Reading the reports from the AHA, and my colleagues' musings about the value and oddities of the national meeting, I was reminded of my favorite conferences. As an Asianist, I'm a member of the Association for Asian Studies, and the national conferences are intense pleasures. Except at the biggest research institutions, there is rarely more than one Asianist per department at a college or university, and often not more than a few faculty with Asian interests. Even when there is some density of faculty, there are often institutional reasons why we don't interact more. So the AAS Annual is a blast: scholars whose work you've read and cited and who've read and cited your work; having to choose between equally compelling panels in your own field; catching up with friends... OK, so Western historians get to do that at the AHA, but it's not as easy for us Asianists. I'm going to San Diego in March, having organized a panel, and I'm pretty excited, even if I am behind on the actual paper-writing.
But the national is expensive to attend, and very particular about the panels they accept (AAS doesn't accept individual paper proposals anymore, and everyone on a panel, even your discussant, has to be unique to your panel). My favorite conferences, actually, have been the AAS regional conferences, annual events usually held in the summer. I've presented four papers at three different regionals now: New England, Western and Asian-Pacific. The discussions have been substantive, comments helpful, and even the more senior faculty at these events quite approachable and collegial. OK, it's a little harder to find people who do exactly the same work you do, but most of the papers are pretty good and people take feedback (both giving and receiving) more seriously. You get the chance to spend time with and build relationships with colleagues in your region, with much less posturing and preening than goes on at the national. There's no hiring going on, so the"stink of fear" (as one of my grad school colleagues put it) and undercurrents of competition are missing, and that's really nice. The AAS regionals are tightly integrated with the national organization, not some random outgrowth: the regional organizations send members to the AAS board, and I'm pretty sure there's a financial relationship as well.
What I'm wondering is: why aren't there regional AHA organizations? My ties to the historical profession are as strong as my ties to the Asian studies field, but local and regional historical societies seem to be very narrowly focused on US or local history. The closest thing I can find seems to be the annual Phi Alpha Theta (History honor society) gathering, but that's more an undergraduate event. Maybe I just missed it, but it'd be nice to have an institutional setting where historians can really come together and share their work and their experiences without the high-stakes atmosphere of the national meeting.