It’s been nearly two weeks since I returned from the 2011 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, aka “The Berks” or “Big Berks.” Because this is an every-three-years event, this was the first time I actually attended: the 2005 conference came two months before I started grad school and the 2008 fell just when I needed to dive into my archival research. So my first Berks experience fell in what seemed to me like a weird transition moment for me, personally and professionally.
The Berks is a huge deal among those who study women’s history. It’s THE place to be, and anyone who’s anyone is there. The program of sessions read like a Who’s Who of Women’s Historians, or like someone had transported my grad school bibliography into a conference form. This made it a little surreal, on the one hand, and incredibly exciting – maybe even intimidating – on the other.
I came to the Berks unsure if I actually belonged. While *I* am excited about my new job and have several faculty members and administrators from grad school who have also embraced this transition, that’s not the common reaction. I come from a program in which it’s expected that you will get a tenure-track job and stay in academia. Maybe the job won’t come right away, but give it two, three, maybe five years, and you should be good to go.
(Mind you, I can count on one hand the number of Americanists who graduated my program in the six years I was there – and I’m fairly certain the number of Americanists graduating with the PhD in that time equals the number of Americanists who left the program with the master’s degree.)
That’s an entirely different issue for another blog post, but the general idea is this: when I arrived at the Berks, I worried how people would respond to me once they found out that I’ll be teaching high school.
I’m not sure you can really ever predict The Berks, though. In some ways, the event met the expectations and assumptions I’d predicted, but in others, I was pleasantly surprised. For example, most people who learned my new professional affiliation were really supportive. I was taken aback by this, and it made my day. I think my favorite moment came when I ran into someone I knew on the elevator – a professor who chaired a panel I was on in the not-so-distant past. We spent 30 seconds catching up, and when I told her about my new job, she was thrilled. “Do they know how lucky they are to have you?” she exclaimed.
After Year 6 of grad school, I can’t explain how amazing that was to hear.
In other ways, The Berks can sometimes feel like a clique. Obviously, the solution to this is to meet people and form connections, but that’s not always as easy or straightforward as it might sound. This is particularly the case when you’re a young scholar who doesn’t know hardly anyone…and the people you do know are focused on spending time with the people they know but only ever see at The Berks. And I get that, but it also makes it easy to get lost in the giganticness of The Berks experience.
At the end of it all, was it a good experience? Absolutely. I purposefully avoided sessions that had anything to do with my research and checked out things that sounded like something new and intriguing, like a panel Historiann was meant to be on regarding Native American women (and also featuring Susan Sleeper-Smith!). I found Cliotropic the first night to be near a familiar friendly face, and subsequently made friends with one of his classmates for the rest of the weekend. I checked out the Blogger Meet-Up and encountered some fun surprises there, including meeting an Air Force vet who teaches at a college in Oklahoma. I also took advantage of the ONE event for K-12 teachers and got to eat lunch with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Of course, I also scoped out The Dance, which was the most amusing and fascinating and somewhat bizarre academic experience ever. I’ve heard of Kalamazoo’s dance, but watching all the esteemed women’s historians like Tenured Radical and Mary Beth Norton (and your own advisor) getting their grooves on…well, there’s nothing like it.
In the end, I think there’s something amazingly awesome about the fact that more than 1,400 people got together to discuss women’s history. I’m curious to discover what’ll happen when I join them again in 2014, if not before at one of the Little Berks. Maybe.