I enjoy attending academic conferences. It’s part of my job description. Both an expectation and a privilege of my position is not only dawn-to-dusk leadership at the AHA annual meeting but participation (even if only as an attentive observer) at gatherings of AHA affiliates and our counterparts in the American Council of Learned Societies (indeed, including the ACLS itself). Perhaps even more important is the pleasure and satisfaction of collaborating with colleagues at the AHA in ongoing and meaningful transformations of our annual gathering, which this year is in San Francisco January 4–7, 2024.
As a graduate student, at least many years ago, one was not supposed to admit such enthusiasm for conferences; it might cast a young scholar as overprofessionalized. To some, the very idea of networking suggested a disinclination to genuine and honest work. At the University of California, Berkeley, without travel funds and generally distant from conference locales, we seldom even had the opportunities to present our research that graduate students in recent years have come to expect. The first time I presented a paper at a conference, it was a disaster: I no doubt framed the argument poorly, and the commentator was not familiar with a particular aspect of recent scholarship in labor history that I took for granted. The criticism stung, to say the least. Fortunately, it was on the UC Berkeley campus, so I had a colleague in the audience who could insist afterward (and report to my advisor) that the commentator was clueless as to the assumptions I was bringing to the table from that historiography. In retrospect, of course, it was my own fault: had I done due diligence, I would have realized that this would be the case and spent a bit more time framing the issues rather than just assuming that “everyone” knew that these were important questions rooted in an established literature in the field.
It got better. I learned from generous senior colleagues and from experience. Speak slowly. Avoid mentioning specific historians in the text, because the people you do not reference inevitably will be in the audience; during the Q&A, they will inquire (sometimes politely) as to why they were overlooked. Print the paper in a large font; bold or underline words for emphasis. Never speak extemporaneously; almost make it seem like you are speaking extemporaneously (I am obligated to Linda Kerber for that wording). As when giving an undergraduate or public lecture, find a few people in the audience who seem to be paying attention and move your glance from one to another. Generally, a half dozen such people are enough.
Of course, for most of us, the humbling experiences never end. Enthusiasm for our subject leads to tangents, which, even if effective rhetorically, wreak havoc with careful calculations of time (once two and a half minutes per page; now 100 words per minute). We go to a panel on a similar topic just beforehand and realize that something that seemed deeply insightful to us has just been articulated twice—and perhaps even in a more interesting way. Or your curious and proud relatives show up and as you speak give you that “this is a really weird ritual” look. (My mother dutifully trekked into the city the first time I presented at a conference in New York. And never did again.)
For most of us, the humbling experiences never end.
My most important asset in those early years, which lasted well into middle age, was sharing a hotel room. I realized early on (after the mistake of staying in a “graduate student hotel” in Philadelphia at $25 per night) the value of staying in the conference hotel, a luxury usually affordable only by sharing with a friend. Having stayed in anything even resembling a conference hotel only once in my life until I went on the academic job market, I found that the shared experience became as important as the shared invoice. I am still friends with the colleague with whom I most often shared a room in those early years; it remained the best way for us to keep up with each other’s personal and professional lives in distant locations. And both of us benefited from learning the culture of academic conferences by being in the building where it happened.
For most of my professional cohort, even four decades beyond our days as students, recollections of the AHA annual meeting are skewed by experiences on the academic job market. I still have friends whose uncomfortable memories of that experience continue to keep them away, however much I tell them the ambiance has been transformed by the AHA’s decision in 2019 to cease supporting job interviews at the annual meeting.
The AHA is committed to continuing the process of change in the structure and culture of the annual meeting. We no longer refer to it as a “research meeting” and instead emphasize “professional development” broadly defined. This means that our current task is to reflect on what that means. What kinds of professional development? For whom? Presented by whom? Our move away from the traditional format of three to four papers and a comment has been gradual, because we’re well aware that many of our members do want to present their research in this manner. We’re equally aware that unless the presenters are highly visible scholars, attendance at such sessions is considerably lower than at roundtables, workshops, lightning rounds, and other innovative formats. The deadline for proposals for the 2025 annual meeting in New York City is February 15, and I strongly encourage our colleagues to be creative in thinking about format. Take risks. If you’re worried that what you’re contemplating is too outlandish, contact us in advance and ask whether your idea seems reasonable.
Also contact us if you would like to use the meeting for some professional purpose. I recently was discussing a new and interesting scholarly format with two people who were planning to attend our conference in San Francisco and suggested that there are probably eight to ten others who are thinking about what they are trying to do. As I told them, get in touch with us; we should be able to find a space for you to have a conversation.
What we’ve realized is that the possibilities are endless, subject to the constraints of conference hotels, which are not inconsiderable (don’t even ask about the cost of technology or coffee). Our staff attends other conferences not only to present our work and build collaborations but also to get ideas about formats, procedures, and more. Our meetings manager, Debbie Ann Doyle, even goes to a conference focused on innovative meeting ideas. Six of our staff have just returned from the annual meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies in Nashville, the last of more than a dozen academic conferences attended by AHA staff in 2023.
We’ve realized that the possibilities are endless.
Like our peer organizations, we also have been attentive to issues of broadening access to our work and communities. The AHA and scholarly associations in other disciplines are often asked why we don’t have hybrid annual meetings. One reason is cost, especially when meeting at union hotels (AHA has a policy of a stated preference). But more important is that we have realized that an online gathering is not the same as an in-person meeting. Just as we had to learn that digital publishing didn’t mean throwing a PDF onto a screen, we are now learning that online convenings have different purposes, different possibilities. AHA Online programs continue to explore new opportunities for interaction.
We’re open to ideas. I cannot promise we can embrace all of them. But we are prepared to listen and to think about how we can accomplish the goals of the suggestions our members bring to us. By reconsidering the purposes, nature, and formats of academic convenings, we can broaden and increase participation. Perhaps we may even broaden the definition of “participation.”
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. Find him on X (formerly Twitter) @JimGrossmanAHA.
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