History in an International Context

Sandria B. Freitag, December 1997

Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of current scholarship is the international context in which all of us work. The nuanced differences in interpretation that have been shaped by educational establishments within particular countries, and our resulting intellectual struggles to move outside the frame established by nation-states (even as the boundaries and defining bases of these are shifting dramatically at the end of the century), place special importance on efforts to communicate with scholars elsewhere. For this reason, the role of the AHA as the official American representative to the International Congress of Historical Sciences has taken on new significance over the past few years. The congress is composed of national committees from each of the member countries; most such committees are designated by associations such as the AHA, or by government-appointed bodies. The AHA committee is chaired by Renate Bridenthal (Brooklyn Coll., City Univ. of New York); its members are chosen for five-year terms by the Committee on Committees‹see below for a list of the current members. The work of such committees is intermittent, beginning with a preliminary list of promising topics submitted to the congress secretariat in the second year; review and ranking of proposals in the third year; and additional organizational follow-up activities in the fourth and fifth years.

The new role being played by CISH conventions (the acronym is derived from the French title of the organizing body, Comité International des Sciences Historiques) in fostering international intellectual exchange has been enhanced as the scholarly content presented at the meetings has taken on greater and greater importance in the overall functioning of CISH. This new emphasis on scholarly content reshaped the Montreal convention held in 1995; observers remarked at the time that this change completely altered the significance of CISH activities. Certainly in terms of the AHA's own interests in expanding and solidifying the connections between historians based in America and those elsewhere in the world (as well as its programmatic commitment to area-studies history), this new CISH focus is truly welcome. More prominent in Oslo than in Montreal will be an inclusive approach to the work of historians that emphasizes not only a wide variety of research topics but also teaching and public history (as well as the public uses of history).

International scholarly exchange is facilitated by CISH as it holds a large, global version of a society's annual meeting once every five years. The congress will meet again, August 6­13, 2000, this time in Oslo, Norway. (See the call for proposals in the November Perspectives, page 11.) Its program will be structured around a large number of concurrent sessions involving some 500 presenters from all parts of the world. Each of the three full program days will be focused on one of three major themes with papers organized in a single, day-long session devoted to that theme‹the three major themes are "Perspectives on Global History, Concepts and Methodology"; "Millennium, Time, and History"; and "The Uses and Misuses of History and the Responsibility of the Historian." (The first of these themes resonates with the AHA's ongoing project on "Globalizing Regional Histories"; those who answered the first call for GRH session proposals but who have not yet been scheduled to make a presentation at an AHA or area studies meeting may want to update their proposals and send them to the AHA Committee on International Historical Activities.)

At the same time as the major theme sessions, another 20 specialized themes will be used to focus half-day sessions; see the full list of these special topics in the call for proposals. In addition to these organized panel presentations, 25 roundtables will be organized for sessions that include discussions focused on the debates behind the specified topics (again listed in the call for proposals). Also running throughout the CISH convention will be programs organized by "internal commissions" such as the Federation Internationale pour la Recherche de L'Histoire des Femmes, whose program last time included some of the strongest and most sophisticated research presented at the meeting. In this context, it is noteworthy that a roundtable organized last time by David Ransel on history journals has evolved in the interim into a new affiliate of CISH (with a steering committee headed by Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review) that will organize its own sessions relating to journal publishing for the Oslo program. These various formal structures for sharing scholarship and its applications are augmented by myriad opportunities for informal discussion; Oslo promises to be a hospitable and picturesque spot for scholarly hobnobbing. As now conceived, this program is immensely ambitious, designed to bring the very best scholars, working on the most important topics, together for unprecedented scholarly exchange.

Good organization of such an ambitious undertaking is crucial. At the end of August, 44 national organizations of historians and special commissions attended a planning meeting of CISH to work on the programmatic emphases and logistical arrangements for the Oslo gathering. The call for proposals reflects the programmatic side of the August decisionmaking: the themes and topics selected had been refined from proposals earlier submitted by the national organizations and special commissions. The debates around potential topics reflected the new emphasis given to the intellectual content of CISH meetings: a real effort was made to direct these meetings to new research interests and to substantive approaches that would facilitate scholarly communication and debate where fundamentally different approaches to topics have emerged. The national organizations will move into action again this spring, when they will evaluate and rank the responses to their calls for proposals. These ranked proposals will then be sent on to the scholars named by CISH to organize each session. A delicate balancing act will be required of these organizers, as they need to ensure broad international participation and a variety of scholarly perspectives when selecting from a large number of competitive proposals forwarded through the national committee structure.

As for logistics, a report by the local arrangements committee from Oslo demonstrated an impressive infrastructure already in place, with many of the goals substantially accomplished. The government of Norway (especially three different agencies) has expressed a strong commitment to the congress and is providing very significant financial support for the project. Accommodations on the edge of a fjord, with meeting sites located on and around the University of Oslo campus, promise a dramatic and pleasant setting for this lively intellectual exchange. The organizers have also been developing a number of augmentations to the program focused variously on other policy discussions and cultural activities that can be timed for presentation in Oslo during the meeting.

A major goal of both the Oslo organizers and the CISH secretariat is to involve scholars from parts of the world seldom present in these kinds of international gatherings. The desire to bring scholars from Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa is especially strong. The AHA is working with some of the area-studies organizations to facilitate the identification of scholars from these areas, while some of the other associations have expressed interest in working with Oslo to find funds to help underwrite the costs for these scholars. If you have any suggestions in this respect, please forward them to me; as noted in the call for proposals issued by Renate Bridenthal's committee, panel proposals will be much strengthened if they include historians from other countries.

Oslo thus presents a rare and ideal opportunity for America-based scholars to meet and interact with their counterparts from elsewhere. We encourage as many historians as possible to participate in the 2000 program. For further information, consult the call for proposals in the November Perspectives and with the AHA Committee on International Historical Activities: Renate Bridenthal (chair), Jeremy Adams (Southern Methodist Univ.), Charles D. Smith (Univ. of Arizona), Richard L. Kagan (Johns Hopkins Univ.), Stefan Tanaka (Univ. of California, San Diego), and Sandria B. Freitag (ex officio).