Here we go a-conferencing!

By Lacy S. Ferrell, Assistant Professor of History, Central Washington University


I just returned from a three-day African Studies Association (ASA) conference in San Diego, where I presented some of my research on childhood and schooling in Colonial Ghana. The following are my reflections on the experience.


Why do historians go to conferences?


I think we all go for a variety of reasons. We’re sharing our research, we’re hearing research from others in our field, and we’re hopefully getting some feedback or ideas that will translate into something that will be publishable work.


But really, and not entirely distinct from those reasons above, we go for the people. It’s always interesting to me to watch older, more established figures in the field at conferences; in my experience, they may go to a couple of panels, including ones where they are presenting, discussant-ing (more on that later), or are being honored, but mostly they hang out. Hanging out may be both the most fun and the most productive part of conference attendance. We all know the people we went to graduate school with, and inevitably we’ve collected friends met in archives or field research along the way, but those contacts are renewed and new ones are made mostly at conferences. This is by design; as a researcher on Ghana, for example, one event I attend at every ASA conference is the Ghana Studies Association meeting. There, I meet the scholars I otherwise only know from reading their work. Friends introduce me to their friends, who, if we go grab a meal or drinks, will hopefully become my friends too. Ideas for future panels (or even edited collections!) are batted around. Approaches to particular subjects are debated. Stories of research, teaching, and the various obligations of our professorial (and personal) lives are shared. Facebook friend invitations are sent and accepted, and thus, a longer-term relationship is forged. And of course, you’ll see each other next year, at the conference, where the process will repeat and the network of friendships and personal connections will expand. Wheee!


Why do these connections matter? For the same reasons that personal connections are so important in any field, I imagine. Because we are each others’ audience. I may submit an article to a journal (or a press!) someone I know edits. Who knows, I may even apply for a job at a school where I know people, or where people I know know people so they can put in a good word or, even better, a formal recommendation. Because when I publish, these people will read my work and weigh in on it, use it, build on it, and challenge it. And I read their work and I can get ideas from them, too. As a teacher I like to remind my students that when they engage with the secondary literature in a field they are entering a conversation with other scholars. This is, of course, exactly the point of producing research. What students don’t have access to, however, are the conversations that produce the research that contributes to the conversations. It’s all connected!


So what is being at a conference like? They’re all different; I’ve been to a few small ones, which are delightful because you end up meeting everyone and going to most of the panels. The one I just attended is very large. It’s not HUGE the way, for example, the American Historical Association conference is HUGE and usually fills two hotels and feels like a cattle call. But it’s large, because it’s the African Studies Association so it brings together historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc. The thing we all have in common is that we study something about Africa. Each year the conference has a theme, to which most panels are at least tangentially linked, but which doesn’t necessarily exclude outliers. There are generally a couple dozen panels in each time slot, so it’s impossible to go to more than a fraction of the overall offerings, but the wide variety of interests, regions, and disciplines helps each attendee pinpoint what most interests him or her. This year, for example, the theme was “The State and the Study of Africa,” and since I’m not really terribly interested in the “state,” especially how political scientists view it, there were a lot of panels that simply didn’t appeal to me. In contrast, my wife, who was also presenting at this year’s meeting, IS very interested in the state, so lots of panels explicitly related to the theme appealed to her.


So which panels did I go to? Well, first of all, over the three days I generally attended three out of the four time slots of the day (I’m resistant to the 8:30 panel, though I went to one), so I got to a bunch. And they reflect my research and teaching interests; I saw panels on female entrepreneurs along the African coast, abolition and emancipation in Ghana, sexuality and the colonial state, and, of course, my own panel, on education and the state (not, in my case, like, the “state” though. See earlier comment). One new format this year was an “author meets critic” roundtable, in which scholars from a particular field critiqued a specific work and gave the author, who was present, a chance to respond and discuss. I went to two, one on a new book (Saheed Aderinto’s When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism, and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958) and one on a twenty-five year old book (Luise White’s The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi). It was a really cool experience in both cases; one was more about the current state of the field in sexuality and urban studies and the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s approach, and the other was more of a tribute to the lasting resonance of one of the most significant books ever published on African History (which, despite being so old, still manages to feel fresh and challenging, and still is routinely assigned in graduate and undergraduate classes).


The typical panel, however, usually has four elements: A chair, who does little more than introduce the panelists and keeps time (and is, usually, also a presenter), the presenters, who read their papers, a discussant, who has read the papers in advance and who offers synthesizing remarks and poses questions for each author, and the members of the audience, who listen to the presentations and then ask their own questions of each presenter. In my panel the organizer of the panel was also the chair, and he presented a paper as well. There were four of us, plus our discussant, and we probably had about a dozen audience members. There are always people who come and go during panels to hear particular papers, so the audience can be a bit fluid. We all presented for fifteen minutes, the chair offered his observations, and then we took questions. I had a few people ask me to speak more on issues I had raised (or hadn’t raised), which was awesome and which indicates, I believe, that people were paying attention to my paper and thought about it! It was a great experience, and after the panel, rather than going to another one, one of my co-presenters and I got a drink and talked about education in colonial Ghana, which we both research. Again, the importance of personal connections—I had never met him before this conference, though we know some of the same people, one of whom had suggested that I should be on the panel…and so we ended up in the hotel bar talking about our work and becoming friends.


Despite all this emphasis on personal connections and friendship, conferences are also terrifying. By which I sort of mean inspiring and invigorating, but by which I also mean potentially rather discouraging. I’m there, presenting my paper, just over two years out of graduate school and with a not-yet-published chapter to my name, and I’m listening to people who wrote the books that changed my life as an Africanist historian and that changed, in many cases, the field. These are the people who go to multiple conferences a year, who receive invitations from all over to speak, who publish like machines, and who have the best jobs. They also, unfortunately, can have a tendency to make it look easy (even though it’s NOT and they’ve worked very, very hard to get where they are). I think that general feelings of inadequacy (on my part) can be inspiring, as I said above, because I walk away wanting to work harder and push my research further, but it is also terribly daunting because I know the kind of commitment and effort it all takes and I’m not sure that I either can or want to keep up. But I love being around the people who do put in that commitment and effort, and I love the parts of the conference that push me to be the best scholar I can be. I always look forward to ASA, and I hope that, as my career progresses, I continue to produce the kind of research and writing that will give me a spot on the program and a reason to go see all of my old, new, and yet-to-be-made friends.


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