I just got back from Winchester, Virginia and the first meeting of the Virginia Forum. Warren Hofstra and Brent Tarter organized a great conference on a very limited budget. Unlike many conferences, this one had a narrow focus that made it fairly easy to draw connections between sessions covering disparate time periods and topics. The sessions were all well attended and the papers that I heard were first-rate. My session went extremely well. I shared the time with two other presenters who have recently completed the M.A. in history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The questions and comments were both thought provoking and challenging. In addition to my session there were a few other papers that addressed Civil War related topics. Caroline Janney discussed the activities of the Ladies Memorial Associations in Virginia following the war and examined why many of these women shifted from wartime aid to soldiers to the reburial of the dead and commemoration after the war. Jeff McClurkin examined Pittsylvania County’s Confederate veterans between 1860 and 1870. He is interested in how the family continued to function as a support structure for veterans following the war. Finally, Amy F. Morsman explored the ways in which community organizations counseled Virginia’s elites on the social, economic, and political changes that had taken place in Virginia following the war. All three were excellent presentations and will hopefully be published in book form at some point in the near future.
The conference did impress upon me the possibilities of pre-circulating papers. Most conference presentations are works-in-progress and the hope is that audiences will be able to offer insightful comments and/or challenges for future consideration by the author. The problem is that listening to papers and staying on top of the arguments is very difficult – especially if the session is the last of three. Conference organizers should seriously consider publishing papers on their websites for attendees to read beforehand. While this may be difficult for the larger conferences, a conference of a few hundred is manageable. Most people know beforehand which sessions they will attend. Of course this would diminish the importance of the commentator, but why settle for one careful reading when you could have upwards of 20 or more. In addition, it would leave much more time for discussion.
It looks like next year’s meeting will take place at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I’ve been going to academic conferences for about 5 years and I have to say that early on I felt like a fish out of water. It’s nice now to be able to go to these meetings and see plenty of familiar faces. I look forward to next year’s meeting.