What I saw at the AHA 2014: Who are the ladies?

elvgrenartistHowdy, friends!  I spent last weekend at the American Historical Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.  Here’s what I saw & did, at least the not-unbloglich parts.

  • Tenured Radical and I had coffee on Friday and then dinner on Saturday and spent the whole time figuring out how to silence and oppress more junior scholars, in-between her multiple appearances on the program and her incessant blogging and tweeting about the conference.  Honestly, those of you who want to take her on had better stock up on your Power Bars and Emergen-C, because her energy and enthusiasm for her work online and as a public intellectual are utterly overwhelming.  I’m ten years younger than she is, and I’m already at least a week behind her!  For those of you who are interested, see her three blog reports:  AHA Day 1:  Digital History Workshopalooza, AHA Day 2:  Fun With the Humanities, AHA Day 3:  Remember the Women, and her always lively Twitter feed.  (Excuse me–I have to go have a lie down after just linking to all of that activity.)
  • Clever readers will hear echoes of Abigail Adams’s counsel to John Adams in Tenured Radical’s “Remember the Women” blog post.  I also keep thinking of that scene from Lena Dunham’s Girls in which the character she plays, Hannah, asks the other women, “Who are the ladies?”  (Shosh has been quoting a heterosexual dating advice book aimed at “the ladies,” and Hannah’s question implies that “ladies” is a stupid, made-up, narrow way to talk to real women, who come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and sexualities, etc., and both Hannah and Jessa resent being lumped into the notional category of “ladies”–just click the embedded video below.)  That was the essence of Tenured Radical’s question for the women on the “Generations of History” panel she writes about in her AHA Day 3 post when she asked what the panel would have looked like if it had included a lesbian, for example, or even some women for whom marriage and children were never a part of their life plan.


  • My panel on Friday afternoon on “How Should Historians Respond to MOOCs?” went very well.  My Colorado-based partner in disrupting the disruptors, Jonathan Rees, blogged his notes on the panel so that you can get a little flava.  HNN was recording our session, and it should allegedly appear over there for your viewing pleasure.  You can see HNN’s David Austin Walsh’s comments on the AHA in general and our panel in particular here (and don’t miss clicking on regular blog commenter Tony Grafton’s thoughts on the future of books.)  Furthermore, our remarks will be published in the February edition of Perspectives.  (Overexposed much?  Or is too much never enough?)  Many thanks to Jonathan for pulling it all together, to HNN for recording us, and to our panel Chair Elaine K. Carey and Perspectives editor Allen Mikaelian for pushing us to publish our comments.
  • UPDATE 1/8/2014, 7:46 MDT: Here’s the link to the HNN video of the panel. I’ve also embedded it below.

  • Women historians have figured out how to dress well, especially the younger women.  Men historians?  Not so much.  As one of my pals said, they “look like they’re wearing their bar mitzvah suits!”
  • On Saturday afternoon, I took a bunch of friends down to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where the Curator of the Division of Medicine and Science, Katherine Ott, gave us a backstage tour of some of the objects in their collections and some fascinating insights into her choices as a collector and curator of medical equipment and prosthetic devices and the different insights we can get from material objects than from traditional (textual) sources.  She has such a deeply humane way of thinking about the collections, and the people whose bodies they touched.  Visiting her with her collections is a very different experience than visiting most libraries or archives.  Both Ott’s scholarship and her work at the NMAH straddles the line of scholarship and activism, as she has leveraged her position of intellectual authority within the Smithsonian to open it up to the disability rights community.  Some of the highlights in her collection for me were the smallpox inoculation kits she showed us, as well as the cast mold of President Theodore Roosevelt’s teeth.  (In case you’re curious, he had complete set of choppers and great gums.)
  • How did I score such a cool invitation from a Smithsonian curator?  You’re looking at it.  This is just one example of the connections I’ve made and the new colleagues and friends I’ve found through my blog.
  • As we were ascending the vertiginous Metro escalator at the Woodley Park-Zoo station, I bumped into a young colleague who invited me to come celebrate a book launch party for a friend of hers.  This party featured the most enormous bakery cake I’ve ever seen, so I had a slice in the corner of the Mariott’s bar and met the author, Amanda E. Herbert.  Her book, Female Alliances:  Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain will be published in a few weeks by Yale University Press.
  • Thanks to all of you junior scholars who introduced yourselves to me and told me how much you like the blog. I was pleased to meet you all, and serious about my requests that you email me to stay in touch about your job searches and potential future guest blog posts.
  • Finally, I had delicious dinner with TR and The Madwoman with a Laptop, her partner The Woman Formerly Known as Goose, and another friend and blog reader.  We shut the restaurant down and didn’t walk out until midnight!  That’s where we talked about all of the unbloglich stuff at the conference and in our real lives.  If I learned anything, it’s how important those offline connections and friendships are, too.

33 thoughts on “What I saw at the AHA 2014: Who are the ladies?

  1. Historiann –

    I confess to not being a meticulous consumer of this site, so forgive me if this ground has been previously trod as I inquire, what is your general impression of Girls? I will offer my still-unformed thoughts as the conversation unfolds.


  2. Girls? I love it. I agree with a lot of the criticism about it (the women aren’t really diverse, no lesbians, etc.) but I think Lena Dunham is an interesting auteur and an important voice.

    How many young women out there are writing and producing shows that are about the struggle in one’s 20s? None besides her that I know of. Whereas Sex and the City was the 90s glam-sexy version of young(ish) unmarried life, Girls is decidedly un-glamourous, the sex is frequently very un-sexy, and the young women in the show have to take crappy jobs because they actually talk about money and the need to pay their rent.


  3. Women historians have figured out how to dress well, especially the younger women. Men historians? Not so much. As one of my pals said, they “look like they’re wearing their bar mitzvah suits!”

    Yes, absolutely true. And I am ashamed to be a major offender. I have two suits. Both were bought over ten years ago at TJ Maxx for the AHA when I was a grad student and job candidate. I have stopped wearing them and my sport coats for work.

    I really need to get my look back together. Its stuck in the land of jeans and no-iron shirts.


  4. Matt: the advice that the “bar mitzvah suit” woman wants to pass on is to ditch the suits. (Women ditched their suits about 10 years ago, and the men should too at this point.) This is not meant for you personally but for all male historians:

    Wear khaki pants, corduroys, or even jeans (depending on your location and your audience) with a very nice jacket and a fashionable, eye-catching tie. Your shirts should also be as nice as you can afford and cut to fit you. Failing that, clean and not frayed around the collar or cuffs is a good place to start.

    I think this is good advice for male academics in terms of their clothing both in the office/classroom as well as at conferences, but I’d welcome other ideas (especially from the men whom I’m prospectively dressing up here like paper dolls.) Most of my male colleagues wear ties, and occasionally they wear jackets too. Some wear just jeans and shirts, but they’re in the minority. I used to think that this was a junior/senior split, but the younger guys are still wearing ties and jackets nearly a decade or so after tenure.

    I have one colleague who wears bow ties, and I think they’re completely awesome. If I were a man, I wouldn’t wear anything else. Regular neckties just seem like they get in the way, get in the soup/sauce, etc.


  5. I started wearing bow ties when I began teaching to distinguish me from the students because I looked so young. That’s not much of a danger any more, but I still wear them — the students insist on it and complain when I lazily forget them. Far worse things than being “Professor Bow Tie.”

    Sorry to miss you in DC this year!


  6. You too, Eduardo! I’m glad that some of you are wearing bow ties out there. Now that I think of it, I believe your advisor was one of the few other men I know who wore bow ties to the office.

    I wonder if it’s something that a lot of men see as too buttoned-up or too formal. I think they look great. (I guess I always had a thing for Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.)


  7. Women historians have also figured out what to do with their HAIR — Or at least a certain cowgirl historian I know and love has! So good seeing you and TR and meeting non-blogger/reader/pal. Lovely evening. Here’s hoping I can have half as much fun with the lit critters out in frozen Chicago. Flying out in the morning, dog willing, with the heaviest coat in the history of outerwear. I’ll let you know if the English crowd is as surly and mean in person as they have been online of late. Wish me luck!


  8. The visit to the Smithsonian was absolutely one of the high points of the AHA for me. Thank you for organizing, and thanks to Katherine for sharing her knowledge and perspective with us. She really made me think about how one approaches history, especially material culture.

    And as you know, I haven’t found Girls that compelling, but based on your recommendation, I’m willing to give them another try. I appreciate the difficulties of being female and young (compared to me!) in NYC they present, but I just find them to be remarkably unsympathetic characters. Maybe a few more episodes will change that…


  9. bow ties are one of those things that other men will judge you ruthlessly for. they are only for the very brave or the totally socially inept. they also do not work well if you have glasses or a mustache- too much horizontal stuff, it makes your head look big compared to your body.

    I do agree on ditching suits- the only member of our faculty who stills wears one is in his 60s, and considered a bit of an odd duck. everyone else long ago switched to jeans/slacks + nice shirt (and maybe tie). however, not everyone looks good like this. one of the benefits of men’s suits is they make everyone look more or less average, regardless of body type and fitness level. jeans and a shirt make you look like yourself, which is not good if you’ve gained the grad school 25 or the tenure 50.


  10. Men typically shop for apparel with a female (wife, girl friend, etc.). Women typically shop either alone or with a female friends. Men usually have no clue. I wear only t-shirts to work and short when it’s hot. Conferences took, don’t go anymore, me as is. I am not marketing anything.


  11. Some of us look pretty shabby regardless of what we wear, Historiann! Jeans don’t help much when the genes aren’t there — bad enough that my “fashion sense” has become a small meme on Twitter among some friends and colleagues. You, on the other hand, are looking great in the video from the MOOC panel!


  12. The folks at Buzzfeed must have attended AHA: “27 Unspoken Suit Rules Every Man Should Know” appeared yesterday.


    Let’s see what type of dress advice appears after MLA, the attendees of which seem to have dress better than historians. For my money, the art historians, artists, and art educators of CAA have us all beat for fashionable dress. I’ve seen some amazing designer duds at CAA.


  13. The Smithsonian was definitely a nice break from all of that high-end hypothesizing up on Rock Creek. What I took from the stuff was what a scholar years ago in a book introduction called “the sadness of being merely human.” All of that mortality and morbidity out there stalking the species since the beginning of time, and clever hominids in every generation were trying to push it back, or work around it, usually unsuccessfully. A lot of those devices not only looked scary but pretty inadequate, just like the nuclear and nano-medical technology of today will look when it gets to the Smithsonian. But you can’t help admiring people for going down fighting.

    I would trade my office for Dr. Ott’s office, even without taking the roofline view into consideration.


  14. Dudes routinely wear suits and ties to history conventions? You’ll see very few suits, jackets, or ties at a science convention.


  15. I don’t think dressing neatly is about marketing as much as it is about showing respect. To me, it shows respect for students and other audiences to dress as if we think the event is important. It doesn’t cost a lot to be neat and tidy, though of course it can. My (exclusively male) colleagues who make a point of extreme “casual” attire tend to also have insufferably big egos.

    A community college literature prof I know who comes from a lower middle class background really hates what she perceives as the snobbery of relatively well off academics play dressing as if they are members of the blue collar work force. On her view, it’s adopting a costume for the wearer’s amusement or to garner some kind of working class cred. If you haven’t just come in from digging a trench or painting a house, don’t dress like it.


  16. p.s. the video is about 1:45:00, but if you don’t have loads of time, here’s a breakdown of how the session went:

    Elaine Carey’s introduction, to about 6:00

    Philip Zelikow, 6:00 – 26:30

    Jonathan Rees, 26:45 – 37:45

    Ann Little, 38:00 – 50:30

    Elaine Carey’s brief comments, and then Q&A: 50:30 – 1:32:30

    Jeremy Adelman, 1:32:30 – 1:42:31

    Adelman’s train was delayed on Friday and he didn’t arrive until the last 15 minutes of our panel. I was disappointed, as he had a number of interesting things to say about having taught a MOOC for the second time around, in the semester that has just finished, which I would have liked to have heard more about.


  17. For history/politics conferences and seminars, my standard attire is neat jeans and a Ben Sherman/Fred Perry short-sleeved shirt. Suits only get brought out for interviews and liaising with government agencies.


  18. It was great seeing you at Amanda’s book party, Historiann! I was sad to miss your panel — glad to see it’s available online.


  19. On dress: I too have noticed that my colleagues who wear old pants and downright shabby shirts are a) all male and b)expressing attitude. My department is one of the more formally-dressed on this campus, except for our fashionable South Asianist who looks spectacular in silk saris. I, alas, look rumpled no matter what I wear, but for my midlife crisis I’m experimenting with the new line of men’s suits cut to fit women’s bodies. Not sold on the bow tie yet, although Britteny Griner is making them fashionable for lesbians.


  20. With bow ties, the quality and condition of the shirt are very important b/c we see so much more of it.

    Tenured Radical looked very dapper and youthful in her shirt, long necktie (not bowtie), and sweater on top on Friday–kind of like a grown-up Hogwarts student.


  21. Regarding dress, I like my African Studies Association meetings because many attendees – both men and women – wear African attire, or at least one piece (a shirt or a shawl) that is clearly African. It gives all of the sessions a much more colorful and even festive appearance than most scholarly meetings!


  22. I agree with Kathie about the value of color (and diversity) in attire.

    I once gave a presentation to a large audience that I knew would include a group of people who were very hostile to what I had to say, and with whom I’d had run-ins in the past. With this confrontational element in mind, I had some lovely, flowery, designs inked on my hands and wrists using jagua. It’s like henna but black. I have real tattoos as well but I liked this because it was both “in your face” and girly at the same time. I wanted to display to myself and those very angry men that I was both a competent professional and bad-@ss who was not going to be pushed around. The people who were there to engage the subject material responded well and the jerks were jerks.

    My undergraduate students thought this was an excellent, self-affirming, way to handle the situation while some graduate students thought I should have “tired harder” to appease the angry men.


  23. FWIW: For teaching and conferences alike, I tend to wear slacks or nice jeans, a nice button-down shirt, and sometimes either a sports jacket or a v-neck or cardigan sweater. I haven’t worn a tie since I last interviewed for a job 8 or 9 years ago, and I’m sort of hoping I go to my grave without ever wearing one again. If I want to dress up an outfit, I find nice shoes a far better way to do so. (Unlike many of my male colleagues in English, who wear hiking boots year round.) And it sounds like the AHA provides ample evidence that wearing a tie doesn’t necessarily make you look nice…


  24. Report from MLA interviewing: the uniform for women is still black or grey jacket and trousers or skirt; most wore a colorful shirt of some kind for interest. The men varied more — some suits, some just a nice sportsjacket; all wore ties.

    I dress pretty formally when interviewing because I figure if the candidate has to dress up, my dressing up a bit shows respect for their effort. I mean, if the job candidate got dressed up, I shouldn’t look as if I just rolled out of bed. . .


  25. On the bow tie thing, I started teaching for the first time this past fall and decided to give the bow tie a shot (even though I am not a bow tie kind of person and have never even known one). Like Eduardo, my students loved it. More than one mentioned them in my evaluations with one just flat-out stating, “Bow ties are cool!” I can appreciate the whole laid-back, casual thing, but, being new to it, I wanted to convey to my students that I took class and them seriously. However, I tempered it by being laid-back and relaxed in my classroom manner and interactions with them. So the trick, for me at least, seemed to be: Wear a bow tie, but don’t act like you’re wearing a bow tie.


  26. Pingback: Mooks talking MOOCs: Our AHA MOOC panel comments are now online at Perspectives : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  27. Pingback: Mooks talking MOOCs: Our AHA MOOC panel comments are now online at Perspectives | Historiann

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