The Annual Meeting: Reflections of a First Timer
Jacob M. Blosser, September 2005
My initial experiences of the 119th Annual Meeting of the AHA (my first) began on a Boeing 757. Hurtling northwestward over the frozen midsection of the country, I realized that I was surrounded by people like me. Wherever my eye wandered, I saw place-keeping pencils peeking out of half-read books, manila folders overstuffed with paper, and ink pens furiously dancing across legal pads. Sitting with my own pile of half-finished work, I knew that I was among friends. The combination of common interests and a shared transcontinental captivity (there aren't many places to hide on a 757) meant that at least for my plane, the 119th Annual Meeting began en route. Somewhere over Nebraska, my seatmate told me that 19th-century German revolutionaries began their meetings by singing Lutheran hymns; and, while darting across Idaho, I explained my own research on 18th-century happiness. By the time the airplane touched down in the rainy Northwest, I had made several acquaintances and learned about interesting new research projects. The plane ride, however, was only the beginning.
Once settled in Seattle, I met more people like me—people with a shared love of the past but with surprisingly different backgrounds and interests. This gathering of a diverse group of historians—university professors, high school teachers, public historians, and graduate students—whose specialties ranged from ancient China to Barry Goldwater, is both the annual meeting's goal and its crowning achievement. For the first-time attendee, as well as the seasoned conventioneer, there were plenty of interesting people to meet and engaging research topics to sample. Offering a dizzying breadth of subjects, this year's program featured panels on almost every conceivable topic. Although I chose to attend panels generally in my geographic area of interest (the United States), I could have gone to sessions on Europe, Africa, Asia, or Latin America, which ranged chronologically from ancient times through to nearly the present day.
The annual meeting's diversity in people and subject matter is a direct reflection of its size. Drawing thousands of Scholars from across the country, the meeting can appear intimidating and impersonal to the first time attendee. Panels, for example, were scheduled throughout three facilities scattered across several downtown blocks, hallways and escalators could be very crowded, and security at the Convention Center (in the form of name-badge checkers) was ever-present. Yet, it helps to remember that under its colossal and seemingly complex exterior, the meeting is simply a gathering of people with shared interests. Indeed, the common ground of interest and experience makes conversation with fellow attendees easier. Of course, the annual meeting's large, "impersonal" edges can be further softened by having a few friends to look up.
Large national conferences are great places to "spot" the stars of the profession. The AHA annual meeting was no different. Not only did I silently—and in awe—brush elbows with one Beveridge Prize winner, but I rode in an elevator with another "big name" who looked exactly like his dust jacket photo. At one afternoon session, appropriately held in a packed ballroom, the illuminati of early American studies held forth ex cathedra on the perceived future of "the Atlantic world" as a unifying descriptor of the colonial experience. Importantly, I found myself appreciating their ideas but also disagreeing with some of their conclusions. There were, I felt, important gaps in their presentation of the topic; for me, the Atlantic world was as much a transoceanic amalgamation of ideas as it was a transfer of people and goods. Too shy to raise my doubts in the ballroom/temple (I thought I would wait to air them in a national newsmagazine), I found myself commiserating in an elevator with an attendee who felt similarly. AHA panels not only expose you to ideas and prominent scholars, but they can also make you think and question. Consequently, the national conference is more than a glittering parade of "wonderful" panels (although many are), it is an opportunity to question ideas and methodologies frequently when they are in their formative stages and when their proponents are most appreciative of comment and criticism. Next time, I told myself as I went to sleep that night, I will approach even the gods and question them.
This year's program also featured several panels on professional issues, ranging from the 21st-century job market to current trends in graduate education and tips on teaching survey-level courses. These sessions provided an excellent forum for dialogue on the current state of the profession and the topics they raised, especially those pertaining to the job market, seemed to come up frequently in conversation with fellow graduate students. The presence of graduate students and junior faculty members at the AHA was thus an added bonus. First-time attendees that are still in the incubatory process of becoming historians are certainly not alone at the national conference. My own university sent five graduate students to give papers and we were joined by many others from across the country. All of the panels I attended, with one exception, included graduate student or junior faculty papers. And one of the panels, on Progressive Age politics, featured a talented young historian's thoughtful and iconoclastic critique of the accepted historiography in his field.
Another panel worth mentioning featured papers on political conservatism in the postwar United States. Well attended, this session featured a dynamic discussion that lasted well into the lunch break. Of course, my research interests lie far from American Progressivism or conservatism, but both panels offered interesting topics and, almost more importantly, unique methodological perspectives. The annual meeting is a great place to learn about the questions people in other parts of the field are asking about their work. The analysis of subtle changes in semantics, for example, as a way to gauge shifts in right-wing lobbying for school prayer, encourages a closer reading of texts and a deeper search for textual meanings in research across the discipline.
Nowhere was the diversity of the AHA experience more appreciated than at my own panel. Although the papers were closely related in their examination of different forms of religious identity in colonial America, the audience was not nearly as uniform in its composition. Consequently, following papers on religion in colonial newspapers and magazines, the religious identity of ecumenically minded Moravians, and my own work on the pursuit of happiness as an Anglican religious ideal, audience members, from a variety of different corners of the profession, contextualized the subject by asking questions and providing interesting parallel examples from their own research. As a first-time presenter at the AHA who benefited from this feedback, I couldn't help but wonder if, in our frequent attempts to sequester ourselves by interest, region, and time period, we undervalue the very real benefits that dialogue across the profession can have.
In between panels, the meeting offered unique opportunities for a first time attendee. Purchases made in the exhibit hall ensured that few would need to watch the in-flight movie on the return trip. Those teaching a new, or even a familiar course, in upcoming semesters should be sure to ask for desk copies of recent textbook editions and other possible teaching materials. Not far from the exhibit hall, hundreds of well-groomed candidates lined up to interview for much anticipated jobs. Some were nervous, others confident, but all gave me a glimpse of my own hoped-for experiences at my next AHA meeting. Dark suits are best, I learned, and yes, you really can brush your teeth too many times. In the evenings, there were opportunities to attend receptions hosted by a variety of groups and to reunite with old colleagues and friends. On Thursday, for example, I met up with two good friends for dinner; Friday evening saw a reunion with more old friends, and on Saturday I joined up with some new folks for great food and conversation.
Of course, my first AHA annual meeting taught me certain lessons about future trips. First, I realized that I should investigate the group-travel rates offered by the AHA. In my enthusiasm to be an attendee, I made travel arrangements long before I received the AHA's flyer announcing special rates. Second, staying at the cheapest hotel listed by the AHA was definitely a good idea. Although the main meeting hotel was undoubtedly the most convenient place to stay, it was also more expensive; staying just two blocks away saved a considerable amount of money. Sharing a room with a fellow attendee also reduced costs. It should be noted that registering for the annual meeting and booking a room through the AHA's online service was quick and painless. Finally, upon reflection, I learned I need not have been as reticent in asking questions of panelists. After all, if you can write about it in Perspectives, you can say it in the session itself, in Seattle, Philadelphia, or wherever.
My first AHA experience—both meeting a diverse group of scholars and sampling the sights in a fascinating place—was enjoyable, productive, and something I would heartily recommend to others. The benefits of dialogue across the various branches of the American historical profession are too numerous to mention; the contacts made, methodologies learned, research sampled, and advice received easily justified the transcontinental journey. Importantly, however, the conference did not end in Seattle but continued as a 757 filled with historians chatted their way eastward across the country.
— A PhD candidate in American history at the University of South Carolina, Jacob M. Blosser is a 2004 recipient of the AHA's Michael Kraus Research Grant. He has also received recent research grants and fellowships from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Virginia Historical Society, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church. In the six months following Seattle, he presented papers at three academic conferences. His work has been featured in The South Carolina Historical Magazine (forthcoming) and the Madison Historical Review.