Friday, January 3, 2014

Christine Kelly on "Doing History" Behind the Scenes on Day One of the AHA

Christine Kelly, a Ph.D student at Fordham University, reports on how she spent day one of the AHA annual meeting--JF

In graduate school I hear a lot about the “doing of history.”  As my seminar discussions never tire of reiterating, history is as much about the process of building content as it is about the content itself.  It’s about forwarding an argument about the past and then making careful methodological choices to support it, from source selection to preferred theoretical underpinnings.    

At day one of this year’s AHA Annual Meeting I became intimately acquainted with a very different approach to the “doing of history.”  Instead of making quiet decisions about academic work, shortly after I arrived at the conference center I was thrown into the administrative and organizational wheels of the meeting’s operation.  Having worked with the AHA in the past, I was delighted to see a slew of old friends among the meeting’s organizers.  My reunions with many of them were warm and wonderful but very brief – we had work to do!  

I spent the morning coaxing a finicky copy machine into desperately needed cooperation and delivering documents to various recipients (while getting lost countless times) around the Marriott hotel’s multistoried and maze-like layout.  Given that today was the first day of the meeting, many participants were getting their bearings around the hotel’s floors and corridors.  One of my main responsibilities was to memorize as much of its floor plan as possible to direct people to the registration area, ongoing sessions, break rooms, nearby hotels also participating in the meeting, etc., etc.  The upshot of this was spending quite a while jogging around the meeting in search of various locations, and memorizing information just moments before relaying it to countless newcomers.  Perhaps the most bewildering part of the day was when an exasperated worker setting up an event asked me to determine the appropriate arrangement of tables and chairs for it (needless to say I didn’t have a clue, but a few harried phone calls later the situation was resolved!).

While my official assignments today were at events like a morning workshop on digital history, the reality was a lot of fast-paced organizing, decision-making, and running laps, with little time as of yet to absorb session discussion.  But at every turn there were sources of excitement and delight.  Best of all was seeing so many dear friends again, including not only AHA staff but many professors and peers from all sorts of experiences through the years in college and graduate school.  And thankfully some of these friends were working the meeting, too, so in between learning and conveying information at a rapid-fire pace to new arrivals we were able to catch up on each other’s busy lives.

So today I encountered an equally valid but very different approach to the “doing of history.”  Sometimes it’s about using evidence and expressing ideas in meticulous detail.  And at other times it’s about administrative athleticism around the Annual Meeting.  In their own way, both sets of experiences know their rare and peculiar delights, and both benefit from a healthy sense of humor.