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.


#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]


I'm at the American Historical Association Meeting! This is my research.

Hello from the AHA in Atlanta! So much to see! So many people to meet!

I'm presenting my research in a poster session on Saturday.

I’ve been reluctant to talk about my own research on my blog, as I feel like I should write posts about writing, rather than my own research. In fact, I’ve spent the last year thinking more about other people’s writing and research than my own. Because I’m not currently working in an academic job, my own research has taken a backseat to other priorities. I am, however, resurrecting it and presenting a piece of it in a poster session at the 2016 American Historical Association this week. Putting together my poster reminded me why I like and care about my research.

I'm a historian of modern Latin America, specifically of early twentieth-century Guatemala. Despite the fact that Central America isn’t the most marketable specialty for historians (a fellow historian once told me that no one cared about Central America because exactly nothing interesting had happened there) (!!!), I’m still stuck on the place. I live most of the year in Mexico now, but my heart is still somewhere in Guatemala.

My interest in Guatemala started during my Peace Corps service there (2004-2006). I lived in a small indigenous highland pueblo comprised of a population that was 96% ethnically Kaqchikel Maya. I worked with four groups of women to help them raise dairy goats to improve childhood nutrition. The project had mixed success, but I learned one hell of a lot from the experience. (If I weren’t so interested in history, I would probably be studying the politics of international development efforts. They are problematic to say the least, but that’s a different blog post.)

One of the things that struck me during my service was the palpable racism I felt all around me. Huge tensions existed between the idea of the Guatemalan nation and the reality of its large Mayan population. As one Ladino (non-Maya) friend lamented to me, “I just don’t get why we can’t all speak the same language!” Many non-Maya people viewed the Maya with barely concealed contempt, seeing them as an obstacle to both national economic and cultural progress. [Note: there are also plenty of Ladinos who are very critical of racist attitudes, too.]

On the other hand, tourists flocked to highland towns to have authentic encounters with Maya people, particularly the Maya women who dressed in their beautiful traditional clothing. Tour buses crowded indigenous markets to purchase handmade textiles. Tourists paid big bucks to visit tiny indigenous villages around Lake Atitlán and flew to the remote Petén region to marvel at the pre-Columbian city of Tikal. Clearly, the Maya were a business in Guatemala, even as Guatemalans tried to figure out how to culturally assimilate them.

These tensions so piqued my curiosity that I went to graduate school just to see if I could get a handle on this paradox. How did U.S. tourism to Guatemala contribute to racist discourses about native peoples? When did native identities begin to have the economic and cultural value that we see today? How had historic racial and cultural tensions contributed to the current state of the nation? How was I complicit in these processes?

When I went back to Guatemala in 2011 to complete my PhD research, I found some things in the archive that I thought might help me to start answering my questions. Among other things, I found documents related to four historical episodes that seemed promising:

  • A Tarzan movie filmed in Guatemala in 1935
  • A 1934 Carnegie textile collecting expedition to Guatemala that resulted in a fashion show at Macy’s
  • A marimba band that played at the 1937 world’s fair in Dallas
  • Some information about early archaeological tourism to the Quiriguá site in the 1930s

I’m not sure how close I came to solving all of my research questions, but studying these four things gave me a better idea about how and why we think about the Maya today the way that we do.

For my AHA poster presentation, I’m presenting a little bit of my research about the Carnegie textile expedition and the resulting Macy’s fashion show. Here’s the skinny: (excuse the overly formal writing style—not much time to edit!)
In 1934, a painter and industrial textile designer named Ruth Reeves received a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Institution of Washington that funded a four month research trip to Guatemala to collect indigenous textiles. Reeves, best known for her Art Deco textile work in New York City's Radio Music Hall, rather than ethnographic field work, seemed an unusual choice to evaluate traditional Maya textiles and assemble a representative collection. Nevertheless, the resulting textile and costume collection would form the core of the Carnegie Institution's growing store of ethnographic material culture from Central America. The textiles also served as fresh inspiration for a new line of industrial textile designs Reeves envisioned based on traditional Mayan motifs and design elements.

Public enthusiasm for the wild, colorful textiles piqued the interest of the legendary Macy's department store. Seizing the opportunity to offer its customers new ethnic home decor and fashions, Macy’s commissioned Reeves to design new fabric patterns based on her interpretations of the traditional textiles that she obtained during her research trip to Guatemala. In an exposition jointly sponsored by Macy’s and the Carnegie Institution, Reeves unveiled the new collections, juxtaposing the original Guatemalan huipiles with her adaptations of the Mayan patterns and motifs. Reeves's collection sparked new interest in the use of primitive aesthetics in industrial textile design and inspired other artists to incorporate Drawing on the success of the Macy's show, the Carnegie textile collection toured select cities around the U.S. and received rave reviews for the unique beauty and high quality of the designs.

I argue that Reeves's Guatemalan textile designs helped to construct both a new racial and gendered discourse about native peoples, but also a new modern, middle-class sensibility and identity for U.S. consumers.

First, the commercial reproduction of original Guatemalan textiles commodified Mayan material culture in order to create racial and gendered representations of supposedly primitive cultures. Commercial interests, such as Macy’s appropriated these representations to construct new class-based U.S. identities rooted in shifting ideals of modernity. Textile expositions and retail sales of imitations in public venues commercialized Mayan culture, reducing complex cultures into bite-sized representations marketed mainly to U.S. female consumers to display in their middle class homes. The expositions also employed highly gendered representations of Maya Indians, linking the cultural productions of native women to popular conceptions of women as bastions of feminine traditionalism and cultural reproduction.
Secondly, the artistic traditions of non-Western cultures gained popularity in the U.S, not only because of underlying cultural narratives about the regenerative properties of immersion in “primitive” cultures, but also an imperialist nostalgia that romanticized the supposedly unadulterated indigenous traditions of vanishing cultures. The expositions of Indian clothing shaped public perceptions and what would become popular memory of the Indian past as an authentic and unchanging relic of pre-Hispanic cultural traditions. Representations of the Maya through public expositions of their textile arts created a reductionized and romanticized version of native peoples and assigned them cultural value based on the production of their “traditional” material culture alone, which in turn was given value on how closely they resembled the stereotype. This sanitized version of history romanticized the brutality of historical processes of domination and the forcible integration of native peoples into an expanding capitalist system.

 Finally, in Guatemala, the incipient intellectual movement later known as indigenismo drew inspiration from the U.S. craze for authentic and tangible pieces of Indian folklore, which transformed native people into folkloricized and gendered national symbols in order to render so-called uncivilized native people into mythologized foundational representations of the nation.

And that’s it! Folklorization! Shopping! Textiles! Romantic memories of an invented past!

Come visit me at the poster session! I’m going to try to bring cookies. :)

{Photo: a piece of a Guatemalan huipil from San Antonio Aguas Calientes, 2015.)