Research Division 2010
Prepared by Iris Berger, vice president
The American Historical Association is fortunate to have a staff that is remarkably dedicated and effective in working on behalf of the Association. First, I would like to thank Rob Townsend, the staff member for the Research Division. Working with him has been one of the pleasures of this position. I also want to thank Mary Elizabeth Berry for her work over the past three years, and the continuing members of the Division, John Thornton and Thomas Sugrue, for their ideas and support. And of course, former AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones during the first half of 2010 and new Executive Director Jim Grossman during the past six months have been important sources of ideas on how to further the Division’s mission.
The work of the Research Division generally consists of two broad activities—the promotion of historical work and scholarship, and oversight of the Association’s scholarly activities, including the American Historical Review and the Annual Meeting Program Committee.
Our efforts to promote historical work took on many forms over the past year. We directly intervened in a few cases, where the Association could do some good. For instance, at the request of members we supported new state records policies in Pennsylvania and New York, which we hope will assist future generations of scholars by insuring the availability of critical state records to scholars, including (in New York) the deposited of governors’ records in the state archives. We also joined an amicus brief to try to open up the grand jury testimony of Richard Nixon. In other cases, our room for action has been more circumscribed, such as restrictions on oral history by institutional review boards, Florida state regulations barring funds for research travel to Cuba, and evidence of restrictions on historical scholarship in the former Soviet Union. We continue to monitor those issues. We also supported the work of other organizations by endorsing the Oral History Association’s updated statement, “Principles and Best Practices for Oral History.”
The challenges of digital history came up repeatedly over the course of the year, and in a variety of forms—ranging from the legal and technical implications of digital archives to the implications of digital publishing for the American Historical Review. These discussions have consumed a significant part of the Division’s meetings over the past year, and we hope to expand the conversation to the general membership in the coming year. To get a better measure of the way historians are using digital materials for their research and teaching, we distributed a survey on these questions to almost 12,000 history faculty this past spring. The results of the survey were published in the fall. Division members published articles on the larger implications of digital technologies for the discipline in the January 2011 issue of Perspectives on History. We hope these essays will lay out some of the challenges as we see them, and draw in additional opinions and discussion from our members.
In addition to addressing external challenges for the discipline, the Research Division also plays an important internal role in the governance of the Association. Some of the thorniest issues we faced in 2010 concerned the book prizes. Over the past year a number of members objected to language in the George Louis Beer prize that limits eligibility to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. This language was established by the original bequest from Dr. Beer, back in 1920, in an effort to encourage American historians to study European history. From the more global perspective of the present, this seems fairly provincial. But after careful review by staff, legal counsel, and our auditor, we have concluded that it will be impossible to change the terms of the original bequest. In the course of our review, however, we discovered that two other prizes have similar eligibility requirements that are not bound by donor restrictions. We will be eliminating those restrictions and substituting a language requirement in their place.
The Division is also working with the Association’s publications staff to encourage emerging areas of research and to assist the work of scholars and teachers. Most notably, we are sponsoring a new pamphlet series on regionalism in history. We are exceptionally grateful to Prasenjit Duara (National Univ. of Singapore) and Sebastian Conrad (Free Univ. of Berlin), the editors of this series. They have already issued a call for proposals and have received a number of excellent submissions, so the series seems to be well underway. We are also considering a pamphlet or series on the growing field of food history, and a separate publication to assist researchers preparing to do archival work.
In addition to these activities the Research Division took an active role in organizing panels for the 2011 annual meeting. We worked with the Teaching Division to organize a mini-conference on “Religion, Peace, and Violence,” and we assembled a range of sessions that reflect the Research Division’s engagement with both the content and practice of research. We had three sessions with a content focus, one on food history and two on cross-cultural encounters resulting from the Muslim invasion of Iberia in 711. We also sponsored or co-sponsored three sessions on the intersection of research and professional activity, one on quantitative assessment and ranking of history departments, another on the academic job market, and a third on the use of new media in academia.
The fiscal climate at the moment has made fundraising to support the Association’s goals difficult, but not impossible. We are still working on how we might raise funds to assist scholars in attending international conferences, replacing a program formerly sponsored by the ACLS. But I’m delighted that we have been successful during the past year in two other efforts that required substantial fundraising. This year’s meeting will mark the first award of the new Martin A. Klein prize for the best book in African history, as well as the successful effort to inaugurate the John F. Richards Prize for the best book on South Asian history. The recognition of these areas of historical research by the AHA is long overdue.