The Presidential Sessions
William Cronon, November 2012
Among the privileges I've most enjoyed in serving as AHA president has been the opportunity to work with this year's Program Committee, ably chaired by Paul Sutter (Univ. of Colorado at Boulder) and John McNeill (Georgetown Univ.) to shape the intellectual content of the New Orleans meeting. This year's theme—"Lives, Places, Stories"—was selected in part because it gently pointed toward aspects of the past that are close to the heart for all of us who care about environmental history: lives that are not just human but non-human as well; places on all possible geographical scales from the body to the home to the community to the nation to the continent to the globe; and stories as the rhetorical structures that give meaning to everything else by situating them in the flow of narrative time.
Because I'm the first environmental historian elected to this position, I'm delighted that this theme and the overall program have paid special attention to some of the most exciting work that my colleagues in this relatively new subfield have been doing. But because AHA has long been committed to representing at its annual meeting the full breadth of this vast discipline called history, we chose this theme of "Lives, Places, Stories" because it's hard to imagine any historical work that doesn't somehow fit within this frame. To make sure everyone feels welcome to submit proposals for sessions at the annual meeting, AHA actually has a formal rule mandating that only a relatively small fraction of the selected sessions can focus on that year's theme.
And yet this year's theme is so broad that it's difficult to find any sessions that fail to fit beneath its capacious umbrella. I like that.
But there is an even more particular privilege of the AHA president, which is having permission to organize a few sessions that speak quite directly to the president's own passions and concerns. In my case, I was especially interested in discussions of "Lives, Places, Stories" that would continue Anthony Grafton's focus on digital history, combined with my own interests in narrative and in history that contributes to civic discourse in the public realm. Those of you who have read my columns for Perspectives this year will know that my main focus has been less on environmental history than on "the public practice of history in and for a digital age." The presidential sessions I've helped organize are all situated at the intersections of these several themes.
Given my interest in historians sharing their work with nonacademic audiences, I'm delighted to report that we were able to persuade two master storytellers in very different mediums to attend the New Orleans meeting to talk about their work and share their interests about "the public practice of history." Both have been exceptionally effective in making the past come alive for large audiences.
First, the filmmaker John Sayles has agreed to join us for the entire annual meeting, giving AHA members a unique opportunity to engage with the rich body of historically informed cinematic storytelling that has been one of his hallmarks as a writer and director. Sayles's work will be showcased in three different ways. We'll be screening six of his films—Amigo, Eight Men Out, Lone Star, Matewan, Men with Guns, and Sunshine State—over the course of the meeting, and Sayles will be on hand to talk and answer audience questions about each of them. My colleague Gregg Mitman (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) has organized a panel discussion (Session 194, on Saturday, January 5, 2013 2:30–4:30 p.m.) with four other historians—Gabriela Soto Laveaga (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), Paul Kramer (Vanderbilt Univ.), Rachel St. John (Harvard Univ.), and Nathan Connolly (Johns Hopkins Univ.)—who are especially knowledgeable about film to talk about the historical implications of Sayles's work. Then, on Saturday night, the closing plenary (8:30–10:00 p.m.) will be a conversation with Sayles in which Peter Galison (Harvard Univ.), Vanessa Schwartz (Univ. of Southern California), and I will participate.
I could not be more pleased and grateful that my friend Michael Pollan has agreed to attend the annual meeting as well. No one has been more effective in making the history of food, agriculture, and the environment come alive for millions of readers, listeners, and viewers, and no one has played a more visible or effective role in critiquing the American food system. He has agreed to participate in an open conversation about his work (Session 110 on Friday, January 4, 2013, 2:30–4:30 p.m.), in which three prominent historians of food and agriculture will serve as commentators and interlocutors: Brian Donahue (Brandeis Univ.), Deborah Fitzgerald (MIT), and Donna Gabaccia (Univ. of Minnesota); I'll serve as chair, and Pollan will respond.
Pollan has also agreed to serve as one of the colleagues who will help me ponder in the opening plenary of the meeting, on Thursday night from 8:00–10:00, "The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age." Our panelists will bring a richly diverse and complementary range of experiences to this question: Edward Ayers (Univ. of Richmond), Lonnie Bunch (National Museum of African American History and Culture), Niko Pfund (Oxford University Press), Claire Potter (New School for Social Engagement and the Tenured Radical blog), Mary Louise Roberts (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison), and Pollan himself (Graduate School of Journalism, Univ. of California, Berkeley). It should be a wide-ranging and thought-provoking conversation.
My more particular subfield interests in environmental history and historical geography are represented in two sessions. Session 54, 8:30–10:00 a.m., on Friday morning, is a "Roundtable on Place in Time: What History and Geography Can Teach Each Other," in which leading geographers and historians talk about the burgeoning intersections of their fields in what I personally hope might be a revival of historical geography as a shared enterprise of the two disciplines. Robert Wilson (Syracuse Univ.) has agreed to serve as chair, and Laura Cameron (Queen's Univ.), Don Mitchell (Syracuse Univ.), Susan Schulten (Univ. of Denver), and Richard White (Stanford Univ.) have all agreed to serve as panelists. Session 165, on Saturday 9:00–11:00 a.m., is a "Roundtable on Environmental History for the Twenty-First Century" that will focus especially on environmental approaches in historiographies all around the world. Paul Sutter (Univ. Of Colorado at Boulder) will chair, and panelists will include Mark Fiege (Colorado State Univ.), Nancy Jacobs (Brown Univ.), Christof Mauch (Rachel Carson Center, Ludwig-Maximillian Univ.), Cynthia Radding (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and Donald Worster (Univ. of Kansas).
Because 2012 is an election year, it seems especially fitting that our public practice of history shed light on the larger trends and contexts that have made this campaign seem potentially more consequential than many. Session 81, on Friday morning 10:30–noon, is entitled "Taking a Longer View: The 2012 Election in Historical Context." Chaired by AHA Executive Director James Grossman, it will include Mary Frances Berry (Univ. of Pennsylvania), William Inboden (Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, Univ. of Texas at Austin), Laura Kalman (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), and Sean Wilentz (Princeton Univ.).
And finally, Session 138, 8:30–10:00 a.m. on Saturday, entitled "Clio's Craft: History and Storytelling," offers a public conversation about the literary arts of scholarly narrative that I'll also be exploring in my presidential address. It includes some of the most talented historical writers working today: John Demos (Yale Univ.); Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard Univ.); the journalist Tony Horwitz; Karl Jacoby (Columbia Univ.); Marci Shore (Yale Univ.), and Martha Sandweiss (Princeton Univ.), who will also serve as chair.
I am grateful to everyone who so generously accepted my invitations to participate in these panels, and very much look forward to joining other AHA members in the intellectual feasts that will be on offer at these and all the other sessions at the meeting.
William Cronon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) is the president of the AHA.