Tag Archives: UHA Conference

Member of the Week: Robin Waites

Robin Waites Dec 2016_1Robin Waites

Executive Director

Historic Columbia

@RobinWaites

@HistColumbia

Describe what you’re currently working on at Historic Columbia. What projects are currently keeping you occupied?

Over the last five years Historic Columbia has been engaged in a complete overhaul of the interpretive frame and content delivery at four of the six historic sites that we manage. Our goals include ensuring that all individuals associated with a site are represented in the narrative and that visitors are challenged to think more critically about the past in new ways. In 2014 we opened the only museum dedicated to the Reconstruction Era inside the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. Here visitors experience South Carolina’s capital city from 1869 through 1873, through the eyes of a teenage Wilson and consider how his experience in Columbia influenced his public policy as president. In May we re-opened the Hampton-Preston Mansion with a tour narrative that places the lives and stories of the enslaved individuals as equal to that of the white owners.

What is one of your favorite examples of public history work that Historic Columbia has done, and why?

I’ve been at Historic Columbia for 16 years so its hard to select just one, but I’d say among my favorites has been the urban archaeological investigation at the Mann-Simons Site, which was owned and occupied by the same African American family from the late 1830s to 1970. This effort started in 2006 as the master’s project of an anthropology student, Jakob Crockett (now Ph.D.). Today one small residence stands on the property, but historically the site was a complex that included a grocery store, lunch counter, and residential units that housed both family members and renters. The excavation uncovered the footings for each of the buildings, as well as close to 60,000 artifacts that allowed Dr. Crockett and, subsequently, Historic Columbia staff to completely shift the interpretation at the site. These former buildings are now represented by metal “ghost structures” that comprise the basis for an outdoor museum.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m currently reading Blood in the Water in preparation for the plenary session that includes income UHA president Heather Ann Thompson. Other works that have been enlightening to me in gaining insight into South Carolina’s complex past include Tom Brown’s Civil War Canon and Katherine Chaddock’s Uncompromising Activist.

What advice do you have for urban historians who want to work with the public but might not know where to start?

Just reach out to your local museums and preservation organizations! We are often generalists trying to get information to the public. You likely have more in-depth content knowledge and are more abreast of current scholarship that can be utilized to enhance and often drive interpretive changes at museums and historic sites. We can be a platform for you to share your research and provide access to a broader population. We are also a great resource for your students!

What historic site in Columbia do you hope that UHA 2018 conference attendees make a point to go see? What is not to be missed?

Of course I hope that attendees with visit the house museums that Historic Columbia manages, particularly Hampton-Preston, Mann-Simons and the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, which experienced the aforementioned interpretive and physical upgrades. The conference tours are a great way to experience local history, but taking a walk on the Statehouse grounds or through the historic campus of the University of South Carolina will prove to be both informative and restorative. Our Main Street is experiencing a renaissance, particularly in the 1500 and 1600 blocks where Reconstruction-era buildings are being adaptively re-used for locally-owned restaurants, a bowling alley, art house move theater and more.

 

Coming to Columbia, S.C.: #UHA2018

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Urban History Association. Born in Cincinnati amidst the systematic disinvestment in the nation’s cities and the “greed is good” coda of Wall Street, the UHA could have become a dour professional organization hosting the occasional pedantic and scolding conference–after all, one could argue the nation has mistreated its cities for decades (if not from its founding). Yet, as someone who has been attending since 2010, the UHA conference is anything but intemperate, boring, or insufferable. It’s incredibly suffrable, in fact. I’d argue it’s eminently enjoyable.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a passionate affair. People have plenty to say, none of it boilerplate. Sure, on occasion as a profession we can be a bit “jargony.” When the conference was in Las Vegas, I tried to lay a prop bet on the over/under for the number of times the phrase “built environment” would be used. Needless to say, the first problem came when the casino asked me what I meant by “built environment” at which I point, looking around I, arms akimbo, said, “you know … the built environment.” Understandably, all bets were off. The larger point is the UHA always delivers impassioned, informed, and insightful discussions about the world’s cities and suburbs. Here’s a link to the program for the UHA’s 9th Biennial Conference: Cities at the Crossroads. You’ll find vastly more detail about registration, tours, and of course, the main event, the panels.

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Eckerds Drug sign, Main Street, Columbia, South Carolina, photograph by John Margolies, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For all you social media types, the organization will be using the hashtag #UHA2018. In the words of Pusha T, “If you know, you know.” Please do tweet from, about, and at the conference with this hashtag. Don’t let an inability to attend stop you from entering the fray; we welcome comments from our urban diaspora as well as the proverbial peanut gallery (I’m looking at you Dinesh D’Souza). The Alumni Center at the conference will dedicate two screens to broadcasting #UHA2018 which will enable everyone in proximity to watch the hashtag in real time. In other words, in addition to your innumerable twitter followers, your tweets will have an analog audience. In all seriousness, we want to foster debate and an exchange of ideas in Columbia and in the internet ether. The cloud envelops us, let’s envelop it.

If you are attending, we’ve listed the social events and their locations below. Also if you haven’t had a chance to dig into the history of Columbia S.C., why not check out our January Metro of the Month, Columbia. Jessica Elfenbein (University of South Carolina) and Robin Waites put together a murder’s row of contributors: Sid Bedingfield, Lydia Brandt, Thomas Brown, Jill Found, Robert Greene, and John Sherrer. The posts touch on issues from the past and present including an overview of Columbia’s history, the “problem of Confederate Memorials,” a history of Jack, an enslaved person at South Carolina College, a short history of the Congaree National Park, an accounting of the critical role played by the Black press in Columbia, and the rise of the city’s mid-century modern architecture. We’ve provided links to each of their pieces below as well. We hope to see all of you there in person, and if you can’t bring your corporeal body to Columbia, your twitter persona will do. Welcome to #UHA2018 everyone!

John Sherrer: Capital on the Congaree: A Bibliography for Columbia, S.C.

Robert Greene: Congaree National Park: Gateway to a Historical Legacy

Sid Bedingfield: Printing the Good Fight: The Importance of Black Newspapers in Columbia, S.C.

Thomas J. Brown: The Problem of Confederate Memorials

Lydia Mattice Brandt: The City Bureaucracy Built: Columbia’s Mid-Century Moment

Jill Found: Jack at South Carolina College: Remembering Enslaved People in Columbia

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The African American History Monument, completed in 2001 on the state capitol grounds in Columbia, the capital city of South Carolina,  photography by Carol M. Highsmith, May 7, 2017, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

UHA Social Events

Thursday, October 18:

5:00-7:00 PM – OPENING RECEPTION. University of South Carolina President’s House (on the University of South Carolina Horseshoe).

Friday, October 19:

6:15-7:15 AM – RUNNING TOUR: “Historic Columbia.” Departs from in front of the Hilton Columbia Center; no pre-registration required.

5:15-6:45 PM – RECEPTION. Hunter-Gatherer Brewery at the Curtiss-Wright Hangar (1402 Jim Hamilton Boulevard). Free buses will depart from in front of the Hilton Columbia Center to the Reception and Gala Banquet beginning at 5:00 pm.

7:00-9:00 PM – GALA BANQUET, AWARDS, AND PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS. City Roots (1005 Airport Blvd., across the street from the Hunter-Gatherer Brewery). Free buses will depart from in front of the Hilton Columbia Center to the Reception and Gala Banquet beginning at 5:00 pm.

Saturday, October 20: 6:00-7:00 PM – RECEPTION. Richland Library (1431 Assembly Street).

 

Featured image (at top): Gateway to the mansion known as the “Robert Mills House” in Columbia, the capital city of South Carolina, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, May 7, 2017, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

 

Member of the Week: Jessica Elfenbein

unnamedJessica Elfenbein

Professor of History

University of South Carolina

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I’m working on a community study of a now-disappeared place called Ferguson, SC. In the decades following Reconstruction, Chicago lumbermen Benjamin F. Ferguson (1840-1905) and Francis Beidler (1854-1924) made their way to South Carolina, acquired–at bargain prices–significant land (eventually totaling more than 200,000 acres), and began Santee River Cypress Lumber Company (SRCLC). The forest products the company generated were part of an international flow of commodities and helped make personal fortunes, national taste in home furnishings, and the town of Ferguson, South Carolina itself. Built out of the swamp as headquarters for SRCLC (one of the South’s largest lumber enterprises), Ferguson thrived as a company town for more than a quarter century. At its peak as many as 2,500 people from around the world lived and worked there, including local farmers who recast themselves as industrial workers, lumber experts who relocated from the North and Midwest, and Greek and Italian immigrants recruited by labor agents at Ellis Island.

Abandoned by SRCLC in the late 1910s, two decades later Ferguson became part of a New Deal rural electrification and public works project. The damning of the Santee River to build Lakes Marion and Moultrie, then the largest land clearance project on record, required the labor of 12,670 workers and caused the dislocation of 901 African American families. Lake Marion became the final resting place for the town of Ferguson which has now been submerged along the southwestern shore of South Carolina’s largest lake for more than 70 years.

Collaborative work on a Historic Resource Survey for Congaree National Park led me to this topic. The unexpected ties between largely rural South Carolina and cities like Chicago and NYC in the production of commodities, human capital, and philanthropy are fascinating. I am also interested in the environmental and communal costs of this infrastructure project.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

After 10 years working in university administration, I returned to the faculty last year. I’m teaching Urban History, Public History, and the American History Survey. Next semester I’ll teach our undergraduate historical methods course for the first time. I have always liked the symbiosis of teaching and research. This semester my students and I are researching the residents of Ferguson in 1910 and following their moves to and from the lumber town.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m just starting Brian McCammack’s Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago. His reconceptualization of the Great Migration looks fantastic.

Recently I have been reading a lot about logging, the history of the lumber industry, and company towns.

My most recent article (with Elise Hagesfeld) is “Philanthropic Funds in Baltimore” in Hammack and Smith, eds., American Philanthropic Foundations: Regional Difference and Change, Indiana University Press, 2018.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

Invite yourself to the party! Historians have so much of value to add to all kinds of urban and civic projects. My experience is that if you expect to be invited you will miss out. Instead you need to know what’s going on in the places in which you have interest and then find ways to get involved. This is especially true for those of us who study urban topics. Our work is relevant but it’s on us to demonstrate our worth. Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst that will happen is that you’ll end up exactly where you started. A little moxie and a lot of imagination are tools young scholars need. Flexibility helps, too.

Were there any places or local businesses that you discovered in Columbia, and might not have otherwise, through serving on the Local Arrangments Committee for UHA 2018? Did the experience influence the way you look at the city you call home?

After nearly 20 years in Baltimore, I moved to USC and Columbia, SC about seven years ago. I was a relative newcomer here when I answered the RFP to serve as host for UHA 2018. I knew there was a lot in Columbia and as Local Arrangements co-chair, I have learned much more about this place that delights and confounds expectations. For example, USC’s GLTBQ archival collection is the second largest in the Southeast. It has great material for all kinds of projects.

I have also been pleasantly surprised by the excellent service the UHA has received from ExperienceColumbiaSC, our convention and visitors’ bureau.

Finally, I suspected that Historic Columbia would be a great partner to the UHA, but again, my expectations have been exceeded by the dedication and commitment of Executive Director (and Local Arrangements co-chair) Robin Waites and her staff. I’m no sports fan, but I know for sure that they “punch above their weight.”

Member of the Week: LaDale Winling

Ladale WinlingLaDale Winling

Associate Professor, Department of History

Virginia Tech

@lwinling

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently researching real estate and segregation in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. From this milieu, in the midst of the Great Migration and in wake of the 1919 race riot, emerged new real estate practices, new public policy such as HOLC’s redlining, and a new electoral viability of African Americans with the election of Congressmen such as Oscar DePriest, Arthur Mitchell, and William Dawson. My collaborative work with the Mapping Inequality team, the inspiring scholarship by Margaret Garb, David Freund, and Carl Nightingale, and the time I spent in Chicago in graduate school led me to this topic. Chicago is a well-studied city but I think there are new stories to be told about the city, its institutions, and its people.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach digital history and public history at Tech, and I am contributing to a minor called Data in Social Context. This involves teaching math and science types to bring humanistic values to their use and understanding of data, and teaching humanists how to work with data tools. It is important to keep building skills into history programs, and to make sure historians can use a wide array of tools and resources in our scholarship.  As part of this effort, I am currently teaching an undergrad class in which students will choose a Congressional district and conduct research on the demographics and geography, the electoral history, current campaign coverage, and current polling, then make an election forecast just before midterm election in November. We’ll learn about the history of the U.S. census and the history of public opinion polling along the way, as well as how to read polls critically.  It brings together my interests in political history, spatial history, and bringing historical context to current events.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

A team at the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab is about to launch the first phase of a new history of Congressional elections in early October as part of the American Panorama digital atlas. By the time it’s all out, we’ll have have created an interactive mapping tool like you see for recent elections on major sites like the New York Times, as well as a large dataset of every House and Senate election result for researchers. Our goal is to contribute to work on grassroots political history by connecting Congress and the American voting public more directly in our political history.

In terms of books, I’m excited to see work in progress on racial capitalism by Destin Jenkins and Nathan Connolly, which will make important revisions in the way we think about the history of capitalism. I just met Nikole Hannah-Jones and am going to find it hard to wait for her book on segregation in education. As for recent books, I’m also looking forward to reading Timothy Lombardo’s new book on Frank Rizzo, Blue Collar Conservatism, and to pick up Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I have one fundamental piece of advice: study a topic that you love, and that makes your heart sing, but keep a pragmatic consideration about developing transferable skills and opportunities to gain experience in non-academic venues. Learn GIS, as I did in graduate school, or get experience in writing and administering grants, or hone your prose in writing for public audiences, or work on an exhibit at a local museum, and most of all, learn how to pitch yourself. The academic job market is a difficult one, and while a tenure-track job is a great option, it is not the be-all and end-all of higher education or graduate school. There are many different ways to make a rewarding living and to use your knowledge to help improve humanity.

What are you most excited about for UHA 2018?

I am most excited about sitting in on some sessions at UHA. I have loved UHA from the beginning of grad school (my first conference was Milwaukee 2004) because I get so much energy and inspiration from learning about the new work people are doing and from catching up with old friends. It has been quite rewarding, through planning, to help move the conference and, potentially, the field in new directions. Now I’m just looking forward to being part of that fundamental process of sharing ideas, of hearing and responding to new research in progress.

Member of the Week: Elaine Lewinnek

Lewinnek headshotElaine Lewinnek

Professor of American Studies

California State University, Fullerton

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

At the UHA meeting in Philadelphia, I was enthusing to Laura Barraclough about her book, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, which takes insights from urban historians and radical geographers, presenting them in an appealing guidebook format that is open-ended and wonderfully teachable. “You need another guidebook for Orange County,” I gushed to Laura, since Orange County is the county I teach in, is heavily touristed, and may be even more amnesiac than Los Angeles is about its own fascinating history.

“You’re right,” Laura responded, “We do need a People’s Guide to Orange County, and you should write it.” Laura Barraclough, Laura Pulido, and Wendy Cheng — the co-authors of the original People’s Guide to Los Angeles — are now working with University of California Press as series editors for People’s Guides. Because of that conversation in between sessions at a UHA conference, I am now working on A People’s Guide to Orange County along with my co-authors Gustavo Arellano and Thuy Vo Dang.

We are excited to tell Orange County’s full story. Orange County is a space of segregation and resistance to segregation, privatizations and the struggle for public space, too-often-forgotten labor disputes, politicized religions, global Cold War migrations, and efforts for environmental justice. Memorably, Ronald Reagan called Orange County the place “where all the good Republicans go to die,” but it is also the place where working-class immigrants live and work in its military-industrial and tourist-service economies. There are many urban histories to tell here. After I spoke about this project at the UHA meeting in Chicago, The Metropole co-editor Ryan Reft interviewed me and Thuy over at KCET.

What strikes me now is how UHA conferences led me to this project and how much they deepened it. I hope others find our upcoming UHA conference as inspiring.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach in an American Studies department where my courses include urban histories of suburbs, Los Angeles, southern California, and a class called “Race, Sex, and the City.” I also teach classes about cultural-studies topics like “The American Dream,” U.S. history, California cultures, public memory, and cultural studies theory and method. My students’ enormous appetite for learning the stories that surround the places they know certainly feeds into my current project, which, in return, enriches my teaching. In a U.S. history survey course, there is a dramatic difference between telling students that lynchings happened all across the United States and telling students precisely where the nearest lynching tree is.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

See my answer to question 5. Serving on the UHA 2018 conference program committee really shaped what I’m excited to read in the future.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Congratulations for choosing something that matters so crucially. You happen to be entering one of the friendliest fields I know of in academia, perhaps because we tend to feel there is room for each of us to study different cities, but also because the elders of this field – Richard Harris, Dolores Hayden, Kenneth Jackson, Tom Sugrue, and so many others – are each wonderfully decent people. I did not get to meet Arnold Hirsch, but our upcoming UHA conference includes a panel addressing his legacy and I have been struck by how many people describe him as a mensch. You have entered a field of mensches. Welcome.

Serving on a conference program committee sounds like a great way to read the temperature of a subfield. What were your big take-aways from reviewing all the panels and proposals for UHA 2018 in Columbia?

Great question. Right now, we’re making many small corrections to the conference program, so my latest insight is surprise at the number of people whose institutional affiliations have changed since they submitted their proposals. I would like to think this is a sign of universities eager to hire urban historians, but I am afraid it may be a sign of the precariousness of academic employment right now.

More to the point of your question, this year’s conference has terrific diversity and breadth. There are sessions at the intersection of urban history and carceral studies, environmental history, queer studies, labor history, cultural studies, and public history. This year’s conference features numerous papers analyzing times before the twentieth century or spaces outside of North America. Our field is growing. Our upcoming conference also includes panels reconsidering urban history in museums, teaching urban history (both globally and at the high school level), and presenting urban history in documentary films. I am excited that, on Friday afternoon, October 19th, the conference will include a series of documentary films.

This reaching for broader audiences extends beyond the conference itself. In Andrew Kahrl’s recent interview about the people affected by Hurricane Florence, and David Freund’s introduction to the new reader The Modern American Metropolis, I see urban historians speaking up about the ways that the history of land-use choices and urban-planning decisions have exacerbated our current crises of climate change and mega-storms. Understanding today’s news requires understanding urban history, and we are slowly doing better at getting that message out, so I am not just excited about publications but about public urban history in general.

ICYMI: The First One of 2018 Edition

The Metropole stormed into January with some great content, setting the tone for an exciting year. What were our New Years resolutions, you ask? We simply have one: to continue putting out the kind of great research and reflection that makes our blog the digital hub for urban history, read by experts and enthusiasts alike.

Last week we kicked off our first Metropolis of the Month for 2018 with John Sherrer’s bibliography of Columbia, South Carolina. This capitol city is hosting our upcoming Urban History Association Biennial Conference in October, and after reading Sherrer’s sweeping overview of the city’s history I have a better sense of Columbia’s early development, its role in the Civil War, and its evolution throughout the twentieth century. We also featured a post by Robert Greene II about Congaree Swamp (now Congaree National Park) and the role it played in sustaining Columbia’s black community from slavery through the end of the nineteenth century. As Greene writes:

Understanding the story of African American resilience in Congaree is key to knowing more about the history of African American freedom in South Carolina and across the United States. For African Americans, land was power. Self-sufficiency and free labor meant freedom. All of this was proven time and again in Congaree.

Stay tuned next week for more posts about Columbia, including a history of South Carolina’s black press and some insight into the difficulty of removing Confederate monuments.

In addition to our Metropolis of the Month coverage, we also announced the winner of the inaugural UHA/The Metropole Grad Student Blogging Contest, placed our first book on The Metropole Book Shelf, and published a historian’s reaction the “new” trend among urban policy makers for land-value taxes.

For those in SoCal, also make sure not to miss the upcoming sessions of the LA History & Metro Studies Group.

For UHA Grad Students, check out the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship in History Education at the Museum of the City of New York–applications are due on March 7. It’s $30,900 for two days per week of work, plus relocation expenses! I rarely wish I could rewind the clock and do grad school over again, but when I read about this fellowship I felt sad that I’d missed the opportunity to work at one of my favorite museums.

Also for UHA Grad Students, Carnegie Mellon University’s digital scholarship center, dSHARP, is offering a paid eight week summer internship–one of the projects is urban oriented (Bridges of Pittsburgh). Improve those DH skills and spend the summer in the great city of Pittsburgh? That’s a hard deal to beat.

For the Americanists in our ranks, the deadline to submit for the 2019 OAH Conference has been extended until January 23.

And finally, we close with our customary dose of humor:

Faithfully yours,

The Editors

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.

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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)

 

Planning Ahead for UHA 2018

We at The Metropole are still mourning the end of this last month’s excellent SACRPH conference, and so have eagerly begun to look ahead towards next year’s UHA Conference in Columbia, South Carolina. Jessica Elfenbein and Robin Waites of the Local Arrangements Committee and LaDale Winling and Elaine Lewinnik of the Program Committee assure us that we are not being premature in our enthusiasm–the deadline to submit paper proposals will be upon us sooner than we think! Check out the CFP below and leave a comment if you’re looking for urbanists to join a panel.

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The Ninth Biennial Conference of the Urban History Association

“Cities at the Crossroads”

Columbia, SC
October 18-21, 2018 

http://www.urbanhistory.org/Columbia2018

The Urban History Association invites submissions for sessions and papers on all aspects of urban, suburban, and metropolitan history. We welcome proposals for panels, roundtable discussions, and individual papers.

The conference theme, “Cities at the Crossroads,” reflects the growing interdisciplinarity of the field of urban history, the role of cities as meeting places, and the contemporary challenges of urban political isolation and tension over issues such as climate change, immigration, segregation, and inequality.

We encourage submissions that explore the diversity of the study of cities, including contributions from other disciplines and from historians who interpret notions of “urban” broadly and synthetically, whether politically, geographically, socially, or culturally. The program committee welcomes proposals for innovative workshops or non-traditional sessions. Successful panel and paper proposals need not adhere strictly to the conference theme, and the program committee will pay special attention to panels marking the anniversaries of events in or profoundly affecting cities, such as the Kerner Commission Report, the Fair Housing Act, or the 1968 Paris uprising.

Each proposal should have the following format:

Individual paper submissions should include an abstract up to 150 words with up to four keywords, along with a one-page CV, including address and email. These should be submitted as a single PDF file.

Panel submissions should include a cover page indicating the lead contact, with telephone and email, and the names of the session Chair and Commentator; a one-paragraph overview of the session’s themes and significance, plus a description of the format (eg panel, roundtable, workshop); a 100-word abstract for each proposed paper; and a one-page CV for each participant, including address and e-mail, all submitted as a combined, single PDF file.

The submission deadline is February 15, 2018. The program committee also plans for a graduate student workshop and a poster session, which will have a separate proposal deadline of May 1, 2018, with details forthcoming.

Please direct inquiries to Program Committee co-chairs LaDale Winling at Virginia Tech and Elaine Lewinnek at California State University-Fullerton (Columbia2018UHA@gmail.com).