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The Regional Conference – Pt 2

A trip to Virginia last week (more on that in a future post), problems with the image posting functions (which I have given up on for now), and tying up various duties here at the staff college prevented me from getting to this as soon as I wished. Anyway, to follow this thread from the initial post, click here for part 1.

As a graduate student in the 1990s who was desperate to add lines to his c.v., I took advantage of the many opportunities being in Kansas City area offered to become a real conference hound. In addition to the Mid-America, the fall would find me on the program for either—and in some years both—the Northern Great Plains and Ohio Valley conferences, while also finding the time and resources to attend the Southern as well. The spring often saw me in Omaha to attend the Missouri Valley History Conference and, in the past ten years I have been a regular attendee of the Society for Military History annual meeting. The Northern Great Plains is held in the upper Midwest (ones I attended were held in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota), while the Ohio Valley meets in Tennessee and Kentucky. (My colleague Steve Bourque has posted an entry on this year’s Northern Great Plains on our department blog here.) So, in addition to the professional benefits of attending these conferences, they also gave me the opportunity to get out of town, as well as revisit or see parts of the country and historic sites I might otherwise have never seen, such as the original Bass Pro Shops, Wilson’s Creek, Heilman Brewery, Corn Palace, Land Between the Lakes, Eureka Springs, Gerald Ford birthplace, and Mankato.

The opportunity for graduate students to build their CVs and get experience presenting their work, chairing or doing commentary, while making contacts with established and becoming established scholars is one of the great things about the small regional conference. At a large convention like the Southern, OAH, or even SMH, it is easy for a grad student to get overwhelmed by and lost in the crowd (and the AHA has the added stench of desperation and degradation emanating from the job register). Attending the smaller and more informal Mid-America, on the other hand, gave me the opportunity as a very junior grad student to meet such leading Civil War scholars as Dan Sutherland, James Huston, Anne Bailey, and Bill Piston, and get feedback from them on my work. It was also at the Mid-America and other regional conferences that I began crossing paths with fellow grad students/now peers at other schools like Brian Dirck and David Dillard. Attending the Ohio Valley, Missouri Valley, and Northern Great Plains gave me the opportunity to meet such folks as Bill Feis, Joe Fitzharris, Mac Coffman, Richard Beringer, Bill Skelton, and Kip Muir, all of whom provided invaluable feedback and encouragement to my efforts. In fact, it was in the course of an e-mail exchange regarding one of these conferences that Kip Muir did me the great favor of bringing the 1999 West Point Summer Seminar to my attention and offered to write a letter in support of my application. Then, when I got to West Point for the seminar, my experience was greatly enhanced by the fact that members of the faculty like Jim Johnson, Scott Wheeler, and Steve Waddell (who two years later served as my escort during my job interview at West Point) already knew me from the Northern Great Plains Conference.

It is tempting at this point in my career to join far too many in the profession in blowing off these conferences on the grounds that there is little prospect of getting anything like the return professionally I used to get for the time and effort it takes to prepare a paper or decent commentary—not to mention put up with the hassles of travel to what are no longer new places entails. (Springfield, Missouri? Omaha, Nebraska? Been there, done them.) And of course there is the occasional consternation that comes from walking into a session, around the book displays, or attending a social event at one of these things and being greeted with: “Where are you a student? . . . . Oh, you are not a student. . . . Command and General Staff College. What is that? Have you written anything?”—or see the author of a paper whose title indicates it will challenge The Hard Hand of War not do even the research it would take to figure out that they should be prepared to deal with an associate of Mark’s in the audience. (I know I’m no Ed Bearss, Gary Gallagher, or even Brooks Simpson, but, come on: 1) Before conferences I used to search like a hawk for information on the other folks on the program and what they had done—and in the case of Bill Piston and Dan Sutherland have Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant and Seasons of War with me for a signature. 2) It is not like it is hard to find out about people. I used to have to rely on catalog searches at the library and Dr. Hattaway for this information; now all someone has to do to prep the battlefield in this regard before a conference is a quick Google search.)

Anyway, I am very cognizant of the fact that it was to my great good fortune that the Sutherlands, Pistons, and Muirs of the world did not take the sort of attitude toward regional conferences expressed above. Thus, as long as there is room in my schedule (and money in my school’s travel budget to support), I hope to continue going to these conferences and look forward to seeing some of you there.

Part 1 – Part 2

Comments (2) to “The Regional Conference – Pt 2”

  1. Ethan,

    I have been involved with Missouri Valley and the NGPHC. Dr. Beringer was one of the leading scholars in my department and has been retired for a number of years. I personally love the regional conferences and find them to be a great starting point in my career. I also find that state conferences are great for undergrads., as I first presented at the Illinois History Symposium and it was a wonderful experience.

  2. Thanks for your reply, Dan (if I may). Will you be at the Missouri Valley in March?