Reflections of an AHA First-Timer

by Emily Rutherford

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.
—David Lodge, Small World, in The Campus Trilogy, 223

Lodge’s novel, a brilliant pastiche of medieval romance which traces the peregrinations of several international conference-going English professors, climaxes at “the Big Daddy of conferences,” the Modern Language Association’s Annual Meeting. His extended description of that meeting is worth a read for anyone who, like Lodge’s ’70s literary scholars, found themselves at a Hilton in midtown Manhattan last weekend awash in sensory overload. One of the things Lodge’s novel gets most right is how much of the point of academic conferences, particularly enormous ones, is about anything other than the ideas being exchanged: the people exchanging them, the social and political contexts in which they are being devised and exchanged. At AHA 2015, for every panel, like those we highlighted, devoted to new developments in the scholarship of ideas, there was a panel about the historical context of Ferguson, or about Leftist takes on the meaning of “public intellectual” and how to be one. One of the most important things going on at the AHA was how historians worked together to imagine how they might be historians in the world, whether that meant debating whether to suspend the AHA bylaws to allow a resolution regarding Israel and Palestine to be considered at the Business Meeting, countless sessions about digital humanities, social media, and more traditional forms of public history, or the usual and essential spate of sessions about teaching, one of the most important forms of public engagement.

From the panels I attended, it was clear that what a “public intellectual” is can be an intellectual-historical question. So can questions of field and relevance, and whether politically and socially conscious history in the United States can be produced and taught as effectively by non-US historians as by those who do the national history. But just as important as all this are closely related questions about who is debating these issues, how they interact, the personal commitments that inform their stances on history, society, and politics, and what happens when you pour them all into the hallways of a Manhattan Hilton and ratchet up the tension by requiring many of them to undergo high-stakes job interviews in the process. As effective as (though certainly very different from!) Lodge’s novel in explaining how this is the case was outgoing AHA President Jan Goldstein’s Presidential Address, which mapped the moral field in which a variety of different nineteenth-century French racial theorists operated. Goldstein stressed the need to recover these theorists’ own debates about the moral content of scientific versus philosophical approaches, allowing us to move towards a more complex understanding of their different views than a blanket condemnation of their distasteful imposition of racial hierarchies allows. The published version of the address will appear in the February issue of the AHR, and perhaps I will delve more deeply into its content then. But as I listened in-person on Saturday, it seemed that the method Goldstein was modeling for us could easily be applied to the AHA itself, to the complexities of the moral and political implications of our work, the unintended consequences of decisions made on such grounds, and the ways in which personal contingencies can shape the moral field in which it seems possible, as a scholar or intellectual, to operate.

The most revealing aspect of the conference was the five hours I spent as a shift-worker for the Local Arrangements Committee, during which I, in the company of many other New York-area grad students, ran around the Hilton in an orange t-shirt, providing directions, answering questions, and doing headcounts in the sessions. I must have come into contact with a hefty proportion of the conference attendees, and it was interesting to note who was kind and respectful when they asked for directions, even if they were senior scholars; who remembered that we had met before; who banded together in groups because they had been grad students together 25 or fifty years ago; who made a beeline for the receptions as soon as the panels were over; who (like the two military history buffs who came up to me looking for a lecture on George C. Marshall) had never heard of the AHA before. My own research on nineteenth-century England shows that intellectual communities and the making of their history occurs just as much in these circumstances as in what can be discerned through formal published conference proceedings, journals, or monographs. Understanding the historical profession as a thing today also entails understanding who historians are, why, as much as what, they think about the past, the webs of their friendships, how they treat graduate students, which way they voted on whether to suspend a bylaw and the discussion that got them there.

I hope there wasn’t as much sexual scandal at AHA 2015 as there is at David Lodge’s fictional MLA. But in choosing to account for conferences in the terms of romance, he has an important point to make about the relationship of intellect to everything else.

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