As I pack my bags to go to the Western Association of Women Historians conference in Denver, I ask myself: why am I doing this?
I don’t need another line on my cv. In fact, I don’t even need a cv these days.
And conferences are expensive. The plane flight, hotel, transportation to and fro, conference registration, and meals out end up costing about $1000 a trip. I’m paying for these out of my own pocket now – although it should be said that most academics pay for most conferences themselves, especially if they attend more than one per year.
I really should be spending that time and money going to writers’ conferences or retreats. Or, you know, writing.
And yet, in the past six months, I’ve been to four large academic conferences – the Western, the Southern, the AHA, and the OAH – and after Denver I’ll be going to the Society of Civil War Historians meeting in June.
What am I doing this for?
Building professional networks
Although I do need to cultivate a new and different set of professional contacts—professional writers, magazine editors, etc. – I am still writing and researching American history. And so I continue to be interested in and inspired by the work that my academic colleagues are doing, and the many ways in which they are changing the field through their research and writing. While I won’t be making any historiographical arguments in the new book (such discussions distract from the narrative), it is vital that I know what debates are out there, and write with them in mind.
Cultivating social networks
I have not actually run the numbers, but I would guess that about 75% of my closest friends are academics. As I have mentioned before in a post on the writing life, one of the challenges is overcoming loneliness. I don’t see students or colleagues on a regular basis; I go and write in cafés and libraries often so I can just be around people. And so the receptions and coffees and dinner dates – and yes, even panels – at big conferences become opportunities to see a critical mass of friends, all in one place.
These are good reasons to continue to attend academic conferences. But there’s another great reason:
History conferences should be a place for all scholars working in the production of history – academics, public historians, writers, journalists, artists, etc. – to come together in the productive exchange of ideas.
There are, increasingly, more panels and workshops about writing for public audiences and working in “altac” fields at major conferences. In fact, my panel in Denver is one of these: A Presidential Roundtable entitled “Fresh Mobs of Scribbling Women: Writing and Publishing for a Crossover Audience.” Ann Little, Theresa Kaminski, Rebecca Onion, Leah Stecher and I will be talking about all of the different ways historians can write about history, and how experimenting with different forms and styles can help us to gain new perspectives on the past, and women’s history in particular.
Panels like these are important, and there should be more of them on conference programs. But it is also important for selection committees to make a special effort to accept (or recruit) subject-based panels made up of academics and altac folks. And if my presence at conferences – talking about trade book/freelance writing or talking about the Civil War in the West – brings attention to the different ways that scholars can do rigorous historical work outside of (or adjacent to) academia, then I need to be there.
And so with my decision made – I will continue to go to conferences, particularly the Southern, the Western, and the SCWH – I return to packing, and to another pressing concern:
How am I going to fit all of these shoes into this one suitcase?