January 2, 2009, 11:44 AM ET
Whither the AHA?
I am about to head into New York City for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. So far as I can recall, the first AHA annual meeting I attended was in Chicago in December, 1961. At the time I was completing my Ph.D. dissertation, and having my first (unsuccessful) job interview (with the University of Toronto). The 1961 meeting was “highlighted” by the anti-Semitic presidential address of the early American urban historian from Brown University, Carl Bridenbaugh, who suggested that only boys raised on American farms could understand the culture of early America. His comment was widely viewed as an attempt to discredit my mentor Bernard Bailyn, who had just been appointed to succeed Samuel Eliot Morison at Harvard. All of that seems long ago, and the AHA has since opened itself in a wonderful way to a highly diverse historical profession.
But the profession has changed markedly over the years I have been teaching, and so has the function of its disciplinary organization. For one thing, there are now a plethora of subdisciplinary historical associations, ranging from the large Organization of American Historians to the small American Society for Legal History (over both of which I have presided). For many historians it is the subdisciplinary association that is most meaningful, since their meetings are more intimate and their members more closely share research interests. There was a time when the AHA functioned as a club for a relatively small historical profession, but the profession is now huge and geographically dispersed — this week’s meeting has 5,000 attendees signed up, it is spread over several New York hotels, and it will be anything but chummy.
Another way in which the function of the AHA has changed is that its sheer size creates problems for the organization. It has a complicated governing structure, and yet a quite small professional staff, and a hugely complex series of mandates from the membership. Indeed its membership, although quite large, constitutes only a tiny fraction of the national historical profession. The AHA therefore struggles valiantly to keep in touch with public historians, history teachers in the schools, historians in community colleges — and with professional historians at the incredible range of four-year institutions of higher education in this country. The historical world of 1961 was smaller and simpler.
But of course professional historians back then were not nearly so good a scholarly community as they are today. The rate and quantity of scholarly production is geometrically greater in 2009 than it was when I first joined the AHA. There are more scholars inquiring about more aspects of change over time in all parts of the world than my instructors could have imagined in 1955, when I began graduate school. Interestingly, one of the biggest challenges for the American Historical Review in those days was to try to keep track of scholarly articles, a task that was daunting in the analog age. But now a variety of online databases, especially JSTOR, make the task infinitely easier. On the other hand, historians (like all contemporary scholars) have become more and more specialized — which is why the subdisciplinary organizations have flourished. But less is not necessarily more.
The challenges for the umbrella disciplinary associations (the AHA, the MLA, the APSA and the like) are daunting these days. But the annual meetings are especially daunting. They are too large to constitute a meaningful community, they are too expensive (travel, registration, meals, hotels), they are increasingly marginal to cutting-edge intellectual discourse, they fail to engage senior faculty.
Gemeinschaft has given way to Gesellschaft. No one knows how to run a “good” annual meeting under these circumstances, and with the current recession threatening to limit (or end) departmental subsidies for travel to the meetings, one wonders how long they can be sustained. So far what has kept the meetings viable has been, in large part, their function as job markets, and the AHA continues to play a valuable role in this respect. But here, too, the recession will have a negative impact — there are sure to be fewer tenure-track jobs available over the next few years, and a community of contingent faculty will surely feel differently about the AHA than I do. Can the whale survive or will it be nibbled to death by minnows? Or through lack of attention?