The Organization of American Historians meeting, from whence I last posted, is at the absolutely worst time of year. I always begin the following week feeling less like a teacher than like a circus performer shot out of a cannon. So why is it that I also enjoy the OAH more than any other academic meeting? Here are some thoughts on that topic.
Location, location, location. This year’s hotspot, Milwaukee, was a mystery pick. I don’t know anyone in the East who wasn’t groaning about making this trip. Two big problems emerged during the planning phase for those of us who don’t have access to an airline hub: expensive fares and the lack of direct flights. And then — what’s in Milwaukee? Why did they pick it? No one knew. Friends would say helpfully: “Beer?” as we conferenceteers grumpily stuffed clothes and unmarked student papers into a carry on, luggage which would subsequently be seized by airlines like Delta that only fly tiny little planes into MKE.
Travel in and out of Milwaukee was awful from beginning to end, although the trip home was the worst. The connection out of Cincinnati was overbooked, and an Oligarch University colleague and I were instructed to wait while they looked for volunteers to take a later flight. At a certain point, the woman at the desk looked at us and said, “What are you doing here?” as if she suspected us of having established an Occupy encampment at her gate. It turned out they had found seats for us, but neglected to announce it.
The other problem is that small planes on short trips don’t fly very high, and on an overcast day that makes for a rocky passage. At one point I went to the teeny bathroom at the back of the plane, and a mortified little boy came rushing out. I entered and was momentarily confused at the public health disaster that confronted me until I realized that the poor child had lost his balance and had urinated all over the chamber as he bounced off the walls.
However, except for the part about getting there and back, I discovered that Milwaukee has many pleasures. I would even venture to say that it is a delightful city, even if the conference center (like all others) is cavernous and cold. I had three excellent dinners while I was in town, although the vegetarian options (for those inclined) were really limited. Meat, meat and more meat was the theme. Want a beer with that meat? A buddy and I landed at a restaurant on Friday night in the Historic Third Ward where the bartender handed us a forty page beer menu.
Almost everyone I met in Milwaukee made me feel right at home. However, for those graduate students out there who are supporting yourselves waiting tables, here’s some free advice: when you are working a table with two extraordinarily butch lesbians sitting at it, addressing them repeatedly as “ladies” is a poor choice (as in “Good evening, ladies;” “Can I get you something to drink ladies;” “How is everything, ladies?” and “Are you ready for a dessert menu ladies?”) We have no idea who you are talking to.
My only truly weird dining experience (except for realizing at one bistro that the only vegetarian option was cheese and beer soup) was Thursday night. A friend and I — two white people actively in search of local red meat options — attempted to go to a five star barbecue restaurant and the (also white) cab driver refused to take us. “Is ghetto,” he kept growling in a thick European accent over our protests. Although I encourage you not to generalize from this one experience, the only other place where a driver has refused to take me to a black neighborhood was Johannesburg.
The program. The OAH program is either consistently outstanding or, because it isn’t as sprawling as either the AHA or ASA programs, I have an easier time making decisions about what sessions I want to go to. I would also say that the lack of business (particularly interviewing) and the lack of proximity to Christmukkah may free up time and good humor all around. This year’s decision to buddy up with the National Council on Public History was inspired. It was particularly useful to those of us who are interested in the future and substance of employment for historians who work outside university walls and the status of public history within the tenure system.
Rarely do I attend more events on the program than I do at OAH, and this year was no exception. In addition to the roundtable and the panel I was on, I attended six other events over three days. It may be true that I simply prefer smaller meetings. The Southern Historical Association and, most recently, the Policy History Association, have induced a kind of camaraderie that encourages interesting conversations among complete strangers. I know it’s a good meeting when, at some point, I begin fantasizing about getting back to my desk. That happened about two-thirds of the way through Alice Kessler-Harris’s outstanding presidential speech on Saturday afternoon, during which I temporarily satisfied the urge to work and listen at the same time by ordering her new biography of Lillian Hellman over my iPhone.
The Friday memorial for David Montgomery was well-structured, evocative and a community-building experience. As one of my friends said afterwards, “What other conference can you go to where a session ends with a room full of tenured faculty holding hands, swaying, and singing Woody Guthrie’s ‘Union Maid’?”
It’s the conference where everyone knows your name. You concentrate a lot of Americanists in one place and something good has to come from all that nationalism, right? I met a lot of people who I did not know before, and a great many of my old friends, across generations, were there. This included two former students, several former mentors, and a rather significant number of people from my graduate school cohort. Things get even better when your editor and his staff goes to all kinds of lengths to get your book out in time for the meeting. Thank you University of Georgia Press!
(Have I given you an opportunity to purchase my new book yet? Just checking.)
So congratulations to the program committee, and we’ll see you next year in San Francisco, where the waiters know who is – and is not – a lady.