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Why do we conference? Scholarship, dialogue, and community are all good answers to that question. But as the Covid-19 pandemic remapped our lives and shuttered American institutions last spring, the Society of United States Intellectual History (S-USIH) took stock of our annual meeting plans. Suddenly, answering that question became urgent. We had set goals, yes. And we had plenty of exciting new work from S-USIH scholars to share on the theme of “Revolution and Reform.” 

We’re in excellent company in rethinking the traditional meeting experience and the protocols that accompany it: see, for example, the American Historical Association’s innovative approach for modifying its 2021 meeting plan as a series of virtual events. The question for all of us has returned us to the roots of what a conference is and does. What principles—and new goals– would guide us as we moved our annual meeting online?

First, we recognized that scholarship does not exist independently of its social context. People make scholarship through speech and dialogue, and this was going to be a tough year to do that. A quick roll through your email, social media feed, or local supermarket speaks to the personal and professional stress of our pandemic-era existence. Schools, sports, cultural organizations, and learned societies are changing, not just in their procedures and practices, but also in the needs they are being asked to meet. 

Our own membership is rethinking how longstanding bylaws, protocols, and habits now fit into the virtual realm. A moment for revolution and reform indeed! For S-USIH, this is also a chance to return to our roots, showcasing a series of vibrant panels and blog posts that can (re)introduce scholars to our discipline, and to the many ways that historians work. “All varieties of intellectual history inherently push boundaries,” current S-USIH President Tim Lacy wrote in an early blog post in the spring of 2007. That kind of open engagement, coupled with  the “ideas welcome” environment that S-USIH champions, has long made it a scholarly home for many. 

Our next priority was extending care to the membership. Sitting down to reimagine our 2020 meeting, even before we knew that travel in the fall would be impossible, our first step was to extend the deadline for the formal call for papers. We beamed out a positive message to our members, old and new. We wanted to acknowledge that this is a very challenging time for historians to access resources and produce material for presentation—and one where attending to our scholarship could also be particularly comforting. 

As our CFP deadline neared, we realized that the public health guidelines in Boston did not make an in-person gathering feasible for November 2020. But, in the spirit of the Society, we wanted to give scholars–particularly younger ones–the opportunity to share work, connect with colleagues, and, critically, to gain the professional recognition of conference participation that can be important to sustaining professional momentum.

Equally important was sustaining the intimacy that smaller, more focused, historical societies can achieve. For many of us, the S-USIH conference is an annual highlight, so throughout the spring, we were determined to make it happen. We watched as many organizations—in academia and in the arts—shifted to create or widen their virtual worlds. We hustled to plan out a Zoom extravaganza, crammed with history goodness for two to three days in November, as we had originally envisioned. We priced out tech needs, weighed the scope of our content, and thought about how to coordinate a full slate of accepted panelists logging in from multiple time zones.

And then we realized: it wasn’t going to work.

In a moment when everyone is tied to Zoom meetings and webinars, why rush through a few packed days online when we could enjoy these rich conversations throughout the year? Scholarly dialogue is critical for growing the Society as we enter a second decade, and a longer timeframe could potentially expand our audience and membership as well. “A new, expanded virtual presence struck me as an opportunity to increase the accessibility of a field known, formerly at least, as abstract, elitist, and cloistered,” Lacy explained. “Our Society has, from the start and in the main, promoted access, hospitality, and inclusiveness. Moving to virtual presentations accelerates those efforts. It allows an even larger number of scholars and citizens to access our work–to witness the gains we’ve made as well as to offer new inputs.”

So we went back to the drawing board, with a historian’s eye for bending space and time. In keeping with our theme, “Revolution and Reform,” we reimagined and expanded the #USIH2020 conference as a school year’s worth of virtual programming, stretching from fall 2020 to spring 2021, with a few events each month spread out over Zoom and organized on our S-USIH blog. 

We also wanted to give our participants choices. Every accepted panel has two options: to present via Zoom to the S-USIH community; or to submit shorter versions of accepted papers (2500 words or less) for publication right here at our award-winning S-USIH blog. We’re excited to offer these two professional credit lines—to present or to publish—while drawing in new audiences for our scholarship.

Many of our original events—a keynote address by Danielle Allen (now the 2020 Kluge Prize-winner, huzzah!), two Native American intellectual history plenaries, an academic journal showcase, a #HATM (Historians at the Movies) event, and special workshops on teaching intellectual history—have all found a new home on our virtual platform. The one-stop conference hub for attendees will be available through our S-USIH homepage. Selected sessions will be recorded and auto-archived there, pending the presenters’ consent. 

We know that talking about new work in any setting can be both exhausting and exhilarating, whether it’s a vast hotel ballroom on a Saturday morning or a Zoom webinar on a Tuesday night. But the internet—as anyone on social media knows—presents special challenges, and puts the reach of any event staged there potentially beyond the control of the organizers and panelists. We are mindful of the vulnerabilities that come with this kind of visibility. What happens at a conference panel may have once been limited to one audience, but as we’ve seen, that seems to be changing, too. To that end, we worked with S-USIH leadership to draft a comprehensive Code of Professional Conduct for all officially sanctioned S-USIH activities and events, both virtual and onsite, that participants will need to consent to at registration. We want to make #USIH2020 a welcoming forum for all. To that end, events will be a mix of public programming and members-only sessions. Several livestreams and simulcasts over social media channels are in the works as well.

Rethinking an annual meeting has created an opportunity to dig deeply into what scholars want from conferences and why. While we are grateful for the opportunity to create a pop-up intellectual history channel this year, our revised conference is much more than a pivot to video for S-USIH. It’s a chance to reflect on what conferences are good for.Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of taking a listening tour of the S-USIH community, and I have learned a lot. (Fellow organizations, if you don’t do it already, please survey your memberships more frequently about conference themes and formats, and invest in experiments. Great ideas abound!) 

One theme that arose consistently was that, aside from giving papers, attending sessions, and seeing friends, colleagues are very keen to “take home” teaching resources. We know that this will be an academic year like no other. While S-USIH is stepping up to support and encourage scholarship, we know that one way to do that is to engage in collective problem-solving about how to manage challenges like moving curricula online, teaching hybrid classes, widening the reach of shuttered historical organizations, and for some, making an uncertain return to campus. 

The need for teaching resources also meshes with our focus on building bridges between scholars and audiences hailing from diverse institutions. This became an opportunity to reflect on our constitution and bylaws, which resonate to this year’s challenges. “The Society for U.S. Intellectual History,” it reads, “advances the historical study of American thought among academic and non-academic scholars and provides a forum for its exploration, aiming also to broaden and diversify the communities engaged in this study and the approaches applied to it.” 

In other words, our mission has always charged us to do more than pin together subfields in plenaries, monitor our panels for chronological coverage, or reflect on new opportunities in the field. Our conference can, and should be, a site to strengthen collaboration, to elevate new voices, and chart new directions for history as a field. This is something a small, focused society is uniquely positioned to do.

So how will we do this? 

We’re brainstorming about how to partner with universities, libraries, presses, and cultural organizations in ways that will live long past our conference sessions and side chats. We’re eager to work with audiences who may find this year’s conference more accessible–public historians, independent scholars, adjunct faculty, graduate students, and international colleagues doing pathbreaking work outside of the United States.

Instead of a cool reusable tote bag, we’ve come up with a different kind of souvenir for #USIH2020 scholars: open-source teaching resources. post at our S-USIH website, they will include downloadable how-to guides, online lectures, primary source packet, and much more. Whether or not virtual conferences are the shape of things to come—that’s something we can explore together. Certainly, we’ve been able to gather a more diverse range of scholars and topics, simply by eliminating travel costs for everyone.

We, the Program Committee, have a terrific series of conversations in store, stretching from September 2020 to April 2021. If you’ve ever been curious about suffrage, the intellectual history of sports, Indigenous ecological knowledge networks, reception history, postwar liberalism, early American utopias—the list goes on!—then this is the time to tune in. We kick off on Monday, 28 September 2020, 7pm EST on Zoom with Danielle Allen’s keynote. Stay tuned to our Facebook and Twitter feeds for registration details.

And one more big thing: It’s free. Yes, free. We’ll be following the “Radiohead model” for #USIH2020, asking registrants to pay what you wish. S-USIH is a home made by and for scholars. We value your voices, and your support in our venture. 

Sara Georgini is the series editor for The Papers of John Adams, part of The Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family (Oxford University Press, 2019). She is the #USIH2020 Conference Chair and S-USIH Secretary. 

S-USIH will have more news in the weeks to come, and we welcome you to the Society’s new vision for this year’s annual meeting on “Revolution & Reform.” We’re excited to try out this innovative format and make history. We hope you are, too. If you’d like to learn more or offer a suggestion, please contact the Program Committee: usih2020@gmail.comor tweet us @Ideas_History.