From the Annual Meeting column in the May-June 1995 Perspectives
Report of the 1995 Program Committee
Robert L. Harris Jr. and Ann-Louise Shapiro, May 1995
The 1995 AHA Program Committee was most pleased with the high quality of proposals that we received and with the enthusiastic cooperation of our colleagues both in the United States and abroad. Although we received fewer proposals than the 1994 Program Committee (210 compared to 360), we had more proposals in the "must have" category (40) after our first meeting than was the case (27) in 1994. We had decided to encourage proposals for complete sessions rather than for single papers. The number of proposals have ranged from about 150 in 1991, 300 in 1992, 360 in 1994, to 210 in 1995. We were pleased that we were able to increase the number of sessions on comparative history, historiography, and world history. One chair of a session commented that "we suspect that the comparative focus of the session brought together people not used to talking with each other but eager to do so." That is a gratifying comment, one that we think reveals the strength of the annual meeting, and that distinguishes the AHA in its ability to generate discussion across geographic and other boundaries.
The high quality of the program would not have been possible without the exacting standards of our committee members who passed judgment on each proposal and who organized sessions where there were gaps in the program. We are most grateful to Sharon Farmer (Univ. of California at Santa Barbara), Cheryl Johnson-Odim (Loyola Univ. Chicago), Jay L. Kaplan (New York Council for the Humanities), David T. Konig, (Washington Univ. at St. Louis), Juan Mora-Torres (Univ. of Texas at San Antonio), Mary Nolan (New York Univ.), Heidi Roupp (Aspen [Colo.] Public Schools), Yuri Slezkine (Univ. of California at Berkeley), and Sharon Strocchia (Emory Univ.). We were ably joined by the chair and cochair of the 1996 meeting, Renate Bridenthal (City Univ. of New York, Brooklyn Coll.) and Patrick Manning (Northeastern Univ). Without our service on the previous year's Program Committee, skillfully chaired by Linda Levy Peck (Univ. of Rochester) and Stanley L. Engerman (Univ. of Rochester), we would have lost much valuable time trying to find our way through the thicket of paper that descends on any Program Committee. AHA staff members Sharon K. Tune, convention director; James B. Gardner, deputy executive director; and Sandria B. Freitag, executive director, were extremely helpful in guiding us through the process of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain a sense of the research being done within our discipline, to become familiar with a range of scholars, and to fashion a program that might have some influence on the direction of scholarship.
In organizing the program, we sought a theme that would be inclusive and open-ended enough to encompass a wide range of methodologies and topics. We encouraged participants to consider the aftermath of war in different times and places and to explore how historians explain and represent periods of disruption and restabilization—how we determine beginnings and endings. We were very fortunate to have a superb panel of international scholars to open the meeting, Thursday evening, with a plenary session entitled "1945–1995: The 'End' of the Postwar Era." Carol Gluck (Columbia Univ.), Eric J. Hobsbawm (Univ. of London), Jurgen Kocka (Free Univ. of Berlin), Ali A. Mazrui (Binghamton Univ. and Cornell Univ.), and Marilyn Young (New York Univ.), set a tone of purpose and high-mindedness that lasted with few exceptions throughout the meeting. A capacity audience filled the Williford Room of the Chicago Hilton Hotel.
Our second plenary session on Saturday evening, "A National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity" drew an equally large audience. We were a bit nervous about scheduling a plenary session 45 minutes after the AHA business meeting and on a Saturday evening, when many of our colleagues make dinner reservations to sample the local fare. The panel, chaired by AHA President Thomas C. Holt (Univ. of Chicago), featured a presentation by Sheldon Hackney (National Endowment for the Humanities), and cogent comments by Darlene Clark Hine (Michigan State Univ.), David A. Hollinger (Univ. of California at Berkeley), and John Kuo Wei Tchen (City Univ. of New York, Queens Coll.).
About 45 percent of the chairs returned their session reports. Some may have been deterred by the form on which they were expected to make their report. Several apologized for writing their reports by hand, and many indicated that they were following the format on their word processors as they no longer have typewriters. Future Program Committee chairs should encourage session chairs to submit their reports in whatever form (following the general outline) they feel most comfortable with, including e-mail. After the Program had been printed, there were about six chairs of sessions who were not able to make the meeting for a variety of reasons. Most were very cooperative in recommending substitutes. In a few instances, we had to ask commentators to also serve as chairs for sessions. Despite our best efforts, there were still several no-shows who did not deliver their papers as scheduled. Perhaps the national office should keep a file of no-shows for future reference with a brief notation about why the person was not able to attend the meeting, a recommendation made in the 1990 Program Committee report. In some instances, there were genuine emergencies and illnesses that prevented participation. But there were also a couple of instances in which panelists did not show up and did not forward papers to be read.
We tried a couple of experiments for the meeting with fairly good results. Based on reports from previous Program Committees, we tried to avoid scheduling sessions in cavernous rooms that swallow even a good-sized audience. As a result, many sessions were standing-room only. Only one session had to be moved because of small room size. It is always a guessing game about how large an audience a session might draw, but the national office and the Local Arrangements Committee did a commendable job in matching rooms and sessions. The AHA should continue to avoid cavernous rooms.
The other experiment was to start the Sunday morning sessions at 8:30 a.m. instead of 9:30 a.m., to shorten the break between sessions, and to end the meeting at 1 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. One of the major complaints about the annual meeting is that the last time slot tends to draw the smallest attendance. Program Committees have tried to reserve some "blockbuster" sessions for that time slot. Travel schedules, however, have generally taken precedence. Based on attendance estimates from the Local Arrangements Committee and the chairs' session reports, the six time slots attracted attendees as follows: Friday: 9:30 a.m. (760), 2:30 p.m. (1,487); Saturday: 9:30 a.m. (580), 2:30 p.m. (795); Sunday: 8:30 a.m. (825), 11:00 a.m. (695).
The Friday afternoon slot includes an estimate of 225 who attended the session entitled "The Frontier in American Culture" at the Newberry Library. These attendance figures do not include sessions of affiliated societies. In part, this explains the difference between the 4,056 registered for the meeting (there were 4,050 registered in 1994 and 4,200 in 1992) and the average of 856 attendees during each time slot. There were a total of 52 affiliated society sessions that were not jointly sponsored by the AHA. Those sessions were clustered in a way that helps to explain the lower attendance during the Saturday morning slot. The affiliated society sessions were scheduled as follows: Friday: 9:30 a.m. (10), 2:30 p.m. (7); Saturday: 9:30 a.m. (16), 2:30 p.m. (10); Sunday: 8:30 a.m. (7), 11:00 a.m. (2).
The AHA should consider a more even distribution of affiliated society sessions across the time slots. We recommend that the AHA continue for at least another year or two ending the meeting at 1 p.m. Several session chairs reported favorably on the change. "One point about the Sunday 8:30 time," noted a chair, "I think that on balance it's better to stay with this schedule than have an afternoon session." "I was very impressed," commented a chair, "that we had 50 people at 8:30 a.m. on the last day of the session." Another observed: "I also think that ending the program at 1 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. helped to encourage attendance." There were more positive than negative comments about the change.
Now we can dispose of several file drawers full of proposals, program drafts, and correspondence. What makes it all worthwhile are the comments of colleagues who appreciate our work on behalf of the discipline and the profession. We especially thank those colleagues who sent words of encouragement such as the following: "I hope to meet you in Chicago to find out what makes somebody, otherwise sane and distinguished, take on the job of program chairs for the AHA meeting." And, "Best paper sessions that I have attended in 10 years worth of conferences."
Robert L. Harris, Jr.