"My First MESA" by EdAbroad Director Elena Corbett
I’m pretty sure that my first Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference was the 2007 Annual Meeting in Montreal. It was after I’d finished my dissertation fieldwork, and I hadn’t even been back in the States for a year. Grad school decided it hadn’t quite failed me enough, and thus denied me funding one final time. Luckily I landed one of the few jobs left on the market by then, which provided income, excellent teaching experience, and allowed me to finish my degree. And it sent me to my first MESA.
While all of these conferences blend together and I don’t even remember if I presented at that one, I do have a couple really vivid memories. The first is that I got to see so many friends from different stages of grad school — people I’d first met in class, people who’d been my TA’s, supportive professors, people from Middlebury and CASA, people I’d met during various stages of fieldwork. Everyone had gone off for years dissertating in a million corners of the world, and here we all were, finishing up and becoming professionals at last. Older, wiser, and no-longer-in-academia me rarely goes to a panel these days, but I remember going to what felt like ALL THE PANELS to support friends and learn about their labors of love. It was a moment of transition that was amazing, fleeting, and sad. And it was inseparable from the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the entire ouvre of the Bush years that had been such a part of our journey together as human beings, teachers, and scholars. I’ve thought a lot about this at the last several MESA conferences, wondering many useless if’s, and wondering how, years from now, the younger human beings, teachers, and scholars giving their papers at this year’s conference will articulate the impact of their times on everything else since.
My second vivid memory is making a beeline for the University of Texas Press’s exhibit. They had ALL THE BOOKS that had been most important to me in pursuing my own research, and I could finally buy them — and with the conference discount! It was a quiet moment there, and the person running the booth struck up a conversation with me. And I told him why I was buying the books, and he asked me what I working on, and then pointed me in the direction of a couple newer titles, and then asked me when I thought I’d finish. Then he gave me his card and told me to be in touch when I was looking to publish a book from that dissertation. That was Jim Burr, Senior Editor. And a few years later I was in touch. And a few years after that, the University of Texas Press published that very book. And one of my favorite things about going to MESA, especially now that I go as an exhibitor, is that I get to reconnect with Jim and the folks from UT Press every year. If I’m really lucky, my booth is next to theirs. And while it’s hard not to buy ALL THE BOOKS, I still come away with my share.