From the President's column in the December 1996 Perspectives

Doing History in the 21st Century: A Statement of Priorities

Carolyn Walker Bynum, December 1996

In 1988 the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the AHA urged the Association to become more active in leading and defending the historical profession. The need to move forward is even greater now. As we all know, these are exciting times intellectually for historians as new electronic media facilitate research and the dissemination of knowledge, as new approaches from the social sciences and literary studies enliven and challenge our methods, and as a spirit of inclusivity enriches our profession, both by broadening its membership and by globalizing its concerns. At the same time, historical research and teaching have been under political scrutiny and attack, downsizing in universities and public institutions has produced a job crisis, and funds to support scholarship and publication are disappearing.

This combination of excitement about new frontiers and yet realism, even discouragement, about constraints on time and money affects staff at AHA headquarters and at the American Historical Review as well. The Council and staff of the Association have introduced new services for the membership recently: Perspectives has expanded, advocacy has intensified, a Web page has been introduced, and the annual meeting has continued to grow larger with more and more affiliated societies involved. Moreover, the AHR has found ways of fostering new types of comparative and interdisciplinary scholarship while maintaining its commitment both to high standards and to extensive coverage of traditional fields of research. The Association wishes to undertake further new projects to foster creative teaching, research, and publication. But we have not yet achieved a balanced budget; thus, despite the fact that we are providing new services, we have not been able to increase staff size, either at the headquarters office or at the AHR.

This past June, the AHA Council and staff, under the leadership of AHA executive director Sandria Freitag, conducted a daylong planning session to set priorities for AHA activities in this context of both a need for activism and an awareness of constraints. We wish to share the results of our deliberations with you and ask for your responses.

The AHA is a membership organization with approximately 15,000 individual members and over 3,000 institutional members and subscribers. It publishes a premier journal, a monthly newsletter, pamphlets that synthesize recent research and provide material for the classroom, and a number of directories, bibliographies, and guides. It offers 2 major fellowships, 4 grants, 20 book prizes, 3 teaching prizes, and a number of other awards for professional activities and distinction in special areas of history (recently, for example, for historical films). Special projects under way at the moment include improving the survey course, globalizing regional history, collaborating with other institutions to save the scholarly monograph, developing electronic publishing, and studying (with a view to improving) the situation of part-time and temporary faculty.

The Association's goal, which can be achieved only through a multiplicity of means, is to initiate, nurture, and communicate historical knowledge. More than a list of members, we are a true scholarly community and a valuable national resource. The Council of the Association is in strong agreement that, if we are to achieve our goal, we must be fiscally sound. We must broaden our membership to be ever more inclusive of the nation's historians in all their diversity of interests and types of employment. We must undertake a development initiative in order to locate donors for special projects. Moreover, we must speak out-if not with one voice-at least with a firm sense of our shared intellectual values against forces that would interfere with research and teaching. We must engage in public debates on issues crucial to facilitating scholarship and on issues where we as historians have special expertise. And we must undertake these development and advocacy initiatives without losing sight of our central commitment to fostering not only historical research and publication but also the teaching of history in a wide variety of venues-schools, museums, learned societies, colleges and universities, the pages of newspapers, the World Wide Web, local history groups, and the like.

Thus, your Council recommends that the Association's top priority be to continue its present activities in support of research, teaching, and the dissemination of knowledge, all the while assuring that these activities be on a sound fiscal basis. These activities are to be led by the Association's elected representatives on the Council and in the three divisions (Professional, Research, and Teaching); the agenda for the Association is to be set by the president and vice presidents working closely together. In support of this priority, the Association must

  • ensure financial stability by expanding membership and developing new revenues through corporate and individual donors, grants, and projects;

  • maintain staffing levels at headquarters so that work can be efficiently completed and projects that have already been undertaken can be realized;

  • maintain the excellence and visibility of the American Historical Review;

  • continue our current programs in broadening inclusivity both in membership and in the subjects of historical research;

  • increase our contacts with other scholarly and professional associations, with our historian-colleagues beyond the borders of the United States, with history teachers in settings beyond our traditional core constituency of college and university teaching, and with the general public; and

  • defend the profession through forceful and effective advocacy-such defense to include protecting access to historical sources and research opportunities, defending jobs for historians, resisting current pressures toward overreliance on temporary faculty and ever more crowded classrooms, asserting the importance of both new areas and traditional fields of scholarship when either threatens to squeeze out the other, and working to increase the funds available to support historical research.

We welcome your responses to this way of formulating our priorities. Please write either to me or to the AHA's president-elect, Joyce Appleby, at AHA headquarters.