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From the 123rd Annual Meeting column of the March 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Highlights from the 123rd Annual Meeting

David M. Darlington, March 2009

The 123rd annual meeting of the American Historical Association took place January 2–5, 2009, in New York City. Over 5,900 academics, graduate students, public historians, publishers, and history professionals representing 60 countries attended the meeting. Events were held from Friday afternoon through Monday noon this year because the New Year’s holiday fell on a Thursday, the traditional start of the meeting.

The Plenary Session

Adam HochschildAHA President Gabrielle Spiegel opened the 123rd annual meeting on Friday, January 2, by presenting the sixth Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award to Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. The Roosevelt-Wilson Award is given “to honor a public figure or other civil servant who has made extraordinary contributions to the study, teaching, and public understanding of history.”

Hochschild graciously accepted the award, thanking those who made his achievements possible: his wife, his editor, and the numerous historians with whom he has consulted over the years. He went on to emphasize that history belongs to all, and that we should be grateful for the freedom we have in this country to delve into the past. He explained that in many parts of the world studying and teaching history is still a dangerous business. He finished his remarks by speaking of the plight of historians in Russia, and condemned a violent raid on the offices of the Russian human rights organization Memorial on December 4, 2008, in which hard drives containing valuable archival materials were taken.

The award presentation was followed by the plenary session, “Pleasures of the Imagination.” Gabrielle Spiegel chaired the roundtable featuring prominent historians discussing the role of imagination in the pursuit of historical endeavors. Linda Colley (Princeton Univ.) explained the “indispensability of the imagination” in recreating trauma. She said that since most historians don’t directly experience plague, war, genocide, and other traumas like these, they must draw on their imaginations in conjunction with their judgment to explain and reconstruct these events in their writing. John Demos (Yale Univ.) spoke about how the emotion elicited by historical objects can be fuel for the imaginative process. Jane Kamensky (Brandeis Univ.) commented that historians are in some ways painters, creating images of past places and people. Jill Lepore (Harvard Univ.) discussed novels and the imagination, arguing that “historians ought to read fiction by the light of day” and recognize the novel’s place in the study of history. Robert A. Rosenstone (California Institute of Technology) touched on how narration affects the interpretation of history. He explained that moving away from the third person past tense that so many historians embrace and experimenting with voice and narrative can lead to new insights in interpreting historical events. Jonathan D. Spence (Yale Univ.) spoke on the place of imagination in understanding transcripts and official documents, and how what is both said and left unsaid in these formal texts can reveal much about the feelings and motivations of historical players. The roundtable concluded with Natalie Zemon Davis (Univ. of Toronto) addressing reading into silences. She said that “we as historians all face silence at some point in our research,” when gaps in sources dry up and disappear.

The General Meeting

The 2009 General Meeting was held on the evening of Saturday, January 3. It began with AHA President-elect Laurel Thatcher Ulrich presenting the organization’s prizes and awards for 2008. This group consisted of 18 book prizes, three Awards for Scholarly Distinction, one honorary foreign membership, and more. The full list of honors and awards, and citations, can be found in this issue.

Following the presentation of awards, 2008 AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel addressed the audience on “The Task of the Historian.” The Chronicle of Higher Education described her remarks as “a valedictory goodbye to postmodernist theory.” Spiegel spoke on how the study of history has evolved and continues to evolve, commenting on the “linguistic turn” of the 1960s, the “epistemological cris[es]” brought about by postmodernism, and on the current emphasis on transnational history.1 Spiegel’s address ended by noting that deconstruction encourages historians to “listen to silence.” She emphasized that “our most fundamental task” as historians is to enable “narratives to emerge from silences.”

The full text of Spiegel’s remarks can be found in the February 2009 issue of the American Historical Review.

The Business Meeting

On the afternoon of Sunday, January 4, the executive director of the Association, the vice presidents of the divisions, the editor of the American Historical Review, and the chair of the Nominating Committee presented reports on the AHA’s activities for 2008. Usually the business meeting is a staid affair, but this year was a little different. A resolution proposed boycotting the headquarters hotel of the 2010 annual meeting in San Diego (the Manchester Grand Hyatt) because the hotel’s owner had been a political donor in favor of Proposition 8, which rescinded gay marriages in California. Because such a move would have had severe fiscal consequences for the AHA (costing at least $700,000 to break the contract), members at the business meeting approved a compromise in which the Association would hold “a series of panels and special events that will address issues of equity and place questions of marriage and family in historical perspective” at the 2010 meeting, and provide funding to publicize these events.

Election 2008: How “Historic” Was It?

One of the highlights of the meeting was a special plenary session held in the evening on Sunday, January 4, about the November 2008 presidential election in the United States. More than 100 people listened as chair Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.), Alan Brinkley (Columbia Univ.), Jacqueline Jones (Univ. of Texas at Austin), Caroline Elkins (Harvard Univ.), David Levering Lewis (New York Univ.), Julian Zelizer (Princeton Univ.), and John Darwin (Oxford Univ.) discussed Barack Obama’s victory and the challenges the new president faces. Many directed their comments to finding historical parallels for the nation’s (indeed, the world’s) current troubled economic situation and how the president’s proposed solutions compare to those tried in the past. Panelists also addressed the significance of Obama’s victory for minorities in America, and for peoples and governments around the globe.

Sessions, Exhibits, and the Job Center

The core of the annual meeting is not the big events, however, but rather the diverse paper sessions, panels, posters sessions, workshops, films, and other happenings. For example, the poster session was held on Sunday afternoon, where 16 presenters displayed their research on topics such as “Dumb Blondes and Southern Belles: Women in Entertainment and the Un-American Activities Committees,” “Drawing Fire: Political Cartoons of the Iranian Revolution in the United States,” and “You’ve Read the Book, Now See the Web Site: A Virtual Tour of the Worlds of Burke and Hare.” 340 AHA and affiliate sessions of various types were held in New York, and 56 affiliated societies co-sponsored sessions or held luncheons, sessions, and meetings.

The Exhibit Hall was located in the Americas Halls of the Hilton New York. There were 96 companies (including the AHA) displaying their wares. Exhibitors included university and trade presses, newspapers, nonprofit societies, and many more.

At the Job Center, many applicants (and, to be honest, search committees) were worried about how recent economic news was going to affect the history job market. As Robert B. Townsend reported in the January issue, job advertising in Perspectives on History declined 15 percent in fall 2008, and many departments were concerned that fiscal difficulties on the state level will result in the freezing of funds for new hires.2

Nevertheless, 198 active searches in New York were reported to Job Center staff, with 44 of those searches collecting c.v.’s and arranging interviews on site. Both of these numbers were down from the 2008 Washington, D.C., annual meeting, where the Job Center found 261 total searches and 62 searches arranging interviews on site. Eighty searches this year took advantage of the free Job Center tables in the Rhinelander Gallery, and another 51 rented official AHA interview parlors. The remainder of the searches made their own interview space reservations independent of the Job Center. Job Center staff believe that the decline in the number of searches can be attributed primarily to two factors: first, the economy; and second, the fact that many searches took advantage of inexpensive suites at the Doubletree Guest Suites and by-passed Job Center facilities altogether (not even reporting the search to the Job Center). The typical search using AHA facilities interviewed 11 candidates, unchanged from previous years. Similarly unchanged was the breakdown of field specializations, which has been remarkably consistent in recent years. This year the fields were, in order: United States (30 percent of searches), Europe (21 percent), Asia (15 percent), world history (12 percent), Latin America (7 percent), Africa (7 percent), thematic history (6 percent), and Middle East (5 percent).

With more than 5,900 registrants, the 2009 New York City annual meeting was the best attended meeting on record. In 2010, the annual meeting returns to the West Coast, convening in sunny San Diego, California, January 7–10, under the theme of “Oceans, Islands, Continents.” All are encouraged to attend.

—David Darlington is associate editor of Perspectives on History. Portions of this report previously appeared on AHA Today.

Notes

1. http://chronicle.com/news/article/5733/after-postmodernism-a-historian-reflects-on-where-the-field-is-going?utm_source=at&utm_medium=en.

2. Robert B. Townsend, “A Good Year on the Job Market, but Troubles Loom,” Perspectives on History (January 2009).