From the Letters to the Editor column of the December 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

Mass Rites

Hannah Farber, December 2010

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To the Editor:

Last winter, when I attended the American Historical Association’s annual meeting for the first time, I noticed something very strange. Whenever I introduced myself as a graduate student, my new acquaintances frequently winced and offered their commiseration. They assumed I had come to the meeting to interview for jobs. What else would I be doing there?

While the sentiments of my new friends were kind and well intentioned, they were also discouraging. I write to express my hope that a renewed vision of the conference as an intergenerational event might lend new energy to the proceedings.

I have every reason to believe that this would be a welcome development. One older colleague told me that his interactions at AHA felt frustratingly impersonal and emotionally disengaged. Another said that his AHA trips were more about networking and catching up with friends than academic exchange. And the most action I saw with my own eyes last year was at the half-price book sale. I believe AHA has a great deal to gain by raising its own expectations for the participation of younger scholars, for professional and, we might even say, spiritual reasons.

It would be easy for AHA and its members to promote the notion that professionals-in-training have something to gain from attending its annual gathering. Many of us crave opportunities for contact with peers, with colleagues a few years further along in their careers, and with older scholars who might serve as mentors or sources of inspiration. The AHA annual meeting offers students an unparalleled opportunity to meet all of these people, as well as to form our own impressions of the state of the field.

A stronger graduate (even undergraduate!) presence would also benefit the broader community of scholars. Graduate students pay attention. We have the potential to function as the engaged, respectful, and critical audiences that would contribute liveliness to discussions. We routinely play this role at smaller regional gatherings, so why not at AHA?

If the economic climate were better, I might conclude with a rousing call for programmatic changes, new scholarships, and the like. Certainly, this would be a welcome investment in the future of the professional community. But change does not need to begin as a financial or institutional matter. Even more important than funding graduate students is letting them know that they are already community members, and thus that their presence is welcomed—or better yet, expected.

Since the upcoming annual meeting theme is “Society and the Sacred,” it seems appropriate to give the last word to Durkheim, who argued that the cult rites conducted by a society are not only expressions of its fundamental beliefs. Rather, they are the means by which these beliefs are continually renewed and recreated. Accordingly, it seems to me that it is the students—the future leaders and custodians of our own cult—who have the greatest need to participate in its mass rites.

And yes, this includes the half-price book sale.

—Hannah Farber
University of California, Berkeley