From the President

Professional Identities and the AHA

Joseph C. Miller, February 1998

I doubt that I am alone, among those who have assumed the responsibilities of this office in searching for words to represent the dignity of the Association and respond adequately to the abilities, energies, contributions, and diverse interests of its members. As a new custodian of your professional interests, I feel particularly fortunate to enter our Association's presidency with the advantage of a year's tutelage under Joyce Appleby's wise, energetic, and alert leadership and—at one remove—her predecessor Caroline Walker Bynum's principled insight. They used this column in recent years to alert members to the many current issues that historians face. And in appropriately optimistic tones, they demonstrated the real opportunities open to a large, member-participant organization like ours to make a difference where history is concerned on behalf of our students, the public, and ourselves.

What I am moved to add—as I start my year as your president—is emphasis on the collaborative character of our Association. It is nothing more than the active participation of its members. Yet I have long sensed a tendency "out there"—I could just as easily write "out here"—to view the AHA as something remote from ourselves. It is viewed variously as a distant bunch of bureaucrats like all the others in Washington; a set of special interests—in some field other than our own—poised to take over the Review or the annual meeting program; a Council isolated from the members who elected them; or a costly distraction from our professional pursuits—our departments, our close circle of research specialists, our students, our institutions, our commitments to public service and policy issues.

In our reflective moments, most of us recognize the artificiality of these distinctions. In the future I may have the occasion to report my observations of the sensitive and responsible colleagues with whom I am privileged to work on the Council, the skilled and dedicated headquarters staff, the generous commitment that motivates the other elected and appointed officers of the Association, and the openness of the members who participate in collaborating with talented professionals from other fields whom they would otherwise have few opportunities to work with and learn from. But I'll limit my comments on this occasion to the distancing process that, I fear, leaves some of the people we most need to be with us watching instead from the sidelines.

Enough of the reason why we miss these opportunities lies, as so often is the case, within ourselves—stemming from the feeling that we already have the intellectual solution to the problem right at hand. Many of us have led the recent transdisciplinary revelations of the ways in which people define who they are by inventing differences between themselves and the often-close associates whom they construct as "Others," polar opposites of who and what they fancy themselves to be, however—or even precisely because of how—similar "they" may be to "us." In fact, it may be that we distance ourselves most from those on whom we most depend. By exaggerating our—and their—marginally distinguishing aspects we evaluate those aspects positively and correspondingly diminish the significance of some similarities. In the hands of those who unite to achieve power in these ways this disables those they portray as distinctively unworthy.

It is the narrowing quality of our professional lives, now at the end of the 20th century, and the open character of our Association that leads me to introduce myself to you with so speculative a reflection. We live in an age of rapid, even accelerating professional subspecialization, identity politics that both generate and grow out of culture wars and ethnic diversification, and necessary attention to one's own interests in an environment of competing interest groups. We rarely broaden our focus from these narrow concerns, and so fail to appreciate the shared interests and professional standards that frame and support our daily activities. The American Historical Association, alone among the many and healthily proliferating professional societies in which historians unite for other important purposes, keeps its eye primarily on this intellectual, legal, political, technical and technological, institutional, pedagogical, and ethical infrastructure.

It is the subtlety of this distinction—between the general, professional, and enabling function of the AHA and the groups specialized in the skills that produce substantive American or Asian history, or provide access to archival records, or write secondary-school instructional standards, or implement electronic technologies in ways that enhance scholarship—that may sometimes distance ourselves as historians from our collective body, the AHA. The AHA is inherently a professionally and personally diverse, multispecialist, umbrella organization where we come together with colleagues unlike ourselves. But coming together thus is tricky, sometimes discomforting. The balance between embracing these "Others" for their ability to enrich our professional lives and protecting our professional selves by rejecting or competing with them is delicate. It might even call old clichés about "love-hate relationships" to mind. We tend to welcome differences in principle but then retreat in practice back into what's familiar. That sort of ambivalence may extend to the American Historical Association itself. Each of us needs the AHA not to represent what we are, but to allow our colleagues to do for us what we cannot for ourselves—and we sometimes feel neglected or alienated when this doesn't occur. The venerability and dignity that the AHA enjoys, after dedicated participation by a long line of our most eminent predecessors, only sharpens ambivalence of this kind, since it predisposes us to anticipate that so august an organization must exist to protect us. In fact, upon thinking further, we also know that we in fact protect ourselves, acting through it.

That's why, for me, it's been important to belong to an Association that does not often, and never should primarily, duplicate the Africanist scholarly interests that I develop through other professional affiliations. And I mean to "belong" in at least two senses: making the annual financial commitments that support skilled, experienced colleagues in doing some of the things that I would like to have time and ability to do for myself, and to participate in the other ways that I can. We all have, and should have, other professional associations in which we pursue our special interests, where we can "be ourselves," but the AHA is about service, reaching out, reminding ourselves through the interactions that it fosters with others, of both who "we" are and what we also share with "them." The fact is that the AHA is none other than ourselves. Within the Association, we may—indeed ought to—disagree intensely on what we think, but here is also where we defend the standards by which we think, productively and responsibly. It only seems ironic that it's particularly when we feel too busy to contribute ourselves in these ways that we should pay our dues to allow colleagues who do currently have the inclination and make the time to do it for us. In that way we preserve the necessary conditions that will one day enable us also to take our turns in the cause.

I was moved to take such a philosophical tone on these topics by the current intensity of public, even national interest in history. This is particularly true as people are brought into ever-closer contact with one another—around the world and throughout the nation—and seek to understand how they became who they are discovering they are. The experience of representing you this year will, I anticipate, lead to future reflections from the president's desk on the practical, institutional aspects of our belonging to and participating in our Association.

—Joseph C. Miller (Univ. of Virginia) is president of the AHA.