U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Organizing: Caucus, Independent Conference, Or Both?

Friends of USIH,

At the creation of this web log, we posed the following as a goal: “The creation of an annual or bi-annual academic conference devoted to topics on U.S. intellectual history and held in the United States.” How can we attain this?

It has been suggested that perhaps a more modest goal should be set. With this, someone forwarded the idea of creating a caucus with an existing society, such as OAH. This caucus would then help promote the study of U.S. intellectual history within OAH (or some other society). I believe this is an appropriate, attainable goal. But how does one form a caucus? Is it an official thing that must be “okayed” by OAH? If so, do we just write OAH’s President, or someone on the annual meetings planning committee, and express our interest? If so, I’m willing to do this. It’s time to get the ball rolling. Thoughts?

But should we also plan for an independent conference? This could be done in addition to forming an OAH caucus. We could schedule the independent conference for 2009 to allow for plenty of organizing time. Where should we try and hold it? Are Midwestern cities best for compromise travel? Should we aim for economy, or go for an exciting, symbolic kick off? Perhaps we could contact the University of Chicago? Is there a better symbolic place to begin our proposed renewal of U.S. intellectual history? If economy’s the goal, I could work on my present institution. A low-cost urban setting could be helpful. Thoughts?

All the best,


18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the reminders of our initial goals. How many have been met already!

    My questions: Are more of the participants in USIH more likely to show up at OAH, AHA, MLA, ALA, ASLE, or other conferences? I tend to get to the MLA stuff, but would bet most of the participants get to ALA more often than OAH.

    Certainly, I can attend any of them with equal ease, so I am just wondering about everyone else.

  2. I vote for a caucus at OAH.

    Our own conference would be, in my opinion, a bit premature at this point. Lacking the administrative and logistical resources of a larger organization, glomming on to such a group would, I think, meet all of our needs.

    I think a caucus at a major conference would provide a goal that is modest enough to be attainable but substantial enough to provide measurable progress. If we could have a meeting in a conference room there, a few panels with the caucus name listed on them and, eventually, the ability to solicit and/or accept panels, it would be a huge leap forward in visibility for the discipline.

    Why OAH? Since it is intellectual history, it seems to me that it should be either at AHA or OAH. I prefer the latter because it is specifically oriented around the US, like our group, but also because the AHA is kind of a drag. And that’s the very scientific reasoning that supports my conclusion!

    I think our relatively small group of very busy people can run the risk of spreading our energy too thin. If in the course of one year, we got some kind of readership for this blog, established a functioning book review program and founded a caucus, I’d say we did an awful lot.

    If we decide that such a caucus is something we’d like to pursue, I’d be willing to take the point on that, hopefully in time for 2008. (But if someone else wants to do this, I do not, of course, insist on it!) Once we actually got the caucus, though, I would think that planning activities for it would constitute a big focus, if not the biggest focus, of this group. Speaking only for myself, that seems like plenty of work to do. I’m not sure that the additional labor entailed by an actual conference would pay off in a greater number of attendees or substantially more attention than a caucus would.


  3. Joe and Mike,

    With Mike, I tend to think that OAH would be the best, but I’d like to hear from Sylwester, Tom, Paul, and Andrew.

    This debate about “which society” underscores why organizing an independent conference could be a positive. I do agree, however, with Mike on the subject of spreading ourselves too thin this first year. I doubt I could organize it this year, but that’s why I proposed a target date of 2009 for energy distribution.

    The 2008 and 2009 annual meetings for OAH are in New York City and Seattle respectively. 2010’s is in DC. I think more people are likely to make either New York’s or DC’s rather than Seattle.

    Could we organize an OAH caucus by next year’s meeting? Would we plan for a speaker and say 4 or 5 sessions? I don’t know how these things work. We could host a roundtable on the very topic of creating our own, independent conference and/or society. The thought of the latter scares me. The details and logistics seems overwhelming. I mean, I know nothing about applying for tax charters, etc.

    On the subject of an independent conference, I do think we could garner enough folks for 2009 if he hosted a modest conference in the Midwest.

    … Of course all of this is just thinking out loud. When we hear from a few more on the subject of OAH or not, we can move ahead. – TL

  4. No opinion as far as OAH vs AHA, but I agree with Tim that east coast or Midwest are preferable to the west coast.

    As far as our own conference, I think that 2009 or even 2008 is attainable. Our first conference does not have to be a large affair. I have been to a number of small one or two conferences with about 30 people present which were great. Those things are nice for brainstorming and general discussion which seems to be something that would be beneficial to any new group (in addition to standard paper presentations).

  5. On the issue of the caucus, the AHA might provide more traffic, but it’s so job-oriented, especially for younger scholars, that I’d prefer the OAH, though I’m not now a member and can’t claim to have been to one in many years, and I don’t know what’s involved in getting a caucus (willing to help find out). Since, as Mike pointed out, we are historians, I think we should avoid MLA, etc., despite some common ground. I agree with all that NY and DC are preferable to Seattle, esp. given our current “membership” makeup of mostly midwesterners/southerners (at least by job location).

    Another possibility, and one that I’m willing to pursue, is to work for some kind of presence at next January’s Phi Alpha Theta conference, even if it’s just a session on USIH (the topic not the group). We might be able to get ourselves known amongst some mid-level graduate students who will be entering the field in the next few years. I’m planning to go and hopefully take a couple of undergraduate along with me to present papers. It’s in Albuquerque.

    As for a conference, 2009 is the earliest we should shoot for, and somewhere east of or on the MS would be the best. I would vote for a smaller urban setting that would allow maximum time for interchange amongst attendees as opposed to a big urban setting where many distractions abound. The new Mercer adminstration is wanting to raise our national profile and might just be interested in hosting a small history conference. We’re an hour from Atlanta Hartsfield with shuttle transportation and an on-campus hotel available for attendees.

    My two cents.


  6. Sorry for the lateness of my reply. I agree with Mike and others who advise that we first try the caucus route before we attempt to organize our own conference. In graduate school I helped organize a small conference that monopolized the time of all involved. Since I currently don’t have the time to commit to such an endeavor, I would hate to recommend that others do so.

    I also agree that the OAH might be a better institutional fit, for the reasons given by others. The OAH annual conference has a more collegial feel to it, mostly because it doesn’t carry the baggage of the job interviews. I’ll be at the OAH in New York City next year giving a paper on academic freedom in the Cold War (if my panel gets accepted), and would be happy to participate in our caucus activities in any way possible.

    In short, for now, why reinvent the wheel when there already exists a vehicle to travel the road we want travelled?


  7. Hello Everyone,

    Sorry to be late on this.

    Well, what to add. There certainly seems no problem with pursuing a session or slate of sessions at the OAH. I used to attend this conference when a grad student, and I think I have gone to 1 or 2 since then. I frankly am not sure how many folks attend this on a regular basis (similar to the AHA in this regard). Would the Intellectual History Caucus be enough to lure a large number to the conference?

    Here’s another model–too ambitious for now, at least on a large scale: Michael O’Brien started the Southern Intellectual History Circle years ago with some $$$ gained from somewhere. He invited a group of interested scholars to his university one year for a set program; it worked well, and it became an annual event. Over time, various members of the circle (usu. distinguished folks at Research I universities) hosted the progam, which tended to feature a Friday slate of speakers, with Saturday morning reaction sessions to the previous days papers. I think it has grown to a hundred or so folks–with many people making the trip year after year. It’s a very pleasant conference (I attended twice).

    Shooting for something like this is appealing to me.

    I noticed a volunteer from Mercer. Yes, organizing a conference is hard work, but there are ways to do small things, such as what O’Brien did, even on a smaller scale: Meeting in classrooms, minimal money for food, etc. Alternatively, at my institution, we have run a small regional conference through the history department for years. It would be very possible to piggyback on this group: The conference “infrastructure,” including meeting rooms, block of hotel rooms, etc., is in place. The coordinators would be more than happy to dedicate a slate of sessions to an Intellectual History subgroups. We’re in a minor midwestern city–but its a start, esp. as it would require no fundraising at all. (Planning something at U. of Chicago, however, isn’t unappealing, either!)

    So, guess I’m saying–It might be possible to pursue both the OAH caucus and some style of dedicated conference (piggybacking on a smaller regional conference or planning something modest at a small university) in the relatively short-term. I find the idea of an intellectual history conference modeled on the Southern Intellectual History Circle (SIHC, believe it or not) appealing: annual get-together, invited speakers and respondents, rotating cities with members of the circle hosting. Ultimately, making that a success may take some time and seeing how interest in this shakes out and whether intellectual historians from well-funded research programs join up.



  8. Colleagues,

    Although Paul Anderson hasn’t yet replied, I can safely say that we have a near consensus about one thing: an OAH caucus. Mike please do take the lead on the “caucus option” with for 2008 in NYC. I’m making plans to attend, so do let me know if I can help.

    In the meantime, I’ll summarize the other conference options proposed:

    1. Start a “U.S. Intellectual History Circle,” like the SIHC;
    2. Piggyback onto a conference at Grand Valley State in Michigan;’
    3. Start a small conference on our own at Mercer (outside of Atlanta);
    4. Work to create a presence at Phi Alpha Theta;
    5. Aim high, for a splash involving the University of Chicago.

    Am I forgetting any?

    Since I was the only one to suggest #5, I will withdraw that option. That leaves us with 1-4, all viable options.

    #4, properly speaking, is not really a conference plan any more than our creating an OAH caucus is. It’s a good idea, but it’s not a full-fledged, independent conference.

    I appreciate various aspects of the three remaining options:

    #1 presents an appealing mix of formality and informality;
    #2 could save us a lot of work. It’s in the Midwest, but might require a second travel step;
    #3 offers a fresh, low-cost start up. The bus from the airport (a MAJOR hub) to Mercer seems almost too good to be true.

    I really like the low barriers to entry offered by option #3. I hope Mercer’s not a dry campus or dry county?! What’s a good conference without at least one good adult beverage establishment and a few restaurant options.

    Paul M., are there secondary travel options for Allendale, MI? It’s about a 3 hour drive from where I live in Chicago.

    What would it take to start a USIH circle? I fear that might convey what another colleague has called an “enclave” mentality. Hmm… I wish I knew more about how SIHC works.

    Are there other thoughts or reactions, now that a number of opinions are in (excepting Paul A.’s)? – TL

  9. Actually, I thumbed through this year’s OAH program and didn’t notice any caucuses at all. I’ve sent an email to the organization and got a response from someone who promised to find the answer. I’m thinking that after all this discussion, it’s very possible that there is no such thing as an OAH caucus. I’ll keep you posted.


  10. The worst-case scenario is that we form our own. We can always caucus at a nearby coffee house, restaurant, or bar. Haven’t a number of consequential movements in history (hah! get it?) happened in similar places? – TL

  11. This was not the answer that I expected.


    OAH does not have caucuses. If, however, you would like the executive board to consider establishing caucuses, feel free to send me a proposal that we can include in the board book for the upcoming board meeting in Minneapolis.


    Lee W. Formwalt
    Executive Director
    Organization of American Historians

    I do think caucuses are cool and would be a great addition to the OAH. But somehow I imagine the process of dealing with the OAH board meeting would be rather intimidating and getting involved in this process in order to get a couple panels at the conference could be akin to using a hammer to swat a fly or whatever that expression is.

    I am very willing to pursue this, however, if other people think it’s a good idea.


  12. Mike: I’d like to hear others opinions on this, but I think we should go for the OAH caucus. A nice thing about this is that we are free to pursue the caucus idea in accordance with our lines of thought. So, what exactly do we want to caucus about?! Do we caucus about creating a smaller, OAH affiliated society (like how AHA has affiliated societies that piggy-back their meetings onto AHA’s)? – TL

  13. I have not heard back from the executive director of the OAH, so I think we should assume that he is not going to respond to my questions. So I tried to get some of the information in other ways.

    One organization that I thought we could model ourselves on institutionally is the Society for the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. They are bigger than we are probably ever going to be, having their own journal and listerv on H-Net, and sponsoring panels at OAH and AHA. As big as they are, though, I don’t think as an organization they have much presence outside of the two major history conferences. At the AHA they are an “affiliated society,” but we would generally prefer OAH. So I just sent an email to someone at SHGAPE with the rather odd question: “what is your institutional affiliation with the OAH?” Hopefully, whatever they have, we can apply for. If not, I’ll try to write up a proposal to start caucuses at OAH, because we cannot start one in intellectual history without them actually existing.

    The other question I have is, of course, what exactly is a caucus? I have a friend who just started a “science and technology” caucus at the American Studies Association. So I sent her an email asking her what the ins and out are of that, and hope to hear from her soon. In the meantime, however, I’ve pasted below the information from the ASA’s website on how caucuses work at that organization. If this is a standard model, it looks like caucuses don’t get to do all that much. On the other hand, we don’t really need anything right now that does do all that much.

    I’ll let you know when I get some of these responses. The ASA information is below.


    Caucus Participation

    All caucuses must be registered with the ASA to receive association benefits that include: Publishing articles in the ASA Newsletter; building webpages at Crossroads; linking to ASA webpages, being listed on the ASA Caucus Page; and sponsoring meetings, receptions, and panels at the Annual Meeting (subject to existing policies and procedures). However, caucuses may not receive funds from the association. Nor are caucuses entitled to slots on the boards, committees, and task forces of the organization.

    Annual Meeting Submissions

    Caucuses are encouraged to submit multiple session proposals for the annual meeting (subject to existing policies and procedures). They may, however, officially sponsor only one session. If the program committee approves their session proposal(s), the caucus may be listed in the official program book as the session sponsor for one session. Caucuses are not entitled to an automatic slot on annual convention programs. Caucuses may request social and professional space at the annual meeting on a space-available, first-come, first served basis.

  14. Mike: I think I speak for the group in appreciating your ongoing efforts here.

    I checked into the “institutional affiliation” thing a few weeks back in a totally separate matter. In applying for an AHA panel, I thought perhaps HES might be able to “sponsor” our history of higher education panel proposal. After some correspondence with AHA it turned out that sponsors had to be affiliates, and HES isn’t presently an affiliate.

    I relay this anecdote because it correlates with your SGAPE example. Forming a society and affiliating it, whether with AHA or OAH, clearly increases the chances of panels being accepted at AHA. In sum, I look forward to your passing on SGAPE’s reply. -TL

  15. Just heard back from Jack Blocker at SHGAPE, who was very helpful. It turns out that SHGAPE is an affiliated society of OAH. But there are very few such societies there. I sort of get the impression that there haven’t been any new ones for a long time and maybe OAH has kind of forgotten that they do this.

    But if there are rules on the books, they can dust them off and use them to apply to us.

    In my earlier correspondence with OAH, I had raised the possibility of being an affiliated society in my earlier correspondence with OAH. That, however, opens a new can of worms. A caucus is just a loosely affiliated group of like-minded people, while an affiliated society is an actual organization. In other words, we’d actually have to found such a group, and perhaps institute such things as dues and officers. Are we ready to do something along those lines?

    Personally, I think it’s something we might take seriously. In my view, an organization makes sense to me as our first major undertaking–doing a conference or (God forbid!) journal first might be putting the cart before the horse. The big question I would have boils down to how small the organization can be while sustaining its existence and satisfying the OAH.

    In my prevous correspondence, I have already asked the OAH about affiliated societies. I never got a response. But now I know that they exist, I will return to them with the more pointed question, “How does one become an affiliated society?” Their answer and requirements might determine whether or not it’s feasible for us to continue down this road.

  16. Just heard from OAH that all such relationships with other organizations are unofficial in nature. So it seems to me that we could a) start some kind of low-key organization, b) petition the OAH to form caucuses so that we could become one, or c) look to the AHA or another umbrella organization.

    What do you think?

  17. Colleagues,

    So, we currently have two, potentially three options – per Mike’s note above.

    We need to organize somehow, which involves record-keeping and a definite structure. This will be a big commitment by whoever takes the lead. I admit that I’m somwhat daunted by the task. Do we have the will power, acumen, and resources to do it?

    But as for affiliating with organizations, we may have one more option: What of ‘The Historical Society’? What do we know about it? They’re “young” as an organization and likely flexible, methinks. Perhaps we want to caucus with them? Their next meeting is in May 2008 (they meet biannually).

    – Tim

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