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Chapter the Seventy-First: In Which I Go to a Conference

March 31, 2007, 11:46 am

I am currently at one of the big history conferences — the one without the Europeanists, the OAH, which means we lack some diversity but make up for it in the more informal atmosphere generated when fewer people spend three and a half days together.

Part of my fun this time around is that two of my former Zenith students are giving papers here: one is finishing up his dissertation and has a lovely two year post doc, and the other has published her first book and is *on* the roundtable I am chairing. How cool is that? I actually have several other students out there who have jobs, and are colleagues/friends. One of the nice things about being the undergraduate– rather than the graduate mentor — is that they appear, at least, to have entirely unmixed feelings about me (see this post about the weight graduate advisors have to carry for their role in a person’s career. It’s kind of like being the grandparent instead of the parent.)

Anyway, these two wonderful young people are smart, interesting and fun to be with, and while they have matured, I can’t honestly say they have changed. It’s kind of like that scene in the Wizard of Oz where the scarecrow wants a brain, and at the end of the movie the Wizard gives him a Ph.D., as a way of saying that he was smart all along? They were fabulous before — now they are sophisticated, mature Ph.D.’s — and fabulous.

OK, enough, enough. Here are some conference snapshots:

On Friday, I ran into Ann Firor Scott, the Godmother of Southern women historians, using a cane to get around the book exhibit, but refusing assistance like the amazing tough lady that she is. Slightly later in the day, Suzanne Lebsock had persuaded her to take a break and use a wheelchair to get around the endless skywalk between the conference hotel and the Hilton. Whatever it is Suzanne said to persuade her, I want to know so I can use it on my mom when it comes time.

Nell Irvin Painter wearing a tiara in the book exhibit. I said “Great tiara.” She said, “I’m so glad you noticed — Catherine Clinton gave it to me.”

Catherine Clinton dressed entirely in spotless light pink, with pink accessories.

The Radical mistakenly standing on line for fifteen minutes at registration for the Decorated Apparel Manufacturers Association before figuring out it was not the OAH registration (the decisive hint: seeing sequined tee shirts, and thinking, “When did the OAH start selling tacky tees?”)

The NYU-Rutgers (aka, Berkshire Conference of Women Historians) mafia holding down the far end of the bar and making more noise than the rest of the room combined.

So it’s been fun, fun, fun. But here is something that puzzles me – I have been to three panels (which is not too bad, considering I had to see a number of folks, including my editor, to explain to him why I had stiffed him on a deadline), and all have been *very* sparsely attended. These were good panels (the one on the Minniapolis Oral History Project had three outstanding grad students from the UMN program and a great comment from Lisa Duggan, and an audience of about seven) and I have to say, the huge effort the OAH has made to re-work the conference has been brave but not sufficient. Could we think about moving to a seminar format for most panels? Even asking people to sign up for panels in advance? Circulated papers? I dunno. But there needs to be some kind of imaginative shift so that people don’t go to a lot of trouble to write papers for a conference and then not have an audience. I know it doesn’t happen to everyone, but it is happening to too many people.

And here’s another suggestion: just like it was a mistake some years back to hold the OAH in Las Vegas (although it was a screech to see all the historians chunking quarters into the one-arm bandits) it might be a mistake to run shuttles from the conference to the Mall of the Americas on Saturday. Just saying.

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