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The AHA for Dummies; or, A Guide to History’s Oldest Annual Meeting Designed for the Novice Conference Goer

December 31, 2007, 2:00 pm

Is she in Heaven? Is she in Hell? That damned, elusive Radical!” (A cry often heard at conferences, originated by the Baroness Emmuska Orczy.)

This is just to say: if you are pseudonymous, anonymous or a lurker, I insist that you come up to say hello to me at the AHA. I would love to meet you. I can’t tell you precisely where I will be at any given time, and the blogger meet-up is, I think, scheduled for a lunch I am supposed to eat elsewhere. But I can certainly be found at my own panel, Sunday at 11 (pray god it doesn’t start to snow at 9 as it did in Atlanta a decade ago); and I can also be found at the interviewing workshop Tony Grafton has organized for Friday during the 9:30 a.m. session where, as I understand it, there will be role playing of various kinds. I am looking forward to learning a few things too, so come one, come all. In between, I can only specifically promise a sighting at the Radical History Review/CLGH reception on Friday night.

You’ll recognize me. I’ll be wearing black.

So instead of giving you a list of what I aspire to in the New Year (Item #1: “Diversify blog beyond posts that yank on the testicles of right-wing gadflies”) or my ten favorite books of 2008, the Radical is going to spread a little light on how to function socially at the AHA. This is expressly aimed at those who either have never attended this meeting before, or who were so traumatized by their first AHA that they can’t decide what shampoo to pack.

So here goes:

Please remember that we go to the AHA to socialize. Yes, there are panels, I know. God knows, I’m on one. And there are sometimes panels, or individual papers, that knock your socks off. But mostly we go to AHA to see friends and colleagues, hang out in those open bars in hotel lobbies and drink overpriced booze — or worse — a $2.00 glass of bubble water with a lime in it. We go to the AHA to go to dinner with our friends. We go to the AHA to hang out in the book exhibit, to go to lavish book parties held by the big presses, to go to receptions. Please do not forget this. You are now one of us and we expect great things of you.

This might cause the skeptical to think that the AHA has deteriorated as a primarily intellectual venue since its inception 122 years ago, but that is actually not the case. Almost from the get-go, it was an extraordinarily social event, where networks of men promoted each other’s interests, and hired each other’s students, all the while consuming vast amounts of cigars, rich food and booze. In 1912, for example, the conference committee scheduled a special train, with sleeper and dining cars, to go from Boston to Richmond, and at every major stop — New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington — more historians got on board and joined a huge party in progress, a party that ended with a pre-convention formal dinner — served on the train. The dinner followed a grand tour of the battlefields outside the former Confederate capital, with genuine Confederate veterans available to tell of their heroic deeds first hand. And if you have done some work in the AHA archives, you will know that, for our founding fathers, planning the “smokers” (to which female historians were not invited –for their own good, dammit) and putting together the invitation lists was at least as important as putting together the program. In fact, one might argue that a major cause of the 1915 AHA insurrection was the fact that southern and western historians were not invited to the best parties, and they came to resent it.

So actually, we have always gone to the AHA to socialize. It is a tradition. And we are not going to let the side down this year. Particularly in Washington, where there is so much to do.

It is from this crucial piece of knowledge that all other knowledge flows for the novice conference attendee. To wit:

Good conference contacts are well-orchestrated conference contacts. There is nothing wrong with approaching people you don’t know, or people you know only slightly, to solidify or initiate a relationship. In fact, I encourage it, particularly really famous people in your field. But you must imagine these as brief encounters, encounters that you will dominate and control. For example, when you are talking to someone of higher status than you (which if you are a graduate student is almost everyone,) watch that person’s eyes as you are talking. At the moment those eyes start to drift over one of your shoulders, interrupt and say, “Oh jeez, I’m late for that meeting with my editor.” Or, “I am supposed to be in a panel right now! So nice to see you!” Then bustle off. In other words: do not be a dump-ee, be a dump-er.

Watch out for your main chance. What do I mean by this? OK: scenario. You have arranged to go out to dinner with a friend in your grad school cohort. Suddenly you fall in with a fun group of people you have just met at a reception, and they invite you to go to dinner with them. Do you:

a. Say “I’m sorry, I’m meeting someone else for dinner,” and beetle off;

b. Call your friend and say you have been taken ill and cannot go to dinner;

c. Say to your new acquaintances, “Gee I’d love to — I am supposed to met a friend for dinner, but is it ok to add one more?”

The correct answer is: c. There are some people who I have subsequently become fast friends with who I originally met at a conference dinner where I was included at this last minute, either on my own or through someone else.

Imagine what you will say when, at a reception, someone asks you what your dissertation/book manuscript is about. Now remember, they do — and they don’t — really want to know. For some people this is a sincere question; for others, it is a default question when they don’t know what else to say to you. Because you can’t know which it is, you must attend to two main rules.

a. Be able to say it in a sentence, and not as if you are in a job interview, but as if you are in a social situation. Don’t, for God’s sake, drop your eyes to the floor, take a big gulp of air, and say something really complicated and long. I repeat — it’s a party. For extra points, relate your work to the other person’s research interests.

b. Do pay attention to whether your new friend’s eyes light up (indicating genuine interest) or whether this person’s affect remains unchanged and flat (indicating that it was only a polite question.) Proceed accordingly.

Do not, for God’s sake, save money by not registering. This is what we call a false economy. Why? Because the book exhibit is the center of the action. The book exhibit is where you go when you have time to kill. The book exhibit is where presses throw parties for fabulous authors and their fabulous friends. With free food and free wine. The book exhibit is where you are most likely to find a scholar you want to meet, temporarily cut off from her glittering herd, and vulnerable to a swift introduction. To wit:

a: “Professor Hofstadter, I just wanted to say hello. I’m a student of your old friend X at Prestigious University, and she is always recommending your work to me.”

b. “Professor Radical, I just want to say that I love your blog! How do you put up with the trolls? Yes, I’m in Shoreline for a year on fellowship. You know, I am working in an archive you probably know — oh, you don’t? Well, sure — if yo
u are interested, we could grab some coffee back in Shoreline.”

c. “Professor Dunning, I just finished your book on Reconstruction — yes, I really enjoyed it, but don’t you think you were a teeny-weeny bit hard on the freedmen? Of course, who am I to say — you know, Dr. Phillips gave a talk at Big State U. and he couldn’t say enough about you.”

Invite yourself to parties. I once invited myself, as a newly minted Radical, to a great party where I found a Famous Historian happily nestled in a bottle of bourbon, and he offered to take me back to the Smithsonian and show me John Dillinger’s penis. Although I declined, this is definitely one of my favorite conference memories, as it was followed by an hour or so of witty repartee with one of the most fun historians alive. Take points off if you view this encounter as sexual harassment, since I was at the time writing a book that involved John Dillinger. And it was really funny. And it is a long standing rumor that the Dillinger member resides, preserved in formaldehyde, in the Smithsonian.

This is how you find the parties: first of all, smokers will be advertised on the lavish message boards. But many are not advertised. If someone mentions a party you have not been invited to, consider yourself invited. It goes like this:

Historian: “maybe I’ll see you later at the Michigan Party.” (Remember; this is an exit line, and this person does not specifically want to meet you at the party.)

You: (who know nothing of this party) “Oh yeah, I’m definitely planning on it — where is that party again? I left my book upstairs.”

The Radical will, of course, be blogging the AHA — I hope on a daily basis, depending on what kind of pressure social life imposes. Anyone who wants to see conference blogging to die for should check in to Flavia immediately. Flavia’s dry wit is appealing no matter what it is aimed at, but this series of three posts had me giggling until my forehead hurt.

And check out this spoof of MLA program materials. Hat tip to Margaret Soltan at University Diaries. It is one of the best grad student capers I’ve seen since the JUDY! fanzine.

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