Conference notes to spend

February 18, 2000

Thinking of attending an academic convention? That's fine, says Harvey Kaye, just bring your pillow

Three days in a Chicago hotel for the 114th American Historical Association convention, surrounded by many thousands of historians, reminded me why I always feel so ambivalent about attending, indeed, why I stayed away for a couple of years.

Do not get me wrong, I do enjoy myself. And, if you are thinking of coming over, do not let me put you off. But attendance has its costs. For a start, given the number of participants, the standard American academic convention takes place not on a campus, but at a grand big-city hotel (regularly overflowing into a few surrounding ones). Thus, the room charge is about $100 a night (convention rates). Throw in airfare, meals, drinks

Unless you are within driving distance, you have to figure on spending $750-$1,000. And, trust me, no matter how comfortable the room may look, a decent night's sleep without your own pillow and partner, in a dry, air-tight room, is impossible, especially if you are sharing quarters with a colleague who snores (like me).

So, why do we do it? What warrants such a sizeable expenditure? Why do we subject ourselves to such things?

Traditionally, we have rationalised it as necessary in order to "keep up with the field". Undeniably, conferences still afford essential opportunities for scholarly exchanges. But do they remain so crucial in this age of innumerable journals and the web? I do not know.

Admittedly, I love looking through the volume-sized programme when it arrives weeks before the event. Addressing a smorgasbord of historical subjects, the AHA convention typically involves more than 200 sessions, each with three papers and a commentary. Like an avid catalogue shopper, I circle the most intriguing sessions in red, and scan the many pages of book adverts.

Nevertheless, I have all but given up attending any of the sessions. No offence to my colleagues, but sessions rarely live up to their billings. I do not know if it is the heat of the rooms, the droning on of the speakers, advancing age, or simply a lack of sleep, but I have found myself nodding off in them.

Of course, "keeping up" also means "staying on top of the literature", and American academic conventions certainly do enable that. Seeking to promote sales and the egos of their authors (since they do not pay us enough), and to recruit new works, at this year's AHA meetings more than 100 publishers displayed their wares - textbooks, reference and document collections, monographs, journals, CDs.

I always look forward to checking out the exhibits. In Green Bay we have professional football and gaming casinos, but no real book stores (and online booksellers do not suffice). Armed with a list of titles, I visit every scholarly press booth, studiously avoiding textbook publishers and software


The exhibitors' floor looks and feels like a bazaar, minus the foods and fragrances - though every afternoon you will find at least one major publisher providing a cheese and wine party to celebrate its new titles. Editors and marketing people stand at their stalls, bantering with fellow exhibitors and, like merchants hawking their goods, encouraging browsers to sign up for a complimentary textbook or to buy a pricey monograph. Unfortunately, there is no bargaining, but publishers do give a 30 per cent discount to attenders.

The more serious booth-side negotiations usually involve scholars pitching their latest projects to half-attentive acquisition editors (publish or perish!). Stand around long enough and you will get shoved aside by someone eager to show off his or her new book to admiring colleagues (like a new dad at the window of the nursery in a maternity ward pointing out his baby to everyone). In spite of the rudeness, such moments make you smile.

Actually, to see all the new books unnerves me. I realise that there are too many of them; that no matter how much I try I can never hope to read all the stuff I should; and that I myself would be stupid to write any more of them given the flood gushing from the presses. But I soon get over such feelings when one of my editors takes

me out for dinner and we start

talking about my next project.

Far more depressing than the fresh piles of books is to hear new PhDs talking about the job market. I thought things were improving. But when a smartly dressed, desperate-looking young historian on his way to an interview (departments screen candidates at the convention) informed me that departments regularly receive up to 200 applications for each opening, I suffered flashbacks of my own nightmarish job search back in the late 1970s. In fact, my already accomplished, new junior colleague, Kim Nielsen, refused to attend the AHA convention, saying she has yet to overcome the anxieties of convention job hunting.

Scholarly pretensions aside, most of us probably attend conventions for the most basic of human reasons - to see old friends, have a few drinks together, share a good meal and tell a few tales. We live in a big country. Conventions afford annual reunions.

Most, we arrange by email or phone. Others are institutionally organised (for example, Princeton's history department sponsored a formal gathering for past and present staff and students). Some happen serendipitously, when we run into old comrades (and antagonists) at the exhibits or in the lifts.

Again, I would not want to dissuade any of you from coming over and joining us. But I recommend you bring lots of money and your own pillow. Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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