Thursday Highlights at OAH 2023

March 31, 2023

Thursday marked the opening of the 2023 Annual Meeting for the Organization of American Historians. Held downtown at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites in Los Angeles, just footsteps from historic landmarks such as the Los Angeles Central Library, the conference was as busy as the traffic outside. 

The 1,300-plus attendees packed panels, meetings, receptions, and a lively plenary, their spirits undampened by the cool spring weather and afternoon showers. While conference goers will doubtless explore the surrounding city in the upcoming tours on Friday and Saturday morning, on Thursday afternoon many were happy to wander in the exhibit hall. Here, over forty exhibits and publishers entertained large crowds of browsing attendees. 

The sessions were typically varied and included the plenary session titled “Teaching American History in Uncertain Times.” Around 200 people gathered to hear a panel of scholars, educators, and advocates discuss the current assaults on the teaching of American history. Led by OAH President Erika Lee, the panelists included Daina Ramey Berry (University of Texas at Austin), Julio Capó Jr. (Florida International University), Alexandra Minna Stern (University of California, Los Angeles), Jean M. O’Brien (University of Minnesota), Maríana E. Ramírez (University of California, Los Angeles and former high school teacher), and Renee Tajima-Peña (Series Producer, University of California, Los Angeles). 

Panelists at the plenary session “Teaching American History in Uncertain Times.” From left to right: Jean M. O’Brien, Alexandra Minna Stern, Erika Lee, Julio Capó Jr., Daina Ramey Berry.

Their discussion centered on the increasingly common efforts across the country to ban teaching on systemic racism, sexism, gender and sexuality, and LGBTQ+ topics. Panelists spoke about how we might confront these challenges directly, with scholars and educators “trying to find ways of getting in the trenches,” as Berry put it. Panelists’ suggestions included testifying in front of school boards, writing op-eds to historicize assaults on education, and building coalitions across disciplines and outside the academy. Ramírez, a former high school teacher, shared her experiences creating “counterspaces” for students, such as a student-led conference centering on student and community research. In her view, these autonomous spaces can be liberatory for students, and also provide opportunities to refuse and resist the assaults on teaching history. For her part, Tajima-Peña encouraged participants to see both systemic inequality and resistance as “ecosystems,” emphasizing the need for coalitions and movement building to counter attacks on public education. She shared her work as a filmmaker and pointed to how media can help push back on the misuse of history. Her advice: “go with the scholars, not the suits.”

Over 200 people gathered for the plenary session, “Teaching American History in Uncertain Times.”

Like any good panel, the discussion raised as many questions as it answered. During the Q+A session, attendees questioned how we, as historians, educators, students, administrators, and activists, can effectively challenge the assault on teaching American history. Participants debated the role of official public statements and op-eds, and discussed how to think more creatively and cooperatively to meet the urgency of the moment. After ninety minutes of lively conversation, the plenary session came to a close; of course, the topics will remain relevant throughout the weekend and beyond.

A French bulldog sits for the camera.

While conference-goers could well expect to engage with cutting-edge scholarship, or find stimulating discussions with friends old and new, they might not have predicted the delightful appearance of canine head of security, Weston. According to Andrew Clark Cooper, production editor of the Journal of American History and Process, a blog for american history, the dog has been a feature of the hotel for the past two years and will doubtless attend many panels tomorrow.

The day concluded with the opening night reception in the exhibit hall as well as a Dessert before Dinner reception, sponsored by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.