Navigating the AHA annual meeting—with thousands of attendees; hundreds of sessions; dozens of breakfasts, luncheons, and receptions; even a film festival embedded in the program—is daunting for any first-time attendee, and I got to do it this year as an AHA staff member.
I attended a variety of conferences during graduate school, including some that were large (the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians), medium (American Association for the History of Medicine), and small (Pennsylvania Hospital’s History of Women’s Health Conference). Most opportunities to gather as historians happen in spaces specific to our research interests. But the AHA meeting lets attendees roam across time and geographic space. Want to attend a panel on Sesame Street in the 1970s? Thinking about how to use podcasts in your classroom? Ready to sign your first book contract and need to know the ins and outs? Interested in participating in a conversation about the job market and mental health? All of these topics were on the program at the 2020 AHA annual meeting in New York City.
I had the pleasure of leading the meeting orientation this year, alongside my colleague Emily Swafford. Emily has led "Getting the Most Out of the Annual Meeting," before, and she offered three main themes to the group: research, professional development, and networking. These helped me to orient myself to my first meeting, as I tried to balance these areas over my four days in NYC.
Research is perhaps the most obvious. I had the pleasure of attending panels on everything from Native nations in early America to 20th-century reproductive politics amid conservative backlash. A meeting of this size is a chance to hear about cutting-edge scholarship from both new and established scholars.
Before this trip, I was less aware of how much professional development the annual meeting offers. Teaching is a huge component of this, with sessions aimed at both K–12 and postsecondary educators. The Teaching Resource Fair, the Digital Drop-In, and Virtual Reality for Historical Research and Pedagogy were all opportunities to discuss and learn about how we teach. The AHA Career Diversity initiative continues to push us to expand how we think about career pathways for historians, with sessions covering consulting, publishing, and careers for historians with master’s degrees. The seventh annual Career Fair brought together historians working in government agencies, the military, nonprofits, business, publishing, independent scholars, K–12, and, of course, colleges and universities to speak with attendees. Whether you are thinking about a career in the academy or outside of it, the meeting offered a wide range of options.
Networking is the most intimidating aspect of a conference this big. With over 4,000 attendees, how do you get up the courage to approach anyone? But as Emily reminded us at the orientation, networking is just conversations, starting or nurturing relationships with other human beings. I was heartened that even as a first-time attendee, I saw many familiar faces. Professors from my undergraduate and graduate institutions, friends from grad school, people I’d met at other conferences, even historians I’ve interacted with only on Twitter—all were happy to talk. I ended up in one snowballing conversation when I encountered two friends from graduate school near the Hilton escalators. I got to hear about their new jobs, and they heard about mine. For nearly an hour, our gathering grew as more friends came down the escalators. We were joined by one of our professors who now lives on the West Coast, two scholars who had been postdocs on our campus, and an editor who has since moved on from our institution. It reminded me that I already have a network, and that network will only grow and deepen with every future trip to the AHA annual meeting.
Laura Ansley is managing editor at the AHA. She tweets @lmansley.
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