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History Students Make Their Mark
During the January break, a team of top-notch history majors and minors from Washington College joined their more seasoned colleagues at the American Historical Association (AHA) annual conference in Washington, D.C. What ensued was a lively exchange of ideas, not only on a wide range of historical topics, but also on the contemporary state of the history profession.
The AHA is an august body of academics who study, discuss, interpret, and write about the past. Each year, they gather for an annual conference—a four-day whirlwind of talks, panels, plenaries, roundtables, and workshops. Led by Starr Center Deputy Director Patrick Nugent and History Department Chair Janet Sorrentino, students Patrick Jackson ’19, Maria Betancur-Cardona ’20, Andrew Darlington ’19, Sara Underwood ’19, Elijah McGuire-Berk ’18, Mari Mulane ’20 and Lori Wysong ’19 jumped right into this mecca. Not only did they explore fresh topics, interact with respected scholars, and discover new career opportunities, but many students shared their own research with engaged and like-minded audiences.
Last spring, Nugent and Starr Center’s Hodson Trust-Griswold Director Adam Goodheart met with AHA Executive Director James Grossman who enthusiastically encouraged Washington College undergraduate and faculty participation in the annual meeting. During the fall semester, faculty in the Department of History partnered with Nugent to lead a workshop about how to write a conference abstract, with lively discussion about developing strong conference proposals and presentations. The students then submitted their abstracts to the AHA in November to be considered for participation in the conference’s first-ever undergraduate poster session. “This kind of collaboration is just the kind of process the AHA encourages and we are excited for the students to learn,” notes Sorrentino.
Junior history major Patrick Jackson was selected to present his research on the social implications of the late nineteenth-century photography of George Collins Cox. Jackson discovered Cox’s photos during his Starr Center-funded summer internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Reflecting on the poster session, Jackson admits: “Preparing my presentation for the conference forced me to think differently about my approach to research, and talking with the people who saw my presentation gave me a few ideas on how to expand. Obviously, being one of the first undergraduate poster presenters at the AHA was not only an honor, but will look great on a résumé.”
The conference was an opportunity for students not only to see how professional historians collaborate with one another, but to experience the wide range of subfields blossoming in the discipline. Betancur observes: “The best part of the conference was seeing the sheer number of panels being held. Even though I couldn’t attend all of them, it reminded me of the breadth and depth of history as a subject.”
“This group of students impressed me so much with both their excitement and their professional demeanor,” says Sorrentino. “As individuals with distinctly different academic interests, they took advantage of the freedom to choose programs and interact with scholars that they thought would be most useful to their own particular interests in history.”
“It made me proud to see our students holding their own—indeed, more than holding their own—in conversations with senior historians, on topics from oral history techniques to 19th-century Japanese photography,” says Goodheart. “I hope that the Starr Center can work with faculty to foster more such opportunities in the future.”
In addition to networking and attending the professional sessions at the conference, the Washington College cohort shared free time at a nearby Airbnb, their digs for the duration of the conference. Over a spaghetti dinner—cooked up by Nugent and Starr Center Oral Historian Erica Fugger—students and faculty came together to share their experiences thus far at the conference and make plans to maximize the rest of their time there over the weekend.
A highlight was a sold-out workshop, “Oral History Jukebox,” organized and presented by the Starr Center’s StoryQuest program. Joining Nugent and Fugger on the panel was StoryQuest student leader Darlington, who spoke about his experience interviewing a WWII veteran who liberated a concentration camp. Betancur, another Storyquest student leader, facilitated a breakout roundtable discussion on interview techniques. The workshop covered topics ranging from the benefits of oral history as a teaching tool, to the exciting implications of the Starr Center’s publicly accessible Oral History Jukebox, a crowdsourced online repository of interview clips and teachable moments created for and by oral historians.
Afterwards, the students talked about their experiences planning and presenting the session. Darlington confessed an initial discomfort with public speaking. “I was speaking in front of 60 or so professionals, many of whom have decades of experience, but as soon as I got up there, I really wasn’t that stressed out. I felt like I was just one of them—just a lover of oral history who wanted to learn more about the field. Before this conference, I always thought of myself as an ‘oral history fan,’ but now I think of myself as an ‘oral historian.’” Betancur chimed in: “Hearing all these fascinating people working on such amazing projects that document people’s lives and experiences really brought home to me how important my work can be.”
This first-time experience at the AHA conference offered Washington College students an invaluable chance to further immerse themselves in the professional field of history. Just back from the conference, students and faculty are already looking forward to participating in future conferences.