From the 126th Annual Meeting column of the November 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
The Presidential Sessions: An Introductory Note
Anthony T. Grafton, November 2011
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .
Was Charles Dickens perhaps presciently describing the situation American historians face as we head into 2012? At any rate, it was with these words in mind that this year's Presidential Sessions were shaped. When the Program Committee asked me to describe what I hoped to achieve, I replied that I hoped to concentrate on three themes: the state of the historical profession, the digital revolution that is transforming our methods of research, teaching and publication; and the careers of a number of great historians, especially intellectual and cultural historians who have taken an interest in the year's general subject of networks and communities. The committee approved, and chairs and speakers accepted our invitations to take part with alacrity and generosity. If you follow the presidential sessions through the program, and attend them at the annual meeting, I hope you'll find them as rewarding to listen to as they have been to organize.
No issue worries historians more—and none has given rise to more debate—than the employment situation that faces new entrants to the discipline. At Session 35, which will take place on Friday morning, from 9:30 to 11:30, Barbara Metcalf, the immediate past president of the AHA, will preside over efforts both to assess the current situation and to set it in historical context. Are we producing too many overspecialized PhDs? If so, when did we start? These issues will be explored by James Axtell (William and Mary Coll.), who will draw on his mastery of the history of the profession to set current developments against the long-term development of our discipline; Robert Townsend (AHA), who will offer a statistical profile of the historical job market over time; and Thomas Bender (NYU), who will look at the wider situation in the humanities and the immediate future. Comments will be supplied—no doubt forcefully and plentifully—by the audience.
Two presidential sessions will examine developments in the world of digital history. "The Future is Here" is the title of the Presidential Session that will take place Friday afternoon from 2:30 to 4:30, and which expresses my belief—one shared with the incoming AHA President, William Cronon—that digital methods and media will significantly reshape our work in the coming years. Over the next generation, senior historians will continue learning how to do their jobs in new ways, and younger ones will be trained in ways radically different from their predecessors. To get a sense of where digital media and their possibilities may take us in the future, we have invited three world pioneers—Blaise Aguerra y Arcas of Microsoft, inventor of the Photosynth system for capturing images and creating panoramas, and expert on early printing, and Erez Lieberman Aidan and Jean-Baptiste Michel of the Cultural Observatory at Harvard, creators of Culturomics, a new method for the quantitative study of human culture across societies and time—to reflect, as they have in the past for audiences of the world's tech experts at TED and elsewhere. Stars of the technology world who also have a passion for the humanities, they will describe some of the ways in which current and future developments in the digital world will affect our scholarship and teaching.
Many historians at all ranks have already adopted digital methods in spatial history—thereby extending and transforming a tradition that goes back to the Annales school and to American scholars like Carl Ortwin Sauer. At session 101, from 9:30 to 11:30 on Saturday morning, organized and moderated by Yair Mintzker (Princeton Univ.), four prominent scholars will reflect on the uses of Geographical Information Systems. Peter Bol (Harvard Univ.), Dan Edelstein (Stanford Univ.), Colin Gordon (Univ. of Iowa) and Richard White (Stanford Univ.) will briefly present their own work, which ranges from the visualization of knowledge about the American West (White) to, historical cartography in East Asia (Bol), and from American urban history (Gordon) to transatlantic intellectual history (Edelstein). Then they will examine the future possibilities and challenges of GIS software in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion.
Historians have always used archives. But as our own systems for managing information undergo radical change, many scholars have realized that archives and other information regimes have a fascinating history of their own. No one saw this sooner than Peter Burke, master cultural and social historian and author of A Social History of Information. The plenary session from 7:30 to 10:00 p.m. on Thursday evening, held in his honor, is entitled "How Information Travels: Lessons from the Early Modern Republic of Letters." Four pioneers in this new field, Paula Findlen (Stanford Univ.), Randolph Head (Univ. of California, Riverside), Daniel Rosenberg (Univ. of Oregon) and Paul Duguid (Univ. of California, Berkeley), will examine the ways in which early modern regimes and individuals created archives and began to devise ways of collecting and analyzing data. Peter Burke will comment on the papers, and Ann Blair and I will serve as chairs.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw new forms of intellectual life take shape in Europe. Writers of many kinds began to challenge orthodoxies in politics and religion, and to form communities of new kinds for mutual encouragement and defense. No one has explored the radicals among these new intellectuals more intensively, or transformed accepted views about them more decisively, than Margaret Jacob of UCLA. Her work has shed new light on everything from the shadowy world of Masonic lodges to the high thinking of Enlightenment intellectuals. At Session 134 on Saturday morning, from 9:30 to 11:30, held in her honor, four distinguished historians—Joyce O. Appleby (UCLA) , Darrin McMahon (Florida State Univ.), Wijnand Mijnhardt (Univ. of Utrecht) and Joel Mokyr (Northwestern Univ.)—will address the themes that Margaret Jacob has made her own. Jacob Soll (Rutgers Univ.) will preside, and Margaret Jacob and Anthony Grafton will comment.
Since 1957, when John Pocock of Johns Hopkins University published The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law—a work that has never gone out of print in the intervening years—he has dedicated himself to investigating the languages of political theory and the structures of historical thought. Pocock has illuminated the development of historical scholarship in early modern England and the history of the republican tradition from the Renaissance to the 18th century. He is now engaged on an epic multivolume voyage through Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—a study that shows that this exemplary artifact, created by a single gentleman working in his private library, was shaped by the labors and debates of groups in every corner of early modern Europe, from imaginative Scottish social theorists to erudite and quarrelsome antiquaries. A tribute will be paid to 60 years of Pocock's magisterial scholarship in the very first AHA session, scheduled for Thursday, January 5, from 3 to 5 p.m. The session, chaired by Peter Miller (Bard Graduate Center), will have Orest Ranum (Johns Hopkins Univ.) and John Robertson (Clare Coll., Cambridge Univ.) as the panelists.
Session 165, to be held on Saturday from 2:30 to 4:30, will also celebrate the work of a great historian: in this case, sadly, one whose career was prematurely ended by a terrible disease. Tony Judt (NYU), a preeminent historian of 20th-century Europe, was a great student—and a trenchant critic—of intellectuals, both as individuals and above all as they formed groups and created orthodoxies. His unsparing criticism touched many, from the French Marxists of the twentieth century to the social historians who dominated the discipline when he arrived on the scene in the 1970s. So did his generosity, which encouraged many younger historians to remain in the profession and fight for new ways of studying the history of everything from ideas to extermination camps. At this session, John Dunn (Kings Coll., Cambridge Univ.), Peter Gordon (Harvard Univ.), Marci Shore (Yale Univ.), Robert Silvers (New York Review of Books) and Timothy Snyder (Yale Univ.), who organized the session, will address Judt's work and the historical issues and problems that gripped this great historian of the dark 20th century.
Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA.