Finding My People at the Annual Meeting
I've found my people!” I exclaimed upon returning from my first AHA annual meeting. Hyped up on history, with too little sleep, new books picked up in the exhibit hall, possibilities for collaboration, and my first meeting with a potential publisher, I returned from Atlanta in 2016 reenergized and focused on my last year of graduate school. Late-stage dissertation work is lonely, at best, and outright isolating and depressing at worst. The chance to present research to my peers, gain useful and respectful feedback on it, and generally nerd out was more valuable than I anticipated.
I recognize that my experience at that annual meeting was, perhaps for a graduate student, unusual. We met in Atlanta that year, so I didn’t have to brave polar vortexes and snow (as I would in Denver and Washington, DC, in subsequent years). I wasn’t on the job market, so I avoided the particular brand of existential dread and performance anxiety that comes along with that (though the AHA has since stopped hosting job interviews). My panel chair was incredibly generous with his time and feedback before the meeting, making sure that, as a first-time presenter, I was prepared and supported.
Joining the AHA staff and attending the meeting in that capacity was something I looked forward to this year. I hoped to meet all of you, shake your hands, and learn about your work. I wanted to explain what Perspectives on History is and why you should pitch us. Most importantly, I was excited to drink coffee in Seattle with all you wonderful history nerds and remember why it is that I’ve dedicated my career to history.
Typically, the February issue covers the annual meeting, showcasing everything from attendees’ history-themed tattoos to panels, workshops, and plenary sessions. In 2021, we are instead covering Virtual AHA throughout the year as meetings manager Debbie Ann Doyle and her team work to produce fabulous, informative webinars, workshops, receptions, and other events in a fully online environment. Virtual AHA is not a replacement for the annual meeting but a yearlong platform of online opportunities to bring together communities of historians, build professional relationships, discuss scholarship, and engage in professional and career development. The work of Debbie and her team has been nothing short of extraordinary, and I am reminded, yet again, why historians are “my people.”
We may be calling the series of webinars and other events Virtual AHA because it is all happening online, but there is nothing virtual about the work scholars are presenting, the valuable advice they’re dispensing, or the connections being made. Likewise, there’s nothing virtual about the very real discounts on books available through the Virtual Exhibit Hall. Though Zoom fatigue is absolutely real, I’ve nevertheless found myself inspired by my colleagues’ scholarship and motivated to complete some of my own projects as a result of their presentations.
While I do miss the hallway chatter between sessions and the swag available in the exhibit hall (I recently had to buy my own pens!), my footwear is even more sensible this year: I’ve been wearing slippers for most of the sessions I’ve attended. More important than general comfort, though, is the accessibility of Virtual AHA. It is free and AHA membership is not required to participate. Additionally, the team is working hard to ensure that all staff-produced webinars have automated live captioning, and captioning is available for other events by request. Hopefully, in a year when so much has been lost, these efforts enable more historians to come together.
We closed our coverage last year with “On to Seattle!” Although we’re barely halfway through Virtual AHA, I want to close by saying, “On to New Orleans!” The beignets will taste that much sweeter when we’re all together again in 2022. Until then, please continue to join us at Virtual AHA events this winter and spring.
Ashley E. Bowen is Editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @AEBowenPhD.
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