Keeping Up with the AHA

James Grossman, January 2014

James Grossman, Photo by Frank CardimenRecently a friend asked how I manage to keep track of the various things we do at the AHA. The question helped me to see the need for keeping our membership apprised of the breadth and depth of the Association’s activities—­and, of course, nonmembers as well, something especially noted in this issue’s message from current AHA president Jan Goldstein and past president Ken Pomeranz. Allen Mikaelian, editor of Perspectives, conscientiously uses the pages of this magazine to keep readers current on our initiatives, programs, and activities. But I sheepishly admit that before I became executive director of the AHA three years ago, I didn’t typically read Perspectives from cover to cover; I suspect many of our members don’t either. Nor do most of our members (or readers, who are not necessarily the same people) visit the AHA’s website on a regular basis—­although everyone should, especially with its new look and functionality. So it seems appropriate to begin the New Year with a summing up, while also noting that 30 minutes spent at historians.org might satisfy your curiosity more effectively and idiosyncratically.

The AHA’s work falls generally within five categories: professional issues affecting various aspects of the discipline, teaching and learning in history, historical research, advocacy, and networking. These categories overlap, of course; if they didn’t, we would do our work in such isolated ways as to render it ineffective and static. Take, for example, the placement of the annual meeting under the jurisdiction of the AHA’s Research Division. This organizational scheme is an artifact of a time when the annual meeting served primarily as a place to present formal research papers, whether works in progress or finished products. It remains the premier venue for historians looking to discuss the fruits of their research, but the annual meeting has become much more besides. This year’s program previews a diverse collection of events suited to a wide variety of tastes and professional imperatives. We will once again have a full string devoted to the “malleable PhD,” exploring the wide variety of career paths open to those holding a doctorate in history. We will host a cornucopia of sessions and workshops that focus on teaching and learning, as well as a session on promoting the humanities in public culture and in policy arenas. And we have become more intentional about the networking functions of the event.

Our attention to networking has taken the form, in the past year, of a new space for group conversation on the AHA Communities website. All members have access to this space, and nonmembers (so long as they register) can participate in some groups as well. The site is still young, and most of the discussion groups consist of AHA committees and participants in the Association’s initiatives. We see AHA Communities as a step along the way to a more agile and robust professional networking environment. Those who have used it report finding the “groups” function easy to navigate and a platform for a more productive conversation than either e-­mail or a traditional listserv can provide. If your session at the annual meeting yields a group of scholars who need virtual space in which to continue a conversation, let us know.

One of the more lively groups in the AHA Communities space comprises our department chairs. An important but often invisible function of the AHA is to provide a place for history department chairs to share ideas, challenges, and solutions—­all with an eye toward helping the Association maintain an agenda that addresses their needs. In recent months, our chairs have consulted one another about tenure review procedures, hiring protocols, internships, assessment, and other issues central to responsible departmental leadership. We are now working to energize the communities space for our directors of graduate study, and we plan, in the coming year, to initiate a group called “Directors of Undergraduate Programs.”

Among the most active groups on the AHA Communities site has been faculty participating in the Association’s Tuning project, which brings together historians from more than 60 colleges and universities across the United States to articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program. The project’s website  offers a set of reference points; participating faculty adapt this work to the mission and culture of their own institutions.

Another teaching project, considerably smaller, explores the possibility of integrating scholarship on teaching and learning into graduate education in history, thereby enhancing the relationship between graduate programs in history and the centers for teaching and learning that exist on nearly all research university campuses. Other AHA history education projects—­collaborations with partners as diverse as the National Council for the Social Studies, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, Microsoft Research, and the California History-­Social Science Project—­focus on precollegiate classrooms. These involve curriculum enrichment, the use of digital tools, and general professional development.

Professional development in fact is the focus of much of our work—­sometimes explicitly, as in the Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges project, part of an NEH initiative to build curriculum and provide research opportunities for community college faculty. Our workshops bring these historians to the Huntington Library and the Library of Congress to learn from experts and conduct research. But professional development is often an implicit focus as well, as in our efforts to help graduate students widen their sense of possible careers and navigate those pathways.

The research component of our mission is addressed in part through through the AHA’s publications program, which includes books and pamphlets along a broad spectrum of topics, from specialized research to “state of the field” essays to guidebooks on such varied issues as copyright and teaching history through film. Our research mission generates a set of activities in addition to the annual meeting, including several ongoing pamphlet series on topics ranging from the history of technology to American constitutional history. Publication award competitions have climbed to 31, as we have raised more than $150,000 to endow three new prizes. Still other committees deliberate on the research grants and fellowships that we award on an annual basis.

To write and publish, historians need sources. A significant aspect of the AHA’s advocacy work lies in its watchdog capacity vis-­à-­vis federal (and through the National Coalition for History, even state) agencies with authority over records. This work can seem a constant battle, symbolized this past year by yet another appeal to liberate records relating to Watergate (Richard Nixon’s grand jury testimony) and to declassify a CIA history of the agency’s role in the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Indeed, a substantial aspect of the AHA’s mission, symbolized by our office on Capitol Hill, lies in the multifaceted activities generally referred to as “advocacy.” I have testified to a congressional committee on behalf of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the AHA remains an active member of the National Coalition for History, the National Humanities Alliance, and the Consortium of Social Sciences Associations.

Many readers of this column receive information and pleas for action from these organizations; they should know that members of Congress do sometimes take note of e-­mail messages from constituents. As part of our work in these coalitions, it is our job to provide the information members need to contact their representatives.

As the new Advocacy section of our website suggests, this work must not be limited to activity inside the Capital Beltway. AHA committees and ad hoc task forces monitor issues relating to specific groups of historians, including women, minorities, and graduate and early-­career scholars. We also await the report of a task force on GLBTQ historians. As suggested by our Council’s statements over the past year on faculty productivity, and on institutional policies denying PhD recipients the option to make choices regarding the digital distribution of their scholarship, our staff, Council, and committees continue to monitor and discuss the issues affecting our members. We are moving all of this work to the AHA Communities site in order to facilitate conversation and maintain a full record. We are also committed to maintaining the high standard of data gathering established by our former deputy director, Robert Townsend. Allen Mikaelian and Julia Brookins, special projects coordinator, have assumed responsibility for continuing the AHA’s exemplary data collection and analysis, work essential to the success of our committees and the ability of AHA staff and members to write intelligently about issues relating to historical research, thinking, and teaching.

All of this, and I haven’t mentioned the National History Center, an AHA initiative focused on Washington, DC, which offers a weekly seminar on history and public policy, and periodic policy briefings in the Capitol directed toward providing congressional staff with historical context on contemporary issues. Or the hours spent by a tireless AHA president, Kenneth Pomeranz, on behalf of our colleagues at a small historically black university whose administration threatened to dismantle the history program (which would have been a tragic irony, given the centrality of history to the institution’s very identity). Or a letter to the New York Times Book Review making clear that AHA membership is open to all, and that debate and disagreement are welcome.

In that vein, I welcome debate and disagreement regarding the activities cataloged here. I hope never to see the day when all AHA members agree on much of anything beyond the principles of academic freedom and the values expressed in the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct—­yet another example of the work carried out by our Council, which is currently preparing a revised edition to better address the digital environment and the work of public historians.

So, the answer to my friend’s question? I don’t keep track. It’s not possible; we do too much. That’s why we have a staff, a Council, committees, and other volunteers. The AHA is a good collaborator in part because we are ourselves a collaboration.

—James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.