When Things Fall Apart: Citizenship as a Countervailing Force

Linda K. Kerber, January 2006

2006 President Linda K. KerberI have always suspected that being unemployed had a lot to do with my first real encounter with the AHA. The Committee on Women Historians was brand-new when I was appointed to it in 1971, a wistful replacement for the distinguished Adrienne Koch, who died not long before its first meeting. Then, as now, the CWH was a feisty enterprise, out to disrupt business-as-usual, and I have no doubt (but cannot confirm) that it was especially happy to have someone representing the young—I was 31—and vulnerable. That by the time of our first meeting I actually had a job took some of the novelty away.

But not for me. I was surprised to find in the AHA concentric circles of welcoming communities that were truly national in extent. As a graduate student, I had attended only one day of an annual meeting. Dizzied by the confusion, I had not known what to make of it: thousands of strangers milling around, disconnected sessions on disconnected subjects; only the book exhibits made any sense. After graduate school my friends scattered, all newly embedded in their own separate universes: the elegant liberal arts college, the night school of the city university, the 50-man (literally) history department in the public university. We seemed no longer to have much in common.

But from the vantage point of 400 A Street, S.E., we were all historians, and we were all subject to the shifting tides of politics and constrained by the same rules of fairness. When the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued its first guidelines for Affirmative Action, we in the CWH did not have any difficulty persuading the AHA staff that the open advertisement of job openings was an absolute prerequisite to the ability to act affirmatively, and the Employment Information Bulletin that is still part of Perspectives was born. We did not need to wait for the federal government to act before we spread our own word that failure to advertise was shameful. And when historians found decisions to deny them tenure were being made, sloppily, in informal conversations of senior colleagues with little regard for evidence, they described their frustration in heartfelt letters to the CWH even though they knew that the AAUP was better positioned to offer them help. They expected other historians to understand the nuances of their situation; they did not want to feel so alone. And when I read those letters, I did not feel alone either.

Much of the historian's work is necessarily lonely: we generally read alone in a quiet room, we write—on paper or on a computer screen—alone, we plot our plans for classes alone. Much of the practice of our work occurs in the narrow physical boundaries of a classroom or the somewhat wider boundaries of the individual institutions—school or college or university, museum or library—in which we find ourselves. But we simultaneously practice history in a national setting. Federal, state and local policies shape historical practice, and often we need to respond to these policies and legislation. We rely on a context of academic freedom, and not infrequently need to defend it.

Learned societies—not only the AHA, but also the more specialized societies like the Organization of American Historians or the Society for French Historical Studies, and interdisciplinary societies like the Association for Asian Studies—sustain communities of historical practice.

Learned societies publish journals that offer peer review of our scholarship and then disseminate it (generally offering membership to graduate students at a price that barely covers the cost of publication of the journal alone); they convene annual meetings that help us learn about the latest developments in the field early, provide a setting in which we can find jobs and recruit candidates, and bring us together with colleagues from across the nation.

Learned societies have been strong and effective supporters of public funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, on whose grants much historical work is dependent; we will be on the front lines in defending the integrity of peer review. Gathered together under the aegis of the National Coalition for History, learned societies monitor governmental developments (reported in Bruce Craig's free weekly e-mail reports), press for the timely declassification of government records and efficient response to inquiries made under the Freedom of Information Act, and help us shape our responses to proposed legislation. Linked with our colleagues in the American Council of Learned Societies, we are part of a national academic community; cooperating with the American Association of University Professors, we work to sustain the integrity of the profession.

At the annual meetings and in working groups like the AHA's Professional Division and our Committee on Minority Historians, learned societies are forums for the challenges that historians face. After a multiyear study funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the report of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (University of Illinois Press, 2004) described a field substantially changed from a generation before. In its forthright call for holistic programs that widen understandings of professional practice in schools, museums, community colleges, archives and government agencies as well as in traditional colleges and universities, the report challenges much established wisdom and makes recommendations that are already reshaping the future of historical practice.

In capacious evaluations of the state of the profession regularly published in Perspectives, Robert Townsend, the AHA's assistant director for research and publications, has been offering important but deeply disturbing analyses of developments in what might be called the sociology of the historical profession. His September and December 2005 reports (available online) address the narrowing of access to our field of study and work, demonstrating that in the last decade elite universities have drawn their graduate students from a shrinking range of elite undergraduate institutions, and filled their teaching positions from an increasingly predictable and narrow range of elite institutions. Both undergraduate and graduate history programs have remained far less diverse than other fields of academic inquiry, even among the humanities; indeed, Townsend points out (in his essay, "Privileging History: Trends in the Undergraduate Origins of History PhDs," Perspectives September 2005), "after differing significantly in their undergraduate origins during the late 1960s and early 1970s, minorities and women receiving history PhDs became increasingly similar educationally to their white and male counterparts."

These are troubling trends, especially when we add what else we know about the expanded use of contingent and otherwise non-tenure-track faculty, the outsourcing of curatorial work in historical museums, and the severity of work and life problems, involving the challenges of maintaining professional lives simultaneously with personal needs, family contexts, and the obligations of care. (The virtual absence of maternity leave for graduate students and faculty in many institutions, scattered childcare arrangements, health care systems that assume very brief hospital stays followed by extended recuperation at home: all are part of the context in which we must shape our professional lives).

Naming problems that have lurked under the radar of our consciousness is the beginning of addressing them. Learned societies like the AHA cannot solve them alone. But learned societies in general, and the AHA in particular, have a major role to play.

Against the narrowness of vision that reinforces the track that leads from elite undergraduate programs into elite graduate programs, against the inertia that keeps the demographics of our field among the least diverse in the academy, the learned society can stand as one countervailing weight. The American Historical Review is happy to evaluate any article that is submitted to it. Double-blind peer review means that authors from elite institutions have no advantage and those whose careers fit another profile have no disadvantage. Program Committees are affirmatively charged to be inclusive, wide-ranging, and proactive. Book prize committees are as pleased to make awards to volumes that emerge from small presses as to those that emerge from better-known ones, and these prizes bring visibility to important academic books. Our committees and task forces regularly give visibility to the changing agendas with which our members are concerned (most recently the survey that led to the recent AHA report on The Status of Women in the Historical Profession, prepared by Elizabeth Lunbeck on the basis of a study by the CWH, and our report on the changing role of the Master's degree in the profession, with recommendations for strengthening it, prepared by Philip M. Katz based on a study conducted by the AHA Committee on the Master's Degree: Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History).

But the work of the learned society—and our dependence on that work and on the national community it forms—is only spottily understood throughout the academy. It is true that our work is considerably more transparent than when I was a graduate student; newsletters like this one and especially web sites (ours is ) convey much more of the life of an association than was available even a decade ago . But we remain indecipherable too long for too many of our colleagues, especially those for whom the annual meeting—because it is a site of job interviews—is encountered first as an uncomfortable gatekeeping operation.

In my own department, we've begun a modest practice of including in the introductory colloquium for new graduate students a unit on the national professional context in which history is practiced. My conversations with an extremely random and very small sample of friends and colleagues suggest that the report on The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century is inspiring a number of other initiatives in this spirit.

From a distance the AHA appears—as indeed it is in many respects—stable, empowered, magisterial. Incorporated by Congress in 1889, we can take great pride in the consistency and energy with which we have tried to fulfill the promise we made then to work "for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts, and for kindred purposes in the interest of American history, and of history in America." We are durable. But we are not immutable. Indeed, we are more fragile than we appear.

Our individual membership rolls have been stable, at the level of 14,000 members. As the largest learned society among the members of the National Coalition for History, we appropriately contribute the largest amount of resources to advocacy; as a 501 (c) (3) agency we may devote only a strictly limited portion of our income to this work. How much we contribute and what difference we can make in this effort is directly dependent on the number of members we have and where advocacy fits amid our other responsibilities. We are deeply grateful to the generations of historians who built for us a substantial and stabilizing endowment. But that endowment is enough to cover only a year's expenses, and provides an imperfect cushion against even predictable disasters. (We could regain our equilibrium were a blizzard, say, to knock out one annual meeting, but two in close proximity would be a calamity.)

The reports on the state of the field that the AHA engenders, tracking developments in our profession far more frequently than we did a generation ago, require substantial resources for staff support, research time, and the development of competitive foundation grants. Without a robust membership to demand them and sustain them, these projects will erode.

But the most important thing about the AHA, I think, is what might be called its civic enterprise, building a national community that values each other's work, applauds its most creative accomplishments, sustains its vulnerable, connects with the public, and welcomes, over and over, the next generation of historians. In this vast enterprise energies are offered voluntarily, out of generosity of spirit. We exist because our members believe we should exist and work hard, in many different ways—not least of which is simply to be members—to perpetuate and strengthen the community.

The AHA achieves its stability only as, day after day, we, the thousands of its members, not only believe in it (like Peter Pan's Wendy), but also engage in actions that use its resources and maintain its vitality. The AHA may look, on the surface, like a large, static institution, but at its core, it is most essentially a dynamic assemblage, sustained by acts of will, acts of belief, acts of citizenship.

—Linda K. Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) is president of the AHA.