From the AHA Activities column in the May 1999 Perspectives
Report of the 1999 Program Committee
John O. Voll, May 1999
The 1999 annual meeting of the American Historical Association held in Washington, D.C., January 7–10, was attended by about 4,500 people. The AHA annual meeting remains one of the few occasions where historians working in all fields can assemble with the possibility of engaging in discussions about issues important to the discipline of history and about matters of concern to historians as professionals and scholars. In organizing a program for such a meeting, it is impossible to satisfy everyone, but the 1999 Program Committee made major efforts to present a program that would appeal to as many historians as possible. The committee was successful in some areas but did not succeed in others.
The Program Committee received about 300 proposals for panels and 35 proposals for single papers and presentations. While the largest numbers of proposals dealt with topics in the history of the United States and western Europe, there were significant numbers of proposals in fields not always as well-represented as would be desirable in the programs of the annual meetings.
The proposals in medieval, East Asian, and Latin American history made it possible to provide important coverage of those fields in the 1999 program. However, there were no proposals for panels or papers in ancient history. Some important fields like sub-Saharan Africa, the Islamic Middle East, and South Asia each had less than five proposals for panels dealing primarily with topics within the field. Coverage of African and Middle Eastern history was strengthened, however, by being included in many comparative and cross-cultural proposals.
Many proposals involved comparative, cross-cultural, or world historical perspectives and approaches. Such panels are important because they bring together people, both as presenters and audience, from different fields within the discipline. Relatively larger attendance at the panels in world historical and comparative sessions indicates a high degree of interest in these general subjects. Two of the four sessions (not counting the plenary session) with the largest attendance dealt explicitly with "world history."
There was a significant response to the theme of "Migrations and Diasporas in History," with many types of panels being proposed. Some were very specialized and others more broadly theoretical and comparative. It is difficult to define precisely which proposals dealt with the theme, but about 60 could be clearly in that category, with about 30 of those included in the program. This means that theme-related proposals did not dominate the pool of proposals nor did they dominate the program with its 149 sessions. However, the meeting's plenary session and theme coverage was of high quality and resulted in a major article on the annual meeting and its theme in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Special Aspects of the Program
Teaching. The Program Committee made a special effort to include a significant teaching-related dimension in the program of the annual meeting. The committee was specially interested in providing a program that would be of interest to precollege teachers. The 16 sessions (in addition to association luncheons) listed in the special section in the printed program on "Teaching-Related Activities" (pp. 20–22) represents the results of these efforts. It is clear from the reports from session chairs that these were a very successful part of the program.
Washington-related activities. Washington, D.C., has many resources of interest to historians and the Program Committee made an effort to make some of these accessible to AHA members attending the annual meeting. Special sessions of the program were scheduled in a number of important off-site locations. These sessions were held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the National Museum of African Art, and the Newseum. In addition, there was a special reception at the Library of Congress to introduce collections and readings rooms of interest to historians. Unfortunately, the rain and ice storm made it difficult to leave the meeting site, so attendance at the off-site sessions was not as large as might have been expected.
Meeting in Washington also makes it possible for the program to include officials of interest to historians. John Carlin, the Archivist of the United States, made a presentation and William Ferris, the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, chaired a formal panel session on American regional history.
Affiliated societies. One very important dimension of the program of the annual meeting is the participation of the affiliated societies. The Program Committee made a special effort to coordinate its work with these societies. A letter was sent to each affiliated association inviting a coordinated effort, and some associations responded. The result was very fruitful. This effort worked especially well with the Medieval Academy of America, the Conference on Latin American History, the Agricultural History Society, and others.
The result of this effort and the very active efforts of the affiliated societies is that almost one-third of the sessions in the AHA program were joint sessions with an affiliated society. Some affiliated societies were dismayed that their proposed panels had not been included in the AHA program. Most followed the normal procedure and added their own program to the overall activities of the annual meeting. Sharon K. Tune and the AHA administrative office facilitated this process with great skill. The efforts of Joseph Miller and Robert Darnton to facilitate relations with the affiliated societies are very important. For future planning, it will be useful to bear in mind the examples of successful cooperation as well as the complaints of some societies.
Professional issues. The AHA has a responsibility to provide a forum in which historians, as professionals, can discuss practical issues and problems of being a "professional historian." The 1999 program, through the work of the divisions and various proposals, provided many opportunities for such discussions. These range from the very controversial, like unionization of graduate students and faculty, to a discussion of what a history department should be. There were panels of particular interest to graduate students in the job market and others talking about the current state of publishing. These sessions represent important opportunities to discuss the current status of our profession. Two of the four best-attended sessions—the session on professional interviews and the one on alternative careers—were directly related to professional interests of younger historians.
Poster panels. The program for the 1997 annual meeting included a "poster session," and the calls for papers for the 1998 and 1999 meetings included invitations for poster session proposals. However, the 1998 and 1999 committees did not feel that the small number of proposals warranted the expense and effort of utilizing the poster presentation format. It also appeared that even those who made proposals did not have a clear idea of what was involved in making a poster presentation. The call for proposals for the 2000 annual meeting explicitly states that there will be no poster sessions.
Including poster sessions in the AHA program was proposed by members who are aware of their importance in meetings of other professional associations like the American Political Science Association (APSA). In these associations, considerable resources are devoted to the poster sessions and, in some cases like APSA, well over 100 such presentations are given. The experience of the 1999 committee suggests that poster sessions are not a good idea for an AHA annual meeting unless the Association is willing to devote considerable resources and undertake an effective action for recruiting appropriate poster session proposals.
As the chair of the 1999 Program Committee, I should note the effective professionalism and hard work of my colleagues on the committee. They are the type of historians who are committed to the profession and the discipline and are not simply tied to advancing the cause of a particular field or their own professional visibility. The special work of the committee's cochair, Gary Kulik (Winterthur Museum), was important. The other members of the committee were Jeffry Diefendorf (Univ. of New Hampshire), Prasenjit Duara (Univ. of Chicago), James Henretta (Univ. of Maryland at College Park), Linda M. Haywood (Howard University), Michael F. Jimenez (Univ. of Pittsburgh), David R. Kobrin (Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, Rockville, MD) Claire Moses (Univ. of Maryland at College Park), Martha Newman (Univ. of Texas at Austin), and Jacqueline A. Rouse (Georgia State Univ.). It was a pleasure to work with them and I and the AHA owe them a debt of gratitude. As chair, I also want to express my personal gratitude to Rosalyn Terborg-Penn of Morgan State University, who provided great help at the beginning of the program planning process in defining the theme and the nature of the Program Committee.
I must also note the special effectiveness and hard work of all of the people in the AHA administration with whom I have worked. This recognition must start with the executive director, Sandria B. Freitag, and extend explicitly to Sharon K. Tune, Noralee Frankel, and Andrew Schulkin, and more generally to the whole AHA staff.
—John O. Voll (Georgetown Univ.) was chair of the 1999 Program Committee.