U.S. Intellectual History Blog

U.S.I.H. Conference, Take Three

by Tim Lacy

I had hoped to get up these reflections a few days ago, but this has been quite a week. On Monday I took up a new position as Visiting Assistant University Historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As is the case with any new position, the first week is filled with necessary non-intellectual tasks: organizing your office, finding the bathroom, getting a feel for the commute, navigating a new voicemail system, learning about your colleagues, and finding a cheap, tasty lunch spot near the office. I did manage to get some work in too—amazingly. But now that the first week is under my belt, I can turn my mind to reflecting on our conference.

The first thing I want to say is how great it was to meet everyone is person. Aside from catching up with U.S.I.H. weblog regulars (Paul, Andrew, and Mike), I had brief and long conversations with Matthew Cotter, Mary Clingerman, Jack Dwiggins, Krister Knapp, Bret Carroll, Ben Alpers, Sheryl Gordon, Lauren Kientz, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, John Ivens, David Marshall, Julian Nemeth, and James Levy. I tried to at meet everyone, but my apologies if your name is not mentioned above.

I was quite pleased with the turnout. Out of eleven sessions, varying from three to four participants (counting presenters and commenters), we had only one no show. In each session it appeared to me that some Great Lakes History Conference participants were gravitating to our panels. This gives me an opportunity to thank Grand Valley State University and the GLHC staff (particularly Reda DeYoung) for allowing us to piggy back. Aside from U.S.I.H. enthusiasts, we had a built-in secondary audience.

Without recounting too much information from the program, I attended panels 2, 3, 5, and 7—aside from my own. I wanted to participate in panel 10, but found myself getting distracted by my own impending presentation. My apologies to Greg Sumner, Jeff Filipiak, and Derek Oden for cutting out.

In the panels I attended the papers fit together quite well—an occurrence that is difficult sometimes in the face of even the best planning or commenter. This happy convergence seemed particularly striking in panel 2 on “Friendship and Masculinity in Nineteenth-Century America” (Clingerman, Dwiggins, and Knapp with Carroll commenting). Their papers focused on the non-intellectual bonds between intellectuals. Their discussions about Francis Lieber, Joseph Henry, William James, Richard Hodgson and others underscored the importance of “soft connections” and, as Bret Carroll termed it, the “affective life” in building and sustaining communities of discourse. The panel also underscored the importance of gender in these connections.

I could go on about the Alpers/Lierow/Gordon panel, which I loved. Paul mentioned it in his reflections below. I never knew that there were/are translation wars with regard to Tocqueville. Now, however, not only do those wars make sense, but I can’t believe I was so naive. Is there anything the Culture Wars haven’t touched? In my research on the history of the great books idea and Britannica’s two Great Books sets (1952/1990), I didn’t cover translation issues. Tocqueville didn’t make it into the 52 set, but did in 1990. Even so, most translation discussions for the ’52 set had to do with form rather than content. I don’t recall, if it happened at all, the extent to which translation issues extended to content for the ’92 set. Now I’ll look again when rewriting that chapter for the book.

One important reason for me to write a conference reflection was my involvement in the Friday evening Business Meeting. About 12-15 people attended—giving us a quorum, if you will. We discussed future conferences (including possible themes, locations, timing, etc.) and the weblog (adding contributors and book reviewing).

On future conferences we decided that annual is better than bi-annual. With that, we will plan for one again next year. We debated locations for 2009, and came down to either Chicago or Grand Rapids. We settled on the former. I will take charge of checking into whether I can get UIC to offer space.

A large part of the location discussion centered on attendee cost trade-offs: higher flight costs to get to Grand Rapids and lower living expenses (hotel, food), or cheaper flights to Chicago but potentially higher costs for accommodations. What swung the vote for Chicago was the possibility of colleagues staying with other colleagues and/or friends to lower expenses. But I believe everyone was quite satisfied with Grand Rapids, and we will be happy to work with the GLHC again—provided they’ll have us.

I believe Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen offered Madison, Wisconsin for a future location. I love Madison, and would welcome another opportunity to see that city again in the fall! Comments are welcome. In any case, for next year and beyond, the idea is to keep costs for all involved as low as possible. This makes us a responsible choice for advanced graduate students and cost-conscious professionals.

As for a theme in 2009, we discussed a few possibilities: “Then And Now,” or “Past, Present, And Future.” We liked “Then And Now” for at least two reasons. I brought up the fact that next year is the 30th anniversary of the publication of New Directions in American Intellectual History. The theme then allows for the opportunity to discuss issues in that book or other historiographical topics. But since we also wanted to avoid useless hand-wringing or navel-gazing about the state of intellectual history, we wanted a second theme focusing on relevance. David Marshall brought up, and I’m paraphrasing, the “archaeology of the now.” We thought the “Now” half of the theme would allow—nay encourage—participants to take present-day issues, people, or problems and mine the intellectual past of each. Comments are again welcome.

We also discussed session length: 1.5 hours was solid, but I sensed in each panel that discussions could’ve lasted longer. And if they wouldn’t have, the time left over would’ve been productively spent one-on-one professional and personal conversations in between. I propose that each panel be given 2 hours for 2009. Please comment below.

Thanks to Andrew for his praise on the plenary. To me, the respondents—Jennifer, James, and Andrew—made it worthwhile. They picked me up by discussing the things I left out or inadequately explored. We didn’t leave enough time for a broader discussion after, but we’ll correct that in 2009.

I think that’s it. If you were in Grand Rapids at the conference, my impression is that you at least had a fine time—if not better. If you weren’t there you missed out. But—as with the Chicago Cubs (…sigh…), there’s always next year! – TL

[Additional Note: Let’s call future conferences “The _____ Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference: (insert theme, year)” and so on. So next year’s could be “The Second Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference: Then and Now, 2009.” This keeps it simple. Feel free to comment.]