From the 128th Annual Meeting column of the November 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
The Presidential Sessions at the 128th Annual Meeting
Kenneth Pomeranz, November 2013
It has been a pleasure working with the 2014 program committee, ably led by Anne McCants (MIT) and Peter Perdue (Yale Univ.), with unfailing staff support from Debbie Ann Doyle.
The theme for the 128th annual meeting, "Disagreement, Debate, Discussion" was meant to be extremely broad, since it is more or less axiomatic that an interesting historical topic is one that people can disagree about. But it was not chosen simply to say "Come one, come all," but to emphasize, at a meeting in Washington, DC, that disagreement per se is not to be feared, that constructive debate is an essential part of intellectual progress, and that the absence of complete consensus on historical issues does not mean that there are no standards by which we can judge historical controversies. This year's film festival, organized by Vinayak Chaturvedi (Univ. of California, Irvine) likewise highlights the importance of controversy, with five films from around the world that not only focus on major social and political conflicts, but examine the intersections among "traditional" methods of pursuing politics, such as petitions and demonstrations, and engagement through social media, music, and film itself. AHA members wellversed in the histories of these particular conflicts will lead discussions after each film.
Presidential Sessions at the Annual Meeting
History, Science, and Climate Change
American Inequality and Living Standards up to 1870
Plenary Session: "Other" Civil Wars of the 1860s: Strife in a Time of Nation‒Building
The Decline of Empires and the Making of Scholarly Communities: An Appreciation of Wm. Roger Louis
Teaching History to/for STEM Students
The "History Wars" of the 1990s: What Was That All About?
What Would Eurasian History Look Like
What Should a Twenty-First-Century History Textbook Look Like?
Empires and the Environment
History on Very Big Scales
History and the Biological Sciences
Several of the presidential sessions have another common element, which will also be a theme of the presidential address: they explore different ways of doing history for what I call a "less national (though not post-national) age." These include the plenary session "'Other' Civil Wars of the 1860s: Strife in a Time of Nation-Building." It features papers on three major civil conflicts-in Mexico, China, and Lebanon-that overlapped the US war and were, to varying degrees, intertwined with it. The respondent has been deeply involved in "globalizing" US history, and has written a book on cotton in the modern world.
Other panels that ponder ways of thinking beyond national units include "History on Very Big Scales," "Empires and the Environment," "History and the Biological Sciences," "The Decline of Empires and the Making of Scholarly Communities: An Appreciation of Wm. Roger Louis," "History, Science, and Climate Change," and "What Would Eurasian History Look Like?" Participants in the "Empires and Environment" roundtable have published on periods from ancient to contemporary and places from the Caribbean to the Mekong Delta, and from Egypt to North America.
"The Decline of Empires and the Making of Scholarly Communities" features historians from the US Senate and State Department, as well as universities. "History on Very Big Scales" brings together three very different versions of a big story, each of which has attracted considerable attention, with a response from an important historian of environment, culture, and politics. "What Would Eurasian History Look Like?" crosses that enormous landmass though both comparisons and connections; exploring religious conversion, rulership, economic ties, education, and other practices that can be used to write histories with different spatial dimensions and implications.
"History, Science, and Climate Change" brings together science and history to look at the implications of past climate change for human societies on scales ranging from thousands of years to the time spans historians more typically tackle. "History and the Biological Sciences" draws on disciplines from genetics to primatology and data sources from ancient silk samples to Wikileaks. This pair of panels features, besides historians, people with appointments in geosciences, biology, anthropology, archaeology, classics, economics, and sociology.The panels on history and climate change, history and the biological sciences, empires and environment, and history on very big scales all engage with the natural sciences, and two other presidential panels are also explicitly interdisciplinary. "American Inequality and Living Standards up to 1870" features two leading economic historians based in econ departments presenting a major work in progress on the history of this increasingly salient issue, with responses from leading figures in both disciplines. "The 'History Wars' of the 1990s: What Was That All About?" looks at a very different kind of inter-disciplinarity, revisiting a series of lively arguments about our relationship to postmodernism, to both literary and social theory, to anthropology, and to a set of social movements (particularly, but not exclusively, feminism) that often argued that earlier modes of history had contributed to silencing them.
Along with the panels already mentioned, there is one more presidential panel that approaches our relationship to the natural sciences in what I think is, somewhat surprisingly, a novel way: a roundtable on "Teaching History to/for STEM Students." This panel features four historians who have enjoyed great success teaching history to students at institutions strongly oriented toward the sciences (MIT, Georgia Tech, and Carnegie Mellon); a historian of science will chair. The respondent, Susan Ambrose, is vice-provost for teaching and learning at Northeastern; she has a history degree, but has worked most recently in education programs, including serving as a visiting scholar for the American Society of Engineering Education and the National Science Foundation.
While much of any AHA meeting is-and should be-about the excitement of sharing our work with other people who, like us, are especially drawn to history, much of our contribution to the society occurs when we engage with those who are less immediately enthused, and perhaps even initially dismissive. As American higher education becomes ever-more preprofessional, there is considerable pressure to focus on what each discipline offers to its majors as the measure of its "value," though for most history departments, nonmajors make up most of their student credit hours. All the more reason, I would argue, for redoubled efforts to both reconsider how we engage with science students, and how we articulate the value of that teaching in ways that are convincing to others.
This is not the only presidential panel that addresses teaching, or our relationship to non-specialists. Another session asks what a history textbook should look like—a particularly vexed subject in an era of digitalization—and covers debates about cost, student attention spans, MOOCs, and the implications of all of these things for pedagogy. This roundtable brings together an author, a publisher, a historian of the book, a professor of both education and history, and a historian based at a community college, where textbooks are most heavily used and most likely to make up a large percentage of a given class's readings. And looking beyond college campuses, both the session on the history wars and the appreciation of Wm. Roger Louis—founding director of the AHA's National History Center—speak, in very different ways, to our dialogues with people beyond the academy. So, I would argue, does the more academic-sounding question of how it should influence historians' practice that nations, though still immensely powerful, no longer seem as natural a framework or endpoint for history as they did when the Association (and its counterparts in other countries) was being formed.
All of which brings us back to considering our host city. Washington, DC—especially in the midst of Civil War commemorations—seems an apt place to ponder the nation as a center of power, focus of loyalty, and framework of analysis, and as something both to reckon with and to think beyond. It is likewise a powerful stimulus to thinking about "Disagreement, Debate, Discussion," and to the changing, but always crucial, roles of history in public culture. I hope to see many of you in the meetings; but I hope that (unlike me) you will also get away a bit, and connect with the history outside. The local arrangements committee has set up many ways of doing so.
—Kenneth Pomeranz is president of the AHA.