A Survival Guide for First-Time Conference Attendees

Erstwhile contributing editor Beau Driver shares some of his insights from the 2015 Organization of American Historians’ Conference with the hopes that some of his lessons will help those attending big conferences make the most of their own first-time conference experiences.

As I write this, I sit waiting for the sun to crest the horizon and burn away the low fog that covers downtown St. Louis. The first glimmers of light reflect off of the murky waters of the mighty Mississippi. These ambitious rays of sunlight begin to travel through the Gateway Arch. It’s 7:30 in the morning on the last day of the Organization of American Historians Annual Conference. I’m exhausted. I have blisters on my feet. And I’m trying really hard to figure out how I’ll get all my newly acquired books home.

This has been my first entrée into the land of large-scale national history conferences. The experience has been at once exhilarating, daunting, and intense. Looking back on the four days of the conference, there are several things that I wish I had known or thought of prior to coming to the Show Me State. After some reflection I have decided to list some of the major ones here. Hopefully, my shortcomings with regard to OAH 2015 will give others some insight on what to expect when attending OAH or other big conferences in the future.

The author's credentials at OAH 2015

The author’s credentials at OAH 2015

First, have your “elevator speech” really, really down. Just about everyone that you speak to will ask you, “What is your research on?” and when you’re talking to a historian whose work is influential to your work (for me this was Jackson Lears) it’s best to have your answer practiced to the point that you can ramble it off like Mr. Orange’s joke in Reservoir Dogs. That is to say, be brief and thorough with your description, while avoiding making it sound lifeless and flat.

Second, when packing, leave yourself some room to bring back books. The exhibition hall is full of publishers who will entice you with cheap—possibly even free—books. Additionally, these imprints might bring books that haven’t yet been officially released to further tempt you into parting with your sweaty little wad of money. I learned this the hard way when I was forced to UPS some shoes and a few other items from my carry on back to Colorado to make way for the twenty-five new titles I toted home.

Third, introduce yourself to people, even if they make you feel like a fanboy or fangirl. All of the historians that I talked to were very pleasant and more than happy to say hello, shake hands, or sign their book for you. One caveat should be mentioned here: The regular conventions regarding polite society are still in play. So, don’t interrupt them while they’re talking to someone else and be prepared to be brief, especially after panel discussions. After most panels, the room monitors are anxious to make sure that the space is ready for the next group and they don’t really care about your desire to gush over your favorite historian.

Fourth, don’t try and stack your day up with a panel during every time slot. After four days of running around from panel to panel, I was exhausted. Take some time to examine the program closely and to pick the panels that you are really interested in seeing. This year, the OAH used a web app to help attendees to organize their days. The most important feature of the app was that it had a summary of the papers and discussions that would be covered in each of the panels. Read these. This way you will know if the panel that you’re really excited for will actually touch on the topics that you’re interested in. A little info can go a long way in helping you determine which panels are must sees for you and which ones you can miss altogether or in a pinch.

Finally, have fun. The OAH was a wonderful experience for me and I came away feeling rejuvenated and excited about my own work. It’s best to try and be flexible and enjoy the time you have with your colleagues. Also, don’t skip out on some of the extracurricular events like baseball games and tours. These are great ways to meet new people and will ensure that you get short breaks from the constant barrage of historical information that comes with the panels and discussions. Additionally, don’t be afraid to forgo some of the panels and network. If you meet someone who has the time, grab a coffee and chat. These networking opportunities can be invaluable.

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