The Umbrella and the Chautauqua

Robert Darnton, April 1999

An AHA president gets a lot of mail. It used to come through the federal and campus post offices, whose happy bungling created a good deal of breathing room. Now it arrives instantaneously, thanks (but no thanks) to e-mail, which makes it possible for correspondents to vent their frustrations before they have time to cool off. E-mail has become a hotline, and it gives the impression of tempers boiling over at strategic sites scattered across the country. The hottest spots belong to the AHA's affiliated societies, who sometimes feel that they are badly served. And sometimes, I'm sorry to say, they're right.

Most complaints concern the annual meeting, a logistical nightmare for the AHA staff and an institutional battlefield for the Program Committee. Affiliates complain that they do not get sufficient recognition on the program, enough sessions at the meeting, and adequate understanding from the president. For my part, I must admit, I find some things hard to understand.

At the beginning of my term, I failed to comprehend the importance of typography—an unforgivable failure for someone like myself who studies the history of books. Why, I asked, did some affiliated societies work themselves into a fury over the size of the type used to announce their sessions in the annual meeting Program? Why did they object so vehemently to the lack of notices posted outside the rooms where they held those sessions? Fortunately, Joe Miller, the outgoing president, and the AHA staff worked together on several improvements. The program for the 1999 meeting appeared with the same type size for all listings, those of the affiliates as well as the "official" sessions of the AHA Program Committee. We also developed a new, egalitarian way of composing and posting session signs for all of the meeting rooms. I left the meeting with a renewed appreciation of semiotics.

I also learned that the issues were far more important than I had realized at first. Some affiliated societies had complained for years about being treated as "Cinderellas" or "second-class citizens." Year after year, they had applied to hold "joint" sessions—that is, sessions co-sponsored with the AHA as opposed to "solo" sessions organized by them without AHA sponsorship—only to be turned down by one program committee after another. A few affiliates thought their applications were rejected rudely, without adequate notification or explanation. One or two even considered seceding from the AHA and holding their own meetings, where they could arrange a program to suit their own preferences.

This was the point at which Joe stepped in. He soothed discontent and appealed for a dialogue. Dialogues these days are also conducted by e-mail, using special systems known as listservs. Last November, I found myself directing a listserv discussion with the affiliates that was supposed to produce an agenda for a full-scale debate at the annual meeting. Only one affiliate responded, and only eight showed up when the meeting took place in January. I was tempted to conclude that the discontent was limited to a vociferous minority, but by then I had learned that things were more than they appeared to be in the world of historical associations. So I asked Sharon K. Tune, an assistant director of the AHA office in Washington and the keeper of its collective memory, to explain. Her explanation was appropriately historical.

In 1974, the AHA had 45 affiliates. Today it has 105. But owing to constraints of space and time, it rarely has room for more than 150 AHA-sponsored sessions at its annual meeting. Unless it turns the program over almost entirely to the affiliates, it will inevitably disappoint many of them. And if it satisfied them all, the program could become balkanized, and most of the intellectual exchange at the annual meeting could degenerate into specialists talking to one another about their specialties.

This difficulty touches on the very nature of the AHA. We commonly describe it as an umbrella organization. Although the metaphor has worn thin and the brolly sometimes leaks, the basic notion remains sound. The AHA represents the interests of historians and history in general. It is not an amalgam of subsets, although it provides shelter for specialists who need to pursue knowledge in esoteric ways. All of us, in fact, are specialists as well as generalists. The program of the annual meeting is designed to appeal to both sides of our professional identities, and program committees usually favor proposals that impinge on the general understanding of history, however concrete and specific they may be.

The same policy characterizes the American Historical Review. Michael Grossberg and his fellow editors look for articles that speak to all of us, although they may grow out of research in highly specialized fields. In reading the AHR or in attending sessions at the annual meeting, we hope both to renew our specialized knowledge and to refresh our sense of what is going on in history in general. Why bury yourself in some corner of the past, if you are not helping in some way to make sense of the human condition?

That may sound grand as a general proposition, but program committees have to put together programs; and they have always found it difficult to strike a balance that would satisfy the affiliated societies as well as the general membership. For a brief time in the early 70s, when there were 45 affiliates, the committees followed a policy of allotting one joint session to each society every other year. In 1973, at the request of the affiliates, the AHA changed the rules. It instructed program committees to select the best proposals on the basis of quality alone, without guaranteeing any affiliate a slot.

Despite the competition, many affiliates have benefited from the new policy by proposing both general and specialized sessions. They can organize as many of the latter as they like, without paying anything. This January, the AHA made 153 rooms available for solo sessions, all free of charge. Many affiliates used them to conduct business in annual meetings of their own, and many occupied a large proportion of the AHA's program. The American Society of Church History, for example, held 4 joint sessions and 20 solo sessions at the January meeting.

Affiliates benefit from participating in the AHA's annual meeting in many other ways. Thanks to its size and bargaining power, the AHA can negotiate cheap rates for hotel rooms—less than $100 for singles and doubles at the January meeting. At the same time, the affiliates get free publicity for their events in Perspectives, space to list their programs at less than cost in the AHA Program, and bargain rates for display tables, where they can exhibit their publications and recruit new members. (The cost of a strategically located table at the January meeting was $25, the alternative being a booth at the Book Exhibit
for $950.)

None of these benefits relieves the pressure on the program, but after consulting one of the affiliates who had complained the loudest about its treatment by the Program Committee, we made three changes in procedure. They were welcomed by the committee organizing the meeting for 2000 and should become standard practice in the future:

  1. Program committees will put the affiliates at the top of the list of those to be notified about the acceptance or rejection of their proposals for joint sessions at the annual meeting. The notifications will go out on schedule and will be courteous in tone. But no Program Committee should feel obliged to send an explanation of a refusal: explanations are likely to drag the committee into long and contentious exchanges.
  2. Program committees will keep thorough records of their decisions. By passing this information on to its successor, each committee will contribute to the creation of a database, which will make it possible to track rejections and acceptances over a long time span and to spot any pattern of discrimination or neglect.
  3. One member of each Program Committee will be designated to pay special attention to applications from affiliates. The affiliates can contact her or him in order to receive advice on how to frame an application that is broad enough to warrant acceptance as a joint session and that might appeal to whatever special themes are being pursued in a given year.

These procedural changes may be modest, but they illustrate how the affiliates themselves can improve things by coming up with suggestions and engaging in dialogue.

The AHA is eager to do more, especially outside the great annual chautauquas, when thousands of historians must crowd into one or two hotels and hundreds of speakers must squeeze into 150 slots on the "official" program. But it wants to collaborate and to work from initiatives that come from the affiliates themselves. At present, four areas of collaboration look particularly promising:

  1. Publications. Affiliated societies often want to develop pamphlet series or other publications but lack the means or the experience to do it on their own. The AHA, which publishes about 10–15 pamphlets a year, can provide advice or act as co-publisher. This year it is co-publishing an important new pamphlet series with the Society for the History of Technology, and it is working with the National Council on Public History to revise Careers for Students of History.
  2. Journals. The American Historical Review will go online in the near future, but the problems, both technological and financial, are enormous. In 1997 the AHA co-sponsored (with the OAH) a conference on electronic publishing for scholarly journals. The conference generated a great deal of helpful information, which has been growing and spreading among journal editors ever since. Any affiliated society that is considering founding a journal or putting a journal out on the Internet could benefit greatly by consulting Michael Grossberg and his staff at the AHR, who are eager to help, and are already sponsoring discussions of these issues on their own listserv.
  3. Advocacy. Affiliates have a stake in the resolution of many issues being debated every day in Congress: new copyright laws, fair access to public information, archiving decisions, declassification of government documents, the future of the National Endowment for the Humanities, financial support for research and publication, jobs for historians in public institutions, budgets and programs of museums and humanities centers—the spectrum of public policy questions is enormous, but who can keep track of them all? Answer: Page Putnam Miller, a sharp-eyed historian who follows the machinations of congressional committees from her office in AHA headquarters, a short walk from Capitol Hill, and who issues regular reports by e-mail. Affiliates could make good use of her expertise, both for receiving alarm signals about threats to their interests and for help in pursuing their own agendas.
  4. Communication. Affiliates could learn a lot by consulting one another. They can do so easily through the listserv set up for them by the AHA: affiliates@theaha.org. Until now, this listserv has received little use. It could be adapted in ways that the affiliates prefer. A moderator could digest messages and send them out in bulletins once a week, and particular clusters of affiliates could keep up a running dialogue about their common problems. They could collaborate on grant proposals and get advice from AHA headquarters about how to prepare proposals most effectively. If they have executive directors or managers, they could exchange views and enjoy shop talk at meetings organized by the executive director of the AHA.

There are many other possibilities. I have asked Joe Miller, who made improved relations with the affiliates a top priority of his presidency, to look into them. He will evaluate all proposals sent to the AHA and will recommend whatever measures he thinks appropriate. Once again, Joe: the AHA says thanks.

—Robert Darnton (Princeton Univ.) is the president of the AHA.