Hajni G. Selby is Director of Meetings for the Organization of American Historians.
The new Chat Room sessions at the 2016 OAH Annual Meeting grew from observations of attendee interactions at past meetings and draw from a format used at other conferences. Attendees are invited to meet and talk in conditions of equality; to learn, teach, debate, or discuss issues, topics, and trends that are important to them and the profession. Moderators are invited to sit in on specific topics, not so much to provide content, but to drive the discussions forward while allowing those with like interests to explore the topics through each other’s experiences, opinions, and knowledge.
During the 2014 OAH Annual Meeting in Atlanta an unplanned photograph captured Dan Rodgers sitting with former students and colleagues conversing as a whole in a large circle. This same image, of people in circular discussion, continued to occur in St. Louis. Groups of varying sizes sat huddled in various states of animated discussion and debate, pushing the boundaries of a session topic further. More than once, staff needed to interrupt these spontaneous seminars to make room for the next scheduled session, but it seemed a shame to not encourage this form of communication.
As I watched these impromptu groups grow, I realized that some attendees were searching for a way to interact with their peers on an intellectual level, to share their ideas with people who could actively engage the topic from a place of knowing, to help fill the gaps of knowledge and to stimulate new perspectives. However, I also observed that many attendees were only comfortable starting these conversations with those whom they were already acquainted. I suddenly remembered other conferences I had helped organize before coming to work at the OAH. At these meetings, we invited all the attendees to sit together with people they may or may not know and network over talks on topics of common interest. I wondered if such an idea would be welcome at the OAH Annual Meeting.
After talking to many attendees, committee members, and colleagues, I decided that this would be a venture worth trying. We pulled together twelve topics from recommendations made by the Local Resource Committee and the Program Committee, as well as Journal of American History and OAH staff; we then reached out to people we thought would complement and help drive those topics forward.
The aim is to allow our attendees to network over interests as opposed to drinks (though everyone is welcome to purchase drinks at the Library Bar, which will be conveniently located in the same space) and allow people from different backgrounds and career paths and stages to come together for lively debates and discussions from an equal platform.
I invite all attendees to visit the Exhibit Hall on Saturday beginning at 12:30 pm to take part in the first Chat Room at the OAH Annual Meeting. To see the topics chosen for this year’s Chat Room, visit the Chat Room website.