Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Live-Tweeting #AHA2014

Craig Gallagher

In anticipation of going to my first American Historical Association conference this past weekend in Washington D.C., I sought out a range of senior colleagues who had attended past AHA meetings for advice on what to expect. As a third-year Ph.D. candidate who is about to start writing a dissertation, I was regularly advised that many aspects of the AHA meeting did not yet apply to me, such as the Job Center, where interviews for academic positions are conducted, or the Book Exhibit where publishers meet with scholars and teachers to discuss manuscripts or books for use in the classroom.

My first AHA, therefore, was largely confined to the scholarly panels (and, I should add as a brief aside, various receptions, where I shamelessly handed out business cards and tried to score five minutes of chat with some of my favorite scholars. I was mostly successful). I attended six different panels over the four days, enjoying some immensely and others not-so-much. On the whole, I was impressed with the range of questions posed by various luminaries in my field, and – especially in the Atlantic History panels I was most interested in – the sweeping state-of-the-field discussions most papers engendered.

But it turned out that physically attending those panels and listening to the presenters was only scratching the surface of what was offered by this year’s AHA. I made an early decision this year to live-tweet the panels I was attending so that scholars who couldn’t attend the conference could get a sense, at least, of what issues were being raised. For this purpose, as the AHA themselves recommended, I tweeted with the hashtag #AHA2014 (which remains searchable).

But as I sat there with my laptop, oftentimes the only person in the room not using pen and paper,  frantically summarizing points raised via the game-changing medium of Tweetdeck (if you’re not acquainted with it, become so), I discovered that I was also attending almost every other panel that was happening concurrent to the one I was listening to.

Where I had intended to provide a flavor of the conference proceedings for scholars unable to attend, I quickly found myself in dialogue with interested scholars actually present in D.C. but at another panel or professional development workshop (or even waiting for a job interview to start). Although they were mainly reading my shorthand summaries of points raised (far more eloquently) by the presenters I was listening to, they nonetheless sent me pertinent questions, comments or asked for clarifications which I did my best to provide.

Indeed, it seemed as though every panel or workshop across the AHA program had a dedicated tweeter, whether on classical Rome or modern China, and especially the various digital history (#dhist) workshops run this year by many younger scholars. This was all fitting as part of the AHA meeting featuring the inaugural Reception for History Bloggers and Twitterstorians, which was well attended and stimulated very lively discussions.

Could live-tweeting panels be the answer to the long-suffering conference-goer’s gripe about too many similar panels scheduled at the same time? I’d offer a cautious yes, as long as the tweeter is willing to be the only person in the room typing away furiously and is prepared to spend the intervening time between panels desperately searching for an outlet to charge their laptop or phone!

But at the very least, it suggests that history conferences like the AHA in future are likely to take place in two separate but intimately related spaces: the real world of Washington D.C. on the verge a major snowstorm, and the ethereal, abbreviated, but undeniably lively world of the Twittersphere.

Craig Gallagher is a Ph.D. Candidate at Boston College, who is writing a dissertation about religion, trade and empire in the early modern British Atlantic world. He tweets at @Gallacticos87


Eric B. Schultz said...

Great post, Craig. One of the knocks against social media is that it is enriching and distracting at the same time; in other words, it's very hard to be listening and participating in two worlds at once. All of your comments are very positive but I wonder, upon reflection, if you felt any loss at not "being fully present" at the conference like you would have been with a trusty yellow pad and pencil? Or, being forced to draw conclusions/summations on the fly without being able to reflect? Just curious.

Randall said...

During the committee meeting for the American Society of Church History at the AHA I noticed the group's blogmeister typing furiously. Was nice to see that kind of commitment.

Thanks for this post, Craig. Some good virtual food for thought. I wonder how tech will be incorporated into conferences in 50 years time in ways we have not yet imagined. What would it be like to be at a conference while wearing Google Glass 10 years down the road? Interesting to think about the supplemental material that could be pulled up, drawn on.

Craig Gallagher said...

Eric, you raise an interesting point that was put to me when I was thinking about this post on Sunday. I think my answer is that I don't really distinguish between typing notes from a lecture or a presentation onto a Microsoft Word document or onto Twitter, except in the latter case I have to think about concision a bit more. Effectively what I'm doing is pulling from the speaker's argument and translating it (through the prism of my own comprehension; rarely do I literally transcribe their words) into digestible chunks that can be referred to later. This is how, as an undergrad, I was taught to record lectures and it's how I still tweet from events today. I now wonder, however, if that isn't everyone else's experience of listening to presentations or lectures

The danger does come in, as you say, when one gets distracted and goes to follow what's happening in another panel rather than the one you're physically present in. My response to that would be to say that it varied with the presenter. If someone was articulate and engaging and put forward an easily understandable and compelling argument, I listened and tweeted furiously. It was harder to do so for more dense arguments read off a page, since I had to concentrate so fully to grasp the matter at hand.

Hope that answers your question. Thanks for the comment!

Eric B. Schultz said...

It does, and thanks, Craig! I notice at business conferences I can (mostly) segment the crowd demographically by the technology each person uses to record (from pencils to fingers to thumbs, as it were). Once we all have glasses, as Randall suggests we might, I'll have to go back to t-shirts vs. button-downs.