The Incredible Rightness of Belonging: Why It Is Important to Be an AHA Member
James Grossman, January 2012
I've been a member of the AHA for nearly 30 years. Like many others, I joined when I first entered the job market. In that pre-Internet era, the only way to learn about openings was to shell out for membership or, as I tried initially, to wait for the employment bulletin to be made available by the University's history department. For most of us, convenience and impatience (after all, the deadline always allowed time enough even for those who saw the listings a week or two late) eventually trumped financial concerns. We joined. Many of us then permitted our membership to lapse. I rejoined, only because I soon came to appreciate the importance of the organization and our connection to it.
In other words, I did not initially take out a membership in the AHA for any of the reasons that Tony Grafton and I invoked in a recent member solicitation, one that emphasized a "call to professional citizenship." I had to learn over time that the organization represents the interests of all historians, and even more broadly, of all those who benefit from the work that historians do in the many venues in which we work.
The landscape has changed dramatically since 1980. Job listings have recently been opened to nonmembers and members alike at the AHA's web site. Historians with access to research libraries do not need an AHA membership to have at their digital fingertips the most widely read—and cited—historical journal in the world. And the annual meeting, which will begin just a few days after this issue of Perspectives becomes available online, exists within a culture of professional networking that has been completely transformed, first by e-mail and electronic discussion lists, and subsequently by social media.
The annual meeting remains a hub of recruitment for academic jobs, but that short-term attraction leaves a long-term distaste in the memories of many attendees, bred of the anxieties of the job search. AHA staff, most notably Liz Townsend and Sharon Tune, have made considerable progress in shaving the hard edges from the meeting's job networking process—from changes in design to providing such simple amenities as a quiet room. But it is what it is: the AHA will not win the loyalty of historians based on their experience searching for a job at the annual meeting.
So why should anyone join? The journal is available to thousands of historians for free; the job advertisements are now ungated; and Perspectives on History is available to nonmembers on our web site, deferred by only a month. How do we respond to the former member who expressed this, common concern?: "I stopped my membership years ago because the cost of membership exceeded the benefits I received from the organization." The obvious opening gambit might be to enumerate the concrete benefits of AHA membership: discounts on publications and annual meeting registrations; online access to the Directory of History Departments and Organizations; the trove of timely Choice reviews accessible to AHA members through a new partnership with the Association of College and Research Libraries; and the opportunities to apply for AHA research grants and present at the annual meeting.
The list is longer than it once was, but shorter than it should be. But is that what really matters? Those of us with a surfeit of coffee mugs and tote bags don't get much as individuals from our memberships in public radio, either. We join because we believe the benefit that accrues to all could not exist without the commitment to public culture that requires financial support. A community that does good work cannot do that work without resources.
The AHA does not yet offer mugs—although attendees at last year's annual meeting did receive tote bags—but we're on the same wavelength. Without our members' dues there would be no AHR, no annual meeting, and no Perspectives, because there would be no staff paid to produce them.
Nor would there be the very substantial program of advocacy that is central to the AHA's mission. This past week, the U.S. Congress broke through months of gridlock to pass a budget that did not emerge from a normal process and whose details were at first hidden. The National Coalition for History—a collaboration of more than 50 history and history-related organizations—headquartered in the AHA's office building on Capitol Hill, was the first to pull together and make available a wide variety of history-related budget figures, from Teaching American History grants to allocations for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historic Publications and Records Commission, and Title VI/Fulbright Hays. Our advocacy efforts range widely, and well beyond Washington. We have played a major role in opening millions of pages of government documents to researchers; commented publicly on textbook and curriculum controversies (and quickly enough to catch the news cycles); played a central role in the Coalition for the Academic Workforce; and begun to explore how to make expensive digital resources available to historians who lack access to research libraries. The AHA publishes guidelines relating to professional ethics that are frequently used both inside the academy and beyond to advocate for the maintenance of standards of integrity in historical work.
These activities (and more), unknown to many historians (members and nonmembers alike), will be highlighted on the redesigned web site that we expect to launch in 2012. We will soon also undertake an even more thorough and elaborate web site renovation, which will provide a wide variety of new benefits to members through social networking tools and access to more digital resources.
I realize that the AHA has not fully addressed the concerns raised recently by historians generous enough with their time to explain why they have let their memberships lapse; have never considered membership; or would not join if their lives depended on it. One of these nonmembers thoughtfully distinguished between "information" useful to the AHA in addressing concerns, and mere "complaint," and our staff has appreciated that distinction in learning from the comments and asking how we can communicate more effectively, change the way we do some things, or generate new initiatives.
These critiques range widely. Some we can address; others are stickier. As many respondents tell us that the AHR is too broad in its scope as lament that it is too narrow. Scholars in nearly every field decline to join because the AHR does not publish enough in their field. Or offer the same concerns about the annual meeting. Those who are unhappy that the AHA has tilted too much to the left seem about as numerous as those who lament the Association's unwillingness to support various left-wing causes. On the other hand, the suggestion that that the AHA "return to its roots" and reach more broadly into a general public interested in history is something that we can and will address.
One striking pattern corroborates an impression I had two years ago when I started asking the questions that would help me decide whether to accept my appointment at the AHA. There's simply a lot about this organization that people don't know. That certainly includes the amount of advocacy work that the AHA does, about which we must more effectively inform our community. And the already substantial but now increasing focus on activities relating to teaching, including new professional development grants for community college teachers, and for curricular work at the associate, bachelor's and master's levels.
But it's even more basic than that. Soon after I accepted this position, I jokingly told an extremely knowledgeable collector of historical materials that he would now have to join the AHA. He said he would be honored before asking "But am I eligible"? A historian listed in the AHA's Guide to Departments of History responded to our letter with this: "Thank you for your invitation. I am interested. Please reply with an explanation of the precise requirements for membership. Are there any formal requirements other than membership dues?"
And so, in the spirit of the New Year, I have this request: take a moment to buttonhole a few colleagues, inform them of the AHA's efforts on behalf of historical work, and tell them that they do not have to wait for an invitation to join, nor fulfill any arcane requirements. They might even get a tote bag.
James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.