AHA 2017; or, Twitter networking with wet feet

I had a grand old time in Denver for the 2017 American Historical Association meeting. I was there, ostensibly, to present on a panel under the auspices of the American Catholic Historical Association. In retrospect, this trip felt like a big shift in how I “do” conferences. I’m sure much of that was to do with where I am in my career – a year out from the defense, on the market – but there were other factors that I think were important, and it might help to be explicit about them.

I headed out to Denver on Friday morning from a snowy Connecticut. My flight was delayed getting off the ground, and then sat waiting for a gate in Denver, and by the time I got to the city I had already had to cancel a lunch meeting with Andrea Turpin.  By the time I got to my hotel, it was nearly 2:30, when I’d intended to go to my first panel, but as I was tired, hungry, and wet up to my ankles, I decided to bail on that and wander over to the book exhibit.

Coming around the corner, I threw my hand up to shade my eyes from the  late afternoon sun pouring in and heard “Erin Bartram, nice to put a face to a name.” Why, it was Our Lady of Colorado herself – Historiann – appearing out of the dazzling sunlight to lift me up when I was at my most bedraggled! We had a brief, lovely conversation, and she did the thing that the best scholars do – she introduced me to a person I wanted to meet. It may have made all the difference. That evening, I met up with Pete Cajka and a bunch of other young historians of religion including Daniel Silliman for drinks and scads of free appetizers given to us by the establishment to appease us after they moved us to a new table. And then moved us again.

Saturday was my long day, starting with the women historians’ breakfast, where I met Mandy Cooper briefly,  and then had a cheery conversation with a bunch of young women historians about syphilis, medieval hospitals, child slavery, and death.  We then had a wonderful talk by Ada Ferrer, on how to reconcile her mother’s rejection of the Cuban revolution with the fact that the dominant narrative suggests her mother would have been the sort of person who embraced it. It was a great reminder that we shouldn’t ignore or brush aside an outlier that challenges established historiography, even if it’s not immediately clear how to make sense of it or how it might change the narrative.

Then I went to a roundtable on the future of Catholic history geared to graduate students in the field. The lineup shifted around a bit, including a good talk by Kyle Roberts on the future of Catholic history and DH.  At 3:30, I presented on Catholic controversies over reading in the aftermath of the Civil War as part of a panel on new ideas about Americanism. You can read more about the roundtable and our panel over at John Fea’s blog, where Bill Cossen (my co-panelist) wrote both up in great detail.  (I was going to report on my Saturday panels for John and then realized that I would just duplicate Bill’s post, and I don’t think we need Rashomon-inspired AHA reporting.)

In between these two things? I had crepes for lunch with Amy Kohout and it was glorious.  And that evening? I went out with all the Catholic historians and reminisced about Holy Cross with Charles Strauss despite the gentle mockery of our colleagues.

Sunday morning, I met up with Ameya Warde and we ate free AHA bagels and toured the book exhibit, where we ran into (accosted) The Tattooed Prof himself.  On a whim, Ameya and I went to one last panel: “Racial and Scientific Visions of Progress among 19th-Century US Reformers.” It touched on a lot of groovy stuff but also emphasized to me that it is good for those of us who study Catholic history and those of us who study Protestant history to talk to each other and present with each other, and to do it more than we do now. If not, we risk assuming things are “Protestant” and “Catholic” when maybe they’re just “American,” “white,” “male,” or “middle class.”

[To that end, I’m re-upping this piece that I wrote on the continued exoticization of Catholicism in the study of U.S. history, hoping it might earn a read from some new people who read this. When I first wrote it, I had a very lively conversation on Twitter…with other scholars who work with Catholicism (yeah Moxy, Monica, and Catherine!), and noticeably little with anyone else. Maybe it was just an off day, but I suspect it’s more than that. I’d love to know what those of you who do the history of non-Catholic things in America think about the claims I’m making, even if you think they’re hooey.]

You may have noticed one thing about almost all of these links to the people I met. Many of them were friends I only knew on Twitter, and this AHA meeting allowed me to meet so many of them in person, where they were as delightful as I expected. I hear lots of junk about how Twitter is a waste of time for academics (as though we aren’t adept at finding hundreds of other ways to waste time without Twitter), and that it can be a dangerous place for academics (if Stephanie McKellop can take what she does, surely I can handle the eggs who randomly tell me I’m a disgrace and should get back in the kitchen).

For me, even in this year where Twitter seems like a cesspool much of the time, it’s been an absolute blessing, and I’m glad it will keep me in contact with all of these people till the next time we can meet in too-huge conference rooms, at too-early breakfasts, on too-snowy sidewalks, and over too-many free drinks.


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