#AHA17: No longhorns, but plenty of splinters up my skirt.

That old snag again?

That old snag again?

I’m just back at the ranch after half a week at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting 2017. I didn’t have a minute to blog or tweet about much of anything, seeing as I wanted to take full advantage of having so many friends and colleagues in Colorado.  Blogging and tweeting is what I do when I’m back here all by my lonesome–so expect to hear plenty from me now that everyone has cleared on out!  As you may recall, the Longhorn Parade for the 2017 National Western Stock Show was cancelled because of cold and snow, but the historians converged upon Denver fearlessly last week.

aha17_programIt was wonderful to see so many of you, and I’m grateful to those of you #twitterstorians whom I didn’t know in person who took the time to grab my elbow to say hello.  It was particularly fun to meet finally some of the young scholars like Rachel Herrmann and Erin Bartram, with whom I have corresponded and grab-assed over Twitter.  I’m just sorry that I only got to see or talk to most of you for a minute or two in-between conference sessions or at a busy cocktail party.  I did get to have several nice lunches and dinners on the town with old friends.  How did we get to be the old people at the conference?  Some of my age peers are starting to look like they were rode hard and put away wet.

My favorite panel was “Women on the Move in the Early Modern World,” chaired by Merry Wiesner-Hanks and featuring the research and perspectives of Sue Peabody, Allyson Poska, and Amy B. Stanley.  Stanley in particular spoke to the theme of the conference, “Historical Scale:  Linking Levels of Experience” with her comment that “problems of scale are problems of gender.”  That is, when we take in the view from 36,000 feet in our efforts to answer the call of global history, women and gender drop from view.  In the early modern context, as Wiesner-Hanks pointed out, we’re used to talking about global histories that feature “men in ships,” and we ignore the overland and shorter-distance migrations that women make.  (But we also overlook the women who were on the transoceanic voyages as well.)  This was a model panel–it wasn’t billed as a roundtable, but it functioned like one and left plenty of time for discussion with the audience.

The worst panel from my point of view was one that I had really been looking forward to:  “The Jefferson County (Colorado) Showdown over the Advanced Placement US History Test:  A Second Chance for a Failed Dialogue.”  This was a roundtable organized by University of Colorado historian and Colorado state historian Patty Limerick as a good faith effort to revisit the issue in a cooler atmosphere outside of social media and Breitbart-fanned political attacks on teachers.  Patty started off with a review of the events that put JeffCo’s school board and its AP American history teacher Stephanie Rossi in the crosshairs of the KulturKampfen in the fall of 2014.  In brief:  the school board’s newly elected conservative majority seized on a critique of the recently revised AP U.S. History standards to recommend dramatic revisions to the AP curriculum in JeffCo to recommend a review of said curriculum, and the students and faculty revolted.  The College Board revised their revisions to the AP U.S. History standards, and the JeffCo board scrapped their plans for a review because of the outrage expressed by students, parents, and faculty.  The ideological clash was also bound up in anti-teacher’s union politics of the conservative majority on the school board then, too.

This session included two AP U.S. History teachers and four college professors, including Limerick.  Everyone on the panel kept their remarks brief, presumably so that they could have a dialogue with those of us in the audience.  Everyone, that is, except Dedra Birzer of Hillsdale College, who was representing the conservative critique of the revised AP standards.  She read her paper (co-authored with Bradley J. Birzer, who wasn’t able to fly in for the conference) in a very unrehearsed and unpolished manner, and burned away all but 5 minutes of the time we had for discussion.  She even paused for an agonizing period while she edited her own paper in real time, taking a full 30 minutes for her comments.

This left the audience frustrated and, quite frankly, unimpressed by Birzer’s style of intellectual engagement.  Everyone on the panel kept it short and sweet and respectful of one another’s time and the audience’s time too, except Birzer.  (She even chose to read her own summary of the political fracas that Limerick’s introduction had covered!  She should have self-edited out those portions in real time.)

Those of us in the audience were left with the impression that Birzer, in spite of her appearance at the AHA, is just not interested in conversations–not with her fellow panelists, and not with us.  Her performance did little to disestablish the suspicion in the minds of many scholars that conservatives are only interested in lecturing to the rest of us, not in listening to others or contributing to a dialogue.  This is unfortunate, because I was impressed that some conservative scholars had responded to Limerick’s invitation and I was willing to give them and their ideas more than the benefit of the doubt.  As it was, most of the audience was just worn out by question time, enervated by the lecture.

I rallied on Sunday morning to get to a roundtable in the very last session on “Incorporating LGBT History into the U.S. Survey,” with Amanda Littauer, David Doyle, Catherine Jacquet, and Jen Manion.  They offered lots of useful ideas, most appreciated by me because although I co-teach a course on Sexuality in America, I haven’t taught a survey course in a few years so I was eager to learn some tips and tricks from others who strive to include material and conversations about gender and sexuality at all levels of the curriculum.  For example:  check out these resources that Manion has shared with OutHistory.org from her previous and current research on “Prison Sex and Solitary Confinement” and “Transgender Children in Antebellum America.”  Jacquet also shared some online resources, such as this chilling video, “When AIDS Was Funny,” comprised of clips of Reagan Administration spokesman Larry Speakes laughing and mocking gay sex and even the reporter who first asked about the AIDS crisis, Lester Kinsolving.  I’ll have to keep that in mind for next fall when I will teach Sexuality in America with my colleague, Ruth Alexander.

Happy trails, historians!  And please close the barn door on your way out.

9 thoughts on “#AHA17: No longhorns, but plenty of splinters up my skirt.

  1. It sounds like, in one way, at least, the “worst session” lived down to ironic and presumably unintended the sub-title “A Second Chance at a Failed Dialogue.” Small comfort, though. I still remember my first AHA, as a initiate graduate student, just looking in to get a feel for the atmosphere, at the Hilton in New York a full year before the Christmas Bombing of Hanoi, when the blue language emanating from the rostrum at some of the sessions was thicker and darker than the air at most of the Ivy League “smokers,” as they were called in that day. What have I done? I thought, and headed uptown to meet some friends for non-academic sociability.

    We hear that the steers were “totally ready to run” at the P’rade, as one of their spokesteers phrased it, but that some of the human handlers preferred to belly up to the bar for some hot buttered rum.

    Glad you had a good time, and glad you’re back!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, I had a vague recollection that I might be recycling my own stuff about the “blue” 1970s AHA way up-blog when I just hit “post,” and the archive reveals that I was: on “AHA Open Thread,” January 2, 2009. And it was Nat Hentoff who was the provocateur who got plastered with the tirade I described–according to me, anyway, I wonder now whether any of this happened–and whose obituary is ironically on page B-6 of the _New York Times_ today. The obit doesn’t say anything about that episode, but it seems in keeping with the general tone. Don’t know what to say, except that historians know better than anyone how memory is a funny thing. Maybe they never even called them “smokers,” either.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good news: got to see you, even if just briefly, at AHA!! Bad news: called you by wrong last name! #fail. If it’s any consolation, I also did that to another person/old friend later that night. No one ever accused me of having people skills.

    Panel I was on was one of my favorite ever I’ve been on at any conference, “Is Collaboration Worth It” — a couple of bloggers who do the Queering Slavery Working Group were on the panel as well. If anyone is interested, here’s a writeup on the panel:


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting Paul, and for sharing this write-up of your fantastic panel!

      I shouldn’t have said that the JeffCo panel was “the worst.” It was just the most disappointing. I had a nice response from Patty Limerick about the post–she takes the blame for not being a stricter moderator, but I know she was very busy and was on at least 6 panels this AHA (and moderating most of them.)


  4. Those cattlemen. Such wimps. Whereas a bunch of cheese-eating historians (*French* cheese-eating, I bet!), toughened by years of reading diaries from before the Civil War, never gave thought to finking out because of a bit of weather.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Not surprised by the unprofessional behavior of the panelist from Hillsdale College. They bill themselves as a “Conservative Arts College.” My late grandmother signed me up for a lifetime subscription to their newsletter when I was a graduate students so that I would “know the whole story” as Paul Harvey would say. She knew about my lefty proclivities and no doubt assumed these would be made worse by a PhD in the humanities. To her credit, she was a conservative but not a complete ideologue. She was very proud to be there I walked and was hooded by my adviser.

    I remember showing the newsletter to a fellow grad student who considered himself a conservative intellectual. He said he could never work at a place like Hillsdale because it was too sheltered and ideologically limiting to have a good intellectual climate. Based on their newsletter, Hillsdale seems more like the Higher School of Marxism-Leninism circa 1981 than a university devoted to free inquiry.

    There are plenty of Conservative historians out there. I am surprised Limerick could not find a professor from a regular university who could articulate the Conservative argument about the AP Standards. Or perhaps it was not worthwhile, even for a Conservative historian. The critiques made by movement Conservatives, like the JeffCo School board, are seldom rooted in intellectual argument, its more of a Romantic feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “more of a Romantic feeling–” It’s like you were in the room with us! It was a lecture about the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, not about any real testable skills or “metrics,” which is what the AP test has to be to a large extent.

      Yes to your comparison to communist indoctrination. They hew to a narrow party line. I wonder how they will weather the Trump years, a man who is neither Good, nor Beautiful, nor True?


      • Truth, Beauty and Goodness — Aristotle by way of St. Thomas Aquinas. What fun. I am not sure how Catholic theology can be made into a metric for learning American History and historical thinking skills, but your mileage might vary.

        I am sure that the true believers will find the Good, Beautiful, and True in Trump for the next 4-8 years. Some people believe it is Good, Beautiful, and True if the Lord heaps suffering on the heads of my enemies and delivers power into their own hands.

        I remember talking with a friend who grew up in the DDR. He said that by the time they got to the 1980s everyone who joined the Communist Party (SED) was either a cynic or an idiot. I think that we’ll be reaching a similar tipping point with the GOP in the next few years. Only an idiot or a cynic could say that Kansas is doing better than the other states in the Plains or that Wisconsin is better off than Minnesota in the Midwest.


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