My AHA 2012 Debrief: Sunshine in the Windy City

An Anchorman T-Shirt from Urban Outfitters

I think this should be the conference t-shirt for AHA 2013 next year in New Orleans. Let's make this happen!

This past week, I spent several days in Chicago, Illinois, attending the American Historical Association’s 2012 annual conference. Normally I would have blogged about this throughout the experience, but the infinite universe or the Elder Gods or rogue bacteria decided to inflict upon me a dental issue of excruciating pain just as the conference started. It took tremendous willpower and a shitload of OTC drugs to make it through the weekend. Now that I have obtained more powerful drugs (to help me last until I can hit the dentist later this week), I wanted to get my thoughts down about my experience in Chicago. I’m going to do this in a capsule digest form, and, as is typical of me, it’s focused mainly on me, me, me.

Before starting, how about that weather? Holy shit, compared to the blizzard that was Boston last year, the weather in Chicago this year was spectacular — 50+ degrees in the beginning of January! I officially declare this should be the case every year. Make it so, Global Climate Change.


Beyond the AHA’s stated conference theme of “Communities and Networks,” I think it was pretty clear that digital history/humanities was the other key theme that ran throughout the whole weekend, exemplified by the first time inclusion of a THATCamp unconference at the AHA on Thursday. For those not in the know, THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is an unconference managed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which has spawned dozens and dozens of regional THATCamps all over the world in the last three-four years. The goal of these unconferences is to reject the staid model of static, one-way paper delivery that bogs down many an academic conference in favor of decentered, hands-on activities and dialogue between scholars in the humanities and technologists. The experience is really unlike any conference I’ve attended before.

This was my second shot at attending a THATCamp, having gotten my feet wet at the 2011 Great Lakes THATCamp run by the indefatigable Ethan Watrall at Michigan State University (an experience I wrote about previously here: “Coders and Girl Geeks and Luddites, Oh My: Great Lakes THATCamp 2011″). I have to be honest in saying that I was not as enamored with the experience as I was at the Great Lakes THATCamp last year. It was a combination of factors really. The starting schedule scrum was less tolerable, seeming to drag on forever and suffering from Academic Me-ism (academics do love the sound of their own voice, present company included). Some of the suggested topics were the usual mix of interesting and the not-so-interesting (to me), but the balance seemed tilted more toward not-so-interesting. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a t-shirt (I wanted a t-shirt, damn it!). Ultimately, it was my dental issues that ruined the experience for me; I even had to leave the proceedings halfway through to do some triage on my mouth.

Enough whiny bitching, what did I find valuable about it? I was able to attend one session, a workshop on grant-writing strategies led by Jen Serventi and Josh Sternfeld of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which was informational and useful as I contemplate how to fund all the projects I want to do. You can find some scattered and rough notes from the session here. I was particularly annoyed that in leaving I wasn’t able to catch the workshop on teaching digital history by Jeff McClurken of the University of Mary Washington (it was the whole reason I registered to go to the AHA THATCamp), but Professor McClurken did post the schedule and links from his workshop on his blog, so I’m grateful for that.

All in all, I’m not ready to give up on THATCamps by any means, just ones where I’m delirious and in pain. Bring on Great Lakes 2012.

Live-Tweeting Fun

When I wasn’t struggling with my own dental issues, I did find some time to attend a few regular conference panels and live-tweet them. The first was a session on Friday entitled “Successfully Teaching History in the Online Environment: Experiences, Tips, and Thoughts.” The points raised during this session nicely jived with what I have seen in my own online courses, but also offered some useful suggestions for how to improve my rather pedestrian online efforts (something I hope to address during 2012, when I have the time). For ease of archiving, I used Storify to collect and order my tweets during the session:

The second panel I attended was Saturday morning, entitled “Presenting Historical Research Through Digital Media” and included a couple of my friends (Drs. Lemont Dobson and Katrina Gulliver). I also used Storify on this panel as well, which had a lot of interesting bits of information on finding new ways to communicate historical stories to the public effectively and engagingly:

Twitterstorians To The Max

Twitterstorians drinking in a bar

Surreptitiously snapped a pic of Twitterstorians in their natural habitat during the AHA.

On Friday night, the Twitterstorians had a drink up at a local cocktail bar (The Drawing Room). As usual, it was a raucous good time, made even more so by me bringing my lovely wife Andrea, who immediately made it her mission to talk to every single person at the drink-up (which she did) and to touch Patrick Murray John’s “gorgeous Van Halen hair” (which she also did). On the other hand, I spent most of the time sucking on ice cubes to numb my mouth on the edge of the proceedings. Nevertheless, I was able to make the new acquaintance of a number of Twitterstorians (some more briefly than others), so cheers to @conservadora, @cap_and_gown, @maureenogle, @cliotropic, @raherrmann, and @dmcconeghy. It was lovely to meet you all (and my apologies to anyone I forgot; drugs will do that).

Book Buying Isn’t Dead Yet

My favorite part of the AHA is always the book stalls in the main exhibit hall. As a scholar, I have that wonderful disease where I buy books, books, and more books; promptly take them home and forget to read them; and then go buy more books, whereupon the cycle repeats itself ad nauseum. This year I consciously tried to maintain some discipline and not buy tons of books. I was relatively successful; I only bought four.

Carthage book cover

Every time you read this book, God kills an ancient civilization.

To indulge my ancient history fetish, I bought two cheap books from the Penguin booth. I love their $10 hardcovers and $5 paperbacks at the conference, much better than some who try to give you only the illusion of a deal (I’m looking at you, Ashgate, with your 50% off a $100 book). Anyway, the books were Richard Miles’ Carthage Must be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Not being an ancient historian but often finding myself teaching the ancient world history course, I’m always looking for ways to build my knowledge about the ancient past and the scholarship that underpins it, to better communicate that to my students. These should do nicely.

I also picked up Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State, which tickles my urban and spatial history funny bone, and also a book for my wife, The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Paul Buhle, and a bunch of others. Being a poet, my wife has a lifelong fascination with the Beats, so when I saw this, I knew I had to get it for her.

And that’s it. Amazing, isn’t it? Normally I walk away from this conference wondering what clothes I need to ditch in order to fit all my books in my luggage. Restraint, thy name is poverty.


Other than that, the rest of my conference experience was trying to eat through jaw pain at all the cool restaurants we stumbled upon; doing a little retail therapy on Saturday (including my annual conference comic book shop excursion, this time hitting Graham Cracker Comics’ Chicago Loop location just off Michigan Ave south of the Chicago River); and playing “Historian or Homeless” while wandering around the conference hotels.

Next year’s conference will be in New Orleans, Louisiana, so that should be a kick ass time as well – minus the dental torture hopefully.


My AHA 2012 Debrief: Sunshine in the Windy City — 3 Comments

  1. I’m even more sorry that you missed my workshop after you said such nice things about it. Again, let me know if you have any questions about what we did or what my larger points were.

    The issues of the scheduling session are not unique to the AHA THATCamp. It’s always a bit of a slog, especially when you’re dealing with a diverse set of goals and expectations in the audience and/or people who want to be able to go to every session. Still, I’ve not figured out a better way to suggest we do that, and I’ve come to accept it as part of the unconference process.

    Good luck with the tooth.

    • I think it was a bunch of little things that added up that put me off the scheduling this year, many of which were entirely out of Dan’s and PMJ’s control (e.g., the size of the room; the number of THATCamp virgins; the 1 day block vs. 2 day block scheduling dynamic; etc). That said, I’ve always thought the adding of set workshops was and is a great way to anchor unconference proceedings, despite the scrum. You’re right that one just needs to accept it and roll with it.

      And thanks. Dentist on Thursday, if I can make it until then.

  2. Pingback: What We’re Reading: 126th Annual Meeting Edition | American Historical Association

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