#AHA16: Report from the Field

Today the 2016 American Historical Association annual meeting in Atlanta ended. The book exhibit has packed up (and I didn’t buy a single book!). The hotels are emptier. People attended panels wearing jeans and comfortable shoes rather than conference-wear.  I’ve taken off my name tag.

I’m not a longtime veteran of the AHA meeting. I’ve only been once before in 2014 and found it intimidating. This year, I knew what to expect, but I felt weird about it because it was my first time at the meeting as someone outside the academy. I’m pleased to report that it was an overall positive experience.


I presented my research in a poster format. People in the STEM fields know all about posters; historians, however, are just getting into the poster presentation game. Even though the traditional panel remains the gold standard for conference presentations, I wanted to try something new. (Although I confess that I was slightly disappointed that creating the poster did not involve either glue sticks or glitter.)

As it turns out, presenting a poster is great fun. Although there was less traffic than I’d hoped, several friends and acquaintances came by to see my poster and talk with me about my research. I liked the poster format better than the traditional panel, because it gave me a chance to have real conversations with people rather than awkward question and answer sessions.


Here’s what I learned about doing a poster session:

  • Use big font. Like, way bigger than you think.
  • Use a desktop publishing program (I used Scribus). Save in PDF format. Get it printed at a professional print shop in landscape rather than portrait mode. [We had 3x7 boards to tack the posters to—so, landscape rather than portrait would have been better.]
  • Think about the size of the poster. 48” x 78” is a very big poster. Like, way too big.
  • Have some interesting props. Also, cookies would help.
  • Have a summary of your research printed on a sheet of paper.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Do lots of shameless self promotion

Now I have to think about how to repurpose the poster. [Perhaps for my eventual book tour?]


I met so many amazing people! This year, I made contacts before I even got to the AHA and arranged to hang out with them. Having a list of people to find and meet made it easier to make meaningful connections with people.

The meeting can be intimidating. Walking up to total strangers and talking to them intimidates a lot of people, especially me. Fortunately, I stumbled on the perfect icebreaker. Instead of asking people about their research or what they studied, I asked people why they wanted to become historians in the first place. Many historians told me stories about their childhoods, mentioning how even as children, they’d wanted to understand and know what had happened in particular places in the past. Others told me stories about traveling to new places and becoming so intrigued that they wanted to continue to learn about places and people. Asking people about something other than their professional work let them talk about their own personal stories, which I found far more interesting than dry descriptions of their research.

One thing that has changed since the last time I went to AHA is the way I use social media. Twitter is my social platform of choice; it has fundamentally changed the way that I network with people. I went to the Twitterstorian reception on Thursday. Armed with another very specific icebreaker (”Are you a Twitterstorian?”), I planned to meet as many Twitterstorians as possible. Meeting some of my Twitter followers in person was possibly the best part of the entire AHA. People who I’d only seen as tiny avatars were now real people! It was great fun to recognize Twitter followers and be recognized by my own followers. I had fun conversations in person with people who I’d only really known through their tweets. I’m looking forward to growing my Twitter following and also finding great new people to follow.

Behold! The power of the Twitter: Megan Kate Nelson, Jen Polk, and me hanging out!

Behold! The power of the Twitter: Megan Kate Nelson, Jen Polk, and me hanging out!


However, I was quite surprised to find that many people at the reception (and at the AHA in general) were not Twitterstorians. Many had great reservations about using Twitter or couldn’t see any reason to use Twitter. “I don’t have the time,” one historian told me. “I’ve just never seen the point,” another said. I was surprised by the amount of confusion over why scholars should use social media and how to use it effectively to network and share research. I’m thinking up a blog post specifically for historians about Twitter.

On Sunday, I attended a panel about how to use social media. An audience member asked how much personality we should show on Twitter or if we should instead use it in a strictly professional capacity. In truth, I’ve never had a clearly defined social media “strategy.” I’ve been tweeting since 2009 and my conversations have only become more engaging in recent years. I tweet about what’s important to me. My tweets span from tweets about writing, my business, what I’m reading, what’s happening in Latin America, news items I find interesting (especially higher education, academia, and student debt), and anything else that catches my fancy. For me, the personal and professional are never entirely separate.

At the meeting, I also talked with people interested in blogging but who weren’t quite sure how to get started. I still struggle with feeling like an actual blogger, even though I’ve now been writing regular blog posts for the better part of a year. I had to think for a bit about what advice I’d give, but it boils down to a few simple ideas:

  • Have a blogging schedule. Determine if you’ll post once a day, week, or month. Stick to your schedule.
  • Be excited about what you’re writing about. It is entirely possible to feel people’s enthusiasm for their subjects through their writing.
  • Write like a normal person. A blog post is a conversation, not an academic monograph.
  • Be YOU. Your posts do not have to be perfect.


I didn't apply for a single academic job this year. Nor did I go anywhere near the job center.

In preparing to go to the AHA, I’d felt a sense of sad nostalgia. I’d updated my CV, thinking about how I’d been a pretty good scholar and had done some interesting research. “I used to have so much potential,” I thought, feeling ashamed about not having an academic job. It seemed crazy to be on my way to an academic conference as a non-academic person.

My official name badge came without an institutional affiliation. I was relieved to see that it didn’t say “independent scholar.” Upon receiving it, I promptly defaced it with a Sharpie and added my Twitter handle.

My defaced (or enhanced?) name badge

My defaced (or enhanced?) name badge

 The lack of institutional affiliation and presence of my Twitter handle generated confusion more than once. Several people, unable to “place” me institutionally, asked me, “Um, so…what do you *do*?” The first few times this happened, I sputtered, trying to come up with some sort of acceptable explanation of why I was attending an academic conference when I so clearly lacked an academic job. ("So...um...it's complicated," I heard myself say at one point.) I finally hit on the perfect way to respond. I’d smile and simply say, “I help academics write better.” Reactions ranged from nervous but knowing laughter to, “You do? That’s so cool!” When I talked to people about how I helped writers, what I realized was that not only do I help academics write better, but I also help them feel better about themselves as writers. And that seems to me to be a worthy goal.

Overall, I'd have to say that this year's meeting was a success for me!

See you next year in Denver!

[Photo: interior of the atrium of the Atlanta Mariott Marquis, 2015]