Some Advice from the Program Committee on Submitting Proposals for the 2013 Annual Meeting

Paul S. Sutter, January 2012

Several months ago, the 2013 Program Committee gathered at AHA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to discuss the challenging task of putting together the program of the 127th annual meeting. While much of our committee's work involves the vetting of proposals submitted by AHA members, the Program Committee is also charged with creating 10 percent of the annual meeting sessions. As a result, much of our conversation focused on specific session ideas for that portion of the program over which we have direct creative control. But as we brainstormed, we found ourselves thinking about larger questions: What makes a good AHA session? What attracts each of us to particular sessions? How might we diversify the program in all sorts of ways? How might we increase enthusiasm for attending the annual meeting? After discussing these and other questions, we realized that the highlights of our conversation might be worth sharing as AHA members prepare to submit proposals by the February 15 deadline.

We urge those submitting proposals to think about the audience. The AHA is a big meeting, but in any given time slot there are two dozen sessions to compete with as well as distractions that tempt many of us to skip sessions entirely. So how might you create sessions that are intriguing enough that your colleagues will want to attend them? Start with an engaging, accessible title that communicates what is broadly important about your session. Think about, and then highlight, how your session will engage with big ideas that interest all historians, not just colleagues who share your specialized interests. Consider putting together sessions that move beyond narrow geographies and chronologies, and that have the potential to attract audience members from far-flung fields. Recruit a diverse mix of session participants, and avoid overrepresentation from single institutions. Emulate past sessions that you found especially stimulating. The great strength of the AHA annual meeting is the breadth and diversity of the scholars that it attracts. Provocative and well-attended sessions will speak to that breadth and diversity.

The Program Committee also encourages session proposals from traditionally underrepresented fields. In terms of geography, for instance, the Program Committee usually receives a large number of panel proposals on North American topics, and a solid number on Europe and Latin America, while proposals focused on areas such as Africa and East Asia tend to be few in number. In terms of chronology, a majority of submissions focus on recent history (post-1850), while ancient, medieval, and early modern proposals are less common. We encourage members who work in these underrepresented areas to submit session proposals and build a presence on the program. And if you have felt in the past that the AHA meeting has underrepresented your field, consider organizing a session that will help to correct such underrepresentation. The AHA annual meeting should be a place where we all stretch ourselves intellectually, get out of familiar comfort zones, and learn about other times and places in ways that help us do a better job of interpreting the ones most familiar to us.

You should consider, but not be constrained by, the meeting theme, which for 2013 will be "Lives, Places, Stories." We have explained our intentions for this theme elsewhere. We would, however, like to highlight our desire for sessions that consider what William Cronon has called "the public practice of history in and for a digital age". As attendees at the 2012 Annual Meeting will notice, Anthony Grafton and the 2012 Program Committee put together an exciting series of sessions on digital history under the collective title, "The Future Is Here: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching in History." For 2013, we hope to continue this conversation, though with a more expansive focus on what it means to practice history in a digital age. As a result, we want to see session proposals that not only address digital history, but that also examine how the practices of all historians are being altered by digital technologies and the habits they inculcate. Topics might include: how to use digital archives and databases most effectively; how powerful new search engines affect our research results; how pedagogy can and should change in a digital age; how online learning is reshaping our educational institutions; how scholarship is being assessed with new digital tools; how the students showing up in our classrooms have been affected by the digital age; how books, publishing, and reading itself are changing; how digital technologies and practices are affecting public history institutions; and how digital communications have altered our expectations of privacy. We may not all be digital historians, but we are all practicing history in an age when digital technologies are transforming quite fundamentally every aspect of our professional lives. We want the 2013 AHA annual meeting to prominently feature sessions on these important developments.

The AHA annual meeting also traditionally includes sessions that contend with historical dimensions of important current events, and which recognize major historical and historiographical anniversaries. When we convene in January 2013, we will be doing so just after the 2012 national election and only weeks before the presidential inauguration. We will also be meeting within days of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation's implementation. And E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class will be 50 years old in 2013. The Program Committee is working to organize sessions that address these events and anniversaries, but there are so many others to be recognized and addressed. We thus encourage members to put together such sessions, which connect past and present in powerful ways.

The Program Committee is also excited to be meeting in New Orleans in 2013, and we hope that the city's rich history can inspire parts of the program. This does not mean that we are looking for lots of panels on the local history of New Orleans, though we certainly hope to have a few. Rather, we encourage you to consider the larger historical themes to be found in and around New Orleans, such as colonization and empire; slavery and the African diaspora; music and food; empire and trade; city and country; natural and human disasters. The Program Committee has begun to pull together panels that will constitute a thread on "New Orleans and the Wider World," and we welcome additional proposals along these lines.

Please also take into account that AHA members come from a wide variety of professional settings —research universities, four-year colleges, two-year colleges, high schools, and public history institutions. Consider how your proposed session might appeal to as many of these groups as possible, and how you might integrate the interests of multiple communities into single sessions. One idea we discussed—an idea we called "Updating Great Debates"—was to encourage a series of sessions that bring scholars and teachers together to discuss recent scholarship on important historical debates and how to incorporate that scholarship into our teaching at various levels. No other gathering allows historians to reach across the profession like the AHA annual meeting does, and we need to take advantage of that.

Finally, we hope that members will organize sessions on the important professional and ethical issues that touch all of our lives. The Professional Division of the AHA has traditionally organized a slate of excellent sessions that deal with such issues, but there is always room for more submissions in this area. We particularly welcome sessions that deal fairly and frankly with the controversies affecting our discipline and its public practice.

The AHA annual meeting should be a forum in which we make a conscious effort not just to speak to our closest colleagues, but to everyone who shares our broad passion for the past. In this spirit, we invite AHA members to work together with the Program Committee to create a conference that all of us will be excited to attend.

Paul Sutter (Univ. of Colorado at Boulder) is chair of the Program Committee for the AHA's 127th annual meeting, scheduled to be held January 3–6, 2013, in New Orleans.