Ashley Walter with her Penn State advisor Ford Risley at the 2019 AJHA conference.
by Ashley Walter, Utah State University
My favorite AJHA conference, which was in Dallas in 2019, also happened to be my last in-person conference before COVID-19 struck. To be honest, I can’t tell you which presentation was my favorite, or even about my own presentation. I don’t recall what anyone wore, or if I was nervous before my presentation (although it’s safe to assume I was). Rather, I remember feeling immense support from other journalism historians. I fondly recollect lunching with a group of senior scholars who decided to treat a group of younger scholars to Mexican. We laughed, talked scholarship, and chatted about our families. Since 2019, I’ve spent the last couple of years emailing and Zooming with some of these senior scholars during an isolating pandemic.
This conference wasn’t unique. AJHA scholars are always welcoming and warm to graduate students. However, 2019 was the year I felt truly a part of the academic community. I hope you too can feel like a community member while you’re in Memphis, or at least start building the foundation. For those graduate students attending their first AJHA, I have tips and suggestions for you.
1. Be present: It’s a small conference, so it’s very easy to meet people. If you have work to finish, do it in the hotel lobby where you might run into other people. Don’t hide in your room. Attend the events. Volunteer. Working at the registration table is your opportunity to meet everyone, including other graduate students.
2. Don’t miss breakfast: There are two reasons you don’t want to miss breakfast. The first is obvious, as it’s included in the price of registration. I could stop there, but as it turns out, it’s also a great time to meet people. I don’t wait for people I know to begin eating. I just sit down and introduce myself. Conversation at 7 a.m. doesn’t come naturally to me, but I do it anyway. These conversations are casual, and you’ll get a feel for which panels you should go to throughout the day. It’s also nice to see friendly faces throughout the long day.
3. Go on the tour: Each year AJHA offers an afternoon away from panels to attend a historic tour. The tour very much feels like a high school field trip, except instead of bored teenagers, this trip is filled with like-minded history nerds. It’s a great time to meet people. It usually includes a bus ride to and from the location. Sit by people you don’t know. They will talk to you! I didn’t attend the tour during my first two AJHAs and I regretted it once I finally went.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask: One of the best parts about AJHA is that scholars love graduate students. If you can’t afford to go to an event, senior scholars often sponsor graduate students. I was able to attend tours, lunches, and dinners because of the kindness of other scholars. Don’t be afraid to ask if there are any sponsored tour tickets or lunch tickets floating around. No one wants you to miss out on anything.
5. Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself: It can be intimidating to be around scholars who publish books and are veterans of our craft. But don’t be afraid to talk about your research, even if it’s just budding. I cannot tell you the amount of fantastic advice I’ve been given in the halls of AJHA hotels. You’ll want to keep your Notes app open.
6. Presentations: Show up early for your presentations and have your visual aid on a USB. Never go over your presentation time. Most people’s PowerPoint presentations aren’t very text heavy and usually include just a few visual aids. Also, I find that most people skip over the literature review and just dig right into their findings. Each panel ends with a question-and-answer portion. Don’t be nervous about this part. Any horror stories you’ve heard about combative Q&A's don’t happen at AJHA. Scholars are there to build knowledge and support others. If you don’t know the answer to a question, feel free to use this line: “That’s a great question! That was outside the scope of this research, but I’ll be sure to look into it.”
7. Clothing: AJHA dress is business casual during the presentations, but casual otherwise. Don’t be afraid to wear comfortable shoes/clothing, especially during the tour. It’s usually a busy day and includes a lot of walking.
8. Be nice to yourself: My first two years I felt like a graduate student lurking on the sidelines. And I was. That’s not to say people weren’t friendly in 2017 and 2018—in fact, they very much were. While confidence surely played a role, 2019 was different because, after a few years of attending, I really put myself “out there” at the annual conference. I went to all the events and eventually, I saw more faces I recognized than didn’t. So, if you leave your first AJHA feeling like a lurking graduate student, that’s totally normal. You are!
9. One last thing: I am sure other AJHA members have even better tips. I suggest you ask them in Memphis this year.