Dispatches from the AHA in New Orleans (6)

Mary Sanders reflects on Day Two at the AHA–JF

So much has happened today that I’ve been puzzling how best to approach it.  I want to spend the bulk of today’s post talking about William Cronon’s remarkable presidential address, emphasizing in particular what I think it has to say to graduate students.  Before I do that, though, let me briefly summarize the three panels I attended.
I started off this morning with “The Christian Origins of the American Century,” chaired by Malcolm Magee of Michigan State, with comments by Andrew Preston, fellow of Clare College at the University of Cambridge and arguably the most vocal proponent of incorporating religion into the study of U.S. foreign relations.  The three papers, by Cara L. Burnidge, a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, Mark Thomas Edwards of Spring Arbor University, and Caitlin Carenen of Eastern Connecticut State University were all excellent examples of Preston’s 2006 call to “bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular” in that discipline.
I then decided to change things up and attend a panel completely out of my comfort zone: “Pastoral Responses to Trials and Disasters in Early Christianity.”  I was struck by the creativity and thoughtfulness of the papers presented by Christine McCann of Norwich University (VT), Robert McEachnie of the University of Florida, and Molly Lester of Princeton University, as well as by the enthusiastic comments by Megan H. Williams of San Francisco State.  This student of twentieth-century American religion was certainly impressed.
Finally, I attended “A Matter of Individual Choice, The Lives of American Catholic Converts,” chaired by Una M. Cadegan of the University of Dayton with papers from Lincoln Mullen of Brandeis, Stephanie A.T. Jacobe of American University, and Charles R. Gallagher, S.J. of Boston College.  Erin Bartram, my fellow dispatch-writer, was also on this panel.  All of the papers were fascinating discussions of the lives of converts both before and after their conversions.
Now, on to the meat of the evening: Professor Cronon’s speech.

I found Cronon’s speech on storytelling inspiring in a variety of ways, but I want to focus this post on two things that came to mind as I listened (and took vigorous, illegible notes).  First, I could hear echoes of Robert Tracy McKenzie’s recent presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History, held at Gordon College in October 2012.  Both speeches raised questions about who exactly it is that historians talk to, and how exactly it is that we do that…and why it is important to do it well in a variety of different ways.  In fact, thinking about my affiliation with CFH and my (admittedly limited) knowledge about the conversations that happen within that group, I felt as though Cronon’s emphasis on storytelling reinforced many of the themes that have been discussed in those meetings.

Second: Cronon said a lot of different things tonight.  If I had time, I think I’d like to unpack the various levels of his talk.  But instead, I want to simply say this: I think much of what he talked about can be especially relevant to graduate students.  Admittedly, this interpretation of his remarks is colored by my own interests in the worlds of graduate students, interests that are in turn shaped by my own story of graduate education (a story that incorporates issues of personal and spiritual growth, my relationship with my history-professor father, and struggles to think about my role as a young historian and to discern some sense of calling).  Yet, as Cronon talked, I found myself nodding vigorously along, especially when he related an anecdote about the formative experience of having a professor answer a question with “I don’t know.”  My thoughts on this are not particularly organized yet, but I cannot help but feeling that his point about not being afraid to admit what you don’t know is an especially poignant one for graduate students—as is his encouragement to afford our students the same respect as we do our colleagues.  I’m hoping that I can incorporate a lot of what Cronon said into my musings about what graduate students do and how we do it.

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