Committee Meetings and Events

Debbie Ann Doyle, February 2014

A common theme emerged at the meetings and events sponsored by AHA committees at the 2014 annual meeting. Members expressed a desire for guidance and advice on navigating the many twists and turns of professional life from fellow historians, and they regard the annual meeting as a valuable opportunity for professional development. Members urged the AHA’s committees to use the meeting to help historians learn from one another.

The Committee on Minority Historians solicited feedback on the committee’s mission and how it can best serve its constituency at its annual mentoring breakfast on Friday morning. Committee member Mae Ngai (Columbia University) led a wide-ranging discussion about ways to use the annual meeting to provide professional development for historians of color. Participants suggested a variety of ideas, from informally matching first-time participants with informal mentors, called “conference buddies,” early in the meeting, to organizing professional-development sessions, to setting up a formal, year-round mentoring program with online and face-to­face components.

Discussion at the annual Graduate and Early Career Committee’s open forum on Friday afternoon also focused on enhancing professional development opportunities at the annual meeting. Members of the committee asked participants to brainstorm about the goals and purposes of the conference—what are the benefits of gathering thousands of historians in one place? Participants suggested taking advantage of the breadth of the meeting to encourage conversations across fields and work contexts. For example, the meeting could be a place where college faculty and secondary teachers learn from each other, or where graduate students learn about important historiographical trends in specialties outside their own.

The Committee on Women Historians (CWH) organized a series of events at the 2014 meeting designed to look back at the achievements of earlier generations of women historians and initiate a cross­generational conversation about both the state of the field of gender history and the status of women in the discipline. At the annual Committee on Women Historians breakfast, speaker Rebecca J. Scott (University of Michigan) delivered an address entitled, “Three Women: How Might One Generation Speak to Another . . . And What Will Be Heard?” She reflected on the ways the efforts of earlier historians to recover women’s voices and experiences inspired her own work to reconstruct the stories of three enslaved women in the Gulf South from judicial records. We can’t recover the voices of these women, Scott observed, but must “weave together the tatters in the archives.”

At the CWH’s annual brainstorming session, committee chair Leora Auslander (University of Chicago) led a lively discussion that, in keeping with the “generations” theme, dealt mostly with questions of balancing family life with an academic career. As one participant pointed out, this conversation, while important, does not speak to the experience of all female historians, whose lives vary tremendously in terms of family situation and career paths. Nor are the topics discussed at the session, such as balancing academic work and family life or the challenges of being evaluated based on student evaluations, necessarily women’s issues. As Auslander concluded, they are part of a broader conversation on navigating an academic career that can continue at future annual meetings.

At a well-­attended afternoon session sponsored by CWH, “Generations of Women’s History,” a panel of distinguished speakers reflected on how women’s status in the profession and the study of women’s and gender history have changed since the committee was established in 1969. Patricia Albjerg Graham (Harvard), Crystal N. Feimster (Yale), Darlene Clark Hine (Northwestern), Natalie Zemon Davis (University of Toronto, in absentia), Linda K. Kerber (University of Iowa), and Alice Kessler­Harris (Columbia) considered how the complex and dynamic relationship between feminist politics and gender history has evolved over the years, and how the field has expanded to cover the intersections between gender, race, class, and sexuality. It is impossible, the panelists concluded, to address the challenges facing women historians today without addressing such broader structural challenges as the diminishing number of tenure-­track jobs and declining public support for the humanities.

It is clear from conversations at events sponsored by the committees that AHA members consider the annual meeting an effective venue for discussing these issues and challenges with their colleagues.

—Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA’s coordinator, committees and meetings.