U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Intellectual History Conversion Narrative

This morning I’m sitting in an airport on my way to New York City for USIH’s annual meeting. I found my way to USIH in some ways by chance. The annual meeting happened to be in Dallas, where I live, and I received a call for volunteers. In the glow of being post-comprehensive exams but not yet deep into my dissertation work, I signed up to help. I attended the meeting and have stuck around ever since.

Prior to attending that meeting in Dallas, I didn’t necessarily consider myself an intellectual historian. Religious historian? Yes. Midwestern historian? Certainly. Historian of U.S. and the World? Sure. Intellectual historian? I wasn’t convinced. I liked the study of ideas, for sure, but I wasn’t sure intellectual history was for me.

As a first generation college student from a community where few people went on to earn four-year degrees, I didn’t grow up having philosophical debates. I didn’t read thinkers like Marx or James until college, or in some cases graduate school, and I have never had a conversation about them with someone from back home. From the outside, I didn’t know if I fit.

At my first meeting of USIH, however, I realized that there was a place for me in these conversations. Marx and James weren’t so intimidating after all, and there were plenty of other folks being discussed as this group of scholars wrestled with the history of ideas. So, as we kick off our annual meeting today, I wanted to reflect a bit on why I stuck around after that first conference a few years ago.

The Big Tent

When I rolled into my first USIH meeting, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I found people working on the history of ideas in a variety of contexts and from a wide array of perspectives. Certainly, I found engaging analysis of towering intellectual figures; however, I also encountered discussions about the history of ideas among everyday folks. USIH was a big tent that reached across a variety of subfields—political, religious, literary, and diplomatic history, for example. I found many of my own interests, particularly the intersection of religion, politics, and internationalism, popping up all over the conference. As often as possible, I eagerly scurried from my volunteer station to try to catch every as many panels as I could.

The approach embraced at the conference showed me that there was space for anyone who wanted to think seriously about ideas in U.S. history. You are absolutely going to hear conversations about major intellectual figures, but you’re also going to find conversations about small town culture wars, anti-Semitism, race in Antebellum America, and so much more.

I found the intellectual engagement at USIH to be exceptional. I leave every year with loads of notes, new ideas, and a fresh excitement for my work and the field. During my first conference, I noticed that panel discussions easily turned into hallway conversations or debates over a meal. USIH is small enough that conversations can percolate over the weekend, connecting different panel sessions or intersecting with the plenaries. While there is still plenty of choice in panels to attend, in many ways, the conference acts like a series of ongoing conversations, which often lead to fascinating connections, insights, and intellectual engagement.

The Community

Last year, I presented for the first time at OAH and when I looked out into the audience at my panel, I saw one of my USIH colleagues. While she expressed an interest in the topic, I also knew that she came that morning to support me. This has been my experience with USIH—it’s a supportive, engaging community both at the conference and beyond it. At the conference, I received invitations to grab dinner or coffee with folks, enjoyed warm conversations about both research and our lives, and met scholars who I later partnered with on future panels, projects, and research. There is an intimacy to USIH and a warm welcome available to new comers. Crucially for so many of us (myself included), the conference is also big enough to allow you to slip out for a bit of respite if (or when) you happen to reach your extrovert quota for a given day.

Beyond the conference, I received connections to potential publication outlets, invitations to attend talks here in Dallas, and can count of having at least one meal with a USIH colleague at just about any academic conference I find myself attending. My USIH connections even helped me skip the lines at the museums during my last trip to D.C. At the most basic level, these are just good folks. They make me a better thinker, scholar, teacher and colleague.

I converted to intellectual history a few years ago, so maybe I have a convert’s zeal. Today, I still identify as a religious historian, a Midwestern historian, and a historian of the U.S. and the world, but I also unabashedly identify as an intellectual historian. As we kick off our conference today, I hope if you’re in New York, you’ll dive into this intellectually rich, collegial, and dynamic conference, and if you’re not, you’ll just have keep an eye on Twitter.

See you in New York!

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