The Challenge of the Annual Meeting Program
Wm. Roger Louis, October 2001
From the President's column of the October 2001 Perspectives
Since its beginning in 1884, the AHA has always had two practical purposes that are of supreme importance to all of its members. One is the publication of the American Historical Review. The other is the organizing of the annual meeting. About the latter, the AHA Council recently decided to make a change of far-reaching significance.
Beginning in January 2003, six sessions will be designated "Presidential." This means that the president-elect (that is to say, the incoming president) will take the lead in organizing sessions that will reflect his or her general interests, and will try to ensure that these six sessions have a wide historical and intellectual appeal. The sessions might be historiographical; they might address themselves to recent developments or seminal trends in historical interpretation; they might feature controversial books or topics; they might deal with methodological issues; and I hope, above all, that they will include younger as well as older historians to promote discussions between generations on such broad topics as "whither history?" In other words, the presidential sessions might have various themes and goals, but they will all be organized—in collaboration with the Program Committee—by the president-elect, who will also invite the participants of these sessions. For the first time in our history, the president-elect will thus play a formal part in the preparation of the annual program.
Until fairly recently in the AHA's history, the office of the president has been honorary. The obligation of accepting the honor often involved little more than preparing the annual presidential address. As in the case of many other organizations, the office now demands much more oversight and involvement. But much of this work is administrative. The president of the AHA should also be able to contribute directly and substantially to the intellectual life of the Association. For example, in the Organization of American Historians, the president plays a vital role in the shaping of the annual program. In this sense, the idea of presidential sessions is, in my judgment, a long overdue reform.
There is one trend that has caused concern among the elected officers of the AHA. Our senior historians do not participate as actively as they used to in the annual program. It would be a mistake to confuse age with wisdom, or, for that matter, knowledge with the ability to present a good paper at the annual meeting, but it is true that our leading historians, our prominent historians, our historians who are recognized as leaders within our profession, our "older Turks" or "retired Radicals" who once challenged conventional wisdom—call them what you will—now take part in the AHA annual meetings less frequently than in earlier decades. One benefit of the "Presidential Sessions" will be to bring at least a few of them, at the request of the president-elect, back onto the program.
Or so I hope. This past year I wrote a series of letters, among them letters to all of the presidents of the affiliated societies, to state that the AHA program hopes to attract the very best scholarly papers that our profession can produce. I asked for support in encouraging historians of distinction to submit proposals. My effort was in vain. But I did acquire a good sample of grievances. The most frequent complaint I heard, and still hear, is that the program has been captured by the assistant professors and that it is trendy. I do not believe that either of these allegations is true. Junior historians appear more on the program because they are the ones who go to the trouble to submit proposals, and it is only natural that the program will reflect current debates. What appears to one historian as trendiness is another's area of specialization. What seems to one to be increasing fragmentation is another's way of focusing on a subject for meaningful empirical research. It is nevertheless true that we need to make a greater effort to ensure that topics of general or wide interest are included on the program, and that we encourage more sessions, in the words of one historian who attends the meeting each year, "that generate an intellectual buzz: people talking about the sessions before or after they occur." The historians we will try to encourage to participate in the presidential sessions are not only the more senior ones but also those who are the intellectual leaders in the discipline regardless of age, rank, or institutional affiliation, and most emphatically, they include independent and public historians.
Another complaint I sometimes hear is that the program is politically correct. One historian with a record of regular attendance for many years wrote to me about an experience in the mid-1980s after he had submitted a proposal for a session:
I got a telephone call from a member of the Program Committee . . . and I was told that we needed a woman on the panel. I explained that I did not know of such a person who was as "right" for the discussion as those proposed. I was told, in so many words, anyone would do. I respectfully suggested that perhaps our panel was not right for the program after all and withdrew it then and there.
To my mind, the member of the Program Committee was rather ham-fisted, but in any case the example will recall to the minds of many members of the AHA the circumstances of the early 1980s, when nearly half the sessions were entirely male. After studying this period in the AHA's history, I conclude that the requirement for "gender-integrated" sessions came as a salutary jolt. There were vociferous complaints by women as well as men. But in 1988 and subsequently the AHA Council approved further changes in the language of guidance for the Program Committee. From then to the present, diversity has been encouraged but not required. (For a graphic representation of the data relating to the annual meeting program, click here.)
In mulling over these issues, I asked various people what they now think of programs in the 1980s in comparison with those of more recent years. Several responded that it would be just as well not to dredge up old animosities because they would stir renewed bitterness. I understand this point of view but I do not agree with it. I believe that we need to debate matters of the recent past that have been controversial, and that members of our Association at large need to know that the AHA leadership regards these issues as important and continues to give serious thought to them.
When I hear people reflect on the programs of the 1990s, I often detect a certain jaded tone that has as much to do with the general character of the annual meetings as it does with the program. Many members of the AHA go to the annual meeting for reasons that have little to do with the program. Some still regard the annual meeting principally as a chance to see old friends and to gossip, a component of AHA meetings that is never negligible. Many more go to find jobs or conduct interviews. I have not recently heard the phrase "slave market," which used to be a customary description of the recruitment process at the annual meeting, and I hope the new term "job fair" is more than a euphemism. A historian with whom I corresponded made this slightly upbeat comment:
We're all specialists now, and I'm in a very small minority in finding the AHA fun largely because it gives me a chance to see the world as (say) an Ottomanist would see it. Almost every one else seems to go to panels in their own field and then gripe about how few, random, and mediocre they were.
She tempered that comment by saying that if the AHA were to encourage broader and more engaging panels, a greater number of historians would go to sessions outside their own fields.
The sheer size of the annual meeting was one recurrent theme in conversations I have had over the past month or so, while another theme has been the conflict between generations and a certain loss of interest or alienation of older historians. According to another historian:
Many of those I know [senior historians] seem to have a general distaste for coming to the AHA not because of the character or quality of the program but because of the other aspects of the meeting, especially those concerned with the job market and professional advancement. With the general expansion of the academic profession and then the drastic narrowing of opportunities for appointment and advancement within it, the maneuvering and competition have become worse than they were. Gossip has some interest, but it also has its limits.
On being asked about the balance between generations in recent programs, one historian replied in a way that reveals something, I think, about human nature:
On the question of balance, I think this is perennial, generational, and unsolvable. It is in the nature of things for the rising generation to push so-called "new" agendas (they need, after all, to believe that they are making a difference, will achieve something novel and important). Moreover, from the point of view strictly of quality, it is not at all clear to me that the work young scholars present is worse just because it is trendy, and I would bet that they put a lot of thought into their papers, far beyond the effort expended by more senior scholars.
Conversely, it is in the nature of aging to grouse at the younger generation, to find their work, in so far as it departs from one's own central commitments, trivializing and unimportant. Occasionally, I find myself doing this, to my horror, and know that I am well along to becoming an old fart, something I abhor, actually.
On the whole, I take heart that the annual program seems to go on through the decades much as always, but that is not to say that there isn't a lot of room for improvement. The accompanying charts—for which I am much indebted to AHA staff—reveal the difficulties of achieving a balanced representation of history throughout the different regions of world as well as over time and in different fields.
In these comments I have been mainly addressing myself to the problem of different generations in the AHA and not that of diversity, which is a related but separate issue. I can give assurance that the leadership of the AHA continues to pay close attention to questions of gender, ethnicity, and minorities including area experts who feel for one reason or another that they are not adequately represented on the annual program. My concern here is the balance between young and old. When I reflect on my own experience in the AHA annual meetings, I recall the intellectual excitement of participating in sessions in the 1960s, and the chance to get across my own interpretation to a diverse audience including specialists in my field as well as others who might know little about my area of research but stood as authorities in their own right. These AHA sessions at the beginning of my career contributed to whatever skills I may have as a public speaker. I was forced to be concise, to shape an argument, adduce evidence, and draw a conclusion all within the space of about 20 minutes. I learned, or at least tried, to speak clearly and without jargon. For a young historian, the exchange of ideas within an AHA setting can be an exhilarating experience. It can, as it did in my case, lead to lasting friendships. For all of these reasons, I see the purpose of the new "Presidential Sessions" as a chance to reinforce the traditional quality of the AHA annual program. The new sessions will bring prominent historians back onto the program, but above all, they will be designed to promote debate across the generations.
The question of balance can never be solved once and forevermore because it will change from decade to decade, indeed year by year. The "Presidential Sessions" will, I believe, help in a small but significant measure. It will be up to each incoming president to achieve a comfortable working relationship with the Program Committee and to work out the details. I can only hope that future presidents have as happy an experience with the program chairs as I have had during the past year. It has been my good fortune to work with Philippa Levine and Paul Ropp, who have labored indefatigably to shape an intellectually engaging program in San Francisco.
Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin) is president of the AHA.