AHA: first impressions

(this is the first in a series of reflections on the field of history, digital humanities, and historical questions about identity emanating from the 2011 AHA conference)

Sitting at Logan Airport, waiting to catch a flight back to DC, provides me some time to reflect on an initial foray into the world of academic history conferences: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The first overall impression of the American Historical Association gathering in Boston is one of “selfishness”. This term is often loaded with negative connotations, but this is not how I want to use the word; rather, it captures the mood of a gathering where the vast majority of participants were there to either present their papers, or look for a job.

And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. The point, though, is that in contrast to other conferences (more geared to social studies and education) the mood was stiff, lacked some joy, and there was no sense of a esprit de corps. No, I wouldn’t expect conferences to have a “rah-rah” feel; having sat in sessions with motivational videos and a call to “change the world”, I find such approaches a bit shallow and not very informative. Still, the AHA conference could use some relaxation, or at least a more jovial tone that might put some nervous would-be professors and presenters at ease.

The Good

Most of the panel presentations were rather helpful at this stage of my career. From presentations that specifically dealt with soccer and Latin America, to more odd-ball topics like spelunking in Venezuela, and to very specific themes of generational conflict and regional tensions…hats-off to the panelists who often raised interesting historical questions. The Prudential complex (composed of 3 major hotels with a Mall and Convention Center) was not my cup of tea, but for a frigid Boston in January it was helpful to find distractions nearby when a hike to the North End seemed like a long and cold endeavor.

The Bad

Although the panelists were quite good, I found the commentary of the presentations to be a mixed-bag. At some panels, no commentary was actually provided; at others, the speaker often went longer than the panelists and ate up much of the time for the audience to ask questions; and in one case the commentator’s critique and suggestions were geared more towards moving the panelists’ work to his/her own research and interests. For the AHA, I would suggest providing more time between panels if the conference site often meant walking at a brisk pace for nearly 30 minutes to go from one room to the next. Many attendees complained about missed meals because they could not afford to stand in a long line for food and miss a key presentation.

The Ugly

Very little actually, but there were several instances where I was amazed that a panelist, or even worse a panel chair or commentator, seemed bored or disinterested during the presentations. Attending AHA is a voluntary exercise. A presenters’ nervousness sometimes masked the quality of their research and it reflected the inordinate amount of time put into delivering a presentation. For some, they also had job interviews on their mind. From the perspective of the audience, it simply looked unprofessional to witness obvious signs of disinterest.

On an unrelated note, I went to my first NBA game thanks to an old, dear friend. If the price to pay for a good time at a historic pub was to dive into the hell that is the Boston Garden, as a Lakers fan I could bite my lip for a night. Unfortunately the Toronto Raptors played ugly that night. At least I witnessed local legends like Gino the disco dancer, and the Indian American Society of Worcester singing the Canadian National Anthem at an NBA game where no single player was either Indian, nor Canadian.

Overall, AHA was eye-opening and left me with much to think about whenever I am at the stage of presenting research and looking for employment. In subsequent postings, I’d like to share a few observations from my own presentation on digital history and a conversation that crystallized for me the need to dialogue about new media’s potential to spark a proliferation of historical work, increased visibility, and an honest discussion on how peer review and legitimacy can be handled in a digital age. Another subject worth discussing are the trends that emerged from a variety of panels on modern Latin America, identity, tensions, and social movements.

It’s nice to be back from the dead on this blog…