Publication Date

January 9, 2016

“Is that a DeLorean?!” my grad school friend screamed mid-conversation, looking across 18th Street. It was the first weekend of January 2014, and we were in Washington, DC, for the AHA annual meeting. And it was cold!

Historians go back to the future at the 2014 AHA annual meeting in Washington, DC.

Historians go back to the future at the 2014 AHA annual meeting in Washington, DC.

We’d gone with three mutual friends on a trek for food in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, but the one of us who had appointed himself guide couldn’t find the Ethiopian restaurant he thought he remembered, and then we couldn’t agree on an alternative. Shivering, we finally trouped into a Oaxacan place and ended up spending way more than we’d budgeted—but the conversation turned away from graduate school, stress, and not having many (or any) interviews. Back out on the sidewalk, we debated a round of drinks. Then my friend spotted the low-slung Back to the Future car hunched under a coating of snow and ice, and off we ran across the street, some of us (me) a bit slower than others due to brand-new pinchy dress shoes. I snapped a picture on my phone.

When I was a grad student looking for an academic job (2010–15), it seemed like attending the annual meeting was like staring at a Hieronymus Bosch painting for way too long: everyone was trying to get over at everyone else’s expense, and in the most twisted of ways.

But after four consecutive annual meetings on the academic job market, I’ve come to realize that every year contained episodes like spotting the DeLorean across the street; every year I got a little bit better at doing the annual meeting. Here are a few things I figured out, which I hope can especially help grad students and early career historians.

It’s OK to talk to strangers. In the Exhibit Hall, after a panel, at a reception—finding yourself solo (which for many of us is most of the time) is a great excuse to strike up a conversation. You have to realize: the annual meeting is full of history nerds, just like you. Around 4,000 history nerds, as a matter of fact. It’s just like a homecoming weekend where even the jocks and cheerleaders are history nerds. There is a pecking order—I’m not going to lie about that—but chances are you will have a lot in common with other attendees. If you find yourself standing next to someone else who is also alone, see where “hello” takes you.

Speaking of which, remember your business cards. Check to see whether your institution will order you some. If not, make your own! Pirate your school’s logo from its website (many will have official “brand identity” pages, where you can download hi-res logos for free) and go to Vistaprint, Moo.com, or another online printer. Set aside some time to fiddle around with the design. Since my dissertation was on gender nonconformity in girls (and I was between gigs and couldn’t use an institutional logo), I found a picture of a British teddy girl to stick on one of Vistaprint’s standard designs. It cost about $65 for 250 cards, including shipping and a silver business card case.

Name badge snobbery is real, but do register so you can get one. Let’s just put this out there. There are people who will only make eye contact with your name badge, decide you are less than worthy based on your affiliation, and move on. This is boorish, but common behavior. Name badges are, however, important for us socially awkward types: they imprint names on your memory, so you can actually have a conversation and remember the other historian’s name at the end (when you hand over your slick new business card!). Also, you need a name badge to get into the Exalted Empire of Book Nerdery—I mean the Exhibit Hall. The only way to get a goofy name badge is to register. So do!

Take your name badge off and leave the hotel! Go to as many receptions, panels, plenaries, and roundtables as possible, but nothing beats fresh air or a night on the town with chums old and new at the annual meeting. You will need only a tiny sense of adventure to untether yourself from the hotels. One option is to sign up for one of the annual meeting tours. To unwind, the AHA has several guides to local attractions and restaurants. Or keep your ear to the ground—perhaps ask someone with an Atlanta-area institution on their name badge where the history hipsters go. Even if your panel is at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, go out the night before. (If you’ve got an interview at 8:30, though, I recommend trying to sleep.)

If you don’t have an interview… The annual meeting can be uncomfortable, maybe even miserable, for those on the academic job market who don’t have interviews. If it gets to be too much, do break away for a bit and find a stranger to talk to. I don’t mean to sound glib, but you might find a new friend—and speed off into the night like a DeLorean into the future.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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