Last year, I stopped by the American Historical Association conference just long enough to meet a friend, walk around, be terrified to my very core, and run off to dinner. This year, I'm actually going to stay. I figure if I take this approach, by the time I actually have to interview at AHA, I might be able to walk through the conference hotel without wanting to vomit.
Last year, I parked ten whole city blocks from the conference and was stunned to discover that I could pick out the historians on the streets of Philadelphia as I walked towards the hotel. They weren't wearing name tags or all dressed the same. But somehow, I knew. (I wish my gaydar was that good.) Somehow, though historians are a pretty diverse group, we have just enough in common to exude it as we walk from point A to point B. There's something completely exciting about this, as if I've found my people.
I was also stunned by the accumulated stress that seems to collect in the halls and corners at AHA. When I opened the door to the hotel lobby last year, it hit me like a shock wave and almost pushed me right back on to the streets. My friend showed me around, pointing to the area where masses of frightened historians gathered to find out where their job interviews were being held. I'm scared out of my wits in anticipation of the interviews that mark the beginning of the end of a very long road. But I'm pretty sure that part of the fear was in being aware, not just of the interviews at hand, but of all the interviews that had passed each historian by. I'm pretty sure of that because that's what I'd be thinking: "Holy shit. I didn't get an interview there or there or there or..." The "theres" were almost infinite.
Though I had nothing at stake at last year's conference, I still found myself ready and waiting to leave that hotel and go find dinner and a glass of wine. The sympathetic stress was killing me. I find this a little sad. I so rarely feel like I'm surrounded by people who speak my own language. One of the things that feels electric and inspiring about conferences is the accumulation of energy and momentum that comes with that many people engaged in the same intellectual pursuit. It's as if we're all in orbit around the same planet and the pull leaves us all moving along the same wobbly, oblong path. What's sad is that so much is at stake at these things that it starts to feel as if it's time to eat your own young if that's what it will take to survive. That person who just said the fabulously smart thing becomes a threat instead of an inspiration. All the interviews you don't take are evidence, not of a thriving discipline, but of your inadequacy. (Seriously, I'm not even on the market, and it's hard not to take all the activity as a sign I should be further along, presenting more, closer to the end.)
I don't like it. It's not that I actually believe that because historians all love history that we should all feel warm and supportive towards one another. God help us if that were so. A little antipathy keeps things grooving, keeps things alive. (Plus, history is a big discipline and I don't like that many people.) But I'm not quite competitive enough to want to look around and see all of these strangers, who look so familiar to me, as measuring sticks or evidence of my worth or lack thereof. But that's exactly what happens so quickly in academia. So I figure I have some re-training to do on the coming weekend. None of these people, no matter how much their CV might scare me in a dark alley, are a threat to me. I'm just there to observe. And feel a little warm and supportive of people who've dedicated themselves to a discipline that I love.
But what does it say about this entire weekend that I'm already trying to psyche myself up so I don't crumble under the stress of being an observer?