The 116th Annual Meeting: A Retrospective

Pillarisetti Sudhir, March 2002

The fall of 2001 was a trying time for all and so it was at 400 A Street too. Anthrax scares, postal delays, disrupted airline schedules, a general sense of insecurity, all hovered like dark clouds over the preparations for the 116th annual meeting. How do we deal with preregistration forms possibly held up in decontamination centers? Will the airports be open? Will enough participants turn up? Can we have a meeting at all? Despite all the anxieties, Executive Director Arnita Jones, Convention Director Sharon Tune, and the AHA staff kept the preparatory work going, inventing solutions to the new challenges as they cropped up. And, in the end, they happily discovered that historians were, after all, made of sterner and more enthusiastic stuff. Four thousand three hundred and eighty-six of them turned up in the occasionally rain-drenched but still balmy San Francisco, to savor the intellectual fare at the meeting as well as the many delights the city itself had to offer.

A reporter for the History News Network (http://historynewsnetwork.org) pointed out in a report on the annual meeting that the attractions of the city may have been too strong to resist. But apparently the many scholarly sessions at the meeting proved no less alluring. A majority of participants stuck to the meeting hotels, often facing the dilemma of choosing between two or more equally compelling panels that they wanted to attend, and many sessions had overflow attendance.

The Plenary Session

There were no such dilemmas, however, with the plenary session, as it traditionally starts off the meeting in solitary splendor on the first day. The theme of the session, chaired by Wm. Roger Louis, was Frontiers and Empires, connecting to the meeting theme of "Frontiers." The participants were James Piscatori and Richard White, as well as Toyin Falola and Marilyn Young (whose papers were read in their absence). The panelists examined the implications of the frontier in various empires.

Gutenberg-e Book-Launch Reception

An overflow gathering attended a special reception organized on Friday, January 4, to mark the publication online by Columbia University Press of the e- books produced by Ignacio Gallup-Diaz and Michael Katten, two of the six winners of the Gutenberg-e Prizes for 1999. Robert Darnton, who was the prime mover of the project, described the goals and objectives of the program and Sean Costigan of Columbia University Press discussed the technical challenges involved in transforming a text into an e-text. The authors briefly demonstrated their online books (The 'Door of the Seas and the Key to the Universe': Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in the Darién, 1640–1750, by Ignacio Gallup-Diaz and Colonial Lists/Indian Power: Identity Politics in Nineteenth-Century Telugu Speaking India, by Michael Katten) dazzling the audience not only with glimpses of the embedded scholarship but also of the possibilities offered by the new medium. Katten's book had, for instance, audiovisual segments that enhanced the text in ways that simple printed illustrations could not, while Gallup-Diaz was able to provide more extensive original-language documentation for his study than normally possible.

The General Meeting

The highlight of Friday was, of course, the awards ceremony and the presidential address. President-elect Lynn Hunt announced the Association's 2001 awards. Among the noteworthy recipients were those who were honored with the award for scholarly distinction, the honorary foreign membership, and the John E. Fagg Prize, which was offered for the first time in 2001 (see citations starting on page 25). After the presentation of the awards, Wm. Roger Louis delivered his presidential address, in which (while regaling the audience with humorous asides about previous presidential addresses that he "graded" with professorial panache) he explored the interconnections between British imperialism in Southeast Asia, the American experience in Vietnam, and ideas about memory, time, and place (see the February 2002 American Historical Review for the text of the address).

Breakfast Meeting of the AHA Committee on Women Historians

It was on a Saturday morning, but despite the early hour, and body clocks still chiming to other time zones, more than 200 enthusiastic scholars turned up for the breakfast meeting of the AHA's Committee on Women Historians, to hear Bonnie Smith of Rutgers University talk about the impact of nonwestern cultural practices on the civilizing process in the West. In a brilliant and lucid reexamination of the genealogies of everyday objects—such as the handkerchief—Smith demolished received notions and demonstrated how cultures on the periphery contributed to and transformed life and manners in the West.

The Business Meeting

Even though attendance at the business meeting is never very high, it is a crucial part of the program. It is here that the formal business of the AHA's annual meeting is transacted. Reports of the executive director, the nominating committee, the division vice presidents, and the AHR's editor are read, and resolutions adopted. So it was this year too, with Wm. Roger Louis chairing the meeting. The highlight of the meeting was the transfer of the AHA's historic gavel, symbolizing the transition from the 2001 president to the 2002 president.

The Job Register

Always one of the most important elements of the annual meeting, the Job Register this year was spared the many difficulties that engulfed it in 2001. Two of this year's comanagers, David Darlington and Richard Bond, were new to the Job Register, but they had the experienced guidance of Liz Townsend. Together with the additional support of the Local Arrangements Committee staff, they all ran what turned out to be, by all accounts from candidates and search committees, an exceptionally pleasant Job Register. Despite a few problems this year with levels of noise and lighting in some of its interview areas, the Register again proved to be a productive venue for interaction between job candidates and search committees.

The Messaging System

The electronic messaging system, tried out for the first time at the Boston meeting, was again deployed at this meeting, with many improvements and especially facilitated the working of the Job Register, reducing waiting times. About 20 terminals were located in two of the meeting hotels, and more than 5,000 messages were exchanged during the meeting. The experience from the two meetings will help in further enhancements of this useful feature.

Open Forums

Among the many well-attended open forums was the one organized by the Task Force on Public History. Linda Shopes, Noel Stowe, Maureen Murphy Nutting, and Debbie Ann Doyle represented the task force, which was created to advise the professional division and the AHA council on how the AHA can more effectively address the interests and concerns of public historians. The large audience came up with several suggestions on how the AHA could better serve public historians, ranging from publication of articles in Perspectives on using historic sites in teaching, to encouraging history departments to include public history in methodology courses. Responding to another suggestion, President-elect James McPherson offered to work with the task force and the affiliated societies to develop sessions on public history for the 2004 annual meeting.

Another well-attended open forum was that of the Task Force on Graduate Education. Chaired by Lillian Guerra, the forum focused on what the task force, now transformed into a permanent, and full-fledged AHA committee, could do for graduate students. David Chang and Fiona Galvin, colleagues of Guerra on the task force, also participated. The forum discussed issues such as funding for graduate students and ways of increasing graduate student enrollment in the AHA.

The Book Exhibition

The book exhibition, always a prime attraction during the annual meeting, once again drew the many bibliophiles among the attendees. More than 100 exhibitors displayed their books in booths spread across two locations in the Hilton. A constant stream of visitors flashed their meeting badges at the politely stern security guards—entry to the exhibition halls is always restricted to registered participants—and feasted upon a vast buffet of books in all their forms, from the traditional printed books to their newfangled electronic avatars.

The annual meeting is a complex enterprise and depends on the collaborative efforts of many people. The success of the 2002 meeting owes a great deal to the behind-the-scenes orchestration of numerous intricate details by Sharon K. Tune and Debbie Ann Doyle (with the unstinting support of the rest of the AHA staff), and to the 2002 Program Committee cochairs, Philippa Levine (Univ. of Southern California) and Paul S. Ropp (Clark Univ.); and the Local Arrangements Committee chair William N. Bonds (San Francisco State Univ.) and his colleagues.

The next meeting is at Chicago, January 2–5, 2003. Already the preparations have begun. We look forward to seeing you there!