From the From the Executive Director column of the November 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

Communities, Networks, and the Building of a Conference Program

James Grossman, November 2010

The Program Committee for the American Historical Association’s 2012 annual meeting met this weekend. Five years ago I had the privilege of co-chairing the Program Committee for the Organization of American Historians and the memory of those discussions created a sense of anticipation as I prepared to meet this new group of colleagues. I recalled vividly the pleasure and intellectual stimulation that I derived from interacting with a group of energetic, open-minded, and thoughtful scholars. I was curious to see how the process works at the AHA. Here, however, I was a listener, rather than a participant, with the scope of conversation inevitably broader across time and space. I went home gratified, once again, that I spend much of my working life in the company of colleagues who bring intelligence and commitment to the table—in this case as volunteers around a table at 400 A St. SE.

The AHA program is developed through a complicated weaving together of proposals from members, sessions created by our many affiliated societies, “presidential” sessions, panels initiated by our divisions and committees, and sessions devised by the Program Committee itself. Contrary to widespread assumptions, the proposals submitted by members do not have to relate to the conference theme. Indeed part of the committee’s work involves establishing a set of conversations among a wide variety of sessions, many of which do not relate directly to the theme, but can still speak effectively to sessions that are more closely tied to it. We encourage our members to be creative, to think about how their work and that of their colleagues might be presented in an interesting way. And then we leave it to the Program Committee to determine which proposals—related to the theme or not—offer the greatest opportunities for conference attendees to spend four stimulating days learning about the work of our profession.

But in addition to vetting the proposals submitted by members, the Program Committee also builds a piece of the program around a set of ideas and concepts established in consultation with the incoming president of the AHA. “Communities and Networks” is suitably capacious, generating ideas in a wide variety of directions. The breadth of the committee’s conversation impressed me in its consideration of both broad scaffolding, and specific session possibilities. The very basis of our work, for example, underlay one set of ideas, as a committee member asked how communities and networks affect the creation and preservation of historical sources. How do archives emerge from the communications that tie people together? How do certain types of activities and networks remain hidden from public view? How does this process of “archive creation” change over time, as sensibilities, literacy, and technology shift? Who exercises power in this process, and towards what end? And how do substance and methodology speak to one another as we consider how new technologies are reshaping our work through the creation of electronic archives and the growth of “born-digital” archives? These conversations, should they work their way into actual sessions, might even bring archivists to our annual meeting, generating a conversation about how the dialectic between metadata creation and epistemology will influence historical scholarship for years to come.

Another thread worked outwards from another epistemological question, also bringing to the fore the issue of “hidden” phenomena: an exploration of occult (broadly defined) in various places and at various times. Sometimes things are “hidden” because the “mainstream” cannot see them. But sometimes they are hidden on purpose, by people who fear either the influence of other trends or the repressive inclinations of states that see cultural difference as a threat to civic unity or political stability. As we explore these communities what do we learn about culture, politics, and society in a given time and place?

Communities of readers emerged as another theme. What histories do people read, and how does this public understanding of the past affect civic culture and even public policy? Indeed, policy communities themselves emerged as a potential focus for panels, as committee members considered how history can inform policy, and how policy communities harness historical narratives to their purposes. How have historians of the Great Depression, for example, played a role in policy formation since the beginning of the current economic crisis?

The point, in a way, goes back to the opening sentence of Jacqueline Jones’s 1992 book, The Dispossessed: “Poverty has a history.” So does foreclosure. Immigration. Xenophobia. Collecting and preserving. And the AHA annual meeting is a place where historians gather to explore these histories and think about how they relate to one another. “Communities and Networks” is an especially appropriate theme because these two concepts are central to the meeting itself, as communities of scholars gather to extend networks of knowledge.

James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.

The 2012 AHA Annual Meeting Program Committee:

  • Jacob Soll (Rutgers Univ.-Camden), chair
  • Jennifer Siegel (Ohio State Univ.), co-chair
  • Beverly Bossler (Univ. of California, Davis)
  • Daniel Cohen (George Mason Univ. and Center for History & New Media)
  • Thavolia Glymph (Duke Univ.)
  • Linda Gordon (NYU)
  • Nile Green (UCLA)
  • Cynthia Koch (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)
  • Paul E. Lovejoy (York Univ.)
  • Alan Lucibello (Montville School District/Seton Hall)
  • Kenneth Mills (Univ. of Toronto)
  • Francesca Trivellato (Yale Univ.)