A Few Questions About Audiences at Academic Conferences

I find myself at this moment still thinking about the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, two weeks ago, which was such a fantastic experience for me. Even though my duties as NCPH’s Program Assistant prevented me from directly participating in any conference sessions (save for one at the very end of the conference), I talked with many people at the conference while events were happening and followed various discussions taking place on Twitter. I also made a few observations worth noting here.

One of the most popular sessions at the conference was entitled “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir?” This cleverly-titled session addressed questions surrounding the interpretation of gender, sexuality, and even LGBT history at cultural institutions while also providing a forum to discuss strategies for interpreting these topics without resorting to cultural tokenism or a checkbox system in which various cultural groups get a brief mention before moving on to “the actual story.” As I made my way around the conference center to make sure everything was in order, I noticed that the room for this gender session was filled beyond capacity. More importantly, I noticed there were hardly any men in sight. I counted maybe three or four in the entire room.

I find this state of affairs disappointing partly because “gender” is not synonymous with “women’s history,” nor is it a field of study strictly under the purview of women. I think this discrepancy in the male/female ratio also raises questions about the very purpose of academic conferences. I think it’s fair to say that this gender session was not the first one for many (if not most) of the session attendees, while others who chose not to attend the session may rarely discuss gender in their work as public historians. What happens, therefore, is a sort of “preaching to the choir” situation where the experts talk to each other while the non-experts find sessions to attend where they can feel like experts.  One of my questions revolves around the degree to which I as a conference participant should be attending sessions within my scholarly interests versus sessions that are outside of my interests. For example, I am primarily a scholar of nineteenth century U.S. History with a particular interest in memory, identity, and culture. As a conference participant should I use my time to attend sessions about nineteenth century history and/or historical memory that relate to my interests, or is it more beneficial to learn about topics outside of my interests in the chances that I could learn something new that enhances the quality of my work?

Another event I heard a lot about during the conference was the “History Relevance Campaign” session. From what I understand, the History Relevance Campaign is a new initiative within the history community that aims to establish a marketing/branding campaign to educate society about the importance of history in our everyday lives. The campaign will also encourage collaboration in answering the ultimate question so many people have about our field: “What does history do for me?”

While this session was also well attended, post-session conversations suggest to me that the “preaching to the choir” effect also took hold in this situation. In short, it sounds like historians got in a room together and convinced each other of the importance of their field. Where were the advertising strategists, k-12 educators, and politicians? How can professional historians in cultural institutions and the academy reach out to these groups and engage in a collaborative effort to make history relevant to all of society and not just the professionals?

To recap, here are my two questions:

1. As a conference participant, should I focus on attending sessions directly connected to my interests so that I can network with people in my field and learn more about content connected to my studies, or should I work to also attend a few sessions that may fall outside of my scholarly interests?

2. As a conference organizer, how do I encourage a diversity of attendees to my conference and, more specific to history, how do I encourage people outside the academy and people outside of history altogether to attend my conference?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but I think they’re worth asking. What do you think?