The 2008 Berkshire Conference: The Year Cultural History Broke?

Well, it’s been a whirlwind of a conference, and worth the two-and-a-half years of planning that preceded it!  The weather was sunny (mostly), warm, and fair.  All of the panels and roundtables I attended were full of fascinating people who had great conversations with their audiences.  (And those I didn’t attend I heard were also really good too–although if opinions differ here, I appreciate that no one wanted to complain about the conference this weekend.  There will be plenty of time for accusations and recriminations after the fact.)

Some observations and highlights:

  • Thursday night’s plenary session called “THE CHANGING (?) STATUS OF WOMEN IN THE HISTORICAL PROFESSION:  PROGRESS AND CHALLENGES,” was in fact more about the persistent challenges than any measurable progress in the past 20 years.  Noralee Frankel from the American Historical Association (AHA) told us about the Rose report in 1970 on the status of women historians, and about the 2005 report–and showed us how we keep making the same observations and recommendations again and again, and how relatively little has changed over these 38 years (Historiann’s lifetime!)  The big gains were made in the 1970s and up through the late 1980s and the early 1990s, but we’ve flatlined since then according to Robert Townsend, also from the AHA.  He reported that as of 2003, women made up only 30% of history faculty in the U.S., well below our representation among History Ph.D.s (in the low 40s, about what it’s been for the past twenty years.)  And of course, there are still more women at the Assistant level than at the Associate or Full Professor rank–in about the same proportion as twenty years ago.  So clearly women are not moving up through the ranks as they should.  Elizabeth Lunbeck of Vanderbilt University (and author of the 2005 report) made the stunned observation at the end of an evening full of bad news:  “I’m struck by how we’ve been drawn in repeatedly” by a progressive Whig narrative that says that equity is on its way, “when the situation [for women faculty] remains the same.” 
  • At the conclusion of this rather depression plenary panel, I had the honor of announcing a new article prize, the Mary Maples Dunn Prize, which will honor the best article in early American women’s history by an untenured scholar published in The William and Mary Quarterly that uses gender as a primary analytical category.  Mary chaired the Thursday plenary, so her complete shock and surprise was visible to everyone there in the Ted Mann Concert Hall.  (It’s been such a huge success that it looks like we’ll be able to endow the prize!)  If you’re an untenured scholar in this field, sharpen your pencils and get to work.   
  • If we made a conference documentary, it might be called 2008:  The Year Cultural History Broke.  (With apologies to the classic grunge rock movie by David Markey.  I still love you Courtney and Thurston!)  This was an unexpected but fascinating sub-theme of a good number of the panels that I saw and that I heard about:  get thee to an archive!  There’s lots of new knowledge there just waiting for us.  (I’ll post more on this topic later, for sure.)
  • Tenured Radical was there, and cross-posting about the conference at Cliopatria.  I met Knitting Clio for the first time, too–I’m sure she’ll share some of her observations and experiences at the conference, too.  (I hope she slept better at the Holiday Inn Friday night!  I wonder who the troublesome guest was, if she was with the Berks…)  TR is apparently a big Ramones fan, and Antoinette Burton of the University of Illinois can dance!
  • Terri Snyder of California State University, Fullerton, put together a brilliant panel, RESEARCHING AND WRITING THE LIVES OF UNFREE WOMEN for Friday afternoon.  Once again, we learned how stupid and untrue is the claim that “you can’t do research on women, especially unfree women, because there are no sources.”  Most of the lives uncovered for us in this panel were the result of painstaking research in state and local archives–and their stories should encourage us to find and tell some new life stories of our own.  And it turns out that Annette Gordon-Reed is just as beautiful and as brilliant as I always thought she must be–plus, she’s really nice, too.
  • To borrow Muriel McClendon’s term for her group of allies on the faculty at UCLA, there were a lot of POW’s (Pissed Off Women) at the RETHINKING GENDER, FAMILY, AND SEXUALITY IN THE EARLY MODERN ATLANTIC session Saturday morning.  The roundtable discussion should perhaps have been called, THE PROBLEM WITH ‘THE ATLANTIC WORLD’ PARADIGM.  The early modern European historians and cultural studies scholars there–panelists Karin Wulf and Bianca Premo, and audience members Allyson Poska and Lisa Vollendorf, for example, sounded an alarm about the precipitous decline they’ve seen in dissertations and new scholarship on women, gender, sexuality, and the family.   
  • The reception Saturday night for the journal Gender and History was in the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum, which sits majestically on the Mississippi River.  Walking over the bridge from the West Campus to the museum, it loomed in the sunset like the City of Oz.  (See my not-great photo at left, and at the top of the post is my snapshot of Roy Lichtenstein’s World’s Fair Mural, which greets you as you enter the Weisman.)  What a spectacular setting for the reception–made only more dramatic by lightning strikes nearby as the city got hit by a brief thunderstorm.

I’ll report more later–I’m going back to the Weisman with friends who like me don’t fly out until this evening.  Thanks so much to those of you who introduced yourselves as readers and commenters–I hope you’ll add your thoughts and observations below!

12 thoughts on “The 2008 Berkshire Conference: The Year Cultural History Broke?

  1. When did you find time for this? But I thought the most important figure that Liz Lunbeck provided on Thursday night was time to parity. And for full professors, it’s merely some 230 years (or some such number). For assistant professors, we’ve gone backwards, but it was about 80 years.


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  3. Ann, It was great to meet you yesterday after lunch, while I was hanging out with Heather.

    I’m not sure I buy the dichotomy lurking behind your title. I take a cultural and social approach to the history of childbirth, and heaven knows that archival research was a huge part of it. I think it’s possible to take a cultural (or at least vaguely anthropological view) of archival sources. IMO, the question is not so much what kinds of artifacts we’re using as the lens through which we choose to view them.

    Can I just say again that I thought the conference was a smashing success? I didn’t go to any of the same panels you did, but they ranged from excellent to unforgettable. And the seminars rocked – well, at least mine and Heather’s did. 🙂

    So thanks!
    Sungold (Patty Stokes) at Kittywampus


  4. Thanks for stopping by to comment–it was great to meet you too! Perhaps this is more of an issue for those of us working in pre-20th C history, where it has seemed for many years that the same old evidence and texts were being used, and the fear that there were no new discoveries to make. And moreover, I think many grad students and younger scholars were led to believe that they could simply produce “new readings” of familiar texts instead of doing archival work. I think for modern historians working in fields where the historiography is very thin (or nonexistent!), there still is a sense of new discovery in archival work.

    I’m so pleased you thought the seminar was great–I’m sure it was, and I think your seminar was enriched by having two mid-career scholars there. (Many of the seminars featured largely if not entirely junior scholars, but I’ve heard that the discussions were very thought-provoking, and that the audiences who showed up were very engaged with the issues and were able to contribute a lot to the discussions.)


  5. I know what you mean, Patty. I have to agree with Historiann that in some cases there is a tendency to just use convenient sources — e.g. journal articles, advertisments, etc. We saw that in our seminar, especially the paper by the communication prof who did not even set the advertisements from the Duke Digital Scriptorium he was analyzing in historical context, either past or present. He also doesn’t seem to know about the work of Roland Marchand and others on the history of advertising, or really cultural history more generally. I was going to say something about this at the seminar but ran out of time.


  6. Thanks, KC–you’re making my point better than I have myself! I should clarify: I don’t think that social and cultural history are mutually exclusive. I think they’re both better together than when they stand alone. Cultural history made social history interpretively powerful and compelling in a way that those old charts and graphs from the 1970s and 1980s just weren’t, so I’m certainly not arguing that we should dump cultural history. I’ve just seen too much cultural history that works as a kind of media critique that focuses only on “representations,” when I think it’s still important to find out how people actually lived.


  7. Right on to this last point. The old/new-fashioned “listening to the inarticulate” and then amplifying what you say they (would have) said approach had its own degree of narcissistic presumptiousness that never got self-consciously acknowledged or examined. But I always thought the “cultural turn” quickly established a too-easy comfort level with James River planter elites and other privileged producers of rivers of quotable quotations. I guess we need some sort of Amazon “people who count these also close-read this and that” methodological measuring stick!


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  9. I so agree with what you say about getting into the archive–there are still rafts of good primary stuff about women yet to be worked on and I wish I had graduate students because I’ve run across more good projects on new topics than I can handle. I always chuckle when the discussion comes back to archival work–it reminds me of a discussion at the Library of Congress years back during the seminar/launch of the American Women website/book, when someone called this kind of work “New Retro History.” I’ve been using this phrase ever since. . .

    I’ll be looking forward to your future posts on this issue.


  10. Hi LMC–thanks for stopping by to comment. Yes, how “retro”–doing research that uncovers new knowledge! Oh well–thanks to our friends in public history, archivists, museum studies professionals, historic preservationists, etc.–the archives, museums, and historic structures will be there when the worm turns (as it always does!)


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  12. Pingback: Reports from the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women - American Historical Association

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