Program Committee 2006

From the perspective of the Program Committee, the 2007 AHA Annual Meeting was a tremendous success. We had a wonderfully diverse and dedicated committee that embraced the AHA mandate to actively solicit and organize panels, to foster engaged dialogue through a variety of panel formats within individual sessions and across related sessions, to encourage scholars to think of the AHA meeting as offering a site for cross-field dialogues, and to increase representation of under-represented fields at the AHA including African, Middle-Eastern, and Medieval history.

Throughout our work, we were impressed by the organization, support and expertise of the AHA staff. They enabled us to focus on substantive issues and were a delight to work with. We wish to note our appreciation for their support here.

1. Initiatives to Continue

“Threaded” Panels: One of the most exciting elements of this year’s conference for us was the number of what you might call “threaded” conversations that panels sustained over the four-day conference. Especially successful in this regard, were a set of panels relating to human rights and, relatedly, a set of panels commemorating the end of the slave trade. Both sets of panels generated a loyal following sustained throughout the conference with the effect of creating the kind of intellectual community characteristic of a boutique conference. They also highlight that there are multiple paths to “threaded conversations.” The human rights conversation was engendered by the program theme and then supported by the Program Committee chairs soliciting one panel, putting scholars who contacted us with questions into contact with others who we knew were working on panels related to human rights, coordinating these panels with Presidential panels (and working with the AHA president to build these panels) relating to human rights, and then scheduling all the panels to allow for a sustained conversation. In contrast, the network of panels commemorating the end of the slave trade was put together with the leadership of Program Committee Co-Chair Carolyn Brown and again scheduled in such a way as to foster sustained conversations over the course of the meeting. There were other examples as well relating to food, history of children and youth, etc. We thought this was a wonderful development that future committees should foster. Advance publications including the website and Perspectives can be used to alert members to look for these “threads” at the conference.

Ensuring Representation of Underrepresented Fields and Encouraging Scholars to Build Cross-Field Panels: We made a commitment at the beginning of the process of putting our committee together to ensure that the committee included prominent, creative, engaged scholars—who were willing to reach out to others in their field—from fields that have not been well represented at AHA Annual Meetings. Most important here was Carolyn Brown’s (Africanist) appointment as co-chair and inclusion in the committee of Eve Trout Powell, a scholar of the Middle East. Their central engagement in their respective fields and their effective leadership in encouraging scholars in their field to put together panels that reached across disciplinary divides led to greater representation of these fields and cross-field dialogue than in the recent past. Their efforts were supplemented by the work of other PC members in encouraging scholars to think of the AHA as a conference ideally suited to foster cross-field dialogue. One wonderful example of this was the state-of-the-field roundtable on the history of sexuality that included scholars working on Latin America, the Middle East, the United States, Modern Europe, Africa, and Asia. This roundtable has now been solicited for a forum in the AHR.

Poster Session: The poster session was substantially expanded in 2007 thanks especially to the work of a subset of the committee (Vanessa Schwartz, Jim Gardner, and Barbara Welke). Vanessa Schwartz’s work in attracting senior scholars to present in the session was especially important. The uniform response we received after the meeting—from senior and junior scholars—was that the session provided a setting for interactive dialogue unparalleled in their experience of conference presentations. To make this session successful in the long run, we think at least six things need to happen: (1) For the time being, the committee needs to continue to recruit senior scholars to participate so that it becomes clear that this is a forum for scholars at all levels, not a forum limited to those who didn’t have a panel; (2) Rename the session. Outside disciplines like economics and the sciences where posters have a long history, calling this session the poster session sends all the wrong signals and scares many potential presenters off; (3) Provide better facilities, including internet access for those who need to use the internet and a computer in their presentation; (4) Collect “testimonials” of those who have presented at the poster session, especially scholars with significant name recognition in the profession such as Leora Auslander for inclusion in Perspectives—or a brief article relating their experience to run alongside directions for submitting to the poster session; (5) continue to schedule this session in an ideal time slot and location; and (6) Amend the rules for conference appearances to allow an individual to present both in a regular session and at the poster session.

Film Festival: In the 2007 annual meeting, we had an inaugural AHA film festival. This session happened in large measure because of the efforts of Vanessa Schwartz and highlights the importance of having a member of the Program Committee who works in the field of visual culture. The session was also made possible because of the AHA’s staff; and the generosity of Linda Kerber, AHA president, and of the University of Iowa, which provided funding for a large screen for showing the films. The film sessions were a tremendous success. They provided a venue for previewing films and for seriously engaging questions relating to documentary filmmaking and history. I attended a packed (at least 70 people in the room) session on the documentary The U.S. v. John Lennon. The showing closed with a conversation led by Vanessa Schwartz and a historian who advised on the project. It was gripping. In the future, it would be good to arrange for viewing the winners of the John E. O’Connor Film Prize (especially because such screenings might increase the visibility of the prize).

Support for International Scholars: We greatly appreciated the Council’s support for the participation of international scholars by increasing the Program Committee’s budget. The committee used the following process to allocate the limited budget. After our spring meeting at which we decided on the program, we sent an email to all panel chairs including one or more international scholars with directions for individual scholars to submit a brief explanation of their need for travel support to attend the conference. We set a deadline at the end of May and capped support at $1,000. We gave preference to junior scholars and to scholars traveling from non-European countries. We limited most grants to $500, although we gave a few of $1,000. We also provided support for one U. S. based non-historian who had been especially recruited to the conference by a PC member.

2. Suggestions for the Future

Amending AHA Folklore: The AHA’s “Folklore” document is wonderfully helpful for paving the way for incoming chairs and their committees. We believe a couple of updates would make the document an even more useful guide. First, it was our understanding that over the past few years, the AHA has been encouraging greater initiative on the part of the Program Committee in soliciting and organizing panels for the meeting and in encouraging more interactive formats of presentation. We believe this can be even more strongly highlighted in the folklore document, with a related de-emphasis on the PC as a gatekeeper. Second, to the extent there is support for an expanded meeting (of the sort we had this year), it would be good to articulate this clearly in the Folklore document.

Expanding the AHA Annual Meeting: Adding more panels to the 2007 meeting—including a whole new trial time slot—was only approved by the committee with some real persuasion by the chairs. Resistance on the committee focused on three points: (1) the meeting was already too big; (2) the meeting should be limited to truly outstanding work that wouldn’t appear at other more focused history conferences; and (3) the committee lacked authorization or AHA endorsement to add a new session. Carolyn and I were both strong supporters of expanding the size of the Annual Meeting. Especially in an era of shrinking faculty travel budgets, coupled with virtually every AHA member having at least one other priority conference, the surest way to retain the vitality of the AHA Annual Meeting is to increase the size of the Annual Meeting. Although one way to do this is by increasing the number of panels without increasing the number of sessions, we strongly support finding ways to increase the number of sessions to three per day at least on Friday and Saturday. This year, we experimented with a noon slot on Friday. The two sessions we attended were both well attended, but the AHA staff are likely in a better position than we are to say whether this particular path to expanding the number of sessions is the best. It would be helpful for future chairs for the AHA Council to decide on the time and number of sessions, so that committees aren’t left feeling like they’ve exceeded their mandate.

Barbara Y. Welke (Univ. of Minnesota) and Carolyn A. Brown (Rutgers Univ. at New Brunswick) were chair and co-chair, respectively, of the Program Committee for 2007.