In the last few months I’ve enjoyed the rich alphabet soup of attending ASEEES and AHA in NOLA. Say what? I mean I attended the annual conference of Slavicists and Eastern Europeanists and that of the American Historical Association, which both happened to be held this year in New Orleans, LA. If you’re a new graduate student or enthusiastic undergrad considering a Ph.D. in history and wondering whether you should try to make it to a conference, GO. Do it. But you might want to read this first to know what to expect.
What’s a conference like? You may picture the scene from The Fugitive when the US Marshals track down Harrison Ford’s friend at a conference, where a bunch of really boring-looking people in tweedy jackets sit around and talk about papers with incomprehensible titles in a fancy hotel. And for once, Hollywood pretty much got it right. Conferences are the ultimate insider’s gathering: no one from the outside of these little worlds would ever want to go to one of these things, I imagine. But they can actually be rather a lot of fun, from the right point of view. If you’re working on becoming an insider, conferences are a great introduction — they are nothing more or less than the physical manifestation of “the field” or “the discipline.”
The annual conference for Slavists (which used to be more entertainingly called AAASS, but was recently changed to ASEEES, the pronunciation of which no one can agree on) brings together people from nearly every phrase of my life, so it’s a strange and interesting social occasion. There are people I took Russian language classes with as an undergraduate, people I know because we once rented the same room in St. Petersburg, people I went to grad school with, people I taught, people who taught me, and people I don’t know but whose work I’ve long admired from afar. So a big part of that conference is reconnecting with people from all these spheres — most of us never see each other anywhere else.
But the main purpose of the conference, of any academic conference, is to share new research. Conferences, perhaps more than anything else we do, are really at the core of our jobs as researchers, which is funny since most people if asked will readily whine about the poor quality or general boringness of conference panels (self definitely included).
In theory, all papers presented at conferences are works-in-progress: new research that is presented among colleagues (hence the conference’s definition as an insider’s affair) for comment and criticism. The reality is that one has to propose papers and panels almost a year in advance, so that one often has to basically guess what one’s work will look like a year in the future, then as that year passes all too quickly with a million other deadlines and the overwhelming time commitments of teaching, all of sudden the deadline for the paper comes up and one often slaps together something either too rough, or too familiar — something not as new as it ought to be, because the newer work isn’t ready yet.
Also, in theory, panels bring together papers on related themes, which creates juxtapositions and comparisons that breed more ideas. In reality, panels too are put together in a rather hodge-podge way, and since panelists don’t often communicate much before showing up at the conference, many panels feel random, and you don’t get that synergy of ideas at all. Often panels are idealistically planned to be interdisciplinary — at the Slavic conference, people often try to bring together historians and literature specialists, political scientists and art historians. The idea is that by talking to each other, we’ll each broaden and enrich our approaches. Sometimes this happens, but sadly I find it’s more common that these kinds of panels just bring into stark relief the fact that our disciplines’ differences in rules of evidence, jargon, and ways of framing questions are almost impenetrable.
The theory also goes that the audience is as important as the presenters, and that the conversation should really include everyone — when we write our papers and present them, we all hope for constructive, thoughtful comments that will help us improve. As audience members, we all hope to hear rich, engaging, well-presented papers that will provoke excited responses. But then there’s the counter-stereotype, of presenters droning through turgid papers while audience members ramble “questions” that just happen to really be all about their own work, not what was presented. The reality generally runs the gamut from one stereotype to the other and covering everything in-between.
My experience of conferences, as a junior scholar, has been that they are a series of slightly disillusioning or uninspiring talks broken up by moments of incredible, sometimes life-changing excitement and inspiration that make it all worthwhile. For example, I found out about the documents that would become my first book — and met someone who became a good friend — by attending a panel on regional history at a AAASS conference as a mid-stage graduate student. The panel was great, but what really mattered was talking privately to each panelist afterward, to ask about their archival research and whether they had come across anything that might help me in my project. One of the panelists knew of amazing materials that were perfect for me, and — poof — my life changed. The topic of my new book also came out of a similar chat with another colleague, at that same conference. Many important insights about my work were born in a conversation here or there — often not in direct comments on a paper I presented, but through indirect conversations at other panels, often totally unrelated ones, or chats over lunch. I think the real work and value of these conferences is that they bring all these people to one physical space and throw them together, which creates the circumstances in which these kinds of unpredictable synergies can happen.
Conferences can also be great as a kind of giant snapshot of the state of the field. Usually they have some kind of theme — the theme for last year’s ASEEES was “borders and peripheries” and next year it’s revolution — but I find the official theme is often kind of like a parlor game, as everyone tries to shoehorn it into the topic they want to present on, no matter how awkward the marriage. This can lead to amusing paper titles (though I won’t call anyone out publicly, it’s worth browsing the program for a giggle). What’s more interesting are the patterns that turn up by accident — it seems like the last couple of years have thrown up a lot of papers on childhood and education, and religion seems to be popping up more than it used to. A few years ago, it was all empire, all the time in the Slavic and EE world. That’s still there, but less heavily than before. These kinds of patterns do give you a sense of where “the field” is heading in a way nothing else can.
The other factor worth mentioning about conferences is location. Each big annual conference is held in a different city every year, though my conferences tend to be in the northeastern cities most often: Boston, NYC, DC, Philly, Pittsburgh. For those of us who live out here, this is convenient. The conferences are cheaper (faculty with full-time positions are usually at least partially reimbursed for these quite expensive events, but note that many, perhaps most, attendees are paying at least partially out of their pocket), and in those cities in the winter months, there’s often little reason to leave the conference hotel, which keeps the panels well-attended.
This year was very different, though, and the effect was noticeable on attendance at panels at both ASEEES and AHA: in New Orleans, everybody was playing hooky at least some of the time to go out and explore the French Quarter. It may have been a little depressing to see the mostly-empty rooms, but speaking for my own panel, which was barely outnumbered by its audience, we may have inadvertently benefited from low attendance. At any rate, it was the most interesting and fruitful question and comment session I’ve had at a panel where I presented. All the attendees were there listening instead of out eating beignets because they had an intense interest in our topic. And because there were so few of us, the barrier between panel and audience really broke down, and we actually had a real conversation.
When I played hooky myself, I not only enjoyed some fabulous food, but I made some of those great professional contacts that conferences are for, which may not have happened in the hallways between panels. What started as a cup of coffee with an old friend grew to a three-hour, multi-course lunch where I met several new people whose work interests me in completely unexpected ways. And after my own panel, several of us moved on to a lunch where our conversation continued less formally, but just as productively.
It was a side-bonus that I was also able to get acquainted with one of the most extraordinary cities I’ve ever been to. New Orleans struck me as a rather odd mashup of Vegas, the deep South, and (inexplicably) a little bit of Budapest.
One of the notable things to come out of both ASEEES and AHA this year was how very little Slavists and historians tweeted or blogged the conference, a practice which is increasingly common in other disciplinary conferences, notably the MLA. Of course, historians are historians because we like old things, and we have always been famously technologically backward.
For many years we have been somewhat snickered at because we still mostly read papers at our panels, instead of using PowerPoint or (newsflash! This is The Thing now) Prezi, or even poster sessions. Personally, I wanted to tweet both conferences but was inhibited by not owning a mobile device — which is due to a combination of being a late adopter of technology in general and just plain not having any money. But since poverty is endemic throughout academia, that can’t be the reason historians and Slavists are so behind. My other problem would be that I’m too wordy for Twitter. *cough* This might also be common to historians generally. *cough* Excuse me, I seem to have something stuck in my throat.
Another big feature of the AHA conference is the job fair — the AHA is the primary venue for first-round interviews for academic jobs in history. This is why this conference always feels considerably less warm and friendly to me than ASEEES. It’s always filled with so many nervous people wearing nearly identical dark suits. If we all had less / more kempt hair, it would look like a secret service convention. Interviews are usually held either in suites (so that you often run into nervous people pacing the hallways upstairs) or all together in a ballroom, where a thousand tiny cubicles are formed for interviews to be held in, with an outside waiting room known as the holding pen. This year the holding pen was freezing cold, and the interview pens were made from floor-to-ceiling black curtains, with bright overhead lights, making that room unusually warm. Job interviews, or KGB interrogation? Sense of humor definitely required for survival.
Finally, the conference feature that is seemingly tangential yet a favorite for nearly everyone: the book exhibit. Scholarly publishers put together booths all in one big ballroom with books from their list relevant to the conference discipline. For laypeople to understand why this can be exciting, you have to understand that the kind of books most academics write and like to read are almost never stocked in stores, so conferences are a rare opportunity to browse books in person. Plus, university-press books are incredibly expensive, and at conferences they’re usually discounted about 20%, often 50% on the last day. The book fair is a geek’s wonderland.
The New York Times even took note of the AHA, with a nice little piece highlighting some of the trends of the conference. But at the same time, for me this brief summary for outsiders highlighted, between the lines, the enormous difference between the conference and my conference. The piece did capture the “news” from this year’s AHA in that it records some of the points made by big names at the high-profile events (which I mostly didn’t attend), as well as capturing a little something of the atmosphere (I guess; I eschewed “historian-themed cocktails” for what felt like more historical cocktails — famous local concoctions which date back to the Prohibition era when cocktails got interesting largely to cover up the horrible taste of badly renatured industrial alcohol). But at the same time, the major points quoted in this piece are in a different way not at all representative of the real nature of the profession, at least to me.
Michael Pollan asked why he uses our books as sources and his version sells so much more than ours. Did no one point out that the failure of our books to sell might not actually be a problem? Is best-seller status the only marker of success, or usefulness? Scholarly books are meant to be read by scholars, because some problems are so complex that only people with a lot of training are going to be able to take the time to go over all the evidence in detail, but someone — and it should be a lot of someones — needs to comb through that evidence, so that when someone like Pollan (whose role is also very necessary) takes away the general conclusions and frames them in a way that’s useful to the general public, he can be pretty sure that the conclusions are truly evidence-based and meaningful. He can’t write his book for the masses unless we first write books for each other. If we all tried to write for the masses, we wouldn’t be doing the evidence-sifting that we’re trained for, and on which the general conclusions depend. (From the summary in the article, it does seem that Pollan was more or less making this point, but it’s not clear to me to what degree either the conference or the NYT author are understanding this as a good thing for academia, rather than a “problem.” But I wasn’t there, so if anyone would like to tell me whether / how this point was raised I’d love to hear about it in the comments.)
Similarly, outgoing AHA president William Cronon and president of Oxford University Press Niko Pfund are both quoted as worrying about the state of the academic monograph. According to the NYT article, Cronon said that historians “tend to default to a dry omniscient voice that hasn’t changed since the 19th-century, despite the fact that historians no longer believe in that kind of omniscience.” And Pfund, noting that the pressures of tenure decisions are a key reason why historians are still married to the traditional monograph, added that historians remain “absolutely imprisoned in the format of the printed book,” a situation he called “borderline catastrophic.” As a junior scholar, conference attendee (who admittedly skipped out on the event) and as an author of a recent monograph published by Oxford University Press, I’m confused by these remarks.
First, as explained above, I’m not sure that scholars writing for other scholars to solve problems that can’t be solved better in other ways is a problem. Second, while I am absolutely a very strong advocate for good, readable academic prose (there’s no reason that an original argument written for other trained scholars has to be written badly after all), it is precisely the senior scholars like Cronon and the editors of prestigious presses like OUP that keep standards for monographs so rigid, and maintain monographs as the key format for historical research. Perhaps Cronon and Pfund are trying to convince their peers to change, for which I applaud them, but the most recent AHA newsletter showed graphs demonstrating how newer digital formats for scholarly research are less respected than any other aspect of a scholar’s portfolio in tenure decisions, and Oxford, with most other university presses, actually fights rather hard against digital incursions into the traditional monograph market. Finally, my editors at Oxford actually made me revise my book manuscript to more closely follow that “dry omniscient voice that hasn’t changed since the 19th-century” than the original manuscript did, in contrast to the general trend among academic writers to be more forthright with voice and authorship (a simple example is the old schoolmarm rule about using “I” in formal prose — my editors still frown on it, while a Google Scholar search will show that it has already become the standard).
I adore Oxford University Press for some of the quirks that may increasingly seem old-fashioned but have real value, like the Oxford comma, or quality craftsmanship in a physical book, or simply the high caliber of editorial staff they maintain in an age when authors slapping a manuscript straight into an Amazon ebook is becoming dangerously tempting. And of course I adore OUP simply because they wanted my book. How could I not? I also love them for publishing many of my favorite academic books (including, perhaps, some of those very “dry” monographs “imprisoned” in beautiful covers on my shelf where I can pick them up on a whim, flag useful passages and discover unexpected connections when browsing the shelf — monographs that are not best-sellers, but are purchased by a small number of people exactly like me…).
But at the same time, as a
young junior scholar who is coming up for tenure soon, hearing senior, powerful people in my field tell us we need to go in direction X when they are among the primary gatekeepers blocking the doors to direction X, I’m deeply confused and troubled. And I do think my confusion highlights one of the downsides of conferences — I’m not sure there’s very much meaningful exchange between the most senior scholars and the rest of us. I know that from my first conference as a starting grad student to this year I have interacted at panels, in hallways, and socially with everyone from undergrads to mid-career scholars as a matter of course. But many senior scholars forgo conferences — after all, they’ve been staying in crappy hotels and listening to boring panels in cold rooms year in and year out for decades — or if they do attend, with the exception of my own advisors and mentors I see them only from afar, from the back of an audience for a keynote address attended by hundreds and therefore decidedly not a venue for those kinds of serendipitous exchanges of ideas that ideally a conference is for.
Fellow conference attendees: what do you think?
Potential conference attendees: I’m sorry, were you looking for practical advice on presenting papers? Look here as a start.