Oh, The Joy Of Political History! Day 2 at Policy History Conference

June 4, 2010, 4:51 pm

Why do we go to conferences? Most of us end up asking this question, perhaps as we are finishing up a paper or a comment later than we wanted to, or packing hastily the night before a flight that is too early. I was certainly asking myself why I ever leave home for any reason as I contemplated the fact that, for the second morning in a row, I had no hot water at the Holiday Inn. Fortunately it is summer, and becoming chilled first thing has no lasting effects; my spirits were raised even further by unexpectedly locating a branch of Au Bon Pain a block and a half away where I could have a nicer breakfast than I had had yesterday. (“Do you know that the graduate students at Harvard refer to your chain as A Big Pain?” I overheard a senior scholar who was trying to arrange a table for twenty ask the manager conversationally. “No, I didn’t!” the cheerful Midwesterner replied, as if my colleague had just made his day.)
Here’s a link on why we go to conferences by Karen Tani at Legal History Blog entitled “Networking” (say what you mean why don’t you, Karen?) Readers should note that while these hints are particularly helpful to graduate students, they are good to work into your repertoire at all stages of life, particularly if, as many of us might agree, you don’t work at an R-I and people don’t automatically brighten, regardless of who you are, as they do when they see “Princeton” on a person’s name tag. More importantly, we go to conferences to exchange ideas, and unless you are into stealing other people’s ideas it is good to be able to attach a name to them in your citations when they make a difference to your thinking. There is nothing more aggravating than hearing someone in the audience mention her interesting research during the Q & A, and then have to dodge others as you dash over before s/he leaves the room because s/he didn’t identify herself. As Tani points out in this post, one of the points of coming to a conference is to get feedback on your work, but another is to make connections that might lead to more formal scholarly collaboration as well.
Some combination of an excellent program committee, my good luck, and the nature of the conference has made this event, now in its second day, particularly fruitful. While I haven’t seen Karen networking, I did see her give a superb paper this morning on a panel called “Ironies of Legal Liberalism: Political Surprises in the Histories of Welfare, Civil Rights and Feminism.” Karen is a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and is finishing a history Ph.D. at Penn on the long history of welfare rights. She was followed by Sophie Zee, of Penn Law School (“Rights on the Right: The New Deal Origins of Conservative Rights Constitutionalism, 1950-1980;” Deborah Dinner, of Harvard Law School, on “The Costs of Life: Feminism, Choice and the Debate Over Pregnancy;” and Hiroshi Okayama of Keio University. I didn’t get the title of Okayama’s paper, but he is proposing an interesting correction to Steven Skowronek’s influential argument that the state of courts and parties gives way to a Progressive vision of state centralization. Instead, he argues, judicialism works its way into the state informally, as Progressive administrators imagine that the commission system might take the place of courts as the primary arbiter for rights. The entire panel, as Eileen Boris commented from the audience (following an excellent comment by Gretchen Ritter, a professor of government at UT-Austin), should cause us to think about whether historians’ fascination with the complexity of post-Goldwater conservatism has made us a little lazy about thinking about divides in liberalism. General consensus seemed to be that this was right on. In addition to running the panel in an uber competent way, Matt Lassiter of Michigan suggested that a law degree and a history degree, which Dinner, Zee and Tani are all wrapping up, seems to be just the ticket.
This conference is particularly marked, from my point of view, by the quality of the scholarship presented and the quality of the discussions. That many of the presenters I have heard are also quite young scholars is a great credit to the conference organizers for having the courage to reach out to doctoral students, and it is an argument for why we need to be fighting for tenure-track positions to place these talented people. One of these rising stars is obviously Marsha Barrett, of Rutgers University, who appeared earlier in the 8:30 time slot on a panel called “Examining Alternatives: Reconsidering the Republican Right.” This session also featured fine papers by Zenith’s own Leah Wright, Timothy Thurber of Virginia Commonwealth University, and a comment from Paula Baker. Barrett is working with David Greenberg at Rutgers, and presented an outstanding piece on the implications of Nelson Rockefeller’s intervention in the 1960 Republican Party platform. Political history wonks would, of course, find this interesting, but Barrett’s presentation was so compelling that it suggests she will get a lot of attention.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

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