A few days ago I posted on what it’s like to attend the Mormon History Association annual conference. Today I’m going to write about why I attend and what it has been like for me in my particular situation. We anticipate a few other posts like this from different perspectives.
There are multiple reasons why someone might attend MHA and I’ll describe a few below but I think the main reason boils down to this: MHA goers are interesting people who know cool stuff. You are an interesting person who knows cool stuff. If we all hang out and talk about the cool stuff we have a good time and learn more cool stuff. If we do this often enough eventually we’ll all be so cool and interesting and together that we’ll need to wear sunglasses.
Now, on to my particular experience. I think of myself as an “avocational historian”: I write enough history with enough rigor that I can call myself a “historian” but I do it as a hobby rather than a profession. Currently my day job and some family stuff are taking lots of energy, so recently I have been more of a “history hobbyist.” I have a Master’s degree in American History with an emphasis on ethnicity and immigration. I started attending MHA as a grad student and for the first few years I expected to go on to a PhD and an academic career. Thus, I’m a casual avocational historian but I have formal training in History and many of my MHA friends have gone on to academic careers in History so I lean more academic than some of the avocational folks you’ll meet at MHA.
Why I Go
Unlike a professional or a serious avocational historian (ie, someone currently writing articles/books), I don’t need the conference. I go (when I can) for fun. The main benefits to me in my current orientation to creating Mormon History are:
Friends and Sociality. I like the people who write Mormon history and MHA is a good place to see and visit with lots of them and to meet more of them.
Networking. By staying involved in the conference I keep up with who is interested in things related to what I am interested in. Much of this information comes from informal observations—who gets mentioned in presentations, who attends which sessions, conversations before and after sessions, conversations over food, etc. By staying plugged-in to the network I keep myself able to help and to be helped.
More than any other formal academic conference I have attended, MHA addresses the intellectual and social needs of avocational attendees. I feel squarely within the intended audiences. Avocational historians give presentations, receive awards, are on the board of directors, etc. It is easy for me to find sessions and attendees who share my particular interests and skill level. If I want to stretch a bit, it is also easy for me to find sessions and attendees that are more oriented toward academic History than I am or those that are less so.
Perhaps most importantly for me, MHA also seems to work as a professional conference. At MHA I find professional historians who are willing to engage my work and take me seriously as a historian despite my lack of credentials.
Acculturation. Since my day job is not History I have to work at thinking like a historian. Spending time with historians in formal and informal discussions helps keep historian-ish patterns of thought fresh for me.
Surprises. For folks who read stacks and stacks of books and of primary materials on Mormonism, MHA is a place where you can get surprised by stuff you did not know you did not know. It is delightful.
Things that are hard about going
Joining an ongoing conversation. The MHA conference is, in fact, a “conference” and not a “fair.” People go to confer. The more you are prepared to participate in that conferring by having read recent scholarship on Mormon History and by working on your own History projects the better fit it will be for you. I enjoy the conference much more when I am presenting or have an active, ongoing history project. At MHA (and, mutatis mutandis, every other professional or academic conference I attend) almost every nice-to-meet-you conversation centers on What are you doing in Mormon History these days? When I have a ready-to-go answer—even if it is “I am interested in portrayals of Mormons in political cartoons and have been reading on them and am going to ___ session”—I enjoy myself much more and learn more and meet more people. (Once you identify yourself with a topic someone will point you to someone else working on it.)
Staying focused during papers. MHA, like most other professional and academic conference, centers around the presentation of papers. I, for one, struggle with the academic paper presentation as a vehicle for engaging scholarship. My mind wanders. I fall asleep. I think: “I’ll read these papers later for the details. Why don’t they give five-minute summaries and spend the rest of the time chatting/arguing about their ideas?” (To be clear: my own presentations are not any more engaging) This might be TMI, but I have learned to “give myself permission” to skip sessions in favor of naps or to slip quietly out of sessions and to otherwise save my energy for the other conversations and other sessions.
Talking to strangers. I have been attending MHA off-and-on for a decade and have relationships made elsewhere with many attendees. The prime benefits of MHA for me have come out through these relationships built over years. Even so, showing up at a conference with hundreds of attendees, most of whom I do not know, is intimidating. A fair amount of talking to strangers is required and that can suck some energy. I kinda have to psyche myself up.
Advice / Final Thoughts
- Give it a try. If it is a giant flop you can tell stories about that time you hung out with the super nerds.
- You’ll have more fun if you have read some recent scholarship on Mormon History and/or are working on your own History projects. That said, it can still be a lot of fun and very productive if you just show up and listen to the sessions.
- Try not to sit alone nor eat alone (unless you want to). JI is helping organize informal eatings.
- Look me up. I won’t be at MHA this year (I’ll be travelling to celebrate my wife’s graduation. Go Dr. Harris!) but will be attending future conferences and am happy to meet you and talk about Mormon stuff: edje dot jeter at gmail.