On Future Anxieties and Present Predicaments

Lynn Hunt, January 2002

As I sat down to write this column in mid-November, I had one of those sensations we have all experienced repeatedly since September 11. I think of it as future anxiety, that is, the loss of confidence in the predictability of the future. I could not help wondering how the world would have changed by the time you read these lines. Will we have emerged from that dark cloud of shock, grief, and uncertainty that descended upon our lives and resumed something resembling our former routines? Or will more, equally horrific "events" have happened? What will be the course of the war in Afghanistan? What kind of message can possibly be appropriate in these times?

If nothing else, the prospect of writing for a reader several weeks hence virtually demands a suspension of future anxiety. So I leap out of the rushing cascade of the present into the more evenly flowing waters of the long-term view and set about describing my hopes for the AHA over the next year. A number of questions come immediately to mind. What can we the members reasonably expect of the AHA? Put another way, at a time when everyone in the organization belongs to various specialized societies, what does the AHA do that is distinctive? Do the national disciplinary organizations still have an important role to play and if so, what should that role be?

You have already divined that a recently elected officer does not argue for the irrelevance of the organization. My predecessors embarked on a variety of important initiatives. Roger Louis took on the herculean task of exploring the prospect of establishing a National History Center in Washington, D.C. Eric Foner devoted himself to mobilizing the organization's energies to confront the looming crisis of adjunct and part-time employment. Bob Darnton tried to nudge us along the path of facing the dilemmas of electronic publication. Even before being elected president, I was named a member of the AHA Committee on Graduate Education, which has a Carnegie Corporation grant to undertake a comprehensive study of graduate education in history. As president-elect, I chaired the Committee on Committees, which for some time has been endeavoring to name more public historians, community college professors, and K–12 teachers to AHA committees. These issues all require our continuing attention.

Yet even while I insist that the AHA does have important contributions to make to our professional, scholarly, and pedagogical endeavors, I also want to recall that no such organization can solve all or even most of the problems before us. The AHA cannot provide jobs to all qualified PhD candidates, though it can insist on fairness in advertising and encourage history departments to rethink some aspects of their graduate programs. The AHA cannot prevent colleges and universities from hiring part-time faculty, though it can join in agitation against abusive employment practices. The AHA has little if any influence on publishing trends, yet through its own publications it can encourage good scholarship and promote experimentation with the new electronic media.

Despite the inevitable limitations on our scope of activity, the AHA has many bright prospects before it. With nearly 15,000 members (fewer than in 1970 but still 30 percent more than 40 years ago, when this newsletter first appeared), we have a strong backbone for a remarkable range of activities. We ended the last fiscal year with an operating surplus of nearly $170,000, and even the decline of 9 percent in the value of our portfolio between June 30 and September 30, 2001, seems in line with the losses in individual pension funds and investments (I wish mine had done so well).

But these are just numbers, significant as they might be. One of the greatest assets of the organization, besides the good will and energies of its membership, is the staff in the Washington, D.C., headquarters. The good fortune of having Arnita Jones as our executive director must make us the envy of every other national disciplinary organization. She brings to this position many years of experience with historical organizations and unerring judgment about what the AHA can and cannot accomplish. These have not been easy times for organizations with offices right in the heart of the nation's capital. Try to imagine working at 400 A Street, S.E., on Capitol Hill on September 11, then during the anthrax scare, and now when mail still has been seriously disrupted and nerves are frayed. Arnita and her staff have kept us moving forward. In countless ways, the organization depends on its staff for institutional memory and continuity. The Committee on Committees, for example, simply could not have carried out its task without the guidance of Noralee Frankel. The Program Committee will have organized an intellectually rich and rewarding set of offerings for the San Francisco meeting, but you will only be able to actually have a room in the hotel or find the right room for a session because Sharon Tune and her staff have labored mightily on your behalf. So when something irritating happens—as it inevitably may—just remember that that something would have been immeasurably worse were it not for the AHA staff.

With this dedicated staff, the AHA has been able to grasp many of the new opportunities afforded by electronic communication and by the growing public appetite for history. The American Historical Review is now available online and has been developing special online features such as providing supplemental audiovisual materials for articles or encouraging online discussions of particular articles. Perspectives, now celebrating 40 years of publication, includes not only the all-important notices of employment opportunities but also a wealth of information about the historical profession, from comparative analyses of salaries to new teaching initiatives. I want to draw special attention to the AHA's participation in the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCC), which is housed at AHA headquarters. The NCC first focused on building bridges to historians employed outside the university (from these efforts came two new national organizations, the Society for History in the Federal Government and the National Council on Public History), gathering data on the historical profession, and establishing committees for promoting history at the state level. In the last 15 years, the NCC has played an increasingly important role in ensuring scholarly and public access to government documents. In 1991, for example, the NCC under Page Miller lobbied for legislation to give the State Department's Historical Advisory Committee statutory authority for defining the standard for declassification in a way that would require more openness. In the last few months, Bruce Craig has provided a steady stream of information about such controversies as the role of donors in shaping historical exhibitions at the Smithsonian and now President Bush's Executive Order 13233, which restricts access to presidential records previously granted by Congress and must, therefore, concern all historians. I believe that the AHA should do everything in its power to oppose the executive order and the AHA Council has voted to join the lawsuit that was filed November 28, 2001, by Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. (See Bruce Craig's discussion of the lawsuit and its background on pages 18–21.)

I take this kind of gathering and distribution of information to be one of the most important functions of the AHA. It is never "just" information. Publication of job information in Perspectives is a vital step toward ensuring that everyone will have a reasonable shot at equal access to employment opportunities. The sampling of recent scholarly research and reflection offered in the pages of the AHR helps determine, whether positively or negatively, our collective sense of professional identity. The gathering of information about part-time employment, the problems of women and minorities in the profession, and graduate education will contribute to shaping our aspirations for the future. The AHA may not be able to single-handedly solve the structural problems facing the profession, but it can energize its members to think about them and seek the appropriate solutions.

I will have more to say about the prospects for history and historians in future issues of Perspectives. But I want to end on a less upbeat note by signaling my concern—shared by my predecessors over the last few years—that many historians, even those who are members, do not feel that the AHA is their organization. The disaffected range from middle-aged Ivy League professors who feel that the organization no longer values work in "traditional" fields to young community college teachers who resent the sometimes single-minded focus on the problems of the research university. The AHA has survived through massive changes in the employment profile of historians and in the subject matter and methods of history. In many ways, in fact, our problems are the paradoxical product of the expansion of history and more generally of higher education. Thus many more historians want the national organization of all historians to represent their interests. But that doesn't make the discontent any less palpable or reduce the urgency of addressing it. I cannot promise big changes in one year. But I can pledge to do my best to keep pushing for inclusiveness and openness to all perspectives. Many changes are already underway: the AHR's editorial staff is trying hard to include work about pre-1800 and non-Western history; the Program Committees have endeavored to make the annual meeting as broadly appealing as possible; and the Council and staff have made a priority of reaching out to members from all kinds of institutions. History thrives, in my view, because it is not identified with one approach or set of interests. I am eager to hear your views about where we should be heading. My e-mail address is lhunt@history.ucla.edu.

—Lynn Hunt (UCLA) is president of the AHA.