AHA Activities

Should the AHA Annual Meeting Be Changed? AHA Members and Council Say "Yes!"

Roy Rosenzweig, September 2004

AHA members have long complained about the Association's annual meeting. Almost 80 years ago American Historical Review editor J. Franklin Jameson wrote wearily that "the absence of lively discussion from our annual meeting is an old story and has been dwelt upon perhaps to satiety, by one who is now presenting his twenty-fourth of these annual chronicles." Although the annual meeting has grown dramatically larger and the topics covered have become much more diverse, its structure and format is essentially unchanged since Jameson's day, and indeed since the Association's first meetings in the late 19th century. The meeting still has the same pacing (with one morning session, luncheons, one afternoon session, and evening receptions), and historians present their work in the same manner—with a chair introducing the formal reading of papers, followed by a few hurried comments or questions. And the complaints remain largely the same, generally focusing on the rote reading of papers, disengaged commentators, panels that leave little or no time for discussion, and a lack of diversity in the format.

About a year and a half ago, the AHA Research Division took up this "old story" once more and began intensively considering whether it was finally time for a change. Although I had personally reached the conclusion that it was, I was not sure others shared my view. Thus, I began by writing an article in Perspectives that asked the question: "Should the Format of the Annual Meeting Be Changed?"(Perspectives, September 2003). Members of the Research Division posed the same question to friends and colleagues in one-on-one exchanges and small groups. The staff of the Research Division investigated practices and recent reforms at 20 other scholarly societies in the humanities and social sciences and surveyed past Program Committee members and the heads of the affiliated societies. At around the same time, the AHA's Task Force on Public History was concluding its deliberations, which included an extensive consideration of the annual meeting. And we discussed the subject at three meetings of the Research Division and two meetings of the AHA Council.

What we learned was that members overwhelmingly (but of course not unanimously) want change. Almost three dozen members wrote in reply to my Perspectives article—an unprecedented response, I am told—and urged us to move forward. Those we questioned individually and in small groups said the same thing. So did the members who have put the greatest amount of work into the annual meeting on past Program Committees. We also learned from our surveys of other scholarly societies that we are approaching this issue relatively late. Disciplinary societies of our size instituted reforms five or more years ago. And the Task Force on Public History urged us to expand the meeting "to represent the range of interests, concerns, and needs of a more broadly conceived profession" and to "expand the content and format of sessions and the professional services offered to attendees."

Based on that feedback and those discussions, the Research Division substantially revised the official Annual Meeting Guidelines as well as the internal advice memo (entitled "Customs, Experience, and Other Lore") that governs the work of the Program Committee. At its June 2004 meeting, the AHA Council approved these changes.

Our changes focus on the following four areas:

1. Greater Diversity to AHA Sessions. Since the complaints have most often centered on the nature of the AHA sessions, we spent considerable time discussing how the format of sessions might be changed. Some argued for sweeping and uniform changes—for example, they wanted to entirely end the practice of reading papers aloud or to mandate that all papers be circulated in advance. But we realized that our large and diverse membership would never agree on a single format and decided that our meetings would be most exciting and engaging if we could offer a range of different approaches to presenting and discussing scholarship, teaching, public history, and professional concerns.

We agreed that we would continue to offer traditional or "formal" sessions with formally presented papers and commentaries. But we would significantly decrease their prominence in the meeting, advising the Program Committee to keep their number down to half or fewer of the sessions. In addition, we are urging participants in those sessions to bring the techniques they use in the classroom and public history work into the session room, to think of it as an oral presentation rather than the recitation of a written text. We have also decreased the amount of time for formal papers to 15 minutes and we will make a renewed effort to ensure that presenters strictly adhere to the time limits.

Annual meetings have long featured sessions that depart from this standard format, but the new guidelines mandate that, in effect, these "alternative" formats now become the norm and constitute at least half of the meeting program. Again, we thought it unwise to insist on a single alternative or even to prescribe a list. Rather, we hope that Program Committees and members will think creatively about ways to engage in professional dialogue in new ways. But among the possibilities we hope that will be considered are the following:

Discussion/Roundtable. These sessions—which can be used for the presentation of original research, work-in-progress, or discussion of professional concerns—would feature very short (10 minutes or less) presentations and a fluid organizational structure. For example, five people who are in the early stages of books in a common area (e.g., early modern warfare or sexuality in the 20th century) might organize a work-in-progress roundtable. The point would not be to present fixed research results but rather to open up a discussion of sources, methods, and theoretical frameworks.

Poster Sessions. These sessions are already very common at scientific meetings and some social science organizations. A few historical groups—notably the Organization of American Historians in the mid-1990s—have experimented with them and we think that they should be tried further. The idea is to allow historians to present their data and discuss their research with colleagues in a less formal setting with illustrative materials placed on a poster. The great advantage of this format is that it allows for more intensive one-on-one engagement with colleagues engaged in similar work. Members often say that the most valuable thing to come out of a meeting session is the brief encounter that comes at the end of a panel when someone working on a related topic comes up and introduces herself or himself. This format places such exchanges at the heart rather than the periphery of the conference.

Precirculated Papers. Invitational conferences have long featured the discussion of papers circulated in advance, and participants in such conferences uniformly report that they get a much more probing discussion of their work when it has been read in advance rather than simply heard in a crowded room. The Internet has now made it easy to circulate papers ahead of a conference; indeed, most online conference software (including that which the AHA will be using henceforth to receive session proposals online) also has the ability to accept and post electronic versions of papers. At the same time, we recognize that some people are resistant to this practice. Rather than mandating this for all sessions, as some of us would prefer, we are proposing this as an option for those who are interested in trying it.

Workshops. We also appreciate that many topics can only be developed adequately over two or more sessions, allowing time for a more extended and focused discussion on a specific topic—our pre-meeting workshops on electronic publishing and the history PhD at the 2004 meeting serve as fine examples. To facilitate this, members may now cluster more than one session together under a single theme when they submit proposals. We just ask members to notify the Program Committee a couple of months in advance that such a project is in the making (we will offer more details on this in the coming months).

To assist in these efforts to open up the meeting, we invite members to write to us about the interesting and innovative sessions they have attended or organized, at the AHA or the meetings of other disciplinary societies. We intend to publish examples of alternative sessions in the fall issues of Perspectives. Please direct comments and suggestions to Robert B. Townsend, AHA's assistant director for research, at rtownsend@historians.org.

2. A More Activist Program Committee. In talking with past Program Committee chairs and members, we learned that many of them favored changes in the program format but believed that such changes were beyond their mandate. AHA Program Committees involve a tremendous amount of volunteer labor. But these committees have also traditionally viewed their role as reactive—they have carefully reviewed and evaluated the proposals submitted, but they have only taken a limited role in generating sessions of their own.

The new guidelines give the Program Committee a much freer hand in shaping the annual meeting by developing and soliciting sessions that it believes reflect the most exciting scholarly work being done in the profession and the most important professional, teaching, and public history concerns before us. We are asking the committee to think creatively about developing a broad range of sessions that can appeal to the breadth and diversity of our membership. These would include (in addition to traditional panels presenting original research findings) sessions on teaching and pedagogy; public history practice; ethical issues (plagiarism, for example); new modes and methodologies of research; professional academic practices (such as hiring, promotion, and publishing); new modes of presenting historical work (e.g., digital media); the historical context of current political issues (e.g., the Iraq War or same-sex marriage); and the state of different fields (e.g., updates on new scholarship in different areas directed not just at specialists, but also at those who want to learn about how a field of study has changed in the past decade or two).

To assist the committee in this expanded range of work, the staff support for the Program Committee will also increase.

3. A Larger Meeting. One way to accommodate a greater diversity of AHA sessions without squeezing out traditional approaches and formats is to increase the number of sessions overall. But there are other reasons to do this as well. We want to promote a more inclusive annual meeting that will regularly attract a larger percentage of our members to attend. A larger meeting also benefits the AHA organizationally by bringing in revenue that is generated by the annual meeting. It turns out, moreover, that the AHA has perhaps the fewest sessions and the most leisurely schedule of any major professional organization. A survey of the schedules at almost two dozen other scholarly societies found that we were alone in offering only two session times per day—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—while most of the disciplinary societies offer four or more.

Because the scheduling of sessions involves our already negotiated contracts with hotels (through the 2013 session in New Orleans), this expansion of the size of the meeting will happen gradually. AHA staff are currently discussing plans on how to change and expand the schedule. But we hope that expanding the daily number of sessions will provide members with more flexibility in their meeting day, and more opportunities to sit in on a session or two along with the other competing needs such as participating in the Job Register, circulating through the book exhibit, or networking with colleagues.

4. No Restriction on Appearing Annually on the Program. Expanding the size of the meeting (and the number and variety of sessions) will also allow us to eliminate the old rule against members appearing on the program every year. That restriction—put in place in an earlier era to ensure a variety of voices on the program—did not materially affect participation levels because most members received institutional support to attend the meeting regardless of whether they were making a presentation. Today, unfortunately, only those on the official meeting program are likely to receive travel funds, which makes it difficult for many to attend regularly. Dispensing with the rule should allow the regular and active participation of a larger number of members, and make for a more successful annual meeting—and hence a more successful AHA.

We hope that the enthusiasm for reform indicated in our surveys will carry over into the meeting itself. These reforms provide only the means and opportunity to create a more dynamic and interesting annual meeting. It is ultimately up to you to take advantage of the new opportunities this will provide. If the opportunities to be more actively involved in shaping the meeting sound exciting to you, please contact Robert B. Townsend (rtownsend@historians.org) about serving on the Program Committee for the 2007 or 2008 annual meeting. And, of course, we urge you to consider proposing a session for the 2006 meeting, which will be the first to be governed by the new guidelines.

Go to the call for proposals page.

— Roy Rosenzweig (George Mason Univ.) is the vice president of the AHA's Research Division.