Report from the Field: #AHA17

Last week, amid freezing temperatures and snowstorms, the members of the American Historical Association met in Denver. (No, I don’t know who decided that meeting in the dead of winter in Denver was a good idea. San Diego, people. San Diego.) The snowstorm delayed flights causing many panelists to miss their presentations. Participants, including me, snarked our indignation about the lousy weather on Twitter. Our histrionics caught the attention of the local news.


The first time I went to AHA as an unaffiliated person, I felt a little weird about it. This year, I felt more confident about my unaffiliated status. I did not present any research or chair any panels. Since last year, I’ve managed to get a job at a non-profit dedicated to crime victim advocacy. Being gainfully employed and getting paychecks that didn’t make me laugh a bitter laugh increased my confidence considerably.

“Um…so …where are you?” people asked. They meant which university.
“Here in Denver,” I responded. “I had to get a day job. I work in crime victim advocacy.”
“Oh, wow…that sounds…difficult.”
“It is. But responding to crime scenes beats grading.”

Don’t get me wrong. AHA has some great parts: seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and taking full advantage of available open bars at receptions. I loved hearing about the adventures of former colleagues and classmates. I was genuinely happy for the people who got the tenure track jobs they wanted. I felt pained for those who reported that they were still adjuncting.

I went to a few panels. I listed to the speakers at a panel on travelers in Central America. Hearing papers on early 20th century travelers and tourism to Guatemala made me think that my research was still relevant. I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t totally washed up as a historian or an academic. I schmoozed people after the panels. I talked to the panelists about my research and people still seemed to think that I had something worthwhile to say.  

Besides the panels focused on individual research, some highlighted the state of the profession and the ongoing job crisis. Kevin Gannon, a fellow Twitterstorian, argued that many history departments train their PhD students for a job market that hasn’t existed for thirty years. Though I wasn’t able to attend the panel because of a conflict with another panel, I was heartened to hear that many people attended. The job crisis can no longer be ignored. In my own cohort of graduate students, fewer and fewer seem to be getting academic positions. I’m no longer convinced that good students still get good jobs. In years past, people used to assure me that the job crisis was temporary. I now think that the dismal job prospects for PhD students are the new normal. If the AHA continues to advocate for the profession as a whole, it must address the job crisis and work to expand the definition of success in the field. If it can’t meet these challenges, it risks becoming irrelevant, the main advocacy organization for a dwindling number of professional scholars.

The Woes of the Academic Conference-Industrial Complex

In the unspoken rules of the academic world, participating in the annual meeting is almost mandatory. On the plus side, conferences can be great fun. They present immediate opportunities for self-promotion and networking with major scholars in the field. People jockey desperately to impress one another with the prestige of name badges. Jobs are also won and lost at the annual meeting. Despite the AHA’s attempts in recent years to promote alternative careers for historians, academic jobs and careers remain the focal point of the conference, as evidenced by the dreaded job center. Junior scholars and graduate students on the job market must do everything in their power to appear like serious scholars with that magical quality: potential. Some of the people who have job interviews at the conference will be invited for campus visits; the majority will not.

The ugly side of conferences is that they operate on a pay to play model that excludes many people. Conference attendance, the yearly gamble on the job market, is expensive and has no guaranteed payoff of the coveted tenure track job. I realize that in the world of huge corporations, the idea of paying $1500 for a conference is truly small potatoes. However, for academics, it is sometimes a serious burden. A small breakdown of costs at the big conferences goes something like this.

Plane ticket: $400
Hotel room: $750
Eating/bar: $350

This comes out to be a grand total of $1500. In January. Right after the holidays. A good number of people, including myself, can’t afford this without institutional support. To add insult to injury (and some cliches), no one is interested in giving travel grants to random scholars unaffiliated with any university. I have lamentably not discovered any way to generate huge sums to cash on demand. Adjuncts, alt-ac people, and graduate students struggle to attend.  

For me, I’m done gambling. I no longer believe that gambling $1500 in conference costs brings a huge academic payoff in the form of an academic job or book deal. I’m already struggling with a huge amount of debt (a post on my debt situation coming soon). I have a day job that is paying me enough to cover my bills, but not much more. My goal this year is to pay off a tiny part of my student debt that is collecting a huge amount of interest. Because of this, I don’t have a whole lot of disposable cash.

I went to Denver this year because I live here. This was by far the cheapest conference that I’ve ever attended, largely because I commuted from home to the conference center. I probably didn’t get as much out of it as I did last year, but the cost-benefit ratio seems more distorted to me every year. Next year, AHA is in Washington, D.C. I doubt I’ll go. Then it’s Chicago and New York. Ditto.  

It’s hard to participate in academia as an outsider. If the AHA is really serious about about career diversity (and I have some doubts about this), participation in the annual meeting needs to be easier for people who are paying out of their own pockets. Establishing some sort of travel funding for the unaffiliated would be an awesome start.

Just thoughts, as usual.