Publication Date

December 31, 2019

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting, From the President

AHA Topic

Professional Life

I have been thinking recently about the concept and reality of community, both within the AHA as an organization and among the historical profession in all its various forms and guises.

In October, I attended the initial organizational meeting of the program committee for the 2021 annual meeting. Committee members come from everywhere with a historical mission: community colleges, liberal arts colleges, R1 research universities, K–12 education, public history, and independent scholars. All were enthusiastically engaged in the task of drafting a program for the Seattle meeting that not only would be intellectually stimulating and professionally useful, but also would represent and attract historians of every ilk.

This approach to building community is not active on only this one committee. Built into the very governing structure of the AHA lies a deep commitment to creating and sustaining community. The AHA serves as the umbrella organization for all historians, no matter their interests, place, or status, and the Association works hard to ensure that all members have the opportunity to become involved in its committees and programs. Virtually every aspect of the AHA endeavors to connect with all historians everywhere and be sensitive to their disparate needs. Even more important, the AHA serves as a sounding board for their various concerns.

As I reflected on that October meeting, I remembered how satisfying the whole experience was. Twelve members of the committee, including the chair, co-chair, executive director, and other AHA staff, worked for an entire day to begin blocking out the next annual meeting program. The experience reminded me just how productive such face-to-face meetings can be. For several hours, we debated structures; tossed around ideas; accepted, tabled, and rejected proposals. Much work remains to be done, of course, but I left the meeting exhilarated by the possibilities—if somewhat daunted by the labor still lying ahead!—and with a deep sense of accomplishment gained from spending hours talking about ideas. Certainly, we might have met on Zoom or Skype, done business using Slack or another online platform, and swapped plans on Google Docs. And we will probably do all of that over the next year. Yet I seriously doubt that we would be as far along as we are now or have planned better without having sat down and thrashed things out around a conference table.

What can be done to inspire us to talk more about ideas? What makes a meeting, or a conference, a good place to construct community?

At the same time, and while thinking about community within the AHA’s many committees, I began to wonder how we could replicate this experience and serve to develop robust ties across the range of historians and historical interests at the annual meeting itself. What can be done to inspire us to talk more about ideas? How does this alchemy work, and can we patent the recipe? What makes a meeting, or a conference, a good place to construct community? And in a digital age, is the in-person conference a dinosaur doomed to extinction?

Over the last 20 years or so, I regularly have attended the annual meeting of the German Studies Association (GSA) in October. I first went as a graduate student and was rather depressed by the dominance of papers on the Third Reich, World War II, and modern, even contemporary, literature. Had nothing happened of worth before 1870–71, I wondered? Or, on a more personal note, would anyone be interested in my own work on the 17th and 18th centuries?

But such first impressions deceived, and I quickly discovered that I had a whole lot more in common with historians of the modern world than I had anticipated. Moreover, I soon connected with a group of other early modernists who felt equally lost. Finding my intellectual soul mates was not, however, what has made the conference so valuable to me over the years. I also came to know—and appreciate—the contributions of a far wider range of historians, literary scholars, political scientists, musicologists, art historians, and, to break the thematic thread, medievalists. If at times the connections among us seem tenuous, in retrospect I recognize that my professional life, and particularly my intellectual life, would have been far poorer without contacts originally formed at that medium-sized conference.

At the latest GSA in Portland, Oregon, I enjoyed meeting new people and seeing old friends. But, in anticipation of becoming AHA president, I decided to go to a few other conferences and speak with people outside German studies (though still within my comfort zone of European and Atlantic history). Attending such “extra” events was not possible when I was a graduate student and a very junior faculty member, but has become financially easier nowadays. This freedom has allowed me to meet many new people, engage new ideas, and, yes, just sit and shoot the bull, complain, and exchange gossip.

Sheer serendipity often generates the most productive and intellectually exciting encounters and the most fruitful exchanges on matters of professionalization, teaching, and outreach.

Such a traditionally constructed conference is, of course, a fleeting experience. We come, we listen, and we depart. Are there new alternatives, ones that might engage a broader audience?

Recently there has been a great deal of enthusiasm expressed for creating virtual panels, obviating the necessity of congregating in a single physical space. I admit that there are often very good reasons for believing that virtual presentations—videoconferencing, for instance—are the brave new world of the future, as well as being more inclusive. No doubt exists that conference-going is an expensive exercise whose burden falls most heavily on those financially or socially least able to bear it: those whose institutions provide little or no funding and cover no travel expenses, parents of young children, adults with aged parents or partners in need of care, or the disabled. Moreover, in an era of climate crisis, flying hundreds or thousands of participants from one place to another contributes to humankind’s carbon footprint.

It is also true, however, that one does not have to go to multiple conferences to have or even promote a career. And the virtues of the virtual conference are not unalloyed; there are significant drawbacks. At the last conference I attended, on several occasions the lively discussion begun in the panel spilled out of the room to be continued in corridors, in lobbies, around coffee urns, and during meals. It is difficult for me to envision how such intellectual ferment could so effervesce at a virtual conference. Sheer serendipity often generates the most productive and intellectually exciting encounters and the most fruitful exchanges on matters of professionalization, teaching, and outreach. These connections come not only from the people you already know, but also from the strangers you encounter. I am surely not alone in returning from each conference with scribbled notes to follow up with new acquaintances. These new colleagues often prove to be those with whom I subsequently have the most stimulating interactions, precisely because they were the least anticipated.

Although this may read as a paean to the traditional conference form, I firmly believe that in both scholarly and professional terms, it too has its weaknesses. Conferences remain critical, or so we always say, for networking, which can be intellectually exciting and professionally expedient. But without the hard work of researching, writing, and communicating (with books, blogs, articles, civic engagement, outreach, and instruction), networks alone mean little. We can create community in many ways: around a table, on panels, and sitting in audiences. We can sustain community in multiple ways, some face-to-face and some across the ether; we need not chose just one. Yet, however done, the construction of community is an intellectual, not only a professionalizing or social, endeavor.

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Mary Lindemann
Mary Lindemann

University of Miami