After a lazy Sunday afternoon watching Peyton Manning strike a blow for old geezers, I’m feeling much too “do-less” (my grandmother’s word) to grade papers, so I thought I’d share some scattered thoughts about the recent American Historical Association annual meeting that I attended two weeks ago in Atlanta. The AHA is the premier professional organization for academic historians, and typically four to five thousand of us show up for each year’s conference. We’re a raucous bunch—not. Actually, think of every stereotype of historians that comes to mind and then double them, and you’ll be on the right track.
I’ve never much enjoyed the AHA, to be honest. The sessions can be interesting, but as a concept they’ve never made sense to me. Believe it or not, historians read their professional conference papers word for word, which means that a typical AHA session involves a room of extraordinarily educated individuals (most of whom have PhDs) sitting around while someone reads to them. Given that we are literate, a cheaper and more efficient approach would be for all of the presenters to post their papers online. We could then read them at leisure from our laptops in coffee shops or while watching football on our couches, instead of having to travel across the country to have them read to us in a hotel conference room.
But that would defeat the real purpose of these gatherings, which is all about connecting with people: reuniting with old friends, making new acquaintances, giving “elevator pitches,” talking to publishers, impressing potential employers, interviewing and being interviewed, seeing and being seen. What happens in the formal academic sessions—in conference rooms with names like “Salon West” or “Grand Ballroom D”—is not quite a sideshow, but it’s close. The real work is done in the numerous receptions and banquets, the book exhibit and the hotel bar.
Which is another reason I’ve never much enjoyed the AHA. I hate to schmooze. I also hate the self-conscious isolation that comes with not schmoozing. Standing by myself in an academic reception reminds me too much of junior high (though without the fear of bodily harm). When our firstborn was fifteen months old, my wife and I traveled together to a historians’ convention in New Orleans and brought our daughter along. On the second night of the meeting, we stopped by a reception sponsored by my alma mater. The room was stuffy, loud, and crowded, with folks standing shoulder to shoulder, drinks and hors d’oeuvres in hand, while they shouted in each other’s ears about the historiographical contributions of their doctoral dissertations. In the hubbub our toddler managed to slip away from us, and I’ll never forget where we found her. She had somehow made her way through the forest of grown-up legs to the far side of the room. There she stood, pressed into the corner with her back to the crowd and her forehead against the wall. Many a time I’ve wanted to do the same thing.
My discomfort at these meetings is more than just a matter of temperament, however—the lonely-in-a-crowd feeling that an introvert in such a setting should expect. It comes also from a sense of not wholly belonging, from the palpable tension that washes over me between the values of my profession and the demands of my vocation. Professionally, I’m a member of the guild of PhD’ed historians at work in the Academy. Vocationally, I’m called generally to be a Christ follower, and more particularly (I believe) to serve the Church by helping her learn from history and remember the past faithfully. My profession and my vocation aren’t blatantly at odds—I’d have to abandon my profession if they were—but neither are they wholly complementary.
In her marvelous essay “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History,” Christian historian Beth Barton Schweiger observes that “professionalization” is a process of “narrowing allegiances and priorities in order to conform to the rigid standards of the guild.” Professionalization is particularly a problem for the Christian historian, she goes on to explain, because our profession practices “knowledge as power,” eschewing the “deeper purpose of historical knowledge . . . which is to serve the ends of love.” She drives home her point with a series of rhetorical questions:
Where is mercy at the American Historical Association? What form does justice take in the job register? Who considers love in the array of bloodless panels at professional meetings?
I take her basic point. Considered as a whole, Schweiger’s surely right that “the world of professional history does not reward charity or wisdom.” But that doesn’t prevent countless individuals from being agents of God’s grace amidst the striving for professional place and power. I know this for a fact, for I was the beneficiary at least a half dozen times in three days.
The last three years have been a time of prolonged trial in the McKenzie family, and my wife and I are chronically weary and often discouraged as a result. The last thing that I expected was that the AHA would be a respite, a time of encouragement and refreshment, but that’s exactly what happened. It began on the second night of the conference with the opportunity to find a quiet corner in the Hilton and talk for an hour with a former student of mine. This young man is the complete package—great mind, exemplary character, extraordinary determination—and yet he’s encountered a series of roadblocks that have left him discouraged. We talked freely, and I had the privilege of reminding him of God’s faithfulness and love, and he responded with genuine concern for my family and for me. I left encouraged by his caring, and grateful for the opportunity to teach in a setting where connections of such depth develop frequently.
The next morning was the breakfast reception of the Conference on Faith and History. Among several conversations that were uplifting, two stand out. First was the opportunity to talk with an older friend, a scholar of national reputation who, for reasons that I have never comprehended, has always jumped at the chance to help me whenever he can. He helped get me on my first professional panel twenty-six years ago, he’s given me feedback on manuscripts, and when I needed a professional reference when I was being considered for an opening at Wheaton, he wrote the longest letter of recommendation that I have ever laid eyes on, so laudatory that I could scarcely recognize the person he was writing about. Before we parted he reminded me that he prayed for my family regularly, and he asked for prayer for one of his grandchildren. I felt loved.
Before leaving I sat down beside another friend of long-standing, mainly to pat his arm and say “hi” before he had to leave. At this point the breakfast was ending and most of the CFH members were scattering for various academic sessions, but this loving man asked me how I was and, what is more, he really wanted to know. We talked for an hour and a half in the empty dining room while the hotel staff set up for the next event. He encouraged me professionally, getting excited about my academic projects as I described them, reminding me that my labor was not in vain. He encouraged me personally, as we shared about our families and our hopes and concerns for our adult children. I left that conversation feeling affirmed, and encouraged, and loved.
This litany will soon grow tedious unless I summarize. That afternoon I ran into a historian who has been praying for my family for the past couple of years, and I took the opportunity to share with him some of the ways that I see his prayers being answered. He wanted to hear more, and we talked and walked and shared for three quarters of an hour.
By prior arrangement, I then met with the man who taught the very first college history class I ever sat in, when I was a seventeen-year-old freshman at the University of Tennessee. Thirty-eight years later, this man who inspired me to pursue an academic career wanted to connect with me. As we sat in the Marriott lobby he told me what he had seen in me nearly four decades ago, and then he trusted me enough to talk about the son who had returned from Afghanistan with PTSD, and the sense of helplessness and sorrow that had turned his own heart toward God.
Finally, before catching the airport shuttle the next morning, I was able to grab breakfast with a wonderful historian who I’ve known since the 1990s. We hadn’t connected in several years, and after finding out how I was doing, he was transparent enough to share about a personal heartache as well as God’s subsequent kindness, and again I walked away encouraged.
Does the historical profession, as a profession, reward wisdom and charity? No, it doesn’t, but I found instances of both this year at the AHA, along with encouragement and kindness and grace. May God alone be praised.