Hammering out History: Narratives, Jobs, Din, and Debates
Robert Townsend, March 2001
Attendance at the AHA's 115th annual meeting in Boston surpassed that of any meeting for the past 25 years, with 5,271 registrants.
The theme of the annual meeting, "Practices of Historical Narrative," was exceptionally popular, with more than half of the sessions attracting full or standing-room-only crowds. The meeting got off to an exceptional start at the plenary session (chaired by President Eric Foner), which featured thought-provoking discussions of the theme. Deirdre McCloskey (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago) began by discussing her transition from an economic view of the past to a more humanistic study and presentation of the past. Anthropologist Richard Price (Coll. of William and Mary) discussed the evolution of his own writing from a straightforward social science narrative to a form that uses different typographical styles and layouts to create a polyphonic narrative. The session concluded with a presentation by documentary filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt (Blueberry Hill Productions) demonstrating the different forms of presenting history on film, using examples from The Midwife's Tale, and documentaries about Yellowstone National Park.
In another well-attended session, last year's Gutenberg-e Award recipients—Heidi Gengenbach (SUNY at Buffalo), Anne Hardgrove (Univ. of Texas at San Antonio), Ignacio Gallup-Diaz (Bryn Mawr Coll.), Michael Katten (independent scholar), Jacqueline Holler (Simon Fraser Univ.), and Helena Pohlandt-McCormick (Carleton Coll.)—discussed the often arduous process of transforming substantive historical scholarship into electronic monographs.
In all, more than 800 scholars, including 90 from abroad, appeared on the program. In addition, 52 affiliated societies and other groups cosponsored sessions or held separate sessions, luncheons, and
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
The meeting was not without its difficulties, as the annual Job Register facility was unexpectedly planted in the middle of an active construction site. As other articles in this issue reflect (see pages 37 and 40), this made an already tense situation for job applicants considerably worse.
Staff had visited the hotel in November and found no evidence that the construction would impinge on the space allocated to the Job Register. It was particularly shocking, therefore, to arrive at the meeting to find scaffolding everywhere and even more disconcertingly, newly erected walls cutting off the waiting area from the rest of the Job Register facility. A stopgap remedy was created to provide a walkway between the rooms, but the whine and rattle of power tools continued. It was only after stern negotiating by convention director Sharon Tune that the Sheraton agreed to turn off the power tools in the middle of the second day of the meeting. A letter of apology (a copy of which is also published as a paid advertisement on p. 23) will be sent from the Sheraton to all meeting participants.
Adding to the external pressures of the situation, the Job Register was swamped by the largest attendance in almost 20 years, with over 850 job applicants interviewing for more than 250 positions in the course of the meeting (up from previous records through the 1980s and 1990s of 777 applicants and 243 openings). According to available information, dozens of additional interviews were also conducted outside of the Job Register facilities in individual rooms and suites. Given the significant number of interviews taking place at the meeting it is not surprising that a survey of job applicants found that almost all of them had received at least 4 interviews at the meeting, and some had as many as 13!
So while the situation was imperfect, the Job Register continued to serve its essential function—providing an entrée for hundreds of job seekers who would otherwise have to rely solely on the testimony of their c.v.'s and the vestiges of the "Old Boy Network." The Association places a great value on this service and typically spends about $7,500 to make the space as humane and aesthetically pleasing as possible. Therefore, we regret all the more this year's unusual difficulties.
The meeting also saw an unusually large amount of AHA business transacted. The Committee on Part-Time and Adjunct Employment of Historians held its first meeting, with guests from the Organization of American Historians and the American Association of University Professors, to review recent data on the proliferation of part-time and adjunct faculty and to discuss means of addressing the negative aspects of the use of contingent faculty. The committee drafted a resolution on the subject that was adopted at the AHA business meeting and endorsed by the AHA Council. The resolution reads:
Because of the increase in the number of part-time, adjunct, and graduate student lines, created at the cost of full-time and tenure-track positions that support research and student services, this committee asks the AHA to adopt the following resolutions:
(1) Resolved that history departments should not continue the growing tendency to replace permanent lines with part-time, adjunct, and graduate student lines, which limits academic advising and other services for students and seriously undermines the level of scholarship at institutions of higher education.
(2) Resolved that history departments should adhere to the employment standards for part-time faculty approved by the AHA, which include a reasonable salary, health and retirement benefits, library privileges, office space, and computer access.
(3) Resolved that the AHA encourages grant agencies and institutions of higher education to offer funds for research and travel to conventions to part-time faculty.
(4) Resolved that history departments should assure fair consideration of the candidacy of part-time employees when recruiting and hiring for full-time jobs.
(5) Resolved that the AHA should distribute this resolution to academic accrediting agencies.
Given the growing importance of the topic to the profession, the AHA Council also agreed to make the group a standing joint committee with the OAH. A follow-up meeting will be held at the OAH annual meeting in April 2001.
An open forum was also held to discuss ways the Association might work to build better bridges between the Association and the community of public historians. The near-capacity attendance reflected significant interest in the subject. Those in attendance lamented the lack of detailed information about the thousands of public historians. They also discussed ways to ensure that scholarship produced in forms other than the traditional monograph—in the form of museum exhibitions, for instance—was given due weight in considerations for tenure. Citing the growing numbers of historians who are working outside the academy, the AHA Council agreed to form a committee to follow up on these concerns.
The Task Force on Graduate Education also held an open forum, which drew a standing-room-only audience. The graduate students in attendance lamented the poor advising and support they received, particularly through their dissertation work. Lillian Guerra, chair of the task force, promised to develop further information on these concerns, work closely with the Association's study on graduate education (see article p. 37), and also convey these problems to the AHA Council and the general membership through Perspectives.
At the AHA General Meeting on Friday night, President-elect Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin) announced the Association's 2000 awards and prizes. Notable among the award recipients (see citations page 28) were the first recipients of the George L. Mosse and the Russell Major Prizes.
After the presentation of awards and honors, AHA President Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.) delivered his presidential address, which discussed the changing definitions of freedom in an increasingly globalized world.
Online Messaging System
One of the significant enhancements provided at the 2001 annual meeting was the on-site two-way messaging system and conference registration services that Robert Yates & Associates installed and ran at the AHA's behest. (The two services were part of the same system, and shared a common data set, allowing a person registering on site to immediately take part in the messaging system.) The registration modules streamlined what in past years has been a very difficult process. The message system allowed registered attendees to communicate with each other. The system replaced the locator file of previous years, and also the folder system in the Job Register. Eliminating locator file staff, and the savings on computer rental costs in the registration areas paid for about two-thirds the cost of the registration/messaging system.
Nearly 6,000 messages were exchanged during the meeting, and there was often somewhat of a line for terminals. Next year we will contract for an additional terminal in each hotel. We will also ask the contractor if the system can be modified so as to stop displaying a person's name after they have read their messages. An additional feature of the system (that we didn't use this year, but will in the future) is an event locator file. This will allow us to track and distribute information on the numerous receptions and other such events that are held in conjunction with the meeting.
We are also devising a new system to more efficiently distribute information about interview suite locations in the Job Register. This system will employ a large screen monitor, or possibly a projection monitor to display information in a scrolling format. The system will work from a database, and will be updated whenever new information is received in the Job Register. Beginning in the fall of next year we will place notices in Perspectives, and send e-mail reminders to encourage all interviewers to register their suite locations.
Despite the noise and chaos caused by the construction work at one meeting site, the meeting was a great success in scholarly terms, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the 2001 Program Committee cochairs Michael Bernstein (Univ. of California at San Diego) and Barbara Hanawalt (Ohio State Univ.); Local Arrangements Committee cochairs Kevin Kenny (Boston Coll.) and Nina Silber (Boston Univ.); AHA Convention Director Sharon K. Tune; and the staff of the AHA.
Planning is already under way for the Association's next annual meeting, which will be held in San Francisco, January 3–6, 2002. We look forward to seeing you there!
—Robert B. Townsend is assistant director for publications, information systems, and research, and editor of Perspectives.