AHA-ing (Friday Recap)

I managed to find some free wireless in the lobby, which I count as a major success. The past 24 hours have been somewhat of a blur, but in a good way. After taking a bus from DC to NYC, I made my way to the Hilton hotel and was promptly overwhelmed at the number of history types with AHA badges filling the hotel. The first session I attended was The Promise and Pitfalls of Writing for Readers beyond the Academy, at which I was that guy who embarrassingly enters late and bumps into people while finding a seat (in this case, on the floor). It was a relatively informal panel, with none of the typical reading of papers in a monotone voice, and with a lot of back-and-forth with the audience. I found it interesting that for the first part of the session, blogging was never touched upon. Then an audience member brought it up, and the panelists began to fervently speak about it for a fair amount of time. What surprised me was the relatively positive attitude many of the panelists carried towards blogging. This might be a kind of self-selective mechanism, as panelists for a session on popular writing are probably not the stuffy academic types that look down their noses at blogging. On the other hand, I got the sense that blogging as a whole has become much more mainstream and accepted within the academy. The panel also reminded me of the kind of “exercise” aspect of writing on a blog - in that it forces you to write and is a great tool for experimentation and self-improvement.

After dropping my bags off at a friend’s apartment, I returned to the Hilton for the evening session. Being a hopeless history nerd, I made sure to arrive to the opening ceremony roughly half an hour early, snagging myself a prime-time, fourth-row seat directly in front of the podium. The first portion was a presentation to Adam Hochschild for the Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award. Hochschild proceeded to speak thoughtfully about the award, and I thought did a great job of highlighting the recent Russian police raid on the offices of the history/human rights group Memorial. He used it as a testament to the fact that, in many parts of the world, history still remains a perilous and radical practice, and that governments and regimes are wary of its power.

The night’s plenary session was a murderer’s row line-up of historians speaking about The Pleasures of the Imagination - Linda Colley, Natalie Zemon Davis, John Demos, Jane Kamensky, Jill Lepore, Robert A. Rosenstone, and Jonathan D. Spence. I felt a lot like a giddy sports-obsessed kid at an All-Star game, the difference being that instead of saying, “Wow, Chris Paul is a lot shorter in person!” I was saying “Wow, Jane Kamensky is a lot taller in person!” Like I said, I’m a hopeless history nerd. The panel itself was impressive, as each historian spoke briefly about the role of imagination in the historical process. For a more content-based recap, take a look here. Even more interesting than the content, being so close to them, I found it infinitely fascinating to study them all as they and their peers spoke. I decided I’d record those observations here, as one of the most valuable aspects of the conference so far has been being able to put faces, voices, and personalities to these famous names.

I often look at speakers and try to imagine what my impression would be if I couldn’t hear a thing. All of them took the podium with a degree of confidence and charisma that was startling - everyone seemed quite obviously comfortable with commanding attention and engaging a room. During the entire two-hour panel, Natalie Zemon Davis sat perched on the edge of her seat and 100% locked in to the speaker. I don’t think her attention wavered for a single second, and she continually looked like she was ready to leap up and offer her thoughts on the subject. Jane Kamensky spoke in down-to-earth, but carefully measured words that seemed meticulously planned and polished, and also ended with a casually stated, “Thanks,” which I found interesting. Meanwhile, Linda Colley picked up considerable steam as she progressed, and by a couple minutes into her talk, had completely hit her stride and ceased to look at her notes, sweeping her thoughts along with expansive gestures and a rising cadence. John Demos spoke in a more anecdotal and unhurried style, and did a great job of incorporating a couple of physical artifacts into his talk when speaking about material objects. I had absolutely no trouble picturing him in an intimate Yale seminar, telling stories and asking questions.

All I can say about Jill Lepore is that she spoke almost exactly how she writes, with a degree of accessibility and eloquence that lulls you into contentedly listening, until you realize with a jolt that she just said something incredibly important and intelligent. Robert Rosenstone was thoughtful and forceful, and it was fun to picture him in a CalTech classroom getting hardcore science and math students to think about story-telling and history. Finally, it was interesting when Jonathan Spence took the podium. At this point, I felt attention lagging a bit both in the room and on the panel itself. But there was a noticeable change when Spence began speaking in a remarkably soft voice. Everyone seemed to straighten up (besides NZD, whose attention never flagged an iota during the two hours), and many of the panelists began taking notes as if they were back in a lecture hall. Again, if I were watching a video of the panel with the sound turned off, I would still be able to assert with complete confidence, “This guy is important.”

That’s it for now, I look forward to recapping the rest of the weekend.