Why Go? The Case for the Annual Meeting

Kenneth Pomeranz, February 2013

I've recently returned from the AHA's annual meeting, so it's still on my mind. As usual, I enjoyed the conference, but groaned at not having the last weekend before classes to prepare. So I can't help asking, "Why go?"

There are some obvious answers, but they don't fully respond to the real question most of us face. Yes, it is great to hear interesting papers, perhaps try out some new work of your own, and see old friends. But most of us could attend various more specialized meetings, defined by theme and topic (e.g., environmental history, the Berkshire Women's History Conference), by time and place (e.g., Renaissance studies, Slavic studies), or by some combination thereof (e.g., Society for the History of American Foreign Relations). Few historians have the time or money to go to all the meetings that might be appropriate, and there is a logic to prioritizing the ones with the highest density of people and papers close to your research. But there are also reasons to privilege the AHA's annual meeting, especially at this moment.

Some reasons are little different from what they were decades ago. The social benefits of conference-going are probably most pronounced when they bring you together with people who don't go to the same small meetings you attend. There is the intellectual excitement of hearing a good paper on a topic outside your field, and finding yourself on a much steeper learning curve than your own specialty can offer. I would further argue that occasional engagement with historical scholarship far outside our usual time/place fields can make a vital contribution to sharpening the methodological tools and approach to reading that are our most important shared specialty—but I leave that case for a future column.

Other benefits of the meeting are even more important these days. The AHA and its annual meeting are the natural home for discussions about history as a discipline and a set of professions—professor, archivist, curator, teacher, in-house historian, and so on—and probably more crucial issues in these areas are more fundamentally up for grabs today than at any point since the professionalization of our field 100-plus years ago.

Most obvious is the radical transformation of academic job markets. We have seen cyclical downturns before, but the current pressure to turn to adjuncts, part-timers, remote learning, and other alternatives to tenure-track faculty is different, and will not be entirely reversed even if budgets greatly improve (which seems unlikely). Indeed, the growth of MOOCs (massive open online courses)—still a minor factor in history, but not to be discounted—suggests that there are more wrenching changes to come.

Upheavals in publishing are equally important, and here, probably more than with teaching, there are reasons to hope that the use of new technologies represent not just a response to financial pressures but also exciting opportunities to communicate with new publics in new ways. Whether or not the changes offer us better ways to discuss history, we clearly cannot ignore them—especially if, as Bill Cronon suggested in his president's address, audiences for long-form publications are likely to shrink as generations that grew up with computers and multi-tasking becoming increasingly predominant.

Dealing constructively with these issues requires that we at least consider altering what and how we teach our students (and discuss what not to change); how we categorize and evaluate scholarship for purposes of hiring, tenuring, and promoting each other; how we connect (and distinguish) teaching, research, and service; and how we explain history's value in a society where a rather narrow conception of job training has far greater sway than a generation ago, and where arguments about education for citizenship and/or broad personal development have far less.

And while some of these issues have distinctive nuances in different subfields—the job market looks different if your students learn Chinese or GIS than if they learn Latin, for instance—the primary place for thinking them through will be umbrella groups like the AHA, American Anthropological Association, and Modern Language Association, rather than more specialized scholarly societies. This is true even of some topics on which no common position need develop. We can all decide for ourselves what the new scholarship on teaching and learning implies for our teaching, but because it emphasizes how learning processes are specific to disciplines—a big reason why it seems more potentially useful than a lot of earlier education psychology—it makes more sense for us to engage with it through the AHA than through, say, the Association for Asian Studies. Other such things are on the horizon. How long will it be, for instance, before the increasingly sophisticated software that some law firms now use to analyze massive document dumps becomes good and cheap enough for us to use? If we want to talk about this—and especially if we want the software people to discuss it with us—the AHA is the logical place.

But it is even more true, and more urgently true, that the AHA is the place to raise topics requiring some agreement—be that on standards for the discipline or on positions to advocate in the world at large. It would make no sense for medievalists to decide how to evaluate websites as scholarship separately from Africanists, or for historians of foreign relations to strategize about assessment and professional autonomy separately from intellectual historians.

Of course, the AHA has always been valuable partly because of services it provides to historians in general: advocating for keeping archives open, funding research programs like Fulbright-Hays, and opposing political litmus tests for museum exhibits, tenure cases, or K–12 curricula. And to do that it has always needed historians to be good citizens rather than free riders. But because these issues have been perennial, with broad professional consensus on most of them (what historian could be against archival access?), good citizenship could mostly consist of paying dues, and perhaps serving on an occasional committee. Some questions relating to standards of professional behavior were more fluid, and so required more discussion: increased attention to diversity, for instance, required re-thinking recruitment practices. But in general, change remained slow enough that one could meet one's obligations as a historian, and keep up with new developments by being a passive member of the AHA and skipping the annual meeting in favor of specialized conferences.

That is no longer the case; too much about our professional environments is changing quickly, and we are nowhere near consensus on how to respond. Things that only the AHA can do require your presence, and things you need to know—and which our journals rarely deal with—are more likely to be aired at the AHA than at meetings of subfields. We need as many members as possible to treat such events as parts of ongoing discussions, both online and in our workplaces. It's that kind of active membership that will insure that individual, departmental, and national choices are informed by the broadest possible understanding of how today's unfamiliar trends are playing out across very diverse specific circumstances, and how our colleagues want to respond to them.

So if you haven't been to an annual meeting in a while, plan to come soon—and do so, at least partly, for reasons different than the ones that might have lured you a decade ago, or might send you now to Society for the History of American Foreign Relations, American Society for Environmental History, or Social Science History Association. Make a pledge to go to at least one panel on our changing professional environments, and maybe one on history you don't normally work on—and talk about them with some colleagues. The gains should more than compensate for attending fewer panels in your specialty.

Kenneth Pomeranz (Univ. of Chicago) is the president of the AHA.