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 question—her 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!