This time last week, I was in the Windy City, along with several thousand professional companions, for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. It was my first experience of the AHA – a rite of passage for budding professors, given its intrinsic connection with the job market. For not unrelated reasons, the conference is widely regarded as something of a slough of despond; those who attend either worried sick about their impending interviews, or alternatively tired out from a grueling schedule of quizzing job candidates and meeting colleagues in other departments. Indeed, the issue seems so acute that it even warranted attention at the Annual Business Meeting – how can the conference make the first memory a better one?
I’m happy to report that my experience was very different from the common stereotype. Indeed, the weekend was enjoyable from start to finish – from the moment I set foot in the Sheraton to catching the shuttle to Midway airport, I seemed to do little other than run into people I knew. The opportunity to catch up with so many friends and acquaintances, old and new, was tremendously pleasant.
Another selling point of the conference from my point of view is the opportunity to attend panels and papers well outside of my specialties. This is not to say that there weren’t panels related to my work I’d have enjoyed attending (most annoyingly, this panel was scheduled for after my departure!) – but at the same time, my chances to hear the latest research on Early America are numerous. Travelling to SHEAR is an expense I can justify in a way that I simply can’t for, say, a digital humanities conference. This approach certainly paid dividends – the panels on digital history, in particular, provided me with a lot of food for thought as to how I can integrate new technology into my own teaching, research and writing.
That said, I wonder whether the long waiting time between the call for papers and the conference itself works as well as it could. Indeed, I wonder whether rethinking the whole notion of accepting panels for the conference could do with an overhaul. Especially for those interviewing, the conference is something of an exhausting experience, and paying attention to read-out papers in windowless conference rooms becomes difficult after a while (particularly as speakers invariably overrun their time slots and the comment becomes a fourth or fifth paper). I know that by Saturday afternoon my concentration levels were dropping. Encouraging roundtable discussions or more participatory formats may be a good idea – after all, the strength of the AHA lies in the number and variety of people it brings together. Why not allow a more free-flowing conversation, rather than keeping things in such structured form?
A perhaps more flippant suggestion for making the conference experience more pleasant might be the consideration of its timing and its location. January, especially early January, is not an easy time for travel. I would have been to an AHA meeting before had the timing been more convenient for someone travelling across the Atlantic. Similarly, despite the unseasonably good weather, surely the heavy chance of snowfall at many AHA locations also affects the experience?
So I will conclude with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion. The AHA meeting is essentially the Super Bowl for the historical profession. Why not adopt a similar principle to the Super Bowl in choosing host cities – that is to say, take average temperature into consideration? The meeting is so large that moving from hotel to hotel is an integral part of the conference experience; the ability to wander outdoors is also a great antidote to too much time in hotel lobbies blasted full of hot air (by a/c systems, I hasten to add!). So why not overload the rotation with places like San Diego, Miami, and New Orleans?