Take on AHA

Last week, the Australian Historical Association held its 31st annual conference, hosted by the University of Adelaide. The last time I was at an AHA was in 2008 (I didn't have to go far, since it was in Melbourne); it seems to have got bigger since then. Around four hundred delegates, if memory serves; up to nine concurrent sessions as well as three smaller, parallel conferences -- that's as big as history conferences get in Australia. If anything it was too big. There was an embarrassment of riches and it wasn't possible to see everything of interest; but that's to be expected (though it would have helped if the sessions were properly streamed by subject). The real problem with big conferences, I find, is that it makes the whole thing a bit fragmented. When you chat to someone in the coffee break, you probably haven't gone to many of the same sessions, let alone each other's. It's harder to get an overall sense of what's going on (though Twitter does help now). So I think I prefer the smaller, more specialist conferences and workshops. That said, it was still an absorbing week of history and well worth attending. Here are some of the highlights (for another attendee's perspective, see here, here, here and here).

There wasn't much aviation history going on, except for Erin Ihde's (New England) paper on Biggles in Australia -- which sadly I couldn't attend! But there was quite a lot of military history. Ashleigh Gilbertson (Adelaide) looked at the dedication the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier in Canberra in 1993, and asked why then and not, say, in the early 1920s when the idea was first proposed. The usual answer, and one which I probably would have given myself, is that it had to do with Paul Keating's republican push, but Gilbertson argued that he played no part in the process. Instead it was a confluence of factors which made it possible by the early 1990s (for example, the principle in the world wars, that Australian soldiers would be buried near where they fell, was abandoned from Vietnam on). Christina Twomey (Monash) rather provocatively suggested that feminism 'saved' Anzac Day, which by the early 1980s appeared to be dying along with the diggers. But, she argued, feminist antiwar protests at Anzac Day ceremonies gave great copy to the press, which portrayed the women as extremists and fuelled the determination of veterans and their families to carry on. Caroline Adams (South Australia) looked at Australian nursing in the Boer War. It took some time for them to even be allowed into the rear area hospitals, and they also had a hard time enforcing modern aseptic discipline on the orderlies; but eventually they helped to increase survival rates in the wards. As these selections might suggest, the military history sessions were dominated by women (Yvonne Perkins noted that more than two thirds of the audience in one were female). Why this might be is an interesting question. Maybe it's the result of the turn towards war and society, but then the only paper on operational military history was given by a woman: Meleah Hampton (Adelaide) spoke about Australian infantry-artillery cooperation at Pozieres in 1916. She took as her title J. F. C. Fuller's dictum, 'artillery conquers and infantry occupies', but she showed what a difference discipline made to the infantry's success in following up the artillery's.

Operational military history did turn up in one of the best sessions out of all the ones I attended, in the context of pedagogy. Daniel Reynaud (speaking) and Maria Northcote (both Avondale) reported on the use of wargaming to teach First and Second World War history (specifically using Flames of War, a very popular miniatures ruleset). This had the advantage of challenging the preconceived ideas of the students who thought they knew it all (e.g. that Haig was a moron) and of engaging students who otherwise wouldn't have cared about the topic at all (including, since you asked, female students). It'd be nice to have the chance to try this one day… Another great paper from this session was by Shawn Ross (UNSW), who was similarly able to generate high engagement rates with undergraduates participating in an ongoing archaeological research project in Bulgaria. The key in this case seems to be that they are given real research to do, with the result that they have an investment which goes beyond just grades. This might be hard to replicate in history, which doesn't lend itself to collaborative research so easily -- so there's no larger whole for a small piece of work to contribute to. But maybe that problem can be thought around; perhaps through working with local historical societies and museums. As I'm not an academic that's not something I can try myself.

There was some modern British history (broadly defined) on offer. Kylie Galbraith (Adelaide) surveyed the British press's response to the Nazi destruction of democracy in 1933, which interested me as I've written on the (effectively) the British press's response to the Nazi creation of the Luftwaffe in 1935. One of the sources she is currently missing at the moment is the Daily Mail; she tried to get the British Library to loan a microfilm copy but apparently they are hanging on to it because it is being digitised, which is excellent news. Geoff Ginn (Queensland) gave a very interesting talk on J. S. M. Ward and Freemasonry. Ward was a spiritualist who led a small Christian sect and founded one of Britain's first open air museums, Abbey Folk Park. Ginn examined Ward's experiences of Freemasonry as a schoolmaster in Burma; it was fascinating to learn that some colonial lodges were mixed race, with Indians and Chinese, Hindus and Muslims as likely to occupy the higher positions as British Christians. Finally, probably the best single paper I saw at the AHA this year was by Annaliese Jacobs (Illinois), who explored a fascinating incident in 1849 which revived hopes that Franklin's Northwest Passage expedition was not yet lost, but was trapped in the ice awaiting rescue. This was based on a map drawn by Inuit, which was interpreted to show the location of Franklin's ships. Back home in Britain the map was displayed, published and invoked in (ultimately successful) attempts to get a rescue expedition sent out. Whether the map was accurate or not (it had been elaborated by the whalers who brought it back), what was interesting was the way the time lag produced by technological limitations created what Jacobs calls 'an anxious and arrhythmic pulse of information', allowing a space for hope and fear to flourish. Communications are never quite good enough, no matter how fast they get; and I was reminded of the Andrée expedition half a century later, where faster and more widespread information networks just spread misinformation more quickly.

My own talk came off okay, I think. A couple of the questions pointed out places where I had generalised too much, which was fair enough. But it could be that this is one problem with speaking off the cuff (which I again managed to do) rather than reading from a prepared text. I'm not sure how to fix this, but luckily it's not something I have to worry about for a while!

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11 thoughts on “Take on AHA

  1. SMH seems similar to the AHA in that there are a lot of concurrent panels and it is often difficult to meet people that attended the same sessions. I think the other AHA (American History Association) has even bigger conferences, which I have yet to attended. Apparently those are a bit overwhelming and insanely fragmented when it comes to meet people outside of your field.

  2. Post author

    Yes, the American AHAs sound insane (even leaving aside the dreaded hotel-room job interviews…) although I do know people who love them and try to go every year! I suppose it's a tradeoff with something that big, the buzz and energy would probably compensate for the lack of intimacy. Certainly something worth trying at least once.

  3. Eventually I'll attend an American AHA conference. I'll pretty much have to if I want a job, ha. Maybe the AHA will be enjoyable.

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