From the Executive Director column of the May 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
The Life Cycle of the AHA Member
Arnita A. Jones, May 2008
It's April and I find myself thinking again about what it means to be a member of the AHA. Every spring Robert Townsend, AHA's assistant director for research and publications, takes his annual snapshot of the AHA numbers, focusing on the members—by dues category, field of scholarship, geographic location, gender, and race, among other indicators.
We measure membership at the same time every year so that seasonal fluctuations—a flurry of new members signing up in January to get the lower registration rate for the annual meeting, for example, or members who unintentionally let their memberships lapse over the summer as dues invoices piled up while they were away for research or on vacation—do not skew our comparisons from year to year. We need this information because in a few weeks we will begin to construct the budget for the next fiscal year and we must have accurate projections of membership to calculate revenues and expenses.
I actually like doing budgets—it's like putting together an intricate puzzle. If the numbers look good this year (and they do—as they have done for the past several years!) or if we can save a little on this vendor or that travel expense, I think, maybe we can increase our contribution to the National Coalition for History and replace the fraying carpet at 400 A Street. But there is an even more rewarding reason for which I pay special attention to membership at this time of year. In the spring we send out letters to our 50-year members, offering them a complimentary life membership as a thank you for their many years of loyalty to the Association and to the historical profession. Think of it! Fifty years of receiving and reading the American Historical Review, looking at the Annual Meeting Program and deciding whether to attend and which sessions are of interest, perusing Perspectives for the latest professional news. Well, maybe not 50 years of reading Perspectives. Until 1982 it was the AHA Newsletter, a rather different publication from today's newsmagazine (which recently expanded its name to Perspectives on History). Still, thousands of historians over the years have made this extraordinary commitment. Occasionally they respond to the letters I sign and write back to tell me how much their membership in the AHA has meant to them and about their lives of devotion to studying and teaching history. That is the best part.
When I was a graduate student at Emory University back in the 1960s, I was given to understand that a part of becoming a professional historian was joining the AHA. That nudge usually came from faculty mentors a year or two after embarking on graduate studies and it was at least partially a token of achievement. Those 50-year members who write to me relate similar experiences. Today, with informal employment networks and a shortage of applicants for history positions only a distant memory, it is the job market that motivates graduate students to become members, with the need to keep up with job advertisements and to interview at the annual meeting. As the only historical association that covers all fields and time periods, the AHA is the logical place for employment activities and yet, those of us who have worked with the Association for a number of years understand that newly minted professional historian's first experience with the AHA is often not a pleasant one.
In recent years AHA staff and its Committee for Graduate Students, led by a series of able chairs for several years now (Lillian Guerra, Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, and Elise Lipkowitz) have put a great deal of effort into making the AHA experience a positive one for their colleagues, especially at the annual meeting. For many years we have opened each annual meeting with a job interviewing workshop. We now supplement that with such sessions as those on getting a first article published, making the transition from graduate student status to being a professional historian, and autobiographical introductions to career opportunities.
Getting a first job these days does not necessarily mean permanent employment in a higher education institution or public history organization. As often as not, first jobs tend to be temporary. Even for tenure-track jobs, many hurdles have to be crossed before permanent status is achieved. Our graduate student leadership has begun to focus, therefore, on the problems of what we are calling "early career professionals" and has now persuaded Council that we should expand the mission of the Committee for Graduate Students to include this group as well. We expect next year to launch an initiative that will provide special help to beginning historians as they negotiate career hurdles and make decisions that will have lasting impact on their professional and personal lives.
As historians proceed through their professional lives they continue to benefit from the American Historical Association, even when they are not members. AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct is available to all who visit our web site and, along with guidelines for employers on the hiring process and equitable treatment for women and minorities or part-time faculty, is aimed at securing fair and reasonable conditions of work for members of our profession.
The core function of the American Historical Association since its formation in 1884 has been the "promotion of historical studies," a goal that was memorably crystallized in 1898 in the assumption of ownership of the American Historical Review, now in its 113th year as our flagship publication. The Association encourages scholarship in our field not only through publications, but also by recognizing excellence in other ways—awarding dozens of prizes, research grants, and fellowship awards in any given year, for example. Hundreds more members participate in this work of nurturing and sustaining scholarship, by serving on prize committees, reviewing articles for the AHR or Perspectives on History, serving on editorial boards, or participating in the annual meeting.
The AHA has also strived to meet the needs of teachers by sponsoring and/or distributing specialized journals and other publications focused on teaching. In recent years—responding to the extraordinary opportunity created by the $120 million in federal funds now available annually for improving K–12 history education—the AHA developed an influential set of benchmarks for professional development for precollegiate teachers and now is engaged in a partnership with George Mason University to disseminate what is being learned in the Teaching American History seminars around the country.
Finally, the Association represents professional historians in the public arena here in Washington and beyond. In the April 2008 issue of Perspectives on History I outlined a number of these activities and discussed their importance and relevance to those inside and outside the historical profession. This is critical work that is neverending, for each year presents its own challenges of policy and legislative initiatives that may impede the work of historians, sometimes at the nuisance level but recently more often with serious consequences. Despite our fortunate location in Washington and our participation in three active advocacy organizations, we could not do this work without the efforts of our members who write letters, make visits, and, in general, make their voices heard.
We hope that what our members gain from all of these activities is the satisfaction of participating in a community of scholars. The particular services historians take from the AHA often relate to the stage at which they find themselves in their careers. I like to think that one of the AHA's most important activities is to make possible conversations across boundaries of specialization or place of employment or career status. That seems to be what many of our 50-year members also think.
—Arnita Jones is the executive director of the AHA.