Last week commenter acw wrote: “As one who hasn’t ever attended but has considered it,, could you also post some kind of MHA for newbies guide? Like why and how to come/participate, etc.” Below I provide a general description of what to expect and how to attend. In a subsequent post I’ll talk about the whys and hows of my experience at MHA as an avocational historian. We’re hoping to get together a few other what-it’s-like posts from different perspectives.
How to Attend
You can register for the whole conference or just some of the days. (There are also optional tours before and after the conference.) Registering beforehand is cheaper, but you can also register at the door. The conference is for dues-paying members of the Mormon History Association, so if you are not a member or are in arrears, you’ll need to pay up as part of the registration process.
There is a conference hotel and you can get a discount for the conference. You do not have to stay at the conference hotel, though it is very convenient—you can easily slip off to take a nap during the day or drop off books or whatever. It can also make it easier to join with others for meals.
Dress is approximately business casual. (I’ll describe men’s dress because I am more confident of the terms.) Slacks and a collar shirt (short or long sleeve, button-down or polo) are pretty standard. Shorts, blue jeans, and T-shirts are rare in the evenings and pretty uncommon during the day. Neckties and/or sports jackets are more common but not universal and are probably not even in the majority. I do see the occasional stylish two-piece and three-piece suits but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tux. The dress vibe is pretty chill. I fairly frequently see running or tennis shoes.
What to Expect
I’m not sure of my audience here, so I’ll try out a few comparisons. MHA conferences are like:
- … high school in a hotel for three days with a bunch of nerds.
- … EFY with less cheering and crying.
- … other professional / academic conferences I have attended (engineering, education, history, theology).
Jane Goodall hiding behind a plastic ficus in the lobby might report that MHA is…
- … more carefully dressed than secondary teaching or engineering conferences (the teachers are away from the students and are relaxing and the engineers really like T-shirts). MHA’s business casual is slightly more relaxed than other national history conferences but slightly more formal than regional history conferences.
- … more generically friendly than engineering conferences and most academic conferences. MHA has a wide variety of participants and being socially approachable across skill and interest levels is more of a norm there than in other conferences I have attended.
- … more age diverse than teacher or engineering conferences. Like other history conferences it will have attendees from every age decade from 20s to 80s but it will probably have more from 60s and 70s than most.
- … less race diverse than other conferences. MHA is looking more and more like America, but it is still a disproportionately white group.
- … quieter and less kinetic than engineering or computer conferences. Vendors will not generally be playing loud music nor will you be pelted with Nerf projectiles.
The basic Components
Registration desk: You can’t just walk in. You’ll get a name badge, a schedule, and some informational papers/coupons.
Plenary Sessions: Some of the talks/presentations are for the conference at large. The speakers are prominent and good and usually have very interesting things to say.
Break-out Sessions / Concurrent Sessions: This is the meat of the conference. In sessions lasting ninety minutes scholars present and/or discuss their findings. Session format can vary, but a pretty typical one is three speakers each giving a twenty-minute talk and then a respondent giving a ten- to fifteen-minute talk addressing all three, followed by audience questions. The hardest thing about the break-out sessions is that you have to choose: there will be several sessions at the same time and you cannot be at all of them. You can, however, quietly slip in and out the back of sessions if you want to hear particular papers.
Formal meals / ceremonies: Some of the events include banquets (though it’s usually just regular convention fare).
Informal meals: I personally find it hard to fit the cost of the formal meals into my budget, so I usually go to a nearby restaurant instead with like-budgeted individuals. These meals are usually the highlight of the conference for me.
Vendor booths: Publishers that target readers of Mormon History will show selections of their books. It is a great chance to catch some deals. It is also a convenient way to keep tabs on what is being published and to make reading lists.
Milling around and talking: There is enough time between sessions that there are frequently people around with whom you can converse (assuming y’all can get over the I-don’t-know-you-yet barriers).
I’m just gonna copy some comments from the earlier post.
From Gary Bergera:
(1) Don’t hesitate to engage a presenter after her/his presentation. Almost everybody loves it when someone takes an interest in her/his work, especially in articles and books.
(2) Don’t hesitate to ask questions during Q&A. (There may be no dumb questions, but it does help when one pays attention and asks relevant, thoughtful questions.)
(3) Don’t hesitate to sit next to strangers during sessions, during lunches/dinners, on tour buses, etc.
(4) Try not to argue and/or discuss politics (don’t assume everyone’s a member of your political party–they’re not).
(5) Try not to ask questions or make statements that might be more appropriately asked/made during an explicitly religious service (this isn’t meant to silence expressions of faith, etc., merely to suggest that one try to be aware and appreciative of boundaries). And
(6) try not to take things so seriously–if you can’t have fun and enjoy yourself at MHA, where can you?
Presenters DO love it when people engage them immediately after a presentation — sometimes that is the only direct response they get to a paper or project that has engaged them for months.
Be sensitive, though, to others who might to greet the presenter. Don’t monopolize his time with lengthy explanations of your own theory of the topic, or how your grandmother’s brother’s wife’s uncle’s bishop found himself in a situation kinda sorta like the one the presenter just spoke about, only not really. That “glad to talk to you” will sour into “would you please go away” if the speaker sees the people he wanted to hear from give up and drift away.
We hope to see you at MHA!