and students, but perhaps not including the seven-week-old baby who was also at the meeting with his mother). The last time the AHA meeting was in Chicago was in January 2003, when 4,477 people attended. Ninety-one exhibiting companies packed the exhibit hall utilizing all the booth spaces that the fire marshal would allow to be set up. More than 160 search committees conducted interviews at the meeting, 59 of them at the interview tables, while 45 committees used rooms reserved through the annual meeting Job Center. Twenty groups registered at the new graduate teacher/student rate bringing the total number of the teacher-student groups (including those of teachers and students in high schools) to 40. But as always, the meeting is more than the numbers. The last statistic indicates, for example, that the AHA's attempts to foster mentoring at the meeting are becoming increasingly popular and helpful. Indeed, as Nike Nivar reported, the spirit of the meeting was encapsulated for him in the beaming face of a graduate student who ran into a distinguished historian whose books she had read perhaps, but had never met in person.
The Plenary Session
Interaction with people and ideas—that is always the meeting in a nutshell, but it was especially so for a meeting which had the theme of "Communities and Networks." The opening, plenary session of the 126th annual meeting also took up the theme, as it offered a detailed look at information networks in a presidential session titled ""How to Write a History of Information: A Session in Honor of Peter Burke." In the session, chaired by Ann Blair (Harvard Univ.) and AHA President Anthony Grafton, panelists Paula Findlen (Stanford Univ.), Randolph Head (Univ. of California, Riverside), Daniel Rosenberg (Univ. of Oregon), and Paul Duguid (Univ. of California, Berkeley) explored the different ways in which information networks were created and sustained over time. Paula Findlen focused on the intersection of Jesuit networks with the Republic of Letters and explained how that helped in the dissemination of knowledge. Randolph Head discussed the nature of archives in early modern Europe and pointed out how they can be understood in terms of metadata, the power of the documents, and even the process of archiving. Daniel Rosenberg described his attempts to track the word "data" using the computing power of Google's Ngram viewer. Paul Duguid explored the shifting contours of the word "information" and its relationship to knowledge, and its role in the making of the public sphere. Peter Burke, in whose honor the session had been organized, responded both to the justly effusive introductory comments from Grafton and to the papers with characteristically incisive humor and humility, pointed out that the history of information could be understood in many ways.
The plenary session usually marks the formal beginning of the annual meeting, but already those attending the meeting had numerous other opportunities to participate in the intellectual festivities, starting with a workshop on teaching, which had been sponsored by the AHA's Teaching Division, the Graduate and Early Career Committee, the Two-Year College Faculty Task Force, and the National History Center. That was followed by the intriguingly named "THATCamp" (The Humanities and Technology Camp), which was a free, open, unstructured, "unconference" where participants learn from each other about the various ways in which technology intersects with the humanities. As that productive anarchy unfolded, many other regular sessions—of the AHA's Program Committee and of the Affiliated Societies—also got under way. One of the most important and interesting of these was the session, "Getting Most Out of the Annual Meeting," which was attended by a capacity crowd of graduate students, high school teachers, two-year-college faculty as well as several undergraduates thinking about graduate school. Panelists offered advice on everything from how to take advantage of the unique opportunity to connect with scholars outside ones' specialty at the AHA meeting, to devising a successful networking strategy, to nitty-gritty details like how to dress for the annual meeting (answer—comfortable shoes). The session was followed by a very well-attended reception for graduate students and early-career professionals.
Another session intended to provide similar orientation to job seekers who come to the annual meeting in relatively large numbers was "Interviewing in the Job Market in the Twenty-First Century." The session was sponsored by the AHA's Professional Division and was chaired by Jacqueline Jones (Univ. of Texas at Austin), the vice president of the division.
Matthew Keough, who provided logistical support for the session, described it thus: "This was a well attended event. The Sheraton's Chicago Ballroom VIII, which seats 150 people, was almost filled to capacity. In the past, this session has been made up of just small group discussions but this year we had everybody come together as one big group at the end to share with everybody the top interviewing tips that they had learned. This session was a success, one student told Jacqueline Jones, and added that this was the best AHA annual meeting session ever!"
The General Meeting
On Friday, the pièce de résistance is always the General Meeting, both because of the awards presentation ceremony and for the eagerly awaited presidential address. Incoming AHA President William Cronon called the meeting to order and read out the citations to the many awards and honors, which were presented to the recipients by President Anthony Grafton (read the article about the awards with the relevant citations). The presentation ceremony began with the conferral of the Theodore Roosevelt–Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award upon retired Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor. As she could not attend the meeting, the award was received on Justice O'Connor's behalf by Judge Diane P. Wood.
The awards presentation was followed by the presidential address by Anthony Grafton. Entitled "The Republic of Letters in the American Colonies: Francis Daniel Pastorius Makes a Notebook in the Wilderness," the address was a delightfully fascinating excursion into roads that have been less traveled in early American history, and into the marginalia of books that were read closely by Pastorius and analyzed with a light and humorous touch by Grafton.
Some Highlights from Other Sessions
It will be unfair to sketch in only a few from such a vast array of fascinating sessions, but as the intention of this article is only to provide a sample of what was on offer, here are some quick looks at some sessions that were covered by writers for the AHA Today.
Sessions that provide practical advice are always popular, especially with graduate students and early career professionals. "Turning Your Dissertation into a Book," was no exception. The large crowd received some time-tested advice from senior scholars and editors on the panel. As Sarah Fenton reported, the panel advised those seeking to publish their dissertations to find a good editor; to think about what should be kept in (rather than considering what needs to be cut out); and to revise, revise, revise.
Woven through the tapestry of the meeting sessions were the tendrils of technology, which, in fact, became a subtheme, either explicitly, as in the sessions held under the rubric, "The Future Is Here: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching in History," or implicitly, in a host of other sessions which either used or discussed technology in some ways. For example, in a presidential session held on Friday, and chaired by Anthony Grafton, Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel (both of Harvard University) described their Culturomics project as a tool that could help historians to explore the past in new ways. In the same session, alluding to his work on the history of Gutenberg's typography, Blaise Aguera y Arcas of Microsoft Corporation, argued that increasingly, collaboration across disciplines has become essential for producing innovative scholarship.
A session organized by TeachingHistory.org as part of a workshop provided an example of melding of the old and the new, with teachers Molly Myers, John Schmidt, and Jeff Treppa of the Homewood Flossmoor High School (in the Chicago metropolitan area) describing the different techniques and low-cost technologies they use to engage students and to enrich their learning in the unbounded classroom.
Although historians recognize the connections between the past and the present, it is not often that they seek to make these connections visible. Can historians deal with current politics? That was one of the questions addressed by the session entitled "Historians and the Obama Narrative," which was chaired by AHA executive director James Grossman. The panelists, Peniel E. Joseph (Tufts Univ.), James Kloppenberg (Harvard Univ.), Dianne Pinderhughes (Univ. of Notre Dame) and Thomas J. Sugrue (Univ. of Pennsylvania) seemed to think that historians can, indeed, study present politics, and their presentations demonstrated how they can do so in different ways.
The meeting also had sessions that honored the life and work of individual historians. The presidential session, "Radical Enlightenment: A Session in Honor of Margaret Jacob" celebrated the pioneering scholarship of Margaret Jacob (UCLA) in the field of Enlightenment studies. The session was chaired by Jacob Soll (Rutgers Univ.-Camden) and the panelists who discussed Jacob's work were Joyce O. Appleby (UCLA), Darrin McMahon (Florida State Univ.), Wijnand Mijnhardt (Univ. of Utrecht), Joel Mokyr (Northwestern Univ.), and David A. Bell (Princeton Univ.). In a similar session ("James M. McPherson: A Life in American History") devoted to James McPherson, tributes were paid to his scholarship on the Civil War, African American history, and the American South by the panelists Catherine Clinton (Queen's Univ., Belfast), J. Matthew Gallman (Univ. of Florida), Joseph T. Glatthaar (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Thavolia Glymph (Duke Univ.), James Oakes (CUNY), and Sean Wilentz (Princeton Univ.). Vernon Burton (Clemson Univ.) chaired the session.
This year, the meeting featured two poster sessions, perhaps suggesting that this mode of presentation is becoming as popular among historians as it usually is among scientists. More than 25 presenters used their posters to set and discuss with visitors their work, which ranged from using a quilting database to the Korean independence movement and from environmental inequality in the Gilded Age to juvenile delinquency in the Progressive Era.
The many sessions that affiliated societies organize at the annual meeting also offer different perspectives and rich tangential opportunities for those in search of more narrowly focused subdisciplinary inquiries. The session that Scott Nielson attended and reported on for AHA Today—of the American Economic History Association—is an example. In this session, chaired by Daniel Raff (The Wharton School), the panelists Jonathan Dewald (SUNY-Buffalo), James Z. Lee (Hong Kong Univ. of Science and Technology), Peter C. Perdue (Yale Univ.) and John J. Wallis (Univ. of Maryland at College Park) discussed Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe, by Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and R. Bin Wong. The authors, who were present, offered their comments and defended their arguments in the book.
Breakfasts and Forums
Aside from the many regular sessions on Friday, other noteworthy events that day were the early morning mentoring breakfast organized by the Committee on Minority Historians, the open forums of the LGBTQ task force and the Graduate and Early Career Committee.
As Debbie Ann Doyle reported, discussion at the open forum of LGBTQ Historians Task Force centered on the preliminary results of the survey of 383 LGBTQ historians and historians who research LGBTQ topics. Task force members solicited opinions from the historians in attendance about the mechanisms the task force should consider for ensuring that LGBTQ issues receive attention in the AHA's governing structure, and for thinking about the future relationship between the AHA and the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, the affiliated society that co-sponsors the task force.
Debbie Doyle also attended the open forum of the GECC, where the discussion focused on the conversations stimulated by the article, "No More Plan B," by Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman, as well as by the sessions devoted to the topic. Participants discussed ways departments of history can prepare students for employment in a variety of contexts, how the graduate curriculum might be reworked to support that goal, and how the Association can encourage and support this process.
Saturday morning got off to a poignant start for the many who attended the Committee on Women Historians breakfast meeting, where Barbara Young Welke (Univ. of Minnesota) gave a beautiful and moving meditation on the impact of the sudden death of her daughter Frances at the age of 18 on her life, scholarship, and thinking about the profession. Alternating her reflections with journal entries addressed to her lost child, Welke challenged the audience to think about whether the wall we have built between our personal and professional lives serves us well. She argued that the paradigm of the disinterested and objective scholar that has dominated the profession since the 19th century does not accurately reflect the work many historians do, describing how Frances' death deepened her empathy for her research subjects—families whose children were killed or maimed by inflammable fabrics. Welke argued that personal experience shapes scholarship in valid and important ways, refuting the canard that historians who relate to their subjects are either narcissistic or presentist. Instead, Welke argued that our approach to the past is inevitably shaped by our own lives, even as we recognize the gulf of time and circumstances that separates us from those we study. Welke received a standing ovation from weeping audience of approximately 125 people.
Immediately following the breakfast, committee chair Leora Auslander (Univ. of Chicago) facilitated a brainstorming session on the future mission of the Committee on Women Historians. The lively and passionate discussion suggested numerous ideas for future committee activities.
The Job Center
The Job Center Information Booth acts as a central hub for information about searches being conducted during the annual meeting, and, as Liz Townsend, the manager of the Job Center, points out, all committees are encouraged to report their locations as soon as they check in. "As a result, we received information about 51 searches in privately arranged suites, and we were thus able to help candidates find the correct room in time for their interviews," she said.
With technology easing the process of advertising for positions, obtaining c.v.'s from candidates, and making prearranged appointments, fewer searches are using the c.v. collection service to arrange interviews during the annual meeting. While only 28 positions scheduled interviews this way in Chicago, it is worth noting that this service provides a useful option for committees whose positions were approved late or those who wish to interview a wider variety of candidates.
Job Center staff received some valuable feedback from surveys distributed at the annual meeting, and the staff would like to encourage candidates and search committees who didn't get a chance to fill out a survey form in Chicago to write in about their experience. "We are constantly evaluating the services and making changes to make the Job Center as useful and smooth as possible," Townsend stated, and added, "We'll report on the survey results in a future blog post."
The Exhibit Hall
The exhibit hall, which was located in the River Exhibition Hall of the Sheraton was as popular a place as it always is. New exhibitors this year included HistoryIT, i>clicker, Pritzker Military Library, University of Arizona Press, Conflict Records Research Center, Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, Haymarket Books, and PublishNext. Many exhibitors held receptions in their booths on Friday and Saturday afternoon attracting even more people. New but steeply discounted books proved another attraction and the guards at the gates (whose main charge was to ensure that only those with a meeting badge were allowed in) had to contend with people who waited for the doors to open each day. Regulars who were first in line as the doors opened were gently reminded of the opening hours for the next day when the hall was closed each evening. The exhibit hall is a very exciting place but even the exhibitors need to sleep.
From all accounts—both from AHA staff and more importantly, from many of those who attended—the 126th annual meeting was a success. The weather too cooperated to contribute to the success, as it was unseasonably warm for January in Chicago. "It made for a pleasant walk, between hotels," recalled Kelly Elmore, "and you could tell that the weather was having a positive effect on attendees' moods." Weather should have an even more of a positive effect at the next meeting, scheduled for January 3–6, 2013, in New Orleans. We hope so, and look forward to seeing familiar faces and new ones too.
Compiled by Pillarisetti Sudhir from contributions by Debbie Ann Doyle, Kelly Elmore, Sarah Fenton, Elisabeth Grant, Matthew Keough, Scott Nielson, Nike Nivar, and Liz Townsend.
For videos of sessions and events from the 126th annual meeting in Chicago, visit the AHA's You Tube channel.
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