Research Division 2011

Prepared by Iris Berger, vice president

During the past year, the Research Division has worked on numerous issues related to its general mission to promote historical work and scholarship as well as its more specific oversight of the American Historical Review, the annual meeting, and the AHA prizes. In relation to prizes and the annual meeting, we have been working to tighten up a number of internal policies regarding potential conflicts of interest for members of prize selection committees and the committees that distribute travel funds for historians coming from abroad to attend the meeting. We want to be sure the peer review and selection processes governing all activities are as consistent and transparent as possible. The new policies will be in place for 2012.

The Division also addressed several other issues relating to the annual meeting. After considerable deliberation, we decided to eliminate the sessions based on precirculated papers. While members of the Division agreed that this can be a very useful format in smaller conferences, it did not seem to work in the larger setting of the AHA conference. Authors often failed to turn in their papers for distribution, and our surveys found that session attendees rarely read the papers. We remain eager to promote greater interaction and engagement within the meeting, and hope to experiment with other formats for doing so; but this did not prove to be an effective way to accomplish that goal. Regardless of the concerns about the precirculated paper sessions, a survey of annual meeting attendees this past year found that they are generally satisfied with activities at the meeting, even though financial and travel issues remain significant concerns. We are currently exploring ways to make the meeting a more welcoming setting by assisting junior historians in the networking process and finding ways to encourage more interaction between junior and senior scholars.

In relation to prizes, the Division worked with the members of a number of prize committees to refine the language for their awards. We narrowed the criteria for the William Dunning Prize for books on American history to limit eligibility only to published works. The prize currently receives the largest number of submissions for any prize, so we could not see any reason to continue to accept manuscripts. We also refined the eligibility requirements and nominating criteria for the Herbert Feis and Roy Rosenzweig awards. In both cases, we tried to simplify the nomination process in order to increase the number of potential candidates for these two important prizes that recognize historical work intended for a wider public audience. The changes for all three will go into effect in 2012.

In addition to reviewing the policies for specific awards, we have also been examining the endowments for a few of the prizes. We are concerned that some of them have suffered from the recent declines in the stock market, and are not generating sufficient income for the awards. Under Jim Grossman’s leadership we changed the prize policy to assure that our awards are kept in line with the funds available; but we are also exploring fundraising initiatives to build up a few of the underfunded prizes.

Beyond the internal policies of the Association, the Division has also been working actively to promote historical research. Our most visible and challenging effort focused on working with a number of other historical organizations to support the exclusion of oral history research from oversight by institutional review boards. The lack of clarity about whether oral history projects require full-scale IRB review has been a recurring challenge for the AHA and for our membership over the past fifteen years. In 2011 a new proposal from the Office of Health and Human Services provided an opportunity to reiterate our concerns to the agency that makes the rules. Working with the leaders of other groups, we developed a common set of talking points for the history community. Our efforts generated a substantial response from historians nationwide, who accounted for almost 10 percent of the feedback on a proposal that covered a wide range of research areas. We certainly hope that this vigorous reaction from historians will encourage the federal government to rethink its policies in this area.

In keeping with our ongoing concern about the impact of new technologies on the profession, t he members of the Division extended our ongoing conversation about digital publication to actively reviewing and discussing best practices for the assessment of digital scholarship, the implications it may have for tenure and promotion, and the many variations in what counts as published scholarship today. These are clearly critical questions that will only grow in importance over the next decade. As all three divisions continue to work on this issue, I hope that the Association will soon be able to provide better guidance to history departments and the profession on how to evaluate digital scholarship.

In addition to working on general issues connected to the annual meeting and historical scholarship, the Division organized seven sessions for this year’s conference, one a comparative session related to critical current issues, two on archival research, and another four on digital history. In keeping with our interest in connecting historical research with contemporary issues, we organized a panel on “Popular Uprisings in Global Perspective” that features presentations on the contemporary Middle East, South Africa under apartheid, Communist Eastern Europe, and the United States in the 1960s. The amazing growth and spread of the Occupy Wall Street movement makes the panel all the more relevant to current events worldwide.

The panels connected with archival research include “Historians and Principles of Access to Archives” and “Archivists, Historians and the Future of Authority in the Archives.” The first features a group of scholars with international interests who will draw on the challenges they have faced in their own research to respond to the newly adopted guidelines of the International Council on Archives. The second panel will initiate a dialog between historians and archivists based around the book Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives by Francis Blouin and William Rosenberg.

The last four panels all deal with digital history: the first, a hands-on workshop that will demonstrate new software and projects in digital history; the second an examination of the state of the field that will be aimed at addressing some of the structural and institutional barriers faced particularly by junior scholars with an interest in digital history. The next panel, a roundtable discussion, will explore possible ways to reduce the gap between digital and traditional scholarship, and the last will explore the legacies of the pioneering Valley of the Shadow Project twenty years after its beginning at the University of Virginia.

Finally, we are working with authors and editors on several new publications that will help to showcase a number of the emerging areas of research and teaching in the discipline. Prasenjit Duara (National University of Singapore) and Sebastian Conrad (Free University of Berlin) are developing a series of pamphlets on regions and regionalism in the modern world; Ken Albala (University of the Pacific), Joyce Chaplin (Harvard), and Paul Freedman (Yale) are working on an edited volume about Teaching Food History; and Antoinette Burton (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) is editing a volume on the relationship between teaching and research in history. All three of these projects will encompass a wide geographical range. A separate pamphlet, “Working in the Archives in the Twenty-First Century” by Samuel Redman (Bancroft Library) has been read by members of the Research Division and is now in production.

As I end my final year in office, I want to pay special thanks to the past and continuing members of the Division with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. They include Clayborne Carson, Mary Elizabeth Berry, and Larry Wolff in my first few years, and current members John Thornton, Tom Sugrue, and Martha Howell who have been particularly active and engaged in thinking about some of the critical issues facing the profession. It has also been a pleasure to work with both Arnita Jones and Jim Grossman whose dedication to the AHA and effectiveness in working with the divisions and the Council has been extraordinary. Most important to the ongoing success of the Research Division, however, is Rob Townsend, Deputy Director and staff person for the RD.  The quality of his work and his commitment to the AHA and the historical profession are unparalleled. The Association is fortunate to have him as a staff member and I feel particularly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work so closely with him.