Would you accept as "history" a text featuring warriors who kill thousands of enemies in a single blow? One with goddesses and flying horses? Or does that seem the stuff of myth and legend?
Such texts deserve to be designated as history, according to Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, authors of Textures of Time: Writing History in South India 1600-1800 (Other Press, 2003). They say that is true of Telugu, Tamili, and Marathi writings of the 17th and 18th centuries, because those texts included verifiable events, causal analysis, and a demonstrable aspiration to comprehension -- the essence of historical consciousness, as opposed to mere recording or chronology. Textures of Time holds that South Indian readers understood the ritualized imaginary elements contained in such histories to be fictive, based upon obvious markers.
I assigned Textures of Time in my seminar on historical methods earlier this year. Despite being somewhat skeptical about its expansive claims, I approached the authors' argument with far more sympathy than I might once have possessed, for the reason that my attendance at conferences abroad has persuaded me that history takes many different forms internationally and that coming to terms with those variations is a valuable pursuit.
Despite ceaseless murmurings about a "global" age, most scholars remain narrowly bound to nation and discipline. Some even continue to make a virtue of national provincialism. I have seen people advise young scholars that if they attend only one conference a year, it should be, without fail, the annual meeting of their most important professional association. The implication is that those who attend overseas conferences do so merely for the food, wine, and sightseeing.
On one level, who can argue? Imagine the decadence possible when attending conferences abroad. Let's say you are in Athens. On a contemplative walk, you take in the Parthenon and its surroundings for several hours. Then you take the train to the waterfront, where you stumble upon the delightfully named restaurant Jimmy and the Fish. You dine on mussels with fresh chopped tomatoes, prawns in a rich ouzo sauce, crushed olives, taramosalata, and bread dipped in olive oil. A bottle of fine pinot noir appears by your elbow. Ships pass by in the harbor. It is winter, so not another tourist is noticeable. Your garrulous waiter, half-versed in English, is so charming that, feeling as magnanimous as Agamemnon, you leave him a tip of 20 Euros.
Lassitude! Frivolity! I assure you that I, personally, have never had a meal such as the one I just described. Certainly not on or about December 29, 2007, when I was in Greece presenting a paper on the origin of the word "strike" in connection with labor disputes in London in 1787 and Philadelphia in 1810. But I digress.
We were on the topic of the largest American annual meetings, weren't we, where not one drink is downed, not one fine meal devoured, and not one second squandered on play or leisure? Only hardheaded exchanges of data take place there. Right.
Now, I concede, the major professional meetings offer sterling attractions: disciplinary stars, first-rate panels, editors' and publishers' wares, old friends, new contacts. Those are the crown jewels among conferences, for a reason.
But to insist on attending only such meetings is a recipe for insularity. To dismiss the value of conferences abroad can only be the result of the constricted imaginative horizon of a mind that has spent the last 20 years pickled in, say, the brine of one annual meeting.
It is good to get out of the house. I can vouch for that.
I have presented papers at both of the major annual meetings in history, the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, but now I have also presented papers in seven countries outside the United States: Canada, England, France, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and Russia.
Presenting abroad has been a worthwhile, instructive experience, every time. Not because a pint of bitter tastes better in a pub on the River Cam (though it does). Not because you will never forget the sight of St. Peter's Basilica on a winter morning (though you will not). Taking part in international intellectual exchanges simply broadens your horizons, enhancing your teaching and scholarship.
Historians have long been interested, for example, in "transnational" histories that examine how and why distinctive national states and cultural traditions are permeated by world currents and eddies. Transnational influences are now covered routinely by the standard textbooks in American history.
But how can one really understand such dimensions, get inside of them, without traveling abroad and discussing such phenomena with scholars from abroad? International conferences are not about narrow transmissions of information so much as the enhancement of mutual awareness and appreciation of distinctive national styles of scholarship.
Let me provide an example. In 2005, I presented a paper at a conference in Moscow held on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. American and Russian scholars gathered under the sponsorship of the Center for American Studies at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), with first-rate simultaneous translation.
The Russian scholars were far more likely than the Americans to be concerned with memorials, myths, and symbols. They often gave emotive, personal presentations. They tapped memories of relatives and drew upon patriotic themes. That brought home how much more World War II remains a raw wound for Russians, who sacrificed 20 million lives, than Americans, who lost half a million.
The presentation style of the American scholars, by contrast, was less nationalistic, more critical, and, paradoxically, more objective. They delivered event-centered narratives and evaluation. They were more likely than Russian participants to mention the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939-1941, or the dictatorial character of the Stalinist state, as well as to express reservations about measures of the U.S. government, such as the dropping of the atomic bomb.
A world war, it is clear, cannot be understood except through the multiple prisms of global scholarship. Imagine what a more ambitious conference on that war might yield -- with, say, Japanese, German, Polish, Italian, Finnish, French, Ethiopian, and British scholars in attendance, too.
A more immediate personal advantage comes from speaking on conference panels internationally: To do so forces an unusual level of clarity. You must contemplate how to present material to an audience that is intellectual, not popular, and yet one that you cannot presume to be versed in the tacit insider lingo unconsciously assumed by nationbound professions. Successful communication in such an instance requires transparency.
Moreover, a deeper appreciation for the multiplicity of international actors and viewpoints may alter the way you teach.
This year, when I taught a course on the Vietnam War for the first time, I devoted far more attention to the Japanese and French occupations of Indochina and to the role of China and the Soviet Union during the American war than I might have in earlier years. I came to realize how the Vietnamese experience is actually the touchstone of the entire war, a war Americans -- including American historians -- all too often view exclusively through the eyes of the GI.
Among the barriers to presenting abroad, the most obvious one is the expense. Once I traveled entirely at my own cost. Another time my travel was covered by the inviting party. Most of the time, however, the travel has been financed by my university's conference-travel assistance, with supplemental outlays from my own bank account.
This is a zero-sum game, I freely admit. I have been forced to pass up mainline professional gatherings in order to take advantage of international opportunities. But the gain in perspective has been well worth the price and tradeoff.
Let me close with some pearls of wisdom for those contemplating attending international conferences:
The smaller the better. I really enjoyed a small 2006 conference I attended in Paris, part of an international academic colloquium, the Socialism and Sexuality Network. The presenters hailed from a variety of countries, from Bulgaria to the Netherlands, but the gathering was small enough that only one panel transpired at a time, allowing all participants to be present for all exchanges, which made the entire conference a running dialogue. Mega-conferences, by contrast, like the now-annual International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities have a less-coherent feel, an all-too-brief time for papers, and a miniscule audiences for many panels.
Don't just present your own paper and leave. Attend many sessions, if not most. Realize that you are at a conference, not on a tourist junket. Take time to see the sights, but listen to other papers. Ask questions. Take part. You might learn something; others might learn from you. Conceive of the international conference as a cultural exchange, not as a pretext for getting you a trip abroad.
Go slow and make it plain. When you are delivering a paper at an international conference, remember that your audience will be composed in large part of people for whom English is a second language. Technical terms need explaining. Casual vernacular expressions should be eliminated. Your pace should be slowed greatly and words should be clearly enunciated. Seize the chance to add to international understanding rather than contribute to the abundant confusion of our time.
Try the ouzo prawns. You only live once.