Undergraduates at the AHA Annual Meeting
Anne Paulet, October 2013
For the last four years, I have taken from 8 to 12 undergraduate members of the Humboldt State University History Club to the annual AHA meeting. It began with the meeting in San Diego. I suggested going because Humboldt State University (HSU) is relatively isolated and the history department is small. A trip to the AHA meeting, I reasoned, would give students exposure to areas we did not cover in the department and to new approaches in various fields. Students financed the trip themselves—raising money to defray the cost of hotel rooms and paying for transportation and food out of their own pockets. At the meeting, the students attended sessions and prowled the book display. I figured it was a one-time event. I had done this once before when the AHA came to the West Coast; however, this time was different. The next thing I knew, the students were discussing plans for the AHA meeting in Boston. And so it started.
The annual meeting of the AHA would hardly seem to be geared for undergraduate enjoyment. Myriad panels allow graduate students and professors to show off their knowledge, discuss the state of the profession, and ponder different approaches to teaching. The Job Center is often a roiling mass of anxiety for those seeking a career in the profession, and then there is the Exhibit Hall—okay, that might be understandable. However, it still seems difficult to understand why the meeting would appeal to undergraduates. The fact that my students have not run into other undergraduates, and that people are consistently surprised to learn that they are not in graduate school, suggests that undergraduate attendance is an unusual occurrence. Yet maybe it shouldn't be. My students come back from the AHA meetings energized and empowered. They have greater focus and more direction. Clearly, they must enjoy it if they continue to attend year after year, despite the high personal expense. So then the question becomes: how does one make the AHA annual meeting undergraduate friendly? Here are some things I have learned and found useful to highlight when bringing undergraduates to the annual meeting:
Basic Rules: I always explain that students are expected to dress and act professionally. I note that this will help make them feel like they belong and that they have a certain expertise themselves. I explain how panels work and that it is okay to leave a panel or enter one though there are better times to do so. Mostly I urge them to get to know people and to ask questions.
Getting the Most from the Panels: Undergraduates love the vast array of choices presented by the panels at the meeting. I stress that the panels allow them to have access to experts who may be approaching their subjects in unique ways or who are working in fields that may not be present at the university. Matthew Herrera, who attended the meetings in Chicago and New Orleans and is starting an MA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in fall 2013, explained via e-mail, "One of the most invaluable things I took away from attending the panels at AHA was seeing the various ways history is being studied. . . . [T]he panel on US-Arab relations this past year helped me come away with the idea that, despite how much a field may have been studied, there is always room for a new approach." Panels may also be in-depth presentations on subjects that students are already studying and thus provide new sources or new insight. One of the important points I make is that it is okay for them to ask questions during the Q&A period and talk to the participants afterward about their subject, their resources, any tips they might have, etc.
Students usually emerge from these sessions inspired and excited. They see new opportunities they can pursue and new possibilities for their futures. Audrey Sewell, who attended the meeting in Chicago in her first year at HSU and in New Orleans last year, had such an experience at a panel. She writes, "In New Orleans, I attended a panel that focused on how we treat a story in a museum or other public history arena. For me, a student who wants to be a part of the museum world, talking and interacting with a group of public historians on real-time issues was both exciting and an eye opener." Students sometimes come out of a presentation feeling that they could have done equally as well, if not better, which is very empowering for them. I also encourage them to attend sessions about the nature of the field, job possibilities, research methods, etc.
Opportunities in the Exhibit Hall: Students love books and they love a bargain. In addition to getting resources for classes or for research purposes, students also have opportunities to talk to publishers. They can learn about what is new in the field or even discover research or job opportunities. Students have taken the opportunity to talk to the National Archives staff about what it takes to become an archivist as well as how to approach research at the archives. They have also talked to the CIA, new tech startup companies, and even AHA staff. Matthew Herrera, for instance, was "able to talk with editors from the Office of the Historian, Project Muse, and UMass Press regarding the publishing of work." All of these have provided chances for students to consider the variety of ways they can use their history degrees.
Meeting Employers in the Job Center: Other than the amusement of seeing people sweat when you yourself are not in that situation, there would seem little at the Job Center for undergraduates. While this might generally be true, there are also opportunities even here. One year, I arranged for the editors of the Foreign Relations of the United States series to meet with some of my students and tell them about working at FRUS. The meeting was very informative and many of the students found it exceedingly helpful.
Getting Access to Experts: I have also taken advantage of the large gathering of professors to ask some of them to meet with students to talk about such things as what graduate school or what students needed to do to get in. I also encourage students to attend social gatherings by historians in their fields of interest in order to network. I have taken groups of students to the evening reception of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations. There I have introduced students to professors working in their fields, giving them an opportunity to talk about their research and to get suggestions for how to proceed. One recent graduate, Dan Raney, wrote, "I got some encouraging feedback from several professors—Andrew Rotter, Frank Costigliola, and Fredrik Logevall—when I met up with them. . . . This rewarding experience galvanized my resolve and made graduate school seem less intimidating and more like something that was within my grasp."
Taking Advantage of the Setting: The AHA meeting provides an excellent opportunity for students to see new parts of the country. Most of my students are from California and few have had an opportunity to travel to the East Coast (they define this as anything east of the Mississippi). For some, it is their first time traveling by themselves. Parents feel comfortable with this because students are going to a particular location where they will be monitored.
Students often take the time to go exploring and that includes historical sites. In Chicago, I had students who went to Hull House; in Boston they went to several of the multitude of sites associated with the Revolution; and in New Orleans, they went to the World War II museum. Students have also chosen to extend their stay—to do research, to visit other sites in the area, and to visit neighboring states.
All in all, the AHA annual meeting has turned out to be a fantastic opportunity for my students. They get a better feel for how the profession works, what is expected of them, what the opportunities are, and the various avenues they can pursue. They network and make connections that remain useful to them—often continuing to correspond via e-mail after the meeting. They create bonds among themselves and, most importantly, they come back feeling inspired and empowered. Perhaps this feeling is best expressed by Matthew Harshman, who attended the last two annual meetings and is now a PhD student at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. At New Orleans, he "watched Frank Costigliola, Anne Foster, Melvyn Leffler, Andrew Rotter, and Jenifer Van Vleck argue aggressively and excitedly about the benefits and limitations of emotional history. Impassioned speeches were made, friendly barbs were exchanged, and the whole room seemed to pulse with an energy few would ever call 'boring.'" As a result he feels that the meeting "not only provides opportunities for undergraduates to see the academic aspects of their potential future, but also reassures them that the parts they love best—the arguing, the heated discussions—never go away."
These positive experiences have encouraged my students to see attendance at the annual meeting as a yearly goal and they are working on plans for the Washington, DC, meeting. That level of continued enthusiasm among students, even as some graduate and new students enter the club, is the best testament to the value of the AHA meeting as a place to bring undergraduates. I hope to see you, and your students, at future meetings.
—Anne Paulet is a professor in the history department at Humboldt State University. She is currently revising an article and editing an anthology for Cambridge Scholars Press on empire and borderlands.