Category Archives: UHA Business

Metropole/UHA Grad Student Blog Contest is On!

Well it’s the second Monday of June 2018 meaning we are now over two weeks into the Second Annual Metropole/UHA graduate student blog contest. Undoubtedly, many of you have embarked or will be soon embarking on summer research trips. Keep the contest in mind as you dig through archives building an argument for your dissertation, thesis, or article. Did you discover some archival treasure that sheds new light on an old argument or have you compiled a set of data/sources that uniquely shape your narrative? Sharpen your public history skills, publicize your work, and receive feedback on both from top historians in the field: Heather Ann Thompson, Tom Sugrue, and Richard Harris. Plus, $100 to the winner!

See below for more information. Send submissions to uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com. All submissions due by July 15, 2018.

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The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest exists to encourage and train graduate students to blog about history—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.

The summer’s blogging contest theme is “Striking Gold.” With golden rays of summer sunshine in our near future, we invite graduate students to submit essays on lucre and archival treasures. Tell us how you found the linchpin of your dissertation argument hidden in a mislabeled folder, or share the history of an event or era characterized by newly-realized wealth.

 

All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted. The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.

In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, the winner will receive a certificate and a $100 prize!

The contest will open on June 1 and will close on July 15. Entries must be submitted to uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com. Posts will run on the blog in July and August, and we will announce the winners in September. Finalists will have their papers reviewed by three award-winning historians: Heather Ann Thompson, Tom Sugrue and Richard Harris. The winning blog post will receive $100.

Contest Guidelines

  1. Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
  2. Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
  3. Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
  4. Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme of “Striking Gold.” Essays can be about current research, historiography (but not book reviews), or methodology. Essays that stick to the following criteria will be most successful:
    1. Written for a non-academic audience and assume no prior knowledge.
    2. Focused on one argument, intervention, or event, and not trying to do too much.
    3. Spend more time showing than telling.
  5. Posts must be received by the editors (uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com) by July 1 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
  6. Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
  7. Links or footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting. The Metropole follows the Chicago Manual of Style for citation formatting.

Announcing The Metropole + Urban History Association’s Second Annual Graduate Student Blogging Contest!

The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest exists to encourage and train graduate students to blog about history—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.

The summer’s blogging contest theme is “Striking Gold.” With golden rays of summer sunshine in our near future, we invite graduate students to submit essays on lucre and archival treasures. Tell us how you found the linchpin of your dissertation argument hidden in a mislabeled folder, or share the history of an event or era characterized by newly-realized wealth.

All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted. The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.

In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, the winner will receive a certificate and a $100 prize!

The contest will open on June 1 and will close on July 15. Entries must be submitted to uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com. Posts will run on the blog in July and August, and we will announce the winners in September. Finalists will have their papers reviewed by three award-winning historians who will be announced shortly. The winning blog post will receive $100.

Contest Guidelines

  1. Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
  2. Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
  3. Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
  4. Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme of “Striking Gold.” Essays can be about current research, historiography (but not book reviews), or methodology. Essays that stick to the following criteria will be most successful:
    1. Written for a non-academic audience and assume no prior knowledge.
    2. Focused on one argument, intervention, or event, and not trying to do too much.
    3. Spend more time showing than telling.
  5. Posts must be received by the editors (uhacommunicationsteam@gmail.com) by July 1 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
  6. Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
  7. Links or footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting. The Metropole follows the Chicago Manual of Style for citation formatting.

Poster up grad students for UHA 2018

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The modern poster, American graphic design in the 1890’s … the Huntington, Huntington Library 1985, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For those graduate students interested in exhibiting their work at the 2018 Urban History Association conference in Columbia, S.C., the UHA encourages you to take advantage of its poster sessions. See the announcement below for more information!

Student Poster Sessions on Urban History

Call for Proposals

The Urban History Association will hold its biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina October 18-21, 2018. The conference will feature a public session of posters that present original research by students. This session will be an opportunity for students at the graduate and advanced undergraduate level to present their work in a forum attended by hundreds of scholars from all over the United States.

Students interested in participating should submit to Columbia2018UHA@gmail.com, by June 1, 2018, a single document containing the following:

– A one-page abstract, clearly marked with your name and contact information, summarizing the research or activity. It should include the title, central research question(s), a brief statement of significance, sources, methods, and activities and major conclusions or outcomes. Works in progress, such as Masters theses and Ph.D. dissertations, that do not yet have firm conclusions, are also encouraged.

– A one-page resume or curriculum vitae, including (at a minimum) your contact information, university, major or concentration, expected degree, and relevant experience, skills, or course work.

Please have your advisor or a faculty member closely familiar with the project email a

short letter of endorsement to Columbia2018UHA@gmail.com explaining the significance of the work and confirming that the faculty member expects s/he will be ready to present by October. This email is also due by June 1, 2018.

Presenters are expected to provide their own poster of up to 36” x 42”. UHA will provide foamcore backing boards, easels, and clips.

A special graduate student fee is available to make conference participation accessible to graduate students.

Questions can be addressed to LaDale Winling, Program Committee Co-Chair, Columbia2018UHA@gmail.com

UHA is an organization founded for the purpose of stimulating interest and forwarding research and study in the history of the city in all periods and geographical areas.  The UHA supports a variety of activities to enhance the visibility of the study of the history of the city.

For further information please consult http://www.urbanhistory.org/columbia2018

UHA award submissions now being accepted: Send us your brilliance!

“What is so detestable about war is that it reduces the individual to complete insignificance,” wrote the English surrealist poet David Gascoyne during World War II. Existentialism, which began with phenomenology prior to World War I and came of age during the Second World War, arose in an era of “extreme ideology and extreme suffering” notes Sarah Bakewell in her excellent 2016 intellectual history of the movement, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom Being and Apricot Cocktails.

Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and numerous others sought a new way forward amidst a generation besot by industrialized total war. Though wide differences existed between each in terms of philosophical thought and beliefs, in general they all embraced the idea of authenticity and personal agency.  Survival in this new age depended on one’s ability to “decide to live” to engage the issues of the time; a philosophical system “designed for a species that had just scared the hell out of itself, but that finally felt ready to grow up and take responsibility,” writes Bakewell.

Well, most of us don’t live in Occupied Paris, the Pacific Theater, or the Russian Front, but needless to say, several aspects of this era seem to be reappearing and millions of people around the world do live under such distress: see Syria and Myanmar for just two examples. So at first blush, our announcements regarding the UHA awards might feel slight, yet, in our own way as historians, we aspire to the same kind of engagement and authenticity that Camus, Beauvoir, and Sartre all attempted.

Camus, pictured above receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, bickered with Beauvoir and Sartre about how to move forward. In novels like The Plague and treaties like The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus put forth the idea that life and the impersonal systems we all toiled under were absurd, however, it was up to us to determine how and why we endured. “We must decide whether to give up or keep going,” Bakewell summarizes. Heroism, as depicted by the protagonist of The Plague, was not about winning or losing but rather about enduring for a purpose even in the face of limitless odds. Despite differences, Sartre and Beauvoir came to a similar conclusion: “the art of life lies in getting things done.”

Sometimes the fetid residue of social media can be distressing, even oppressive. However, this only adds value to the work done by UHA members. Every article, book, and dissertation produced is an effort to push through this post-truth age of political discourse; a grappling with who we are and an expression of a writer’s belief system even when submerged beneath historical detail. History’s importance, be it for national debates or identity, has rarely been greater. In our role as historians, we search for evidence, craft narratives, and assert arguments as both an expression of our authentic selves and as a means to get closer to establishing the truth about our ocean of municipal, state, and national history. After all, to quote David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”  It’s our ocean, drop your knowledge into it, watch the multiplicity of historical waves roll in and let us celebrate your contribution to the rising tide of truth.

Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book in North American Urban History in 2017

61+W9nLjhkL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe UHA will award a prize of $500 for the best monograph in North American urban history with a copyright date of 2017. To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the book, each containing a complete publication citation. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Submit one book directly to each member of the Jackson Award committee:

Margaret Garb
Washington University in St. Louis
Campus Box 1062
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

Paul Gleye
Department of Architecture & Landscape Architecture
North Dakota State University
650 NP Avenue
Fargo, ND 58102

Monica Perales
Department of History
University of Houston
3553 Cullen Boulevard – Agnes Arnold Hall Room 524
Houston, TX 77204-3003

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the book is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Arnold Hirsch Award for Best Article in Urban History published in a scholarly journal in 2017 (no geographic restriction)

9780226342443The UHA will award a prize of $250 for the best article on urban history published in a scholarly journal with a publication date of 2017 (either in print or online as part of a journal’s early online version). To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the article, each containing a complete publication citation. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Articles must be submitted by email as attachments in PDF format. Submit one copy of the article directly to each member of the Hirsch Award committee:

Brodwyn Fischer
University of Chicago
Email: bmf@uchicago.edu

Lionel Frost
Monash University (Australia)
Email: lionel.frost@monash.edu

Benjamin Looker
Saint Louis University
Email: ben.looker@slu.edu

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the article is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Michael Katz Award for Best Dissertation in Urban History completed in 2017 (no geographic restriction)

KATZ-1-obit-master180The UHA will award a prize of $350 for the best dissertation in urban history with a completion date in 2017. To be considered, please submit three (3) copies of the dissertation, each containing information on where and when completed. All materials must be received by May 1, 2018.

Dissertations must be submitted by email as attachments in PDF format. Submit one copy of the dissertation directly to each member of the Katz Award committee:

 

Andrew Diamond
Sorbonne Université
Email: andrew.j.diamond@gmail.com

Lily Geismer
Claremont McKenna University
Email: Lily.Geismer@claremontmckenna.edu

Jim Wunsch
SUNY Empire State College
Email: muel1984@gmail.com

Criteria for selection for all awards: significance, originality, quality of research, sophistication of methodology, clarity of presentation, cogency of arguments, and contribution to the field of urban history. Membership in the UHA is not required. All works must be in English or in English translation. Late or incomplete submissions cannot be considered. Submissions will be considered incomplete unless a copy of the dissertation is received by each of the three (3) award committee members by the deadline. Submissions must be accompanied by a single page providing the author’s current address, e-mail, and telephone number(s). Letters of recommendation and endorsement are discouraged. The winner will be announced in late summer 2017, with formal presentation of the award at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18-21, 2018. The Urban History Association reserves the right not to award this prize.

Featured image: Camus wins Nobel Prize, October 17, 1957, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Take Your Seat at the Professor’s Party

By Elaine Lewinnek

Once, my colleague’s parents were visiting from their rural hometown on a day when my department was holding an event. I don’t remember now if it was someone’s book party or retirement party or research colloquium, but I do remember that my colleague invited her parents to come along. “Oh, I don’t know, dear,” said her mother, nervously, “I don’t know how to attend a professor’s party.”

“Don’t worry,” my colleague answered cheerfully. “Neither do I.” She is one of the most graciously polished and socially adept scholars that I know. When she told me this story, I marveled that even she sometimes feels like an academic imposter.

 

I suspect that many of us do not really know how to attend a professor’s party. This may be one of the spurs to the recent conversation, on this blog, about what a conference is for.

It was not until I began organizing conferences myself that I learned that some scholars reach out to conference organizers to say that they are available, if necessary, to chair or comment on a panel. This can be a great help to the conference organizers while they work to complete panels. It may also help that scholar to be of service to the organization, to meet new scholars in their field, and sometimes to receive travel funds from their institution.

So, in the interest of transparency, and because few of us really knows how to attend a professor’s party, please do reach out to the conference organizers, LaDale Winling and me, at Columbia2018UHA@gmail.com , if you would like to be added to our list of potential panel chairs and commenters. We may not be able to match everyone to a panel, but we appreciate having a list of potential volunteers.

See you in October in Columbia.

Elaine Lewinnek is Professor of American Studies at Cal State Fullerton and the author of The Workingman’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl. She is currently at work on the collaborative project, A People’s Guide to Orange County.

The Metropole Book Shelf: Adam Arenson’s Banking on Beauty

By Adam Arenson 

Adam Arenson. 2018. Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California. Austin: University of Texas Press, 368 pp. 157 color and 17 b&w photos. ISBN: 978-1-4773-1529-3 $45. Hardcover.

“I want buildings that will be exciting seventy-five years from now,” financier Howard Ahmanson told visual artist Millard Sheets, offering him complete control of design, subject, decoration, and budget for his Home Savings and Loan branch offices.

9781477315293The partnership between Home Savings — for decades, the nation’s largest savings and loan — and the Millard Sheets Studio produced more than 160 buildings in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri between 1953 and 1991. Adorned with murals, mosaics, stained glass, and sculptures, the Home Savings (and Savings of America) branches displayed a celebratory vision of community history and community values that garnered widespread acclaim.

Banking on Beauty presents the first history of this remarkable building program, . drawing extensively on archival materials, site visits, and more than seventy oral history interviews with artists, Home Savings executives, employees, community members, and preservationists. Arenson completed the first thorough examination of the Smithsonian’s Millard Sheets Papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and the sketches, installation slides, project files, correspondence, and other materials in the Denis O’Connor Collection at the Huntington Library.

Banking on Beauty begins with architectural and commercial precedents for such works, including California world fairs and Rockefeller Center, and continues past the sale of Home Savings to Washington Mutual in 1998, and the seizure of WaMu in 2008, to explore the preservation challenges for this work today. The book tells a fascinating story of how the architecture and art were created, the politics of where the branches were built, and why the Sheets Studio switched from portraying universal family scenes to celebrating local history amid the dramatic cultural and political changes of the 1960s.

Combining urban history, business history, and art and architectural history, Banking on Beauty reveals how these institutions shaped the corporate and cultural landscapes of Southern California, where many of the branches were located. Richly illustrated and beautifully written, Banking on Beauty builds a convincing case for preserving these outstanding examples of Midcentury Modern architecture, which currently face an uncertain future.

Banking on Beauty is available February 1, 2018, but is available for pre-order now. 

Image at top: Mural “The Arts,” by Millard Owen Sheets at the Department of Interior Building, Washington, D.C., Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2011, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

unnamed-1California native Adam Arenson is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Urban Studies Program at Manhattan College. He has written or coedited three other books on the history of the American West and the politics and culture of U.S. cities: the award-winning The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard, 2011; Missouri, 2015 paperback); Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (California, 2015); and Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire (Penn, 2013). A graduate of Harvard and Yale, he has also written about history in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other venues. More information about this and other publications available at adamarenson.com

The Vernacular Architecture Forum is on the March!

The Vernacular Architecture Forum invites urban historians — students, faculty of any rank, independent scholars, public historians — to apply for the third round of its Access Award. The award supports attendance at the group’s annual meeting — including two full days of tours and one day of paper sessions — no strings attached, for individuals who have had limited formal exposure to the disciplines of architectural history and vernacular studies, and  have never attended a VAF meeting. The conference, working with the theme of  A Shared Heritage: Urban and Rural Experience on the Banks of the Potomac, will take place in and around Alexandria, Virginia, May 2-5. For more on the award see vafweb.org/Access-Award and on the conference vafweb.org/Potomac-2018. The deadline for applications if February 1. Read about the experience of one last year’s winners, Emmanuel Falguières, a PhD candidate in history at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) – Paris, here: http://www.vafweb.org/VAN-Summer-2017/4936220.

 

Also don’t forget about the VAF’s Bishir Prize:

The Bishir Prize, named for longtime member and influential scholar Catherine W. Bishir, is awarded annually to the scholarly article from a juried North American publication that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes. In judging the nominated articles, the jurors look for an article that is based on primary research, that breaks new ground in interpretation or methodology, and that contributes generally to the intellectual vitality of vernacular studies. Entries may come from any discipline concerned with vernacular architecture studies. Articles published in the two years prior to the VAF annual conference are eligible for consideration. Please note that essays published as chapters in a book are also eligible if the volume is peer-reviewed, published within the time parameters specified, and the research presented in the essay is new. Anthologized collections are not eligible. The Bishir Prize was awarded for the first time in 2012.

Call for Nominations: 2018 Bishir Prize 

The Bishir Prize is awarded annually to the scholarly article from a juried North American publication that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes. Work published as a chapter in a book is eligible along with journal articles. Nominations should be based on primary research, break significant new ground in interpretation or methodology, and contribute to the intellectual vitality of vernacular studies. Entries may come from any discipline concerned with investigating vernacular architecture/landscape. Nominated pieces must bear the publication imprint of 2016 or 2017.

Deadline for submission is 1 February 2018. Send an electronic copy of the work to the prize committee: Elizabeth Collins Cromley (e.c.cromley@gmail.com), Joseph Sciorra (joseph.sciorra@qc.cuny.edu), and Richard Longstreth, chair (rwl@gwu.edu). Please provide the author’s contact information along with your own. Note that the committee automatically considered all refereed articles appearing in the VAF’s journal, Buildings + Landscapes.

The prize winner and nominator will be notified in early March. The award will be presented at the Vernacular Architecture Forum annual meeting in early May.

To nominate an article please submit the following:

  • MS Word document providing contact information, publication data (name of book publishing company or title of journal, and date of publication), and a brief statement contextualizing the author(s) and article.
  • PDF copy of the article.

2018 Bishir Prize Committee

Richard Longstreth, chair

Joseph Sciorra

Betsy Cromley

A Vision for UHA 2018

Earlier this month, longtime UHA member Jim Wunsch of Empire State College (SUNY) raised some great questions and points of debate regarding how we organize, conduct, and process conferences, including: accepting fewer papers for presentation; rethinking how historians present research (and the context in which they are presented); and posting papers earlier to encourage greater engagement and debate. Yesterday, UHA President Richard Harris responded, and today the Program Co-chairs for UHA 2018, LaDale Winling and Elaine Lewinnek, weigh in.

We were pleased to see discussion about the shape and ambition of the 2018 Urban History Association biennial conference emerge on The Metropole blog earlier this month. The conference is the most important event of each two-year cycle for reinforcing key trends in the field, consolidating and creating new collaborations among different subfields, and introducing new voices in urban history. We want to discuss some current considerations and lay out a vision for the 2018 version of the UHA conference.

The 2018 conference, “Cities at the Crossroads,” sits at the intersection of several important trends within the field. The study of urban history may be at its most dynamic point in years because of the new voices bringing their stories of immigration and demographic change, capitalist investment and urban development, policy debates and political resistance, cultural change, environmental questions, and new scales of perspective – from the metropolitan to the transnational — to the urban realm.

Columbia Conference

The UHA continues to expand from its traditional emphasis on 20th century U.S. cities and draws participants and ideas from ever more subfields and periods. One of the developments of the Chicago conference we are trying to maintain is the involvement of the Africanists, Europeanists, geographers, and many others who should feel at home in an organization devoted to the study of cities. The UHA and the conference planners are also making efforts to be open and welcoming to younger members, graduate students, and allied professionals who are essential to remaining a vibrant organization and forum for ideas on the study of history.

The success of the last several conferences constitutes a challenging standard to live up to. One of the ways UHA 2018 can do this is by embracing the intellectual and collegial spirit of those events without trying to match the bigness, which will be hard to do outside of those major centers. Columbia, a small southern city with a thriving tradition of public history examining its own complex racial, regional, and urban history, offers the opportunity for tours, plenary sessions, and collegiality that has long been part of UHA.

Apart from the exchanges that happen in the paper sessions, one of the wonderful features of a manageably-sized conference like the Urban History Association is the serendipitous meetings and many opportunities to make new connections between newcomers and veterans alike in this collegial organization. At one of her first visits to UHA, one of us (Elaine) serendipitously met Richard Harris, whose discussion of the definition of suburbia in Unplanned Suburbs proved essential to her own book on suburban history.  This accidental meeting and the gracious exchange that followed helped create a new relationship between two scholars with shared interests, two scholars that have come together a decade later as we work on the Columbia conference. Maintaining this esprit de corps is a priority and we hope all who attend, comment, and present help bring these values to Columbia.

As Richard Harris points out, the recent survey of UHA members reveals that conferences are an opportunity to learn about new research, not only in paper sessions but also at the book exhibit and in chance encounters. At the manageable scale of the UHA, we learn with friends old and new, while exploring a city and discovering our own roles within the field of urban history.

The Call for Papers for 2018 requests “proposals for innovative workshops or non-traditional sessions,” in addition to the familiar three-paper format. We hope that historians who have an interest in promoting new lines of research and new modes of presentation and discussion will propose those ideas when they submit their paper and session proposals–-whether oral presentations or interactive workshops in lieu of research findings.

We hope you’ll join us in Columbia and contribute to this process of engagement and learning from each other.

LaDale Winling and Elaine Lewinnek

Co-chairs, Program Committee

UHA Conference 2018, Columbia, SC

The Conference Debate

Earlier this month, longtime UHA member Jim Wunsch of Empire State College (SUNY) raised some great questions and points of debate regarding how we organize, conduct, and process conferences, including: accepting fewer papers for presentation; rethinking how historians present research (and the context in which they are presented); and posting papers earlier to encourage greater engagement and debate. Today, UHA President Richard Harris responds, and on Wednesday the Program Co-chairs for UHA 2018, LaDale Winling and Elaine Lewinnek, will weigh in.

Jim Wunsch has made some good points about conferences, and especially the paper sessions. These are perennial – or perhaps I should say bi-ennial – matters that UHA conference organizers have wrestled with over the years and to which there is no perfect answer. Significantly, in the online membership survey that we conducted earlier this year, members were perfectly divided on the question as to whether we should be more selective in accepting paper proposals. My response expresses personal views, not those of the UHA, although they are consistent with, and draw upon, the way members answered other survey questions.

Jim points out that some papers are less than ground-breaking, while presentations can be underwhelming. He suggests that greater selectivity might be desirable; that some or all papers might be posted in advance and that, afterwards, The Metropole blog could celebrate those papers or intellectual exchanges that were especially original or exciting.

The probable result of greater selectivity would be a conference in which panel sessions were of higher quality, more satisfying and, if only because there would be fewer of them, better-attended. But it would also produce a smaller conference, more top heavy in terms of seniority. It would be difficult for program committees to turn down proposals from established scholars who might include ex-supervisors, and even when such proposals were rejected the senior scholars might be able to attend anyway. In other words, fewer of those present would be graduate students and junior scholars.

Obviously, there are pros and cons, and the balance surely varies according to the conference and the organization. There are some large conferences that I have attended which seemed unwieldy; where there were dozens of poorly-attended concurrent sessions; where little intellectual exchange seemed to occur. I name no names. There, indeed, I had wondered whether the downside of taking all-comers outweighed the upside. But I have found that at smaller conferences, such as those organized by the UHA and SACRPH, the balance is different.

Perhaps my opinion here is shaped by two of the first conferences that I ever attended, the first as an undergraduate and the second as a junior grad student. Both were modest in scale. The first was organized by housing activists in Newcastle, England, and helped inspire my continuing interest in housing. The second, in Guelph, Ontario, organized by Gilbert Stelter and Alan Artibise, was the beginning of a short series of Canadian urban history conferences, and it fueled my commitment to the field. Maybe it augurs well that my term as president should coincide with the first time that the UHA has held a conference in another mid-sized city.

51KxlJFuxCL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_
The book that came out of the first Canadian urban history conference.

Now if I am honest and if – even more challenging – my memory serves me well, it wasn’t the panel sessions alone that affected me in either place. Indeed, at the housing conference what I remember most vividly was a field trip to the Byker wall, an award-winning and soon notorious public housing project. At the Guelph conference what has stayed with me was the overall buzz – the excitement, the conversations in corridors and bars that declared: here is a community of people with shared, kindred interests. No subsequent conference could hope to fully recapture that feeling. It was first love, after all. But I still feel something similar when I attend the UHA and SACRPH conferences, sometimes in paper sessions, but at least as often in corridors or out in the city. The point I’m trying to make is that, for me, papers sessions are only part of the picture.

In this, I seem to be fairly typical. One the questions that we asked in the online survey of members was “what are the most important functions of the conference?” Respondents were given four options, and most checked off two or more. Almost nine out of ten reckoned that the conference was “very important” or “essential” as “an opportunity to learn what research other urban historians are doing.” Paper sessions are obviously a good part of this, but so too are chance encounters and, as a number of people indicated in their open-ended comments, conversations around the book exhibit. Just as striking, almost two thirds of members reported that one of the very important/essential functions of the conference was “to network – advancing my career and/or research” while almost half saw it as “an opportunity to socialize with friends and colleagues.” Fewer, about a fifth, also reckoned that it is “an opportunity to visit and explore a city that I may not know.” So, not surprisingly, it turns out that members attend UHA conferences for a variety of reasons.

byker-wal_632-600x400
The Byker Wall Housing Project, Newcastle, England. Photo: Byker Community Trust

Bottom line: the presentation of a paper is as much a means to an end as it is an end in itself. If program committees were more selective, fewer people, and especially younger scholars, would be able to attend and enjoy the other benefits of conference attendance. That would be a high price to pay.

But it is true that we could all be more creative about how we present our research. Responding to another question, for example, one third of members reported that in paper sessions they usually read from a text (using no slides) but less than half that number reckon that this was the most effective type of presentation. It is here, perhaps, as Jim suggests, that we could all try to think outside the text, or the slide presentation. Along those lines, the program committee for the Columbia conference is encouraging people to propose less traditional formats, but I will leave it to the program co-chairs, LaDale Winling and Elaine Lewinnek, to say more about that.

Richard Harris

UHA President

Rethinking #UHA18 and the Academic Conference

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“The play’s the thing wherein I will catch the conscience of the king”
– Hamlet in Hamlet

I have to confess, I kind of dug William Shakespeare in high school and college (Measure Per Measure anyone?). Admittedly, it might have been because he was great at rhyming couplets and the like. Still, Hamlet’s decision to stage a performance simply to gauge the King’s alleged involvement with the poisoning of his late father always seemed like an incisive move by the Danish Prince, or a sign of his increasingly tenuous grip on reality. I suppose Hamlet’s motivation remains colored by whatever baggage the reader brings to the table.

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Of course, the UHA, AHA, SACRPH and others don’t conduct conferences as a means to root out nefarious crimes or as means to determine the motivations of its participants, be they speakers or audience members. However, in the glowing radiance of #SACRPH17, which by all accounts appeared to be a great success, questions regarding the efficacy, organization, and goals of academic gatherings remain well-traveled topics of discussion; such questions persist as points of debate and worth consideration as we draw attention to the CFP for #UHA18 in Columbia, SC and consider its own meaning for conference goers and the larger field of urban history.

With this in mind, we would like to draw your attention to a recent comment submitted to the blog by Jim Wunsch of Empire State College (SUNY). Professor Wunsch raises some great questions and points of debate regarding how we organize, conduct, and process conferences, including: accepting fewer papers for presentation; rethinking how historians present research (and the context in which they are presented); and posting papers earlier to encourage greater engagement and debate. We’d love for UHA members to chime in with their thoughts on Wunsch’s comments (at the risk of redundancy, in the comments section itself) but also the larger topic more generally. After all, the conference might not capture the field’s conscience but it does embody its direction and thrust.

With SACRPH in Cleveland and the SSHA in Montreal concluded and with planning for UHA’s Columbia, SC conference under way, it might be appropriate to consider for a moment how conferences might be improved.

Although expensive, they continue to be reasonably well attended because making a conference presentation remains for many academics a still useful way to demonstrate your academic interest and activity to those making promotion and tenure decisions. The problem is that since the success or failure of a conference is largely determined by how many attend, all too many papers of questionable value are accepted. And with so many panels scheduled during any given time slot, attendance can be disappointing. Then too by clinging to the ancient convention of reading papers out loud, sessions often prove tedious beyond words.

A modest reform would give priority to papers posted in advance. The presentation would entail explaining the basic ideas and argument and how they might fit into the larger historical framework; you know what you are supposed to do in a decent class.

This blog could play an important role in sustaining and strengthening conferences not only by celebrating them as joyful convocations, but also by singling out a few worthy and perhaps exciting papers and exchanges in various sessions.

Jim Wunsch

Empire State College (SUNY)