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From the Annual Meeting column of the February 2003 Perspectives

The 117th Annual Meeting: A Retrospective

AHA Staff, March 2003

Visiting Chicago in January, when bitingly cold winds blow in from across the lake, can seem a daunting, even a foolhardy enterprise. But undaunted, (and wisely) more than 30 percent of the total membership of the AHA- approximately 4,300 participants-turned up to attend the 117th annual meeting of the AHA, held January 2-5, 2003, to feast upon the rich smorgasbord of scholarship at the numerous sessions, to partake of convivial camaraderie between and after sessions, and, of course, to savor the treasures-gastronomic, architectural, and musical-of the city itself. The meeting hotels-the Hilton Chicago, the Palmer House Hilton, the Sheraton Chicago among others-filled up fast. A superefficient and extraordinarily comfortable bus service that started on Thursday made shuttling between sessions easy even when a cold rain was falling, and attendees could get to their selected sessions on time and without difficulty.

The Plenary Session

The plenary session, with which the annual meeting opened on Thursday evening, was on the theme, "Provincializing Europe." Natalie Zemon Davis, who chaired the session said that Dipesh Chakrabarty's book resonated with "many of us who think similarly of empire and colony—in Latin America or the Ottoman empire." The three speakers—Gabriel Pieterberg, Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, and Bonnie Smith teased out and rewove into other contexts and discursive universes the complex strands of Chakrabarty's arguments. Referring to what he called "unintended Orientalism," Pieterberg declared that one question that occurred to him was, "Where should the incessant oscillation of the pendulum between universality and difference come to rest?" Farnsworth-Alvear examined the implications of the argument for Latin America while Bonnie Smith took a different tack, listing a series of western writers, thinkers, and artists—Hermann Hesse, Sigmund Freud, and Jackson Pollock, among others—who had been influenced by nonwestern cultures. In his comments, Dipesh Chakrabarty pointed out that borrowing does not necessarily deny domination, and pointed out that as the "chattering classes" became multicultural, the notion of the "West" became an unstable identity. He also said that the three presentations convinced him that the multiple dimensions of the question had not been exhausted.

The General Meeting

The main attraction on Friday was the awards ceremony and the presidential address. President-elect James M. McPherson announced the prizes for 2002. Among the many awards conferred that day were the awards for scholarly distinction and the honorary foreign memberships (see citations starting on page 33). After the presentation of the awards, Lynn Hunt, the AHA president for 2002 delivered her address entitled "The World We Have Gained: The Future of the French Revolution." Brilliantly blending scholarly insights with humor and using projected images to telling effect, Lynn Hunt explored the ways in which the perceptions and experience of time were dramatically altered during the revolutionary epoch and how that in turn affected perceptions of the future, especially the conviction that human will could transform society (see the February 2003 issue of the American Historical Review for the text of Lynn Hunt's address).

The Sessions

There were so many sessions on so many different topics that it will be impossible to describe even a select few. Among the well-attended sessions were the different presidential sessions, "The Future of Feminist History," "New Approaches to International History," and "Toward a New History of the Self." The most popular, perhaps not surprisingly, was the special session sponsored by the AHA's Professional Division, "Plagiarism: What's So Bad About It Anyway?"The panelists—Alan Brinkley (Columbia Univ.), James Fallows (Atlantic Monthly), Donald Lamm (formerly of W. W. Norton) Richard Posner (Univ. of Chicago), and Carla Rahn Phillips (Univ. of Minnesota)-examined different aspects of the issue that has been much in the news lately. Interestingly, Posner, who is a judge, took seemingly the most lenient view, pointing out that plagiarism is not a legal category, and that it was not a crime, and that copyright infringement was quite distinct from plagiarism. Brinkley suggested that one reason why plagiarism issues were cropping up more frequently was because history had been commodified.

Breakfast Meetings

The breakfast meetings held by the AHA are necessarily at an early hour, but such is the attraction of the speakers or the agenda that they always draw large crowds. So it was this year too. The meeting of the AHA Committee on Women Historians, held on Saturday at 7:30 a.m., with George Chauncey of the University of Chicago as the speaker, was very well attended. In his speech, Chauncey discussed the amicus brief he had helped to write for submission in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court hearing on Lawrence and Gardner v. Texas, pointing out why it was necessary to historicize the entire question of the legal contexts for homosexuality and to pint out how expressions of (and attitudes to) sexuality could only be understood historically (see also the story on the brief on page 21 of this issue). The breakfast meeting of the Committee on Minority Historians (held on Friday), a mentoring get-together with minority graduate students and first-year faculty, also drew a large crowd.

The Business Meeting

At the AHA Business Meeting, held on Saturday, January 4, 2003, the reports of the executive director, the division vice presidents, the nominating committee, and the editor of the AHR were presented. Lynn Hunt, the president for 2002, chaired the meeting, and also signaled the formal transition between the presidents by transferring the historic AHA gavel with the James McPherson, the president for 2002. Michael Les Benedict was the Parliamentarian. A highlight of the meeting was the reading of a statement drafted on Friday night by a newly formed ad-hoc group, "Historians Against the War." The statement, which had been signed by more than 500 historians by the time it was presented (though not as a formal resolution) at the business meeting, declared:

We historians call for a halt to the march toward war against Iraq. We are deeply concerned about the needless destruction of human life, the undermining of constitutional government in the United States, the egregious curtailment of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, and the obstruction of world peace for the indefinite future.

The Job Register

For a large number of the meeting participants every year, the Job Register is the annual meeting. With high hopes and aspirations, but freighted also with the undeniable angst that any job search will induce, more than 700 scholars came to the Job Register this year-some with prearranged interviews but also many clutching multiple copies of their c.v.'s, hoping that they may be called in by one of the 67 search committees that were scheduling on-site interviews. On the other side of the table-perhaps with their own expectations and anxieties-were more than 125 search committees interviewing for 142 positions. Altogether, according to an estimate, nearly 1,700 interview sessions were held on the four days the Job Register operated. The spacious areas set aside in the basement of the Hilton Chicago for the Job Register, the drapes around each table, and the use of technology (a continually updated and scrolling display of interview-table and suite information was one big boon to anxious candidates) helped to mitigate some of the negative feelings that may have been engendered by the bare concrete walls and loading docks (noisily augmented on the first day by forklifts trundling around!).

The Job Register is always a complex and stressful operation. Thanks, however, to the experience, skills, and patience of the Job Register managers, Liz Townsend, David Darlington, and Rich Bond, and the support extended to them by the Local Arrangements Committee staff, the entire process was conducted efficiently and pleasantly.

The Book Exhibition

More than 100 publishers and booksellers exhibited their latest and best products in the book exhibition, drawing a large numbers of visitors who constantly thronged the two locations of the exhibition.

A Successful Meeting?

If the 2003 annual meeting was a success—and by numerous accounts it was—it was because of the tireless work behind the scenes by Sharon K. Tune, the AHA's convention director, her colleague, Debbie Ann Doyle, with the able and unstinting support of the rest of the AHA staff (who all cheerfully take on different roles and responsibilities during the annual meeting); the 2003 Program Committee chairs, Anand Yang (Univ. of Washington) and Margaret Washington (Cornell Univ.); and Leon Fink, chair of the Local Arrangements Committee, and his colleagues.