Friday, January 8, 2010

The Wolfe's Tone Checks in From the AHA in San Diego

As promised, "The Way of Improvement Leads Home" has correspondents on the floor at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in San Diego. Day One of the conference is complete. While all the historians are nestled snug in their beds in the "Plymouth of the West" (it's 4am on the left coast), we offer an entertaining and informative recap of the day from "The Wolfe's Tone"--a pseudonym for a graduate student in American history at a university located east of the Mississippi. --JF

Day 1

The Turnout- Thursday's was a sparse crowd as many people are still
arriving, other eschew the west coast travel, and still more remain
stranded in the confines of lovely O'Hare International. Opening
evening panels rarely play host to capacity crowds at any conference,
but today seemed sparse by any measure. Then again, part of this
impression may be driven by my choice of panels, where two of the four
panelists were missing in action, forcing a nervous panel chair to
announce several times that "We will wait just a few extra minutes".
Finally, our distinguished guests arrived. Charity would dictate that
they had travel delays. A more realistic view indicates that their
papers were, literally, "hot" off the presses (or at least the hotel
printing service).

San Diego: I heard some frustrations from east coast folks,
especially graduate students, about the distance of travel required to
get to Southern California for this year's AHA. I am highly
sympathetic to that plight. However, now that I am here, San Diego is
a wonderful conference venue. 65 degrees, a wide array of food
choices, plenty of history tours and museums, and a lovely view from
the hotel window combine for a first-rate feel. The price of this
very nice hotel is, well, not cheap. But it is not unreasonable
either. For graduate students in the future- consider booking a
double bed room and splitting a room 2, even 4 ways (if you are
comfortable with crashing in someone else's bed). I calculate that
with such frugality, a grad student could stay for 3 nights for $150,
which isn't half bad considering the networking that happens at the
AHA. And for those tenured gods who sit above the fray (at least,
those not applying at Johns Hopkins), be kind to the lowly among us
who are desperate for any break in the job market. Consider, perhaps,
advocating for your lowly juniors when budget's are being discussed.
How can you help them get to the places where they are most likely to
meet and network with other scholars?

Program: The program was a bit turned around today with last minute
room changes that sent many people scurrying to find where they were
supposed to be. But overall the program looks solid. Today's most
popular panels seem to have been (from speaking with others)
"Misbehaving Women: Sex Radicals and Nonconformists Who Made US
History" and the "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave: Same-Sex
Marriage in Canada". A funny incident occurred when the the
microphone for a paper on 19th century free love called "a Great Red
Harlot of Infidelity" was accidentally piped into a neighboring room.
I have not confirmed this (and I think they were joking
speculatively), but one person told me the room contained the American
Catholic Historical Association's panel. I don't know that its true,
but for humor's sake, it should be.

Quality speaker: I did the classic two panels in 1 slot maneuver
which, if done, should be done quietly and politely. I heard several
good papers, but the one that struck me the most was Joseph C Miller's
talk on The "Atlantic Slave Trade" as Byproduct of Slaving within
Africa. Miller needs no bravado from this writer, his reputation
precedes him. However his challenging of traditional "nationalist"
and "imperial" definitions of African political units as modernized,
westernized definitions imposed on the past, coupled with an
interesting discussion of the nature of African trade in precious
commodities for socially significant reasons of class, reciprocity,
and power was wonderfully done. Of such things are insightful papers

Rant of the day: Perhaps this correspondent is in error, but it seems
to me that the increased popularity of reading one's presentation from
the laptop you bring to the podium is, to be kind, a questionable
development. Surely there have been times when all systems have
failed, the ink is dry, the paper out, the back against the wall, and
the noble scholar must fall on her or his sword so that "the show may
go on". However more often than not it gives the appearance of a lack
of professionalism. The ballroom lobby was strewn with people sitting
on the floor with their laptops, hurriedly banging out their thoughts
a mere 10 minutes before the first session. To my surprise, I found
that several were heading in to present their own papers! This
occurred in my 3pm session. What strikes me is that I have asked
undergraduate students in similar situations - "why didn't you get it
done in time to handle the printer/ink/paper problems you
encountered?" And yet here is Dr. ****** ******* from *******
University acting like a freshman who forgot their assignment was
due. Perhaps such allowances must be made. If so, let us be equally
magnanimous to the freshman who does the same thing as we seem to be
to ourselves.

Here is hoping you are warm, wherever you are. I think I'll go take
an evening dip in the pool.

Best Wishes from San Diego

The Wolfe's Tone