The AHA19 Yearbook
For historians, the AHA annual meeting marks the end of the holiday season and the beginning of the new year—some would say like a family reunion (perhaps at one of those theme restaurants with jousting); others, like a cartoon rake to a cartoon face (complete with birdies circling the head). Little do the cities that host us the weekend after New Year’s Day suspect that we historians will contextualize, analyze, synthesize, and historicize everything from the cracks in their sidewalks to the spires of their skylines. Historians are ON IT. Bus tours? ON IT. Teaching workshops? ON those too. Roundtables and panels? Not only are we ON IT, we can increasingly tell you the difference between them. Cranky tweets, sponsored lanyards, reception cacophony, bewildering hotel layouts—stop us before we’re just too ON IT for our own good.
Regular Perspectives readers know that our February issues are dedicated to the annual meeting just concluded. In other years, we’ve brought you extended reflections by one author at a time. This year, we’re inaugurating a new format, something like an “experimental” session that may or may not go down in flames: three of us relaunch our AHA19 apps to help you figure out what you missed in Chicago, and to help you remember what you witnessed. —Kritika Agarwal, Allison Miller, and Elizabeth Poorman
The Hotel Historian
Ken Price, the director of publicity at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago and its “unofficial historian,” hated history for much of his life. “When I was in high school, when I was in college, and even when I was in law school, I hated history. . . . I hated it,” he says, slamming the table in the hotel’s Archive and Museum, where he’s leading the Chicago mainstay’s “History Is Hott” tour.
When he took the job 37 years ago, the Palmer House was well past its prime. Suburban growth and the creation of a pedestrian mall on State Street had emptied out the hotel’s neighborhood of department stores and movie theaters, and its world-famous Empire Room, which had once seen the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eddy Duchin perform, was going dark.
What emerged from his research was the “blood and guts and DNA and personalities of the people” behind the Palmer House.
But Jim Sherrin, senior vice president for Hilton Hotels, who hired Price, had an idea for how to revitalize the hotel—through its history. So for the first eight months on his new job, Price scoured the hotel’s past in libraries around Chicago. “I did all the books,” he says. “But I also went behind the scenes—I went through the microfiche and the clippings and the blueprints[.] You had to get your fingers dusty. And I did that every weekend for eight months.”
What emerged from his research was the “blood and guts and DNA and personalities of the people” behind the hotel. Like Potter Palmer, a dry goods merchant who built the first Palmer House for his young bride as a wedding present only to see it burn down 13 days later in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Or Bertha Honoré Palmer, who encouraged her husband to rebuild the hotel up from its ashes and helped shape it and the city as a whole for years to come. The frescoes in the Palmer House lobby that attracted the admiring eyes of many AHA19 attendees were commissioned by Honoré Palmer. You may also thank her for the delectable Palmer House Brownie, which was created under her direction to be served at the World’s Columbian Exposition. (She served as the president of the fair’s Board of Lady Managers.)
So while it’s well and good to be dazzled by the hotel’s embellished peacock doors, frescoed ceilings, Tiffany lampshades and chandeliers, and wall décor, Price would rather have you remember the stories of the people who helped build the longest continually operating hotel in the United States. “What do you get if you take the ‘h’ and ‘i’ off of the word ‘history?’” he asks. “Story. And what are stories usually about? People . . . the good, the bad, and the different.” —K.A.
Dispatches from the Info Desk
It’s surprisingly expensive for event sponsors to provide flashing neon signs to guide lost meeting attendees—their human equivalents can be compensated much more reasonably. That’s why I was assigned to staff the Information Desk, an all-purpose concierge service for AHA19 attendees. Situated on the Hilton Chicago’s Lobby Level, proximate to the shuttle pickup area and many of the hotel’s busiest session rooms, the Info Desk gave me a captain’s view of the flow of the meeting.
Early into Day 1, I realized that this was going to be a bit of a “go right, go past this, go down a level, turn left” kind of conference. Scores of historians approached our modest counter expecting to retrieve their badges. I steered them toward the “real” registration on the lower level, which I hoped they would find more imposing.
“This isn’t registration?” somebody asked. “Then what do you do?”
Well, for instance, direct you to Stevens B in the fewest number of words, which I’d figured out how to do by Friday. I also got good at explaining that you couldn’t get to the Boulevard Rooms via that escalator. “It’s because of the ’68 riots,” I overheard an attendee say. “They made this hotel protest-proof by remodeling it as a labyrinth.”
Sounds and sights grew more familiar as the meeting went on. There was the melody of the hotel’s shoe shine attendant echoing over from Kitty O’Shea’s—If they’re not shining like glass, it’s money-back guaranteed! A whoosh of cold wind hit my side every 20 minutes when pilgrims from the Palmer House entered from the street. And I was apparently on the hotel’s payroll by this time, as voices shelled me on all sides with both meeting and guest-specific questions.
“I’ve lost my student.”
“Can I switch to a king room?”
“I used to be a computer engineer, but I can’t work out this map.”
“Will the reception have food?”
On Saturday morning, conference fatigue caught up with me. An unbadged historian approached the desk. “Where is Stevens?”
“Professor Stevens?” I responded. “I can look them up in the app . . .”
The Local Arrangements Committee worker to my right piped up and saved the day.
“Registration is on the lower level.”
Later on, an AHA staff member wandered over to check up on things. I was certain he was about to warn me that people on Twitter were infuriated about the Info Desk.
Early into Day 1, I realized that this was going to be a bit of a “go right, go past this, go down a level, turn left” kind of conference.
Instead, an apparent joke: “No fires? No riots?”
I surveyed the scene in front of me. By now, historians had commandeered the lobby chairs and sofas in my view, confiding and catching up with one another. I saw relaxed smiles and heard laughter. Nobody had asked for the Wi-Fi code or the shuttle schedule for many hours. Just when the meeting had finally hit its stride, it was almost time to go home.
“Nah,” I replied. “I think we’re OK.” —E.P.
This year, the associations American Historical and Modern Language convened in the same city on the same weekend, in hotels just blocks away from one another. With so many humanities scholars crammed into downtown Chicago, rumors naturally surfaced that they had been lured there to be decimated once and for all by a sneak attack from STEM-obsessed state legislatures and university presidents. (The reality, of course, was that their collective fist-shaking energy briefly levitated the Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago, looming over both sets of proceedings from its perch on North Wabash Avenue.)
The different AHA and MLA lanyards hardly made a difference to the cross-disciplinary spies—a courageous band of specialists who prowled both conferences.
Historians and literary scholars were distinguishable by their badge lanyards, wrote one wag, though it hardly made a difference to the cross-disciplinary spies—a courageous band of specialists who prowled both conferences, on the lookout for inspiration to take back to their home institutions.
I met up with William Acree at the AHA Exhibit Hall on Saturday. An associate professor of Spanish at Washington University in St. Louis, Acree was wearing an AHA badge with its telltale blaze-orange lanyard—he’d registered with the historians, clearly, and was to present his research at a session that was listed in the AHA program. But Acree is also a member of the MLA! Had they simply put him in disguise as a historian? Had a spy from another discipline been nabbed?
He laughed softly at the thought: “Cross-disciplinary spy—I like that.” Acree studies Latin American cultural history, specifically forms of popular culture emanating from circus and popular theater in Argentina and Uruguay during the late 19th century. (His book Staging Frontiers is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press.) With interests like these, he is no stranger to blending undetected into different conferences.
Like most spies, Acree finds himself moving between spheres of knowledge. “I’m not very engaged in the world of cultural theory,” he said. “Lots of conversations at the MLA are connected to that world.” On the other hand, he observed, historians sometimes miss more ephemeral sources connected to cultural production, like the plays he studies. These sources “have their place in theater history,” he explained, “but that tradition comes out of performance studies and literary studies.”
I wondered whether, in his career of spying on historians, Acree had amassed evidence that we’re stodgy. Another laugh. “Some historians have given me the impression that they think they have a monopoly on the study of the past,” he offered. “But other fields have a lot to offer. I was grateful to my historian colleagues who asked me to be on the AHA panel with them. I don’t like to set limits on methodology.”
With that, he slipped back into the crowd. —A.M.
The final morning of AHA19 brought together, in person, three Twitterstorians—Monica Mercado (@monicalmercado), Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical), and Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf)—for advice and insights on navigating social media as an academic. Livetweeters and lurkers alike listened in on hashtag #s242a.
Seth Denbo (@seth_denbo), the AHA’s director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives, kicked things off by offering the group a provocation: “How do you stay out of trouble on social media?”
“I’m the goody two-shoes here,” protested Mercado, assistant professor of history at Colgate University. Mercado uses social media as a professional tool, tweeting about pedagogy and her subfields, and networking with her graduate school cohort. As someone who joined Twitter before entering the academic job market, she learned to be conscious of her precarity. She also observed that early-career historians like her are often expected to “just know” social media’s mysteries. This can be a problem when younger faculty are expected to take on related administrative responsibilities, such as managing their department’s social media accounts.
Potter, a professor of history at the New School, is, as her handle implies, indeed tenured, a fact that has protected her online troublemaking from real-life fallout. “If I were a contingent faculty member, I would no longer be working, I can guarantee you,” she said, sharing tales of how she’s stirred up controversy with everyone from the alt-right to her own students. Recently, for example, her university’s walls were plastered with signs attacking her for a tweet that expressed sympathy for George W. Bush over the loss of his parents.
“The Internet already has a lot of white guys yelling. I don’t need to be another one!”
As for Gannon, a professor of history and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University, he knows that he’s been spared much of the vicious trolling that women and people of color receive on social media. He says that he’s always careful to use his indoor voice on Twitter: “The Internet already has a lot of white guys yelling. I don’t need to be another one!”
Potter continued, “There’s a difference between doing something risky and doing something you should be embarrassed about. Think: is what you’re posting the kind of thing you’d say to someone’s face?”
For those who weren’t ready to start posting or gathering followers themselves, Gannon added simply, “It’s perfectly OK to be a spectator.” Other words of wisdom from the panel: Let social media be what you want it to be. Ask permission before posting an image or document from an archive. Protect the privacy of you and your followers. Use your power to block trolls.
Thankfully, no trolls entered either Stevens C3 or the #s242a hashtag screaming. “And to think,” tweeted Mercado as the session dispersed, “I worried we’d have nothing to talk about.” —E.P.
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