Program Committee 2004

The 119th annual meeting of the American Historical Association convened in Seattle, Washington from January 6 to 9, 2005. At the suggestion of the AHA President Jonathan Spence, the theme of the conference was “Archives and Artifacts” and thematic papers and panels considered current problems in the preservation of records, art and other remains of the past. The stimulus for the selection of this theme was the plundering of the museums, libraries and archaeological sites of Iraq in 2003, but it was also a response to concerns arising from new technologies that affect both the preservation and dissemination of records.

The Program Committee received 203 panel proposals and accepted 167 of them, an 80 percent acceptance rate. The relatively low number of submissions is partially explained by the location of the meeting in Seattle, a beautiful city, but for many members of the AHA, a distant one as well. The pattern of a high rate of acceptance, however, forms an ongoing and troubling aspect of the experience of Program Committees over the last few years. The only field within which there is what might be considered serious competition is recent U.S. history. Every other subfield, even such one-time stalwarts as 19th-century America or modern Europe, something less than fiercely competitive. This year, because the field of the AHA president was China, there was a better-than-usual representation of Asian history. Latin American history remains well represented via the recruitment and vetting process of the Conference on Latin American History. However, Ancient, Medieval, Middle Eastern and African history are all among the fields with very limited participation.

Despite the difficulties in attracting proposals, the committee members found the quality of the submissions it did receive to be, for the most part, fairly high. Indeed, the actual panels at the AHA seemed to be well-attended and produced very little in the way of complaints either of content or logistical problems (rooms size, audio-visual equipment, noise, temperature).

One of the interesting and encouraging changes obvious to the Program Committee was the growth in the number of transnational panels, those that dealt with comparisons among geographical areas or, to a lesser extent, historical periods. The interest of U.S. historians in such comparisons continues to expand. This is evident explicitly in panel titles such as “The Therapeutic State in the Twentieth Century: The United States, France, and Germany”. In other panels comparison was simply implicit and assumed: “Veterans and Empire: Race, Nationalism, and Anti-Imperialism in the Twentieth Century,” for example, dealt with the experience of African American soldiers in the First World War, the attitudes of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the interwar years, and the pensions of French African soldiers.

There were some panels notable for their attempt to rethink traditional session formats, including a panel on oral history that included three teams of “practitioners and narrators.” Nevertheless, the great majority of panels consisted of the usual two or three papers and one or two discussants. 2006 will see a new format for the sessions of the meeting and some innovations in how proposals are submitted and evaluated. It is to be hoped that this results in a program that is perceived as more varied, open and exciting as well as in an increase in the number of proposals. Each year Program Committees resolve to be more “proactive” in encouraging, developing and searching out participants, especially among more senior scholars who are still heavily outnumbered on the program by graduate students and recent PhDs Given the limited contacts among members of the Program Committee and the other demands on their time, this doesn’t always produce the desired results. The AHA’s willingness to change format and recruitment, we hope, will broaden what is still an exciting program that reflects the current state of knowledge and approaches to history.

Paul Freedman (Yale University) and Barbara Weinstein (University of Maryland at College Park) were co-chairs of the 2005 Program Committee.