In the following days after the ASEH I began to think more broadly about the experience in Washington D.C. with the environmental historians. Somehow, I need a way to debrief myself from the event and file the most important information in my memory within close reach. It might sound like hyperbole, but the weekend was a kind of renewal for me as a scholar – a scholar who is in the “mid life crisis” portion of her doctorate: finishing coursework, preparing for the comprehensive exam, and on the cusp of the dissertation. After eight years of college, my brain is fried and there are moments where I feel emotionally and mentally dry. How can I begin the dissertation process if I feel like this? Well, the ASEH was the answer and I will tell you why.
My venerable advisor constantly points over his shoulder and tells me “the conversation is out there.” And proceeds to elaborate on the frustration of the graduate school myth of settlement. We are not in grad school to find our place. Our place is out there. So, in an effort to find this “place,” I registered for the American Society for Environmental History, simply believing that it would be a “vacation” from the regular work schedule (ok, you can read some procrastination into that) and an opportunity to see what environmental history is all about. As an American studies student, I work in an interdisciplinary method. Specifically, I combine environmental history with gender, race, and ethnic studies to an overarching American studies process. Unlike history, literary studies, or sociology, American studies can reach into many disciplines to decipher the answers to “What does it mean to be American? What is America?” So, off to the ASEH I went to discover what they were doing in environmental history.
From the start, there was a particular vibe about the scenario. On the first day I joined the group that visited the National Archives to learn about materials relevant to environmental history. The general impression of the troupe was open and welcoming: professionals, academics, graduate students, and undergraduates, together and conversing as colleagues. The following days repeated this sentiment, and while I will not duplicate the details in this post, I will reflect on the overall experience. [Daily overviews can be found in previous posts.]
There is a rivalry for my favorite panel of the conference: “It’s the End of the World as We Know it” (Day 2) and “Histories for the Future” (Day 3). The common denominator is not that they were future-oriented, but that the panelists decided to take a look back on themselves and on the field as a whole. “How can environmental history become practically applied to the needs of contemporary society?” they asked. I find this incredibly important. It may be easier for a group of environmental historians to ask this question because a primary concern in the global scheme of things is climate change. Environmental history can – and as we learned, should – speak directly to this. Historians find this difficult to do sometimes. We deal with the past not realizing that the information we hold can assist with future policy or social endeavors. Or, we know it will benefit the future, but we have been burned too many times with non-historians rejecting valuable historical information. Either way, I found a major theme during the ASEH was the need to turn our gaze outward toward the public. Additionally, there is a great need to diversify and plenty of discussion revolved around this issue.
ASEH, it is good to know that you are ready and willing to question your place in academia.
Finally, a vital element to my personal experience at the conference was networking. As a colleague of mine says, “Networking is 100% the goal of going to a conference. Ok, 80%, with 20% scholarship-related interests. Either way, networking is the key. And just remember: everyone at an academic conference is a dork just like you.” (John Price, 2015) I cannot express how excited I am at meeting fellow graduate colleagues and conversing with those established in the field that are willing to share their wisdom. (A particular shout-out to Dr. Laura Watt at Sonoma State and Dr. Dolly Jørgensen of Umeå University for their professional and academic insights!) Those with who I communicated over the course of the conference and even after the conference, have also played a particular role in developing new insights into the field. Dr. Jørgensen provides an excellent guide to network conferencing, for those interested in further reading on the topic.
Before this starts to sound like an awards ceremony acceptance speech (or maybe it already has…) I have one last comment. My advisor always speaks about inserting yourself into the broader conversation without being too brash about it. “Imagine walking into a room of people who are already having a conversation,” he says. “You would not start speaking like you know everything, right? Listen for a while to get a sense of where the conversation is and where it is going.” Well, the ASEH was the room in real life. I walked into the conversation and I am listening.