Reflections From a Rookie: My First Trip to the OAH Annual Meeting

Williams ChurchWe are happy to have Dan Roeber writing for us this weekend at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence.  Dan is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University where he studies American Religious History in the Department of Religion. His dissertation, which is in the proposal stage, considers the intersection of politics and religion in the early republic. He tweets occasionally – @danroeber.–JF

As a doctoral candidate who hopes to find a job in the next few years, I’ve tried to add more conferences to my schedule, both as presenter and attender. Attending a history conference, and one for Amercanists specifically, is new for me. While my field is American religious history, most of the conferences I’ve attended have come from a religious studies perspective. I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the distinctives of a conference designed solely for American historians.

While the geographic focus of the OAH conference was more focused and thus smaller than the mammoth AAR national conferences, I found a wide range of topics available for conference discussion. Religious history showed up in a number of panels (I seemed to be following Dr. Fea around to these!), and Jon Butler’s excellent presidential address on the religious environment of early 20th century New York City was right in my wheelhouse. But I was happy to take advantage of discussions centered on political, economic, and social history as well. When I have the opportunity to hear from a Nobel-prize winner like Paul Krugman, I take it!

I also appreciated the focused discussion on recently books. Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God was analyzed from a range of perspectives, but what was most interesting was the division of emphasis. Kruse is a political historian writing on religious themes.  His field-spanning work invited responses from religious historians. Kathryn Lofton was enlisted to play this role, and her comments on the work were incisive, noting the problems of studying religion in history (which she discusses more fully in a forthcoming article on “The Problem of Religion in History,” to be released in the Journal of American History). The division engendered a lively discussion.

I also appreciated a common goal that pervaded the conference as a whole: a desire to understand and communicate American history to others. While the conference reached out to academics in higher education, I encountered high school teachers as well who wanted to improve their skills. I have not noticed such a focus on K-12 education at AAR conferences, perhaps because religious education is much less prominent at that level. Paul Krugman’s talk had a similar focus with a different audience: what role history plays in making decisions at a governmental level, and how historians can participate in such decision-making.

I skipped out on sessions on Sunday morning to take advantage of the religious history in Providence and attend a service at the church Roger Williams began in 1638 – a fitting end to a great conference.  I’m looking forward to attending this conference in the years to come.