HSS in Utrecht

by Jay Malone

Back in 2013 when the Society first started planning a conference outside of North America, we naturally turned to Utrecht, the new site of our editorial office. Because HSS had never met outside the confines of Canada and the United States, we recognized that this would be an experiment; it was a way of altering the variables of our typical meeting to see what worked and what could be discarded as we sought to broaden our international stature. As plans unfolded, so did the variables; so much so that the 2019 conference was scarcely recognizable to those who faithfully attend HSS.

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Time of Year

Since the early 1990s, when we stopped our occasional meetings with the American Historical Association in December each year, the HSS has almost always met in November. When we first considered meeting in Europe, we recognized that the majority of our attendees would be coming from North America, and we knew that a November conference would be difficult for those trying to juggle the conference with their classrooms and their jobs: a feat that our non-North American colleagues are somehow able to accomplish each year. We thought it would be nice to extend the conference by a day, to allow more time for recovery from long flights and to give people more opportunities to connect, which would be difficult in November. We also wanted to use the facilities at the University, which would save us tens of thousands of dollars in A/V and WiFi costs, and which would not have been possible during the term (our A/V and WiFi bill for Seattle was just shy of $45,000 US). It would also give our delegates the opportunity to experience fully the largest university in the Netherlands and give delegates a sense of what HSS conferences used to be like when we regularly met on campuses.

But a particular challenge in holding a meeting in July is that many sister societies in the northern hemisphere hold summer conferences, and we did not want to interfere with those. We first confirmed that the European Society for the History of Science was not meeting (they convene in even-numbered years), and we also wanted to make sure that we did not overlap with the British Society. We tried to coordinate the timing with the ISHPSSB meeting in Oslo, which proved impossible, but we were able to synchronize the dates with the large quadrennial Division of Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science and Technology, which met in Prague in early August. Those dates were perfectly aligned until I receive a panicked message from our local hosts to inform us that the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be holding an international congress in Utrecht over our dates and some 45,000 JWs would be in town leaving no hotel space for miles around. We could not move later in August so we moved a bit earlier, to July (this change proved to have consequences).

Meeting Venue

Since there was no hotel in Utrecht that could hold our meeting and even the ones with a large number of sleeping rooms did not have conference space, we opted to use space at Utrecht University. Although there are advantages to everyone being in one location for the conference, there are also some obvious drawbacks to spending days in a large corporate structure. The advantages for the large hotel include free meeting space if we meet our sleeping block, and although we did not pay for university space, we did have to rent venues that could hold large crowds for the plenary, the distinguished lecture, and other popular events. These factors turned out to be significant in the post-meeting survey, with attendees commenting on how enjoyable it was to be free of a monolithic structure.

Opening reception Janskerk (Church of St. John), established ca. 1040. Photo by Martin Hols

Opening reception Janskerk (Church of St. John), established ca. 1040. Photo by Martin Hols.

Will Anyone Come?

Since 2/3rds of the HSS membership is located in North America, we worried a great deal about attendance. We had spoken to colleagues at SHOT and 4S, and they reported that their attendance for such meetings did not drop off. They told me that people who typically did not attend their conferences would come, which proved to be true in the case of Utrecht, as well. We saw the highest number of abstract submissions in many years, and our attendance not only outnumbered that of last year’s Seattle meeting, it approached in number the large conferences we held in Chicago and in San Francisco.

What, Me Worry?

One of the downsides of changing almost every variable associated with the annual meeting was that my 21 years of experience in organizing HSS were largely useless, which was a recipe for worry. But the angst was misplaced, in large part because the support provided by the Descartes Center led directly to a successful conference. (In our post-meeting celebration, Bert Theunissen, Director of the Descartes Center, chastised me lightly for that worry.) Here are a few things that we learned: participants liked being on a university campus, which should have not been surprising since anyone with a PhD must have some kind of affinity for a university setting. They also enjoyed not being in a big-box hotel, the lovely walks through Utrecht, the character of the meeting rooms, and much more.

Who Was There?

Some 340 attendees of the nearly 800 registrants filled out at least a portion of the survey. 314 rated the meeting as “Very Good” or “Good” with 15 ranking it “Fair” and 3 describing it as “Poor” (8 people skipped this question). As for why they attended, 31% said it was to network with colleagues and 30% replied it was to hear history of science scholarship. Registration data shows that 44% of attendees were at HSS for the first time. 65% of attendees were members. Because it is vital that we gather demographic data if we are to improve the Society’s diversity, we asked questions about gender, age, and employment: 42% of registrants were female, 38% were male, 14% gave no response, 4% preferred not to answer, and 0.3% were gender non-conforming. Trying to gather race and ethnicity data continues to be a challenge with over 27% either not responding at all or marking “prefer not to answer.” Of those who did, 59% responded White, 5% Asian or Asian American, 3% chose multiple options, 3% Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin, 1% a race or ethnicity not listed here,” and 0.5% Black or African American.

The post-meeting survey featured an open field where those surveyed were invited to answer the following: Do you have any suggestions for us to pass along to the Descartes Center/Utrecht University team? One of the first comments to come through was this one: “This HSS far exceeded my expectations. Thank you, the hosts, for your incredible hospitality, for preparing every last detail, and for the delicious food, both at the receptions and in the break room. Everyone I have spoken to agrees that this HSS will go down in history!”

I’ve no doubt that this meeting will be long remembered, much like those who have been through any kind of “trial by fire” remember that experience… because Utrecht was hot. How hot was it? The temperature climbed above 100 degrees (40C) the first full day of the meeting, setting a record, and then broke that record the next day, creating a challenge for a venue where central air conditioning does not exist. The next comment hints at this challenge: “Unfortunately the heatwave was melting my brain and hence I was physically unable to participate as I intended to do. I think the local team did all what they could do.” One of my favorite comments was “Please install air conditioning hahahahaha” We did rent portable air conditioners and fans (over $5,000 worth of equipment) but the rooms remained sauna like.

Elizabeth Paris Engagement Event Reception, Railway Museum, Photo by Ronald Korsse.

Elizabeth Paris Engagement Event Reception, Railway Museum, Photo by Ronald Korsse.

Gallows humor being what it is, some people commented that it wasn’t the hottest days of the last 100 years that we experienced, but rather the coolest days of the next 100 years. And here is where my worries are justified. In the US, we simply turn up the air conditioning when it becomes uncomfortable, but many of our colleagues in Europe and elsewhere have no such option at present. We must redouble our efforts for sustainable conferences and we will be working with attendees to foster this mind set.

Finally, a conference outside of our usual North American confines offered many financial challenges, and we relied heavily on sponsors and supporters to help us control expenses. I would like to recognize three in particular: the University of Notre Dame for its hosting of the Executive Office, the National Science Foundation for its support of travel grants for graduate students, independent scholars, and recent PhDs (SES-1656205), and Utrecht University’s Descartes Center. When I first started seeing the prospective costs for the meeting I began to panic, but Bert Theunissen said the expenses would not be a problem, and he has been true to his word. In the near or distant future, when you remember HSS in Utrecht, please also remember that the Descartes Center was central to any fond memory.