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From the Executive Director's column in the May 1998 Perspectives

Connecting through Departments

Sandria B. Freitag, May 1998

Historians come in many forms and interests, situated in a variety of institutional settings (and often outside them, in the case of independent scholars and adjuncts). A nationally based umbrella organization like the AHA struggles continuously to find the most effective ways to connect with these individuals, and we count as significant assets the conduits we have in the newsletter, the annual meeting, the journal, and our broad and inclusive committee structure. Indeed, we have been working hard over the last few years to expand and refine each of these lines of communication to the field.

Two developments keep this strategy from being completely successful. First, as the discipline of history (like other disciplines) becomes more decentered—with no agreement on the core methods, emphasis and understandings, or corpus of classic works—virtually everyone begins to feel marginalized. This is demonstrated clearly when in the same month we receive complaints (expressed, usually, in laments about the annual meeting program or the pages of the AHR) from a group that identifies another as dominating the discipline, and from the supposedly dominating group, as being sidelined in a systematic way. Second, many of the issues and problems emerging from the new circumstances characterizing the academy cannot be resolved solely from the national or the individual perspective. Downsizing, the overuse of part-time and adjunct faculty, ways to protect quality in undergraduate teaching, the size and content of graduate training programs, ways to connect professional historians to broader publics, the effort to connect postsecondary research and teaching to K–12: all of these fundamental questions have to be tackled at a campus or department level. (I have argued, as well, that the efforts at the campus level need to be connected to the national level to make a real difference in the field, but that is a point to which I'll return at the end of this column.)

The Association, accordingly, has been looking for ways to strengthen its connections to departments. We have, over the last several years, begun reaching out to the almost 800 departments involved in the Institutional Services Program to query them on their concerns around the changing academy, and—through the annual survey form sent with program renewals—tried to collect data that would tell us all more about changing patterns and practices. Over the last three years we have been connecting panel sessions at the annual meeting with discussions in the department chairs' luncheon, experimenting, for instance, with grouping chairs by size and type of institution around tables to facilitate their sharing of experiences and insights. In response to a request at a recent luncheon, we initiated a department chairs' listserve with Jeremy Popkin and Dane Kennedy as moderators. These innovations will, we hope, accomplish two goals simultaneously. They will inform AHA efforts to serve the field more effectively, and they will aid the communication among departments, so that chairs can learn from each other (and vent occasionally, too!).

Recent exchanges on the listserve suggest that both goals are beginning to be accomplished: a complaint that the AHA was not interested in the experiences of historians on small campuses, for instance, was followed almost instantly with a round of responses to a query about the undergraduate major gender composition that had a large proportion of information from small institutions. (And to that point: we encourage those fortunate enough to teach in small liberal arts colleges to contribute to Perspectives—if you feel you have been absent from our pages, we assure you that this is not from lack of interest in what you experience or could tell us! But we rely on our members to provide us with material, and we can only ensure a diverse and broad representation in our pages when our contributors come forward to reflect this diversity.)

In a complementary strategy, we have been supporting and participating in regional gatherings of history departments, especially as they reach out to others (for example, community college faculty and K–12 teachers). We plan to expand this effort. Among several annual conferences to which we provide AHA recognition and (moral) support, we might use as an example the March gathering—third in a series—organized by the southern California campuses in the California State University (CSU) system. The CSU efforts provide a great model for suggesting how departments can build an infrastructure with very little financial outlay that enables them to work together, and how this effort (with AHA support) can reach out to individuals as well. They may also suggest a differentiation of emphases and functions among types of history departments that, through AHA national efforts, can be connected up to form complementary efforts across the field. Stanley Burstein, organizer of this year's meeting, argues that departments in the comprehensive universities who also have responsibility for training teachers are much more likely to reach out to teachers in this kind of format.

The evolution of the southern California meeting is instructive. The first two meetings, organized by CSU at Dominguez Hills, laid important groundwork and moved from a strictly departmental focus (with representatives from nine CSU and community college departments) to a broader focus that draws on departments but—with the inclusion the second year of K–12 teachers—also enabled individuals to compare notes on the challenges they face of depth versus breadth, distance learning, and the expanding emphasis on world history. This year's meeting, hosted by CSU at Los Angeles, began with a broad set of discussions on the need for history teachers to present the rigors and methods of the discipline to broader publics (kicked off by a provocative address by Joyce Appleby, past president of the AHA, on doing history in a postmodern era). This broad approach was tied later that day to very concrete demonstrations of the connections between teaching and technology (for example, how side-by-side presentations on the web of visual and textual primary sources could capture for students the postmodern emphasis on multivocality).

In practical terms, the CSU regional model is also helpful. The host institution (with small assists from some of the cosponsors) only needs to contribute about $1,000 towards this annual meeting (in addition to in-kind contributions, such as parking and meeting space). Participants pay a modest $15 registration fee, and help increase the size of the operating budget. Cosponsorship signals some of the larger potential for collaboration, and in this case includes the AHA, the Los Angeles County Department of Education, and the California History-Social Science Project. Participation has grown—some 80 teachers at various levels attended this year, and more than half of these were familiar faces who had attended in previous years—and this has inspired other CSU campuses to want to host. Next year will be the turn of CSU at Long Beach, and the year after that of California Polytechnic State University at Pomona.

From the national perspective, the CSU model promises to build an infrastructure that could serve as the basis for projects with deeper and more frequent connections that could attract external funding (for example, efforts to improve the survey course, discussions on distance learning, and ways to work systematically between postsecondary and K–12 teachers), and that could enable linkages among regional clusters that the AHA could organize nationally. It provides opportunities for the AHA to hear from teachers and departments about what they think the Association could be doing for the field. And it represents the potential for conversations through and beyond the Association about the challenges facing historians everywhere. We are glad to be part of such projects, and would like to hear about more of them.