Great Expectations

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, January 2009

I am happy to report that the AHA is in fine shape. We are financially solvent, have an active membership, and are blessed with an excellent staff at our headquarters in Washington, D.C. You belong to a thriving and innovative professional organization.

So, why did you join? Since June 2007, the AHA has been asking new members that question. Reading over a batch of comments collected this fall reminded me of what a big tent we have. Among the new members who responded to our survey were a college president, a community college student, a full-time prosecuting attorney, a historic preservation specialist for an urban park system, and a middle school teacher of American history, world cultures, and ancient civilizations. A philosopher, a classicist, and a graduate student in Asian languages told us they were looking for better grounding in history. Another respondent had spent 35 years in international development work before beginning graduate study in history.

Of course, many members admit to pragmatic reasons for paying their dues: somebody has invited them to participate on a panel; they want to apply for a grant; or the job market looms. “As I am in my last year of graduate student, it is the logical step to take,” one new member explained. Another quipped, “I’m in it for the money.” Yet, other responses suggest that the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee is having some success in connecting with students before they enter the market. There were lots of comments about networking, learning about new methods and trends, and building a professional identity.

A few responses made me think of that advertisement on public television that shows a guy in a business suit clutching a red rose in his teeth, proof that he has “a passion for accounting.” Historians (despite our stodgy reputation) can be passionate too. One enthusiast wrote, “I live for history. It is all I think about (almost) and I see everything from a historical perspective. I cannot wait to consume new information.” These members seek community as well as credibility. As one respondent said, “I love history, and am interested in being connected with others who love history too.”

With such a diverse range of interests, it is inevitable that some people are going to be disappointed. A person who wanders into an AHA annual meeting looking for breadth may land among specialists, while a person looking for news from the frontiers of research may end up in a session on filmmaking. To one person, community means connecting with celebrities; to another, a chance to have lunch with old classmates. Not surprisingly, people who are dropping their membership in the AHA often have the same expectations as new members. People join because they are interested in our publications and leave because they find them disappointing; they join because they are looking for jobs, and quit because they’ve found a job; and they join for community, and leave when they don’t find it. Great expectations can lead to great disappointments.

There is a lot that the staff and Council of the AHA can do to meet—and perhaps to manage—expectations. In the end, though, the success of the organization depends on those who serve on committees, write essays, review books and manuscripts, raise money for prizes, organize panels and workshops, and bring their own professionalism and passion to the annual meeting. Something needs to be said as well for those who support the AHA out of a sense of professional responsibility, like the new member who admitted, “I should have joined a long time ago.”

—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Harvard Univ.) is president of the AHA.