U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Preview of the S-USIH 2017 Conference, Part 2

Following up on Anthony Chaney’s lovely and enticing preview of the neighborhood surrounding the conference hotel, I wanted to offer a few words about the social environment of S-USIH conferences past. (And like Anthony, I want to encourage you to be getting your proposals in.)

I should add before I say more that these are the observations of a graduate student attendee who has only been going to S-USIH since it got “big.” I cannot, unfortunately, reminisce about the early years (although I hope some of you early adopters will do so!). But I can say that I’ve never been to a conference that better combined intellectual and social elements, that is neither so large that it makes you feel very distant from the plenaries and their speakers nor so small that you feel as if the roles of audience and speakers are merely exchanged in a kind of musical chairs. S-USIH is the Goldilocks of conferences: large enough to recharge your craving for the original and unexpected but small enough to feel that you don’t have to make a detailed itinerary to see all the friends you hope to see.

I think S-USIH is especially ideal for graduate students who—if you are like me—often feel not a little distress both because of the prospect (and the hope) of meeting people whose books have done so much in the very recent past to shape your scholarly identity and also because you rather dread the inevitability of delivering your “elevator speech” and watching for someone else’s reaction. While nothing, I’m afraid, can wholly ever absolve you of the penance of giving the elevator speech of your dissertation, S-USIH seems always to generate enough to talk about—enough shared experiences—that you can chat pleasantly with others about something more intellectually involved than the weather but less anxiety-inducing than “the project I am currently working on.”

But even if you are not a graduate student, I think S-USIH offers everyone world enough and time both to take care of business—meeting with publishers, catching up with collaborators, making contacts—and to find the time to catch up with friends. But “catching up” is actually not totally descriptive, for I think most people try to squeeze in a bit of catching up at every conference one attends. But it is more rare, I think, to have enough time to re-establish connections with old friends—or to establish new connections with new friends—on a more than “Christmas card” level: “well, this year Freddy started preschool, and I took on this project around the house…”

Believe me, I am not disparaging the domestic—being able to share those kind of details, I’ve found out as I start a family, is a powerful and meaningful experience of shared joy and gratifying support. But most of us are in this intellectual history racket because the active discussion of ideas is something vital to us, a kind of necessary delicacy that we are not able to savor very often but which we do more than just crave when we are without it. And it is a very special thing, a very uncommon thing, I think, to be able to requite that necessity at a conference, to find the time to do more than “catch up.”

That, at least, is what I look forward to in October.