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Highlights from the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians

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Dispatches from the OAH Annual Meeting


Day 1: April 11

OAH president Albert Camarillo wrote in the program for this year’s annual meeting that the organization “cannot promise ideal California weather in April.” He (and the program committee) needn’t have worried – Thursday dawned bright, sunny, and warm with a high of 65, and temperatures are expected to remain in the mid-60s for the rest of the weekend. In others, OAH-goers (and those still packing in a panic to catch early morning flights), less tweed and more linen!

As I noted in my earlier piece on attendance, the theme of this year’s OAH conference is “Entangled Histories” of the borderlands, and there are plenty of sessions that focus on this theme like a laser, from yesterday’s “Early Republic Borderlands: Indian Removal, Slavery, and Non-State Actors” (which, ironically, focused on borderlands which, when they did exist, were over 2,000 miles to the east) to “From Illegal Aliens to Illegal History: A Roundtable Responds to the Return of the Culture Wars in Arizona” on Friday.

Even though the frames of analysis for these “entangled histories” are not new to historians – they’re the same race/class/gender lenses that have dominated historical thinking for over a  generation – but the tools to analyze the past are changing. 

Philip Ethington, a scholar at the University of Southern California who chaired a digital humanities panel Thursday afternoon, declared that it is “inevitable” that scholars ten or even five years hence will be using digital research and digital publishing – what is collectively referred to as the digital humanities. Adam Arenson, a prolific blogger, tweeter, and professor at the University of Texas, El Paso also sitting on the panel, agreed, arguing that historians must embrace social media as means for both communication with the public and for serious scholarly discourse. The National Archives, Arenson pointed out, has been talking about integrating its holdings with social media for years; their Citizen Archivist Dashboard was described by Archivist of the United States David Ferriero as an effort to “encourage the public to pitch in via social media tools on a number of our projects.”

Full video of the panel:

So digital humanities are here to stay on the archival side of things. What about in terms of research? Arenson took the (relatively small) audience on a crash course through basic computational practices and tools – n-grams, network diagrams, GIS, and data analysis programs like Gephi and Neatline, and digital humanities publishing platforms such as Scalar. Arenson, a proponent of data collection, also briefly discussed SelectedWorks and Author Central, tools which allow authors to track in which classrooms their books are actually being read, and where their books are actually selling, respectively.

The other members of the panel, however, sounded notes of caution on the digital humanities, at least as a viable publishing platform. Ethington noted that, at the beginning of the digital revolution, it cost over $30,000 to design the digital equivalent of one scholarly article, though his hope is costs will decline as the format  becomes more standardized and based around templates. But both Niels Hooper and Susan Ferber, editors at University of California and Oxford University Presses, respectfully, emphasized that university presses do not currently have a model to monetize digital publishing. Even revenue from ebook sales, Ferber warned, is still largely projections.

Thursday’s plenary filled an entire ballroom at the San Francisco Union Square Hilton – not a mean feat, considering it’s only the opening night of the conference. But then again, the panel consisted of some very distinguished scholars speaking about a sure-fire crowd-pleaser: the civil rights movement and the global freedom struggle.

That was the title in the program, though it quickly became apparent that the panel was really about creating a “usable past” in the modern age of retrenchment, disinvestment, and disenfranchisement, especially of minorities.

Full video:

The highlight was Clayborne Carson, the editor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s papers and professor at Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto. Carson, who is an historian of the civil rights movement and the author of a book on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recalled that SNCC leaders believed at the time that MLK was following them on civil rights, and that they were the true leaders of the radical movement. But, Carson said, they were wrong to think that – King always was a radical at heart. While he was a student at Boston University, he openly expressed socialist and anti-colonial ideas to his future wife, Coretta, and he saw his own work as very much part of a broader global struggle against racism, imperialism, and inequality. King’s shift after the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts from civil rights to social and economic justice was not a departure from his past activism, Carson said, but a return to form.

Barbara Ransby brought the discussion to the present day. A faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ransby detailed the challenges she sees in modern Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has spearheaded an unprecedented effort to close 54 elementary schools, disproportionately affecting children of color. She talked about the three major popular historical narratives of race in America – progress (i.e. civil rights marchers in the 1960s did all they did to put someone like Barack Obama in the White House), the outsized great man, and the quintessentially American good guys versus bad guys mentality.

This good v. bad mentality especially plays out on the streets of Chicago, she said. Though Chicago is one of the most violent cities in the United States, with gun violence almost a daily occurrence, it took the death of Hadiya Pendleton, a fifteen-year-old drum majorette who performed at Barack Obama’s second inaugural, to attract headlines. “An ugly problem now has a pretty face,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Because the media and the city government fail to see other victims – even criminal victims – as worthy of compassion, or even attention, Ransby argued, there’s space for a restorative justice movement to stimulate new sets of values, built not around revenge and punishment, but reconciliation and an end to violence.

The grim statistics didn’t end there. The University of Michigan’s Scott Kurashige brought the discussion to Detroit, that modern symbol of urban decay and death. With the city now under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Governr Rick Scott, Kurashige said, fully half of Michigan’s black population now lives in cities that are ruled by appointees, not elected officials. The governor’s mansion, back by Wall Street, he said, have deemed it too dangerous to allow democracy in impoverished urban areas. And forget about higher education as a pathway out of poverty (even for the would-be professoriate, that’s looking increasingly dubious) – 83 percent of Detroit is African American, 14 percent of Michigan as a whole, yet only 4 percent of the University of Michigan’s student population.

Those numbers go a long way to explain why blog posts like this one exist.

Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified Clayborne Carson as a member of SNCC. He is, in fact, the author of a book on SNCC. HNN regrets the error.

Day 2: April 12

Let it never be said that historians don’t try to grapple with the important issues of our times. Sure, OAH 2013 may not have much of a footprint online or on social media (and that is a problem on the part of the membership, as the OAH organizers have been very supportive of the online supplement to the meeting) but today’s sessions showed a refreshing willingness on the part of presenters to engage their research with contemporary conversations about politics, policy, law, and economics.

Take the state of the modern Republican Party. Pundits – partly left-wing pundits – have been making hay for over a year now about the Republican Party’s problem with women, from Rush Limbaugh calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut for her advocacy of birth control, to Ted Akin and Richard Mourdock’s unorthodox views on rape and human anatomy, to continued attempts to restrict abortion at the state level.

Yet it was not always so. Julie Beretisky, Leandra Zarnow (reading a paper by Stacie Taranto, who was unable to attend) and Susan M. Hartmann presented papers at a morning session entitled “Republican Feminists: From Center to Margin.” They traced the evolution of the Republican Party, especially in New York State, as it moved away from the moderate policies of Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon and towards the unabashedly conservative party it would become under Ronald Reagan.

It’s often overlooked that New York state legalized abortion a full three years before Roe v. Wade, in 1970, and it was through legislation, not a court decision. And it was not Great Society liberals or McGovernites who were behind the bill – it was proposed by Constance Cook, a Republican assemblywoman from upstate New York, and signed into law by fellow Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller. And in Washington, Susan Hartmann noted, feminist Republicans successfully pressured Richard Nixon into supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and commissioning a women’s issues task force that would, in theory, prove to be a breeding ground for feminist Republican leaders.

But the increasing social conservatism of the Republican Party would eventually turn these Republican feminists (and they were Republican – anti-communist, pro-war, pro-business, etc.) into outcasts. In New York, the shift of the blue-collar, middle-class Catholic suburbs from New Deal to Reagan Democrats – especially the shift in the voting patterns of housewives – meant that GOP feminism lost much of its political power. Roe v. Wade and the religious backlash against abortion in particular made the political positions of pro-choice Republican women untenable.

Though the presenters were, as historians always are, loathe to predict the future, it does appear that the Republican Party is entering a similar period of flux today – in order to appeal to new groups of millennial voters, the party may have to (re)embrace women’s issues into its platform.

Over the noon hour, Harvard’s Nancy Cott and Yale’s George Chauncey -- who attracted considerable media attention over the past three years for their expert testimony in the Hollingsworth v. Perry Prop. 8 case on same-sex marriage, recently argued in front of the Supreme Court – jointly gave the keynote address at the Women in the Historical Profession luncheon. They spoke about giving expert testimony in court cases, drawing upon their own experiences.

“History matters in court cases,” Cott said, not just because judges are making history, but because “judges make assertions about the past” in their decisions and arguments, often not for the better. She quoted Stephen Breyer, who during the oral arguments for Hollingsworth v. Perry said “traditional marriage has been around for several hundred years, or whatever…” Cue howls of laughter.

George Chauncey, whose expert testimony mainly concerned the legal and social persecution of gays and lesbians, was quick to point out that expert testimony is not advocacy work. If it were advocacy, he said, it would be quickly thrown out. “Expert testimony is entered into evidence as fact,” he said, and so the first duty of historians when testifying in court cases is the same as it is in the academy: to historical truth.

No session today was as aggressively rooted in the present as this afternoon’s “The 1%? Business Classes and the Transformation of American Capitalism.” Though all of the panelists sounded a note of caution about the “1%” title as an analytical framework – derived from the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street – Michael Zakim, Noam Maggor, Elizabeth Shermer, and Daniel Amsterdam (of Tel Aviv, Vanderbilt, Loyola Chicago, and Ohio State Universities, respectively) argued that it is critical to examine the elites of American capitalism to understand how our system of capitalism developed in the first place.

“It is our contention,” Maggor said, “that an elite group of business leaders has been able to dramatically affect policy in the twentieth century.” The now-old “new” framework of bottom-up history, which still remains incredibly prevalent in hiring and tenure decisions, cannot tell this particular story, but the social and cultural approaches pioneered by bottom-up historians can.

Maggor’s research focused on the relationship between elite Eastern capitalists and Western entrepreneurs in the late nineteenth century. The very mobility of the business elite – as white settlement expanded westward, so did the investment opportunities for eastern businesses – helps to explain, Maggor contended, the relative uniformity of the business class throughout the country.

Fast-forward nearly a hundred years to the 1960s, and the same dynamic was at work in the now industrialized Sunbelt. Elizabeth Shermer, who has made a formidable reputation for herself as a scholar of the Sunbelt and Barry Goldwater, argued that business leaders in Sunbelt cities like Phoenix were able to attract outside capital through their social and professional networks (wealthy young men in Phoenix went to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton just as wealthy young men in Boston and New York) while at the same time leveraging that capital into control over state and municipal governments, making investment conditional on the passage of “right-to-work” laws and other pro-business measures.

On the other side of the country (and about forty years earlier), business elites in Steel Belt (what is now the Rust Belt) cities like Philadelphia and Detroit were playing their own power games with the big city establishment. Paradoxically, this meant – in the 1920s, the era of laissez-faire Harding and Coolidge Republicanism – increased social spending in the big cities of the east. Daniel Amsterdam argued that corporate reformers in the 1920s sought to remake cities through this kind of social spending, breaking the power of political machines by remolding the lives of city residents in order to encourage them to live, work, and vote a certain way.

Though none of the scholars explicitly stated so, the trends they each identified have deep resonance in an era of increasing municipal neoliberalism (witness New York City and Chicago), controversial “right-to-work” efforts in Rust Belt states like Wisconsin (to better compete with the Sun Belt), and, of course, reform efforts by corporate and technological leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

Today’s plenary session also tackled the weighty issue of capitalism in America, albeit from a rather different perspective. With tongues still wagging from a feature article in last Sunday’s New York Times on the “new” history of capitalism, Yale’s Naomi Lamoreaux, Stanford’s Richard White, Bethany Moreton from the University of Georgia, the University of Minnesota’s Karen Ho, and Vanderbilt’s Peter James Hudson gathered to discuss “Corporations in American Life.”

Lamoreaux delved into the Supreme Court case history around the concept of “corporate personhood,” cemented by the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad and its ambiguities. Though the left has regularly decried this legal doctrine, the interpretation of corporations as a voluntary association of individuals has ironically opened up possibilities for non-profit organization. The Citizens United case, which opened up the floodgates for corporate spending in the 2012 election, also removed spending limits for unions as well.

Modern corporations were not ignored in the analysis. “By nineteenth-century definitions,” Richard White, author of Railroaded!, declared, “you could argue that Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and even the airlines are monopolies, just like the railroads of the nineteenth century.” Since, as Susan Ferber pointed out yesterday, Amazon accounts for something like 40 percent of an individual book’s sales, publishers and readers are compelled to make use of Amazon, just as Western farmers were compelled to use the railroads to engage in commerce.

White also baldly declared, “most historians are financially illiterate. I routinely hear finance is too hard [to study], but I never hear race is too hard.” It’s that fear of finance and mathematics that inspired Louis Hyman and Bethany Moreton, along with other finance/capitalism historians, to design a history of capitalism “boot camp” designed to train historians on basic finance concepts (the website prominently states “no background in mathematics or economics required.”)

Bethany Moreton offered advice to graduate students and recent PhDs looking to justify capitalism research to advisors and departments: More than a third of the list of the 100 largest global entities by annual revenue, she said, are corporations, not nation-states. Her list, assembled in 1999, had General Motors as one of the largest non-governmental organizations on the planet; in the space of ten years, the top slot has been taken by Apple. Where are the histories of technology and capitalism? Venture capitalism? Tech-startups?

Karen Ho, a self-admitted cultural anthropologist, not historian (we’ll forgive her), wondered whether corporations as the unit of analysis in modern capitalism may really be all that relevant anymore. Wall Street investment banks and private equity funds, she said, view corporations as disposable items in investment portfolios and typically flip them within a few years. Instead of large, permanent bureaucracies with deep institutional histories, she argued, modern finance views corporations as merely the compendium of stockholders.

Finally, Peter James Hudson (@darkfinance on Twitter) brought race into the discussion. “I worry that the ‘new’ history of capitalism goes back [to the tradition] of history written for and by white people,” he said, pointing to an op-ed in Bloomberg News on capitalism and slavery written by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. It failed to engage at all with black scholarship on slavery, Hudson argued. Despite a long history of African American finance, business ownership, banking, and entrepreneurship, it remains nearly invisible to scholars, let alone the “masters of the universe” on Wall Street. Citibank, he noted, once regularly held ministrel shows in its corporate offices.

Day 3: April 13

Geary Street on a Saturday night in the heart of San Francisco is full of the drunk and the randy (or both), and judging by their clothes, the quite well-to-do. Eddy Street, a scant two blocks south, is a stretch populated – and not just on a Saturday night -- by the homeless, the indigent, and addicts. (Both streets, ironically, reek of pot smoke, but c’est la vie in San Francisco.)

But Eddy and Geary Streets, though separated by a chasm of money, class, race, and power, exist side-by-side in the city center. Such is the entangled urban landscape of modern American cities – particularly densely populated cities like San Francisco.

That’s the whole point of the theme of this year’s OAH annual meeting: Entangled histories. While some historians may be reaching slightly to fit the theme (my work is “entangled history” because it addresses class and gender and comparative power dynamics), others are finding ways to genuine augment their writing and research by “entanglement.”

Entanglement can mean something as simple as multiple rationales for a course of action. Victor McFarland, a PhD candidate at Yale University, explored the drive for American energy independence in the 1970s by the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations in a paper presented Saturday morning.

Policymakers in the Nixon administration knew that the United States could not realistically end its dependence on foreign oil quickly – Henry Kissinger ridiculed the notion behind closed doors – but Nixon, and later Ford, nevertheless continued to make it part of their public agenda.

With the Arab oil embargo and gas rationing, not only was it politically necessary for the president to have at least some strategy on energy, ending dependence on foreign oil neatly fit powerful rhetoric of war (Carter would famously call energy policy “the moral equivalent of war”) and had a readily identifiable racial enemy.

There was also an element of national self-empowerment, of sorts. With American confidence undermined by Vietnam, it was intolerable for many voters (and even policymakers) that Arab sheikhdoms, who in the old days would be the subject to gunboat diplomacy, could dictate terms to the United States.

Finally, by using the language of war, Presidents Ford and Carter in particular could lift energy policy out of the hands of Congress –instrumental, especially post-Watergate, in domestic policy – and into the hands of the foreign policy establishment.

Energy policy, concluded McFarland, was conducted in the 1970s with an “entangled” bunch of political goals. Of course, it’s suggestive that, since both Ford and Carter were defeated in their re-election bids, that these goals failed to be achieved.

An entangler who really needs no introduction is Eric Foner (okay, if you insist – DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University), who revolutionized Civil War and Reconstruction scholarship with Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

The book is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, and, as part of the ongoing sesquicentennial commemorations of the Civil War (there have been a handful of Civil War sesquicentennial sessions here in San Francisco) and because 2013 marks the sesquicentennial of the birth of Reconstruction, the OAH sponsored a session looking back at Foner’s seminal work.

Panelists Kate Masur, Heather Andrea Williams, Gregory Downs, Thavolia Glymph, and Steve Hahn all spoke glowingly of Reconstruction, but were not afraid to point out the drawbacks to having a book be so universally admired. “Other historians are reluctant to take on Foner’s book,” said Downs, “because it’s so good!” Most of the work that has challenged Foner’s work on Reconstruction has been new histories of the American West, which is gradually displacing the Civil War as the dominant topic in nineteenth-century historical scholarship (though with the sesquicentennial, good luck trying to convince students and the media of that.)

Reconstruction was so important, the panel also argued, because it rebutted – if not once and for all, at least persuasively – the racist William Dunning school of Reconstruction (ironically, Dunning was himself a professor at Columbia), which long contended that Reconstruction was a mistake and that blacks were incapable of self-government.

Though the man is long dead, Dunning casts a long shadow – even today, there is some scholarship with roots in the Dunning school – Foner identified English historian Adam Fairclough as one practitioner – and in popular culture. Steve Hahn warned that, as the sesquicentennial for Reconstruction unfolds, we’re going to hear a lot of rhetoric about the era as an activist government mistake.

And it was indeed an era when people thought differently about government. “I don’t think the Fourteenth Amendment could be ratified today,” Foner said.

Foner also spoke about how he came to Reconstruction as a topic in the first place. His father was an historian and a contemporary of W.E.B. DuBois (in fact, Foner met DuBois as a child through his family) and he stills remembers the day in high school when his teacher, nicknamed “Big Bertha” by the students, tried to teach the Dunning interpretation.

“I raised my hand and said, ‘I don’t agree.' [She] said, 'if you don’t agree with what I’m teaching, you can teach the class yourself.' So I did.”

Given Foner’s reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, many in the audience were curious about his take on the new history of capitalism. After the session broke, he said to a few autograph-seekers, “Anytime history makes the front page of the New York Times, it’s a good thing.”

Reconstruction in the South, of course, gave way to segregation and Jim Crow, a period sociologist James Loewen calls the “nadir of American race relations.” But racial oppression was not confined to the South, nor was it directed solely at African Americans.

Outgoing OAH president Albert Camarillo’s keynote address Saturday evening encapsulated the theme of “entangled history” by examining “Jaimie Crow” – discriminatory practices against Mexican Americans in the Southwest – and “James Crow” – discrimination against African Americans in the Northern cities – through the lens of the “racial borderhood.”

Camarillo prefers the term “racial borderhood” (his own neologism) to the more common “ghetto” or even “ethnic neighborhood” because it has broader connotations. Neighborhoods have porous boundaries; borderhoods have, well, borders. As with political borders, there were consequences of crossing racial and spatial borders. Blacks, Latinos, and Asians who tried to cross these borders – which generally existed based on social and informal agreements amongst whites, not as a matter of law – were often victims of violence.

But, Camarillo argued, there were ways for some people to “pass” racial borders into middle-class white neighborhoods. One way was for the racial “axis of differentness” to shift – Japanese Americans who were considered inferior enemy aliens in 1940 were, by the late 1970s, America’s “model minority.”

Another way was to simply pass for white.

It was an option open to some light-skinned African Americans, though it was not without its dangers. Camarillo told the story of the Ragsdale family of Phoenix – Eleanor Ragsdale could pass for white, but not her husband, which provoked an intense campaign of intimidation when they moved into an all-white neighborhood. But it was primarily practiced by upwardly mobile Mexican Americans. What was required was light skin, fluency in English, money (“money whitens,” Camarillo said), and a willingness to cut all ties of Mexican identity.

People passed not because they were civil rights pioneers or were being deliberately trangressive, Camarillo argued, but because they wanted a better, safer, more affluent life for themselves and their families.

In a city where rich and poor exist in a tangled, but nevertheless sharply divided space two blocks apart, Camarillo’s words echo: “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” he said, “was the first racial borderhood in America.”

Day 4: April 14

Flight delays and spotting Internet access have kept me from devoting much time to writing, so here’s a few brief thoughts on the OAH 2013.

•The new history of capitalism is here to stay. The front page article in the New York Times confirmed what was already evident based on featured panels at the OAH this year – with the contemporary dominance of economic elites and the failure of the “Occupy” movement to affect meaning social change, historians are trying to make sense of the drivers of the modern economy. Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America won three major OAH book prize, including the Frederick Jackson Turner Award.

•But race/class/gender remains on top. It’s a myth that historians never study the “traditional” topics of military, political, economic, and diplomatic history, but it’s also true that historical scholarship continues to be dominated by the “new” bottom-up history of marginalized groups first popularized in the 1960s and 1970s. A quick glance through the OAH program guide – “Race, Nation, and Citizenship in a TransnationAnd it’s also true the best of the new military, political, economic, and diplomatic research marries elements of the social/cultural approach – including much of the “new” history of capitalism.

•Digital history has a long way to go before it’s within the mainstream of scholarship. This isn’t a knock against digital research and digital publishing – I’m personally convinced it’s the wave of the future, and also has the added benefit of teaching historians hard marketable skills (I’d love to be able to put down skill with datasets/data mining/statistical analysis on my resume) – but as long as most digital humanities work in history is done by only a handful of institutions (including, of course, HNN’s sponsor and patron, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which has been the pioneer in this field), the role of digital history in hiring/tenure decisions will be less than it ought to be. When an historical conference in the Bay Area, a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley, can’t get a THATcamp organized, it means there’s a lot of work to still be done.

•Plan B is still Plan B. I’m going to be writing more about this later in the week – the OAH really made an effort this year to talk about alternatives to academic careers for MA- and PhD-degreed historians. However, aside from students explicitly being trained as public historians, I only talked to one or two graduate students/recent PhDs who were considering a non-academic career as a first option. Granted, there’s a selectivity bias at work at academic conferences (and OAH caters much more to academic historians than, for example, the National Council for Public History, which meets in Ottawa this week), but it’s still revealing: students are still entering graduate programs with the expectation that one day they’ll be professors.

•Social media and blogging are still alien to many tenure-track historians. With the big public history conference on the other side of the continent, with the sequester cutting into the travel budget of federal historians, and because seasonal hiring is at an ebb in April, the attendees of OAH this year skewed overwhelmingly to older, tenured or tenure-track academics. And not coincidentally, there were almost no other dedicated bloggers covering this year’s conference (other than yours truly, of course) and precious few tweeters (some notable exceptions: @adamarenson, @darkfinance, @amwhisnant, and @samueljredman). Twitter may not be the ideal platform to express complex ideas, but it’s invaluable at conferences -- not just to coordinate with peers onsite, but to broadcast in real time to followers thousands of miles away. @myHNN picked up something like 100 new followers solely on the basis of OAH tweets, so there is an audience for this stuff.

•Highlight of the convention: Easily Eric Foner talking about clashing with high school history teacher “Big Bertha” over her teaching of Reconstruction. Even the most distinguished of historians – and Foner is the rare celebrity historian who owes his reputation to his scholarship, not his charisma (though admittedly he possesses that in spades) – have slogged it out in the trenches at some point in their lives.

Connecting flight’s leaving, but check back throughout the week for additional stories and more videos from the convention!