From the On Completing 50: Self-Reflections column in the December 2012 issue of Perspectives on History
A Perspective on Perspectives
James W. Cortada, December 2012
That first issue of the "AHA Newsletter," of December 1962, was a humble little thing, looking more like an American Sunday morning church bulletin of 8 pages than the crucial communications vehicle of the profession that it had become by its 50th birthday when it was routinely a slick 40 to 64-page magazine with color photographs, advertisements, and a circulation of about 15,000. But, from the beginning, it seemed familiar, picking up issues originally discussed in the AHR or at the annual meetings, and that have continued in a remarkably consistent fashion to be addressed today. While its pages reflected the issues faced by the profession, of course, many had not changed so much.
Thus, in the second issue there was a complaint that the U.S. Department of State was doing a poor job in publishing volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) in a timely fashion—a complaint raised repeatedly in its pages over the next half century, almost with the same tone and language. Jobs were posted from the beginning, remaining a central topic of discussion in almost every issue, with reports often noting in every decade that perhaps there were too many PhDs being awarded for the number of available jobs. While we have gotten used to Robert Townsend's reports on jobs and about the composition of the profession over the past decade, the newsletter demonstrates that while he was in kindergarten, others were reporting on similar issues.
Major events and issues challenging the membership were reported on and debated within the newsletter. For example, with the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, we read in various early issues that not less than five organizations of women historians vied to speak for this group within the AHA and that there were more women historians as a percentage of the total discipline in the 1920s and in the 1960s.
But one of the biggest crises faced by the AHA came in the 1970s as both the disparity of the number of PhDs awarded versus the number of available jobs had become the worst in the century, and the financial condition of the AHA degenerated to such a state that it had to solicit donations to cover its operating budget. John L. Shover, of the University of Pennsylvania, commented in the March 1972 issue that 2,300 applicants went after 155 jobs at the 1971 annual convention, declaring that "I see no possibility for a meaningful increase of jobs for trained historians and other academics now or in the near future." Sadly, he was right, at least for a while.
Debates about the production of PhDs, in particular, generated much discussion for years with well-known academics proposing that only elite institutions train historians, admonishing the others to close theirs as a solution to the pernicious "job crises." For some 50 years there was a parallel related discussion, and task forces engaged in defining what quality undergraduate and graduate programs should have.
There was much to say. The issue from October 1968 was 75 pages in length and was the first one to discuss contemporary politics. The riots in Chicago at the national convention of the Democratic Party earlier that year led the AHA to move the next convention to New York; attendees could bunk up with colleagues at local hotels for $5 a night.
The 1980s saw better times for the AHA and the cadence of topics reported on became more regular: awards, announcements of academic meetings, job postings, obituaries, discussions about professional activities, and lobbying for American laws and governmental practices in support of historical research. Newsletters appeared in our mailboxes roughly every month or two all through the period, ensuring that the AHA was frequently on our minds.
In January 1985, Perspectives (as it had become known since the early 1980s) published its first two photographs, one of William H. McNeill and another of Carl N. Degler, AHA president and president-elect, respectively. They looked distinguished and dapper in their suits. In short, they looked like well-paid IBM executives. From then on Perspectives published photographs of its leaders and by the 1990s, of major events, such as awards ceremonies at the annual conventions.
I had to look at back issues to realize how Perspectives had changed. For one thing, it had become quite normal for it to be 40 to 80 pages in length during the 1980s and 1990s. For another, it routinely published articles dealing with both intellectual issues and debates, and about operational issues facing both the AHA and the profession. In September 1997 Perspectives achieved the dubious milestone when it published my first humble contribution to the newsletter, an article about the role of historians working in business enterprises. It was considered quite "edgy." Perspectives declared in September 1999 "that employment prospects for history PhDs have improved somewhat in the past year," so I suppose there was no need for newly minted historians to work in business.
By the late 1990s, Perspectives was educating us on how to review movies, and began to expose its readers to the new technologies of computing, declaring that these were now penetrating in all manners the work of the historian. It was a theme picked up with increasing volume and intensity all through the early 2000s. Feminist issues continued to be discussed, along with those of minorities in both history and in the profession. Susan Pedersen celebrated the acceptance of feminist history in the October 2000 issue, declaring that "I think all of us would agree that feminism has utterly transformed historical writing." Maybe—because you had to admire her positive mood.
Somehow I expected Perspectives to start the new century with some elegant declaration of principles or perspectives. Instead, the lead article by Robert B. Townsend, brought good news that the job market was improving; but, of course, that was before the next recession that soon affected the profession. But he was already on a path to provide the profession a massive quantity of new insights on its demographics and job situation over the next dozen years.
When Perspectives reached its 40th anniversary, it reaffirmed that it would arrive in our mail boxes nine times a year in a densely packed format, complete with news, issues, advertisements, and other commentary. Arnita Jones, then the executive director of the AHA, declared that "Today's Perspectives helps a new generation of historians confront some old and some new issues." Lynn Hunt, president of the AHA, contributed one of many articles she would publish in this magazine, this one entitled "On Future Anxieties and Present Predicaments." Despite the tantalizing titles, her essays would become a source of practical insight into the profession and about the role of the AHA over the years, including my favorite by her, "Has Professionalization Gone Too Far?" in the February 2002 issue.
By the early 2000s, all my accumulated copies of Perspectives now occupied a full shelf, reminding us that it was now both a major source of information about the history of the AHA and of the historical discipline at large, publishing routinely over 500 pages each year. This publication was a slick operation by then, comprehensive in its continuous treatment of issues of interest to the profession, replete with advertisements, and beautifully illustrated articles about the next convention's site.
The lead article in the January 2008 issue brought us back to an old topic, "History at the State Department," while how to teach world history was increasingly the topic of growing debate in this decade.
What has our newsletter to teach us about ourselves and the AHA? For one thing, many issues that we deal with today have essentially remained the same over the past half century. These include standards for training historians, finding them jobs, and maintaining professional standards. AHA's financial status was always a concern, but membership remained relatively stable enough and was dominated by academic historians. The AHA always worried about access to government records, and in particular, lobbied in the United States for entree to those.
For another, as new methods and technologies came forward, Perspectives noted their adoption, from econometric methods to word processing and research using the Internet. It reflected the socially progressive agenda of many academic disciplines, championing the study of feministic and African American topics, beginning in the 1960s, and extending its interests to explorations of gay history and of other minority groups worldwide over the next half century. By the 1990s, its presidents were commenting on the state of the profession in addition to their more traditional practice of publishing a lead article in the American Historical Review.
The leading historians of the day stepped up into leadership roles in the AHA. The lists read like a Who's Who of our profession. Take for example, February 1969. Officers elected for that year included C. Van Woodward (President), Robert R. Palmer (Vice President), Peter Gay, Felix Gilbert, and Charles F. Delzell. They are a reminder that no matter how busy we are with our careers and publishing, there was and is an obligation to serve the AHA. A professor at the University of Wisconsin served as the Chairman of the Committee on PhD Programs in History in the late 1960s, recruiting 75 historians to assist the AHA. This scholar, E David Cronon, was the father of William Cronon, also of the University of Wisconsin, and the current president of the American Historical Association.
This short perspective has been a trip down "memory lane" for me, a reader of Perspectives since the late 1960s. It has made it possible to keep a pulse on the historical profession with minimal effort, made more important to what are now hundreds of members of the AHA who work outside of the academy either as historians or as interested outriders. For those two communities in particular, Perspectives has become the most important link to the historical craft, surpassing in importance academic journals and other newsletters.
James W. Cortada has been a member of the AHA since 1969 and is the author of over three dozen books. His most recent publication is The Digital Flood: The Diffusion of Information Technology across the United States, Europe, and Asia (Oxford University Press, 2012).