That Time I Went to the AHA
Two of the four tentacles of the PhD Octopus attended the AHA in Boston this year — a third may have briefly shown his face before fleeing to New York. One can hardly blame him for his quick escape. Held in an indoor mall complex (connecting three hotels, the Prudential center, and Hynes convention) that can only be described as terrifying, it’s entirely possible that you could spend the entire conference forgetting to go outside. Except maybe if the alarm system were to go off in the middle of the conference. Unless they then just herded you into the tight corridors of the still very much indoor mall rather than into the great outdoors, with its various avenues of escape, because…well, I don’t really know the rationale there.
I managed to go to two panels and to see a few people I needed and wanted to see who aren’t typically in town, but I was also curious about what the AHA vibe was all about. During the time I took off before starting my PhD I spent two years working for a much much smaller learned society whose conference attracts about a fifth of the AHA, so partly I was interested in the comparative aspect. Having helped run many a conference for Society X (does that sound partisan to Skull and Bones? …. we were the opposite of Skull and Bones) I signed up to be a part-time grad student worker for the AHA (yes, if you were running around the AHA these past few days you may have caught sight of me wearing a stunning bright green t-shirt and perhaps directing you to the nearest bathroom).
The difference between my experiences of the two was mainly that the AHA seemed much more “professional” in a variety of aspects (not that my old workplace wasn’t professional; it was in many ways, but it still retained a nice, smaller, more intimate feel, with rules that were often meant to be broken). The AHA in comparison has a much larger and more complexly-titled staff, many of whom didn’t seem to have an academic background but instead were professionally trained in their area. Becoming professional historians (by getting a tenure-track position or a post-doc to finish the book) was highly highly emphasized at the AHA; the entire third floor was eery with the shuffled hush of “in-session” interviews. And maybe most symbolic of a professionalism that obviates intimacy was the $10 charged for a lost name badge, a rule that as far as I could tell was never broken.
But lest I be seen as a “conference griper,” a species I never looked on with much humor at my old workplace let me say that it seems there were many more jobs on offer this year than in previous years and even if it makes the conference a little jittery, it’s heartening that a number of the PhDs running around in suits were going to get some of these. I took away valuable things from both panels I went to, methodologically and substantively for my own work and also for thinking about the American university as a whole, and finally I was reminded of a semi-specious claim I’ve always made about my time in Cambridge UK: I learned how to do history and to think best by sitting around with fellow grad students at the local pub.
And happily there were bars at night at the AHA. May I recommend Lir on Boylston, the Pour House’s poor neglected neighbor which served up a really great Sam Adams Brick Red and a cozy seating area in the back replete with book-filled bookshelves? Thanks to Nemo and his friends and new and old NYU friends for a lovely time hanging out with historians.
Oh right, after some much-needed sleep, I will hopefully be reporting back on panels interesting for the intellectual historian in all of us and the academic crisis that… is all of us?