Historians work in diverse fields, bringing their expertise and skill sets to answer the questions of government, industry, business, politics, and education. Every field benefits from historical training. The question is: how can the historical discipline build bridges for historians working eight-to-five jobs to continue contributing their diverse voices to the field?
The simplest answer to this question is with historical organizations, and the best one for meeting the needs of independent scholars and academics is the AHA annual meeting, which will be held January 4–7 in San Francisco. Many historians may still associate the AHA meeting with the trauma of interviewing for academic jobs, but the Association stopped hosting interviews in 2019, marking a new chapter in the meeting’s evolution. While Kenneth Pomeranz made a strong case for “Why Go?” in Perspectives a decade ago, the current chapter of the AHA annual meeting is even more compelling with more opportunities for both intellectual and professional development. Here are four reasons based on my experience attending AHA23 in Philadelphia as a postdoctoral lecturer and my plans for this year’s meeting as an independent scholar.
First, for those who teach, the annual meeting offers a cross-section of historical research to refresh a syllabus or to encounter a useful theoretical framework outside of your specialty. Last year, I was looking for material to expand a World History since 1500 syllabus and so, as the Chronicle of Higher Education recommends, I attended panels on subjects well beyond my expertise in modern European history. For instance, Omar Aguilar Sanchez’s presentation “Mixtec Colonial Maps and Land Tenure” framed a week’s worth of lectures and discussion on “Land and Language: What We Miss in Translation.” Sanchez had not yet published his innovative, decolonizing work, so his presentation at the annual meeting saved me time looking for the material that I needed for the course. This year, I plan on attending sessions on the Global Histories of Medicine and Gender, Feminism, and the Global Circulation of Knowledge. To me, these panels are better than a preplanned primer since I can bring the latest and best research on global history to my students. No matter what you are teaching, the annual meeting can be your crash-course on the latest research for your standard lectures or discussions.
Second, the meeting expands your network for publishing, since journals and publishers recruit expansively at the AHA. With my dissertation in mind last year, I toured the Exhibit Hall, which had booths representing many more publishers than at specialty conferences I attend. The casual environment promoted informal conversations about the publishing process, potential interest, and an exchange of business cards. When I returned from the annual meeting, I had two emails in my inbox with the book proposal forms. Is there better encouragement to pitch a book?! For anyone considering publishing, this Exhibit Hall has the most resources for you to find the right fit for your work.
Third, the annual meeting interfaces with venues outside of academia seeking historical reflection on today’s problems. Reporters, educators, and other stakeholders attend because they know that this is where historians gather. Specialized conferences are important as well, but the AHA is unique since it is the central historical society and serves as the weathervane of the direction of the discipline, as the New York Times reported last year. The Career Fair is especially useful to me as I consider a new career path in disaster studies. This year, I hope to have conversations with the Department of Justice, independent high schools, and environmental nonprofits about career paths that provide support for my continued research on the environment, human rights, and knowledge production.
Lastly, for independent scholars, this meeting is the best use of your personal resources for conference engagement. Panel presentations with National Endowment for the Humanities or the Coordinating Council for Women in History provide direct support for writing grant proposals, connecting with research mentors, and identifying funding opportunities apart from institutions. The AHA also increases your chances of finding like-minded scholars and inspiration for your own projects. For instance, my work on the Great Flood of 1910 in France resonates with scholarship on rivers and the intersection of environmental, political, and technological systems, so 2024 presentations on river basin projects in Mexico or the consumerization of Alaska’s rivers will push me to re-examine my work in light of recent findings and narrating of other river histories. Specialty conferences also provide this kind of specific synergy, but the AHA annual meeting casts a wider net from different specialties, such as questions of capitalist extraction, religious fundamentalism, and settler colonial processes in the US-Mexico borderlands or the political and economic mechanisms of community-based conservation in East Africa. Between access to publishers and public engagement, the annual meeting maximizes networking between scholars and with organizations for community and research support.
If you haven’t attended since the AHA stopped hosting academic job interviews, I would encourage you to adopt a different mindset when thinking of the AHA annual meeting this year. Without the interviews, people attending come for the synergy of this conference rather than with the intense focus on a job interview. In this new phase, the annual meeting can be fun! It is for me and allows me to remain connected to the discipline as I embark on a new career path.
Claire Mayo is a historian of modern France with research and teaching interests in disaster studies, knowledge production, and human rights in the 19th and 20th centuries. She is an independent scholar and collaborates with historical associations on creating bridges in the discipline for access to scholars working outside of academia.
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