A Few Thoughts on the Ohio University Conference

I got back late last night from the Ohio University Graduate Student Conference in good spirits. I had an eventful ride home that included severe snow flurries that diminished visibility to almost zero at various points on the trip and a GPS map that took me to a dead-end road in the middle-of-nowhere, Ohio. After getting back on the correct road, the GPS continued to tell me to go to the dead end street. The whole thing was unnecessarily eventful. That said, I think the conference was a success from a networking/thesis-advancing standpoint and I enjoyed meeting a handful of new friends and graduate students. Dr. Brian Schoen, the chair of my panel, was extremely courteous and offered some good suggestions for primary and secondary sources to look at going forward with the thesis. Plus, he’s a Cardinals baseball fan, which is awesome.

There were a few things that stood out about the experience that are worth mentioning:

1. Live Tweeting: For those not involved with the world of Twitter, Live Tweeting refers to the act of posting tweets with updates and information about a specific event as it happens in real time. For instance, just about every professional sports team live tweets updates on what is happening during their game. This idea has now transported into the world of academic conferences. In fact, it has gotten to be popular enough for some to call for a guideline of ethics for conference tweeting. The main idea behind live tweeting a conference is to post updates about what is happening: who is speaking, what are they arguing, what are some good points being made, and what are some questions you may ask the presenter? Ideally, a large number of conference attendees will all be live tweeting at the same time, broadening the reach of the conference to an online audience that may not have been able to attend.

I decided that I would live tweet the conference, but I felt like I was in an awkward position. Many of the people I spoke to at the conference did not have twitter accounts. As far as I knew, there was no hashtag under which I’d be able to tweet about the conference, so I made up my own. I tried to post updates on interesting things I observed, but I wasn’t sure whether I should include the names of the presenters, all of which I had never met before. It was also tough to find the time to actually tweet. Of course I refused to pull out my phone during presentations, but I also struggled to find time to tweet during the breaks, since I wanted to talk to others at the conference about the presentations. In sum, the utilitarianism of live tweeting at conferences is something I’m still exploring. It may be useful, it may be pointless. I’m not sure at this point.

2. Papers: There were a wide range of papers presented at the conference. There were two in particular that stuck out to me. One talked about cold-war communications between the United States and communist countries, especially the “Project Democracy” initiative. The presenter argued that starting in the 1960s the United States began to promote the virtues of democracy through “public relations” rather than the outright propaganda that dominated the rhetoric of the McCarthyist 1950s. It was an ambitious paper, and I’m still not sure what the difference is between the two, but I think it’s a topic worth exploring further. Another paper talked about Carl Sagan and his PBS television show Cosmos: A personal voyageThe guy is a little weird, but this paper had me wanting to learn more about him.

3. All Elements of the Past Should be Taken Seriously: The Keynote address was supposed to be made by Carrie Pitzulo, author of Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of PlayboyUnfortunately, a last minute emergency prevented her from attending the conference. However, another professor who had been Dr. Pitzulo’s adviser when she was a student at OU read her presentation, entitled “Reading it for the Articles: Playboy Magazine and American Sexual History,” which is a hilariously awesome title. During her research into the history of Playboy–which included mining the Playboy archives in Chicago–Dr. Pitzulo had a chance to meet Hugh Hefner in person. She remarked that Hefner and his “entourage” had appreciated the fact that Dr. Pitzulo had taken the history of Playboy seriously. That remark really stuck out to me. Whether we look at Playboy, sports, cooking magazines, politics, music, or pantomimes, historians need to take their topics seriously by giving them a proper level of agency (the power of choosing or determining) in shaping their own realities in the past. For the case of Playboy, I suppose it would do us well to try and understand Playboy’s agency in shaping the “sexual imagination” of American culture from the 1950s to today, which is something I think Dr. Pitzulo has attempted to address in her studies. A topic such as Playboy would not have been taken as a form of serious historical inquiry 30 or 40 years ago. Today, due in large part to the New Social History and a renewed interest in the history of organizations and institutions in society, topics like Playboy can be taken seriously, and that is something I can appreciate. Anything to broaden our understanding of the past helps, in my eyes.

Now that the conference is done, it is time to get back to schoolwork. Until next time…