AJS conferences consistently provide all the elements that make for an ideal conference: an array of high quality presentations by a diverse group of scholars, excellent exhibits, and a first-rate hallway experience. The question is, do I make the most of these opportunities? In any given year, the answer to that question determines whether I leave feeling that the conference has been ideal.
Over the years, I have approached the conference in different ways. In some years, I have immersed myself in the sessions of my particular division. In others, I have spent my time in conversations and meetings outside the sessions. Both approaches, however, have generally left me feeling that I was missing too much, surrounded by treasures of which I was hardly partaking.
Lately, I have been trying to spend much more time in sessions that are far afield from my actual area of study. The AJS conference provides one of the few opportunities to encounter Jewish Studies in its full breadth. I try to experience the field writ large, beyond my four cubits. Are there leading minds who have trained my friends and colleagues in other subfields but whom I have never read nor heard in person? I try to see them. Are there smart young scholars whom I meet in the halls and who might feel supported by an interested person at their sessions? I go to hear them, too. Are there people working on similar questions as me but from a radically different disciplinary vantage point? Circle those on my program guide.
We are, by dint of our profession, specialists. And while the AJS conference provides an opportunity for us to delve deeper into our respective specializations, it affords a wonderful opportunity to listen in on others’ conversations, to expand horizons, and to experience the much larger scholarly enterprise of which we are all a part.