Room(s) for the Future

Sandria B. Freitag, December 1998

Over the summer and fall, historians—in departments, in the press, and in AHA committee meetings—have passionately debated the contributions made by scholarly societies to the field. Occasioned particularly by the emergence of The Historical Society, these discussions are most useful for the spotlight they shine on the unique role to be played by an "umbrella" organization, and how that is distinguished from the more targeted contributions made by specialists' groups.

Insights from one of our committee members, spoken at the end of his three-year term, begin to sketch the outline of the AHA's unique role: "I never paid much attention to the AHA before," he said, "because not many sessions at the annual meeting or articles in the journal seemed welcoming to me or my field. But I realize now that the AHA is a large house, with many rooms: there is a place here for all historians and—because they reside under the same roof—the opportunity for us to work together on intellectual and professional issues." I like his simile of a house, because it captures for me the most important strength of the AHA: its complex structure of divisions and committees, connecting up to the Council and headquarters, to identify key issues and to serve diverse constituencies.

AHA governance documents created in the 1980s lay out a rich array of institutional functions and assignments, resulting in a diffused decision making that differs significantly from many other nonprofit and scholarly organizations. This fundamental strength of the AHA is almost invisible, indicated only occasionally during elections and from reports of divisional activities carried in Perspectives. Yet it is the heart of the AHA's success. Assigned to the divisions (with their vice presidents) and committees is the responsibility to identify important issues facing the fields, and design programmatic initiatives to meet these needs. The pattern of these assignments recognizes the different and complementary concerns that make up the life of a professional historian; beyond research, teaching, and professional issues (handled by the divisions) are the Council's two standing committees on women and minorities in the profession.Equally important to this structure is its implementation: the hard work of the Nominating Committee and the Committee on Committees ensures that sitting on the divisions and committees are representatives of an astonishingly wide array of voices—diverse in their specialties, type of institution, geographical region, professional level, race, and gender. The final piece in the structure and implementation is the partnership described explicitly by the constitution between the committees and divisions and headquarters (represented in the governance documents by the executive director).

Working through the Divisions and Committees

This committee structure provides great depth as well as breadth, and looms large in any explanation of how the AHA fulfills its unique role for the field. With its rotating, three-year terms for members, the structure enables sustained programmatic initiatives that would otherwise be impossible to design and implement. In this way, the AHA can be much more ambitious in creating projects it hopes will address bigger issues and longer-term problems of concern to historians. The fact that each division and committee is assigned a specific set of issues (and cohorts) among the panoply that constitute the professional lives of historians enables the AHA to focus particular attention and energy on each of a wide variety of issues. Through the committee and division structure, this plays out in two different and complementary ways. First, the groups define for themselves (within the assignments delineated in the constitution) the issues they think most important to take up, and work on programmatic initiatives to address these issues. Second, the groups respond to ideas, proposals, and general issues referred to them by the Council or other committees. Through these complementary roles, the AHA benefits directly from its ability to call on the wide range of voices, experiences, and concerns represented in this complex structure. In my experience, the process has much enriched and refined every issue brought through it: occupants of the many rooms have built a house that has strong foundations as well as space for every kind of history and issue of significance to historians.

Each group meets twice a year (at present, to save money, they alternate between face-to-face and teleconference meetings). They tackle a range of ongoing business in an iterative way that progresses, incrementally each time they meet, on their programmatic concerns. (With the advent of listservs, this forward movement now can be accelerated as necessary.) The iterative process enables them to integrate new members into an ongoing dialogue, and thus to sustain for more than any single three-year term their set of goals and projects. The close work with headquarters staff helps the committees create concrete outcomes each time they meet, connect their work to that of the other divisions and committees, link up with other national organizations concerned with similar issues, and seek outside funding to support special initiatives. Meanwhile, the regular rhythm of these semiannual discussions also allows them to consult with Council between their meetings. At crucial stages as they develop programmatic initiatives, therefore, they both inform and are guided by Council's exercise of its assigned responsibility for setting policy direction for the Association.

A quick list of some of the issues undertaken recently by the divisions and committees suggests why this is the heart and the strength of the Association:

  • Both the Professional Division and the Committee on Women Historians have been focusing on how to identify and serve public historians.
  • The Professional Division has conducted a sustained project over more than five years targeted at the expanding use of part-time and adjunct faculty; in the course of this work it has achieved a strong and ongoing working relationship with a number of other members of the American Council of Learned Societies as well.
  • The Research Division has begun to delineate a wide range of interlinked issues connected to the healthy interrelationship between research and the other professional responsibilities of historians, including a statement on the subject for guidance of departments; work on how to evaluate scholarship without undue reliance on publishers' decisions; two projects that will provide enhanced opportunities to apply the new technologies, especially in protecting the endangered monograph; close monitoring of intellectual property issues; and the like.
  • The Teaching Division has also issued a guiding statement for departments on the characteristics of good teaching and the institutional supports required to sustain it, as well as guidelines for good textbooks.
  • In a new initiative introduced by its incoming vice president, the Teaching Division is now taking leadership to help departments (and other public institutions) to create collaboratives between postsecondary faculty and K–12 teachers to improve history teaching.
  • The committees on minority and women historians are providing new and tangible member services by organizing the publication of pamphlets on materials to enhance the teaching of a wide variety of courses in American and world history; the Teaching Division has now proposed, as well, several recombinations of Perspectives articles to accomplish the same purpose.
  • Beginning with a session at the 1999 annual meeting, the Professional Division will tackle one of the tenderest issues for departments of history: the production of PhDs.
  • In the Teaching Division's NEH-funded project to improve the survey course, one of the key goals is to teach students discernment and analytical skills in using primary sources drawn from the web.

Although this is not a complete list, it suggests the capacity of the AHA to address both intellectual and professional issues in a way unique among the organizations to which historians belong. Equally important, with the exception of particular projects such as the NEH-funded project on the survey course or the one supported by the Ford Foundation on area studies (described in an earlier column), all of this committee and division work is funded by the AHA's own resources, drawn from membership dues, publication (and advertising) revenues, and exhibitors' fees at the annual meeting.1 The "capacity" here, then, is a matter both of infrastructure and of broad-based revenue sources possible only for an umbrella organization.

Alternatives?

Other ways of structuring the work of the AHA are possible, of course. They seem attractive, especially on those occasions when the rhythm of deliberation and diffused decision making appears frustrating, both for those in the field whose concerns must be taken up by the committees and divisions, and by those on the Council who want to move quickly or who (because they do not sit on the divisions) do not see in action the benefits of the governance assignment of responsibilities.

One source for an alternative mode for the AHA is drawn from a model for nonprofit boards that is widely touted in the literature: this trend simplifies structures, especially by discounting the value of committees (preferring to concentrate more responsibility in the board itself); emphasizes the role of the president as chair of the board; and calls for the programmatic contributions of board members themselves. Steps taken and ongoing discussions suggest that Council is moving closer to this way of operating. In addition, although the literature advocates just the opposite, urging a conceptualization of the relationship between staff and elected officers as a "partnership," the model as explored by the AHA also limits the contributions made by permanent staff—contributions that have facilitated the connections among committees and divisions, and also enabled the AHA to take committee projects outside through the forging of collaborations with other organizations that allow the AHA to expand its reach significantly. While this model brings the benefits of closer accountability and control, it risks the costs of decreased depth and breadth, since Council can only handle so much work at any given time.

A second alternative has begun to emerge from the advent of activist presidents for the AHA. Several years ago the Nominating Committee recognized in its recruitment of candidates both the Association's need for this style of president and the desire of new generations of historians to do far more in the presidency than give a career-capping presidential address. (In this respect, the governance documents provide relatively little detail for the responsibilities of the president, and Council has in recent meetings begun to discuss what the substance of the job should entail.)

The Nominating Committee now seeks out presidential candidates who are not only outstanding scholars, but who can also be strong advocates for history and who understand the administration of complex organizations. Once again, there are both promises and risks in this new way of defining and accomplishing goals for the umbrella organization of historians. The presidency constitutes an influential position from which to exercise leadership, and recent officeholders have demonstrated the range of styles in which "presidential initiatives" can be exercised. As presidents themselves have lamented, however, they have a much shorter time to learn about the organization and to pursue their leadership goals than do the members of the divisions and committees. To limit Association accomplishments to what presidents can do would also risk the depth and breadth achieved under the current complex structure.

Meeting the Challenges of the Future

What shape will the AHA adopt to meet the challenges facing the profession? Obviously the Association is not faced with "either-or" decisions among the models now available to it. Yet how it reconciles these new modes of working with the infrastructure created by the 1980s vision of the Association will make all the difference in the future. The AHA has within its structure three strong sources of energy, insight, and connections to the field, in its divisions and committees (it is in the committees, especially, that the uniqueness of the Association resides), Council, and headquarters staff. Real vision will be required to apply those strengths to the challenges facing historians over the next decade.

The stakes are high. Whatever the appeal of specialist organizations for subsets of historians, only the AHA has the capacity to work for the field at large; only the AHA's "house" has a full set of rooms and recruits such a diverse set of occupants to draw upon. Without the richness of this complex operation, we are likely to witness missed opportunities that almost inevitably will lead to lower quality education, an inability for historians to contribute fully to American civil society, and a further devaluation of the creation and dissemination of new knowledge.

As the activities listed above suggest, the Association has taken on many of the issues that call for new solutions. We have made a good start on all of these fronts, from improving undergraduate and K–12 education to ensuring that new knowledge continues to be created and disseminated. From my observations of the effectiveness of the Association over the last four years, however, these initial efforts must be pursued for some time to yield real change and improvement. While Council needs to renew its policy commitment to the goals articulated by these division and committee undertakings, the real work in implementing programmatic initiatives will take place only where they can receive sustained attention—in the committees and at headquarters.

Still other issues remain unaddressed. Drawing on just one example to illustrate the point, let us look at what is, perhaps, the largest of these new issues: distance learning. Although the topic has been introduced into many of the gatherings of historians I have attended in recent years, we have yet to move beyond resistance to real strategizing. Only by taking leadership in defining what constitutes quality and how to protect that in the environment created by new technologies for student learning can historians push administrators and legislators beyond the approach that sees distance learning as a way to "deliver information" (and, very frequently, to cut staffing costs). My strong good wishes go to the AHA to make real use of all the rooms in its house—may it focus its energies on retaining its real strengths and attacking these real issues. It need not be distracted by the creation of other organizations that do not have the capacity to do this kind of work for all historians.

—Sandria B. Freitag is executive director of the American Historical Association.

Note

1. The connection between the AHA's ability to work on many fronts for its members and its ability to fund this work from its own resources constitutes one of the key characteristics pointed out to us last year by external financial advisers. They argued that as a membership-based organization, it was important for the AHA to define fiscal responsibility by building revenues, rather than cost cutting (which ran the risk of eroding member services). One of the marks of success for the AHA at this time is that we are managing to follow this advice.