Classy Claude's report from the Berks

Good morning, friends.  Although I didn’t make it to the Fifteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, my faithful reporter Classy Claude did.  (Does this guy get around, or what?  Some of you may remember Claude’s other reports of recent AHA and OAH meetings.) 

I’m back!  In light of Historiann’s absence from the Berks – and needless to say, she was missed by many – her faithful conference reporter Classy Claude is happy to offer readers a snapshot of one conference-goer’s experience. Obviously a conference is different for different people, depending on sessions attended and so forth, but I will recount some highlights. 

This Berks quite literally got off to start with a bang.  There was a crazy thunderous storm on Thursday afternoon (hail in some places!) as the first sessions were getting underway, as many attendees were taking advantage of tours through local historical sites, and as Classy Claude was doing a little work at the Sophia Smith Collection at nearby Smith College.  All of these opportunities had been coordinated with, or organized by, the conference planners.  Thus, one real highlight of the conference was the opportunity to take advantage of these nearby historic sites and local archives. 

The conference was located on the UMass-Amherst campus, primarily in the Campus Center, which itself houses a hotel (where many of us stayed, though rumor has it that rooms booked up quickly) and was connected via various passageways to the Student Union and a parking garage.  Because the weather was rainy on a couple days (Saturday also), this had the effect of making sessions not in the central complex more sparsely attended.  I found this to be so in a session I chaired and one I attended about young women and premarital pregnancy (which included Historiann’s blogging pal, Knitting Clio). 

The first night featured a reception on the top floor of the Campus Center, which offered a panoramic view of the campus itself.  Berks President Kathy Brown welcomed all attendees as we sipped our drinks (two complimentary with registration) and gave shout-outs to all former Berks presidents (a number of whom were present) and current officers, a number of whom are finishing out terms this year. Mary Maples Dunn also appeared in a streaming video loop on JumboTron talking about her experience with the Berks and women’s history.

Friday was all about the sessions, as attendees scattered across campus to sample the variety of panels on women’s history.  I did hear some grumblings from premodern historians that the conference was a little light on offerings relevant to those studying medieval history.  I know that conference organizers in the past (including Historiann herself) have gone out of their way to encourage panels on premodern history, so my question is this: are conferences like the Berks light on premodern offerings because historians start to think that they will be so and don’t apply?  Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if we know that organizers are trying to encourage these historians’ participation? Or does something more need to happen in order to ensure it?  Discuss amongst yourselves.  (Ed. note:  See also Another Damned Medievalist’s posts on this questionher answer is that more premodern scholars need to get involved!)

Friday night featured a plenary on the sex of geopolitics (more on this below) and a wild performance of the Down and Dirty Show, a cabaret troupe from Minneapolis of drag kinging and burlesque and all kinds of gender-bending fun! I also was fortunate enough to swing an invite to the post-performance party at Berks President Kathy Brown’s campus hotel suite. I even got to chat with Historiann blogging pal Tenured Radical, who was roused out of bed just to attend.  Lots of fun was had by all present, I can assure you, so much so that we got noise complaints.  There was drinking and chatting and carousing, and maybe some burlesque spanking of certain Berks conference officers who shall remain nameless.  Who says that feminist historians don’t know how to have fun?!?

I would now like to address the one real problem I experienced at the Berks this year, though one that almost all academics will recognize is not particular to the Berks: People do not know when to shut up.  When we are told that we have 10 minutes, or 15, or however many we are told by our session chairs, it is quite simply the height of arrogance to assume that we can talk for as long as we want.  Not one among us is going to be the first to fit 20 pages into 15 minutes; it’s not possible.  And editing one’s paper as one stands behind the lectern is not a strategy that can be endorsed by this reporter. This applies to roundtables as well as traditional sessions, to discussants and panelists.  It was the rare session I attended where there was anything close to ample time for discussion and where a majority of panelists did not exceed the allotted time.  The most obvious example of this was the plenary on geopolitics, where there was no time for a comment or discussion.  At all. I also attended a really fascinating roundtable on legal history that was expressly designed to be discussion-oriented and actually included but 10 minutes of Q&A!  (Ed. note:  Claude, ADM was way ahead of you on this.  Panel and roundtable Chairs–did you lose your watches?  Were you all MIA like me?)

For many, the highlight of the Berks, at least socially, is the famed dance.  And this one was super fun!  (see the picture above)  Featuring a DJ from the Down and Dirty Show, attendees danced it out to classics (“Runaround Sue!” “The Twist!”) and more recent musical fare in the Student Union Ballroom.  (It had grown cold by Saturday so both the BBQ – which didn’t seem to include any food that had ever seen a barbecue – and the dance were moved indoors.  A big tent sat forlornly unused on the lawn.)  The dance did not actually wind down till 1:15, I am told; Classy Claude and his entourage departed around 12:30; he had a session to attend in the morning.

Sunday morning was devoted to seminars and workshops, an innovation that was carried over from the last Berks, though somewhat differently, it seems to me.  Last time the seminar themes and chairs were announced in advance and hopefuls applied directly to those chairs in order to be admitted.  This time many of the sessions seemed to have been composed by the program committee itself (sometimes by converting regular panel applications into Sunday seminars) and were sometimes a little disjointed.  Some participants also did not upload their papers to the conference website beforehand, which meant that audience members couldn’t read them.  In short, the purpose remained the same: coerce conference attendees to stay for Sunday morning.  But the method was perhaps less effective: not the same emphasis on applying to do a workshop with a big-name figure in the field and gaining her expertise.   This was certainly my experience, and that of two others who participated in two different seminars, but may not have been universal.  Other readers’ thoughts?

I’m going to sign off here, because I’ve already gone on for far too long.  All in all, it was a great time in a truly lovely setting.  The conference organizers clearly worked hard to make it that way, and they succeeded admirably.  I very much look forward not just to the next Berks (I heard rumors of Toronto in 2014) but to many beyond that, with Historiann around to participate!

Thanks so much for your faithful reporting, Claude.  I’m sorry I missed seeing you and catching up at the Berks–have a terrific summer and we’ll talk soon! 

22 thoughts on “Classy Claude's report from the Berks

  1. Pingback: More highlights from #Berks2011 « Knitting Clio

  2. The thunderstorms were something! I drove in on Wednesday evening from Boston and it was white-knuckle driving for the last forty-five minutes. Thank goodness that the Grad Lounge served an admirable range of interesting brews.

    And, yes, it’s Toronto in 2014! I’m so excited since it’s one of my favourite cities in the world (where I went to grad school and where I still love to come for visits).

    I’d like to see the Sunday workshop return to what was described from Minnesota not that, I hasten to add!, I didn’t enjoy my own Sunday workshop experience. The premodern panel on domestic violence gave me a lot of food for thought in both the readings and the discussion. Fortunately, we had time for plenty of discussion.

    And as a premodernist, I’m going to start doing what I can to drum up some interest for 2014. Probably part of this is to really publicize the deadlines for submission broadly and early.

    The medievalists are actually better at this than the early modernists, I think, at least those of us who do early modern European history. Ancient history was even more rare but the ancient and non-western presenters that I heard speak were all sharing fascinating research findings. I know that my teaching is going to benefit from what I learned at the Berks.


  3. My hunch — having shared program chair roles with Historiann in Minnesota — is that the pre-modern panel issue has two parts. Yes, we need to submit proposals; but the program committee needs to value them. And, as Judith Bennett suggested in _History Matters_, feminist historians often seem to pose geographical inclusion and temporal inclusion as alternatives. It doesn’t have to be, but that’s often how it works in practice. After all, when we talk about medievalists or early modernists, we are usually talking about *European* medieval and early modern history. (Not always, of course.) The medieval Chinese historians don’t go to Kalamazoo, they go to the Chinese history conferences…


  4. I’ll pipe up and add that I almost never apply to any history conferences that are inclusive of all times and places, because through experience I know that they seldom include more than 2 medievalist panels. If I want to hear all about modern history, I don’t need to leave my home department: since I am the only pre-modern Europeanist in my department, I am much more apt to take the trouble to get to a conference if it gives me a medievalist shot in the arm, so to speak. I adore conferences that hit the sweet spot of being narrow enough to guarantee my interest in most papers, but broad enough to expose me to new ideas and texts. That balance doesn’t seem to hold for the pan-historical meeetings.

    Also: I live in a slightly out-of-the-way place, and nearly every conference I hear about in the US would involve a full day’s air travel to attend, then another to get back home. And OPU doesn’t fund all aspects of conference-attendance. So, if it’s gonna be exhausting and expensive, it better be really good to get me out there.


  5. When I ran the UK version of the Berks a number of years ago, I did so in an institution with a large medieval dept, and yet we got few medieval papers submitted. Because we thought it was important to have chronological mix, we actually personally emailed a number of medievalists in the field and encouraged them (and their students) to submit papers. Moreover, we got a medieval plenary. Through doing this, we had about 25% medievalists, which is the best I’ve seen at this event. (FYI, 20% 20thC, and the rest 1500-1900).

    However, the next year (when it moved institutions as it does every year), medievalists were in short supply again, so I guess its hard to keep the momentum up.


  6. Another former program chair heard from: the three chairs need to decide what they value,promote it, and recruit committees whose task is to carry out an inclusive agenda.

    The three-year cycle also means a lack of continuity is built in to this conference. In my year, I planned a Native American panel for every session: this got a critical mass of Native scholars to the conference, and gave them a reason to enjoy it. Important note: it didn’t necessarily give them a reason to return, and I haven’t seen more than one or two of the participants from that year at either of the Big Berks since. Another important note: there is a tension between balance/inclusion and carrying through the theme that has been agreed upon. This means that me making Native history a priority necessarily cut out a strong presence in other fields (I remember one disappointed conference goer remarking on the paucity of immigration and Jewish history panels, both traditionally strong fields in US women’s history.)

    That said, I always love the questions of evidence and interpretation attendant to the early periods whenever I hear those presentations, and I think there is a lot to be said for making it an ongoing emphasis and recruiting scholars to the Berks to carry it out.

    Classy Claude, I’m hearing you on the shutting up. I use the Joan Scott rule: 2 minutes per page. But that was devised before power point — those with PP need to cut back to 8 pages max.


  7. Oh, the timing issues! The panelists at one roundtable I was super excited about attending literally just did not care about time. The poor chair was jumping out of their seat at points and still the speakers would press on. I had to get up and leave before the discussion (which was only going to be 25 minutes anyhow) because I was so stir crazy. And I felt exceptionally bad for the first of the four participants because they stuck to the time limit. But by the time the other three had spoken, all going way over time, I could barely remember the first person’s presentation.

    I do love the Berks. My panel went well and everyone seemed to enjoy it. It was a great discussion. I often think that even if I don’t decide to continue you in the Academy, I will still go every three years.


  8. The timing thing was driving me insane! I also think that 2 minutes per paper is normal, but I think the problem is that many people just don’t care, and sometimes the chairs I saw didn’t much care either, especially when they were charged with reining in rather big-deal speakers. Even some discussants went on at such length that little discussion was possible!

    My question is about how conscious people are of their own verbosity: do you think that people really think that they have something MORE important to say and just break the rules purposefully? Or that they seriously believe they can edit on the fly? Or, and this is my guess, they are just totally clueless, so wrapped up in their supposed genius that it doesn’t occur to them to follow rules?

    All that said, I had a fantastic time and am looking forward to Toronto.


  9. I had a great time at the Berks this year, though we Africanists felt much as the medievalists – hardly anything was on the program (only two panels with all-African content, though papers were scattered among some of the transnational panels), and then when there were some panels with African content, they were scheduled in the same session time, which cut our potential audience through dividing them among panels. I was one of at least three Africanists on the program committee for the Minnesota meeting, and we did some serious personal recruiting once we saw the gaps, including making up panels beyond what had been submitted. This year the program committee saw the gaps, and pulled together a plenary on Where is Africa in Gender Studies – the plenary was great, but why not make more panels? Of all the papers on all the Sunday morning seminars, there was exactly ONE PAPER on Africa. I left and went to visit cousins on Sunday. As others have said, a high level of personal involvement in the program planning is needed for the less common times and places.


  10. Kathie–Latin America was similarly under-represented. I’m not blaming the program chairs–you can’t put panels on the program if people don’t apply. So, how does one go about becoming more involved in the planning? I imagine joining the Berks is a start, but what else can one do?


  11. I was at a conference far outside of the U.S. recently and the organizers assigned the sweeter-than-sweet undergraduates of the “[Disciplinary] Club” from the hosting department to do a lot of the grunt work. This included stationing them (in pairs) in the front row of all sessions to hold up *large* signs saying “Five Minutes” and then “One Minute” for ALL speakers, including some major field-heavyweights and even including a couple of knighted English scholars. This trick significantly eased the chairs’ timekeeping jobs, and created a sort of moral economy of self-discipline among presenters. I’m not sure it would work in all contexts, but it was as impressive as it was entertaining.

    I hope somebody sent Mary Dunn’s Jumbotron contribution straight to YouTube.


  12. Want to be involved in the planning committee? A couple suggestions:

    1. Come to the Little Berks in the fall.
    2. Write this year’s program chairs & ask them to forward your name to next year’s chairs.
    3. Copy —> Franca Iacovetta, the new prez.

    And yes, you can represent fields when folks don’t apply. Recruit, recruit, recruit — recruiting people to send panels in is the best, and of course using the many field-specific listserves we now have to send out special appeals works well.


  13. Nikki – in fact, yes you can put panels on the program if people don’t apply. That is exactly what we did in 2008 when I was on the program committee – we developed panels and recruited presenters for underrepresented topics. That is why I said it takes a lot of personal involvement, it was more work for us, but the end result was a Berks with more for everyone.


  14. Just an addendum: the one great privilege and power of the Berks President is to choose the program chairs. (The rest is just a lot of work.) The program chairs choose their committees (when I did it, we had three subcommittees). So those choices are really important. So those of you who were at the Berks, do make sure that Franca Iacovetta knows what your concerns were.

    That said, as TR noted, each set of Program Chairs chooses and theme and sets their own priorities. I could note lots of patterns: we had the most African-American scholars when we were at UNC; we had the largest Latina representation when Vicki Ruiz what president. Etc. Each thing you do means there is something you don’t do…


  15. As a former program co-chair and local arrangements chair too (don’t ask it was 1987 before some of you were talking), it is true that the program committee makes all the difference. We tried to plan for each major area of history at every session. Claire Potter is right that it also helps to go to the Little Berks and get to know people.
    With four years in between it suggests folks should plan to go. I always loved going to sessions on topics I knew nothing about just to hear what was happening.


  16. People do not know when to shut up. When we are told that we have 10 minutes, or 15, or however many we are told by our session chairs, it is quite simply the height of arrogance to assume that we can talk for as long as we want.

    Not only is it arrogant; it is also fucken stupid. Nothing makes your audience hate you more than going long. And unless you are already at the height of fame in your field, you need people to not hate you in order to advance in your career.


  17. One of my favorite early academic memories is of going to a Society for Industrial Archaeology meeting in Philadelphia. A friend of mine was chairing a session.
    She was pretty junior, and a garrulous old prospector of a high-theory field archaeologist was going on endlessly about some damned thing, with audience members flashing my friend the “cut across throat” sign to call it off. She finally intervened insistently, ejecting the guy from the lectern, and it ended with him retreating up the center aisle of the small auditorium throwing over his shoulder “that’s all right, I’ll be back next year in Denver, and I’m going to finish this talk then…” I didn’t know from the discipline, then or now, but I guess that would be a “height of fame” moment.


  18. And another thing … I think I mentioned this at mine, but one of the most enjoyable panels I went to was the one that was kind of all medieval (that is, that in the Eurocentric sense of the X-timeframe=medieval), but really geographically widespread. France, Islam (specifically Syria), and Mongol Empire. The papers went together pretty well, and it was very useful to the part of me that teaches world civ.

    Lest people think I’m simply ranting about ‘not enough of my stuff’ — I’m not.

    But also, I was thinking about this again today, and really, am more pissed off. Why? Because: Women Historians. Women Historians.

    Because the more and more I think of it, I feel like the program committee decided that there are certain fields and approaches more suitable to Women Historians (and I note that there were men giving papers…)*

    But: Women Historians, NOT (necessarily) Women’s History, History of Women, Feminist History, Gender History, Activist History That Promotes A Particular Agenda.

    It’s not even the marginalization of pre-modern: it’s the implication that what some of us study is wrong, that we’re somehow less worthy. Excuse us while we do hard-ass research that requires foreign language skills, palaeographic skills, skill-sets that most 20th C people haven’t even thought of, because they live in a world where there are easily accessible records, and provide all sorts of useful information that allows y’all** to (were you to actually show up to anything … old and stuffy?) compare and say, “Oh look! this is NOT how it has always been!”

    It’s not often I feel accused by my colleagues of not being feminist enough, or global enough, or too straight. But reading the comments here and elsewhere made me a bit more aware of some of the underlying feelings that the program invoked. I don’t like feeling like I have to prove that my politics are worthy, especially when I know that I *am* a feminist, that I do women’s history (or the history of women), that I teach about gender and do some gender history, that I am not too straight (as if anybody can be too anything).

    I do not like feeling like I do the wrong kind of history for a conference that is supposed to be for me.

    *not that I care. But it’s important in the context of the impression of acceptability.


  19. Pingback: Berkshire Conference of Women Historians | Blog Wrap-Ups

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