The 34th annual meeting (pdf) of SHEAR (the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) was held this past weekend in Baltimore. The last time SHEAR met at Baltimore was 2001, which was the summer I attended (and presented at) my first two academic conferences.
The first was at the Institute for Historical Research in London. I remember thinking that if I was going to make mistakes, at least I’d be doing it thousands of miles away from anyone I knew. The conference (theme: “The Sea”) stuck all of the graduate student presenters onto one panel, even though none of our papers were related to one another. This struck me at the time as a pretty bad method, and I don’t think I got many questions from the audience. But what I really remember is that a senior scholar, who I’d first met earlier at the conference, made a point of staying for my paper and then discreetly slipping out. Later that day, we sat together on a stoop outside and he spent fifteen or twenty minutes giving me a full critique of my arguments. So my first introduction to an academic conference was a display of almost unbelievable generosity from a scholar I deeply respected.
My second conference was soon afterwards, when SHEAR last held its annual meeting in Baltimore. I wasn’t a great fit for SHEAR, since I was studying pre-revolutionary history, but the loose, friendly atmosphere hooked me, and it keeps drawing me back. My fondest memory from this conference was playing hooky with four youngish scholars (all more senior than me) to grab a delicious lunch and then check out the wondrous American Visionary Art Museum. Just as I was trying to learn the conventions of conference attendance, a few historians showed me that sometimes you had to break the rules to have an even more meaningful experience.
Now I can look around the room at a SHEAR conference and see former mentors and colleagues, co-bloggers, editors, friends I met at previous conferences and in the archives, graduate students I’ve encouraged, and dozens of people pursuing exciting projects of all kinds. So, as I said, conferences are places of love.
It’s true that too much love can be a bad thing: the bonds of scholarly affection can encourage logrolling, backscratching, insularity, and groupthink. Indeed, scholars are often encouraged to throw open their doors a bit more widely, to reach out to the general public and have a broader conversation. In an ideal world, these members of the public would find our shared enthusiasm for history irresistible, and go home to tell their state representatives to pour more money into higher education. On the other hand, some specialized discussion is inevitable (and essential) at a subfield conference like SHEAR, and this can quickly alienate nonprofessionals. (At the plenary session, I heard a lay audience member ask his companion, “What’s a maroon?” which instantly conjured up Bugs Bunny.)
Still, for professionals, a great conference is not just an opportunity for fantastic panels and enlightened discussion, for cutting-edge research and spirited debate–a conference is also an opportunity for sociability and socialization, for the formation of a community of scholars. It’s a cause for celebration, a working vacation from department committees, grade complaints, and hermetic writing sessions. For scholars who will never register for another class in their lives, it’s a great few days of offline learning.* Our universities should do all they can to support conference attendance, for professors as well as students.
*Meanwhile, for those who want to follow along online, here’s the archive of tweets from the conference.