Presidential Sessions

Lynn Hunt, October 2002

Editor's Note: Members will notice an important change in the annual meeting program when they receive it this month, as six panels will be designated as "presidential sessions." These sessions were organized by AHA President Lynn Hunt, who describes them in detail here. At its January 2002 meeting, the AHA Council voted to make the Presidential Sessions a regular feature in future annual meetings. These sessions are intended to address member concerns about the relative absence of senior scholars at the annual meetings and the paucity of sessions treating broad historiographical issues. Recent Program Committees have been striving to address the same concerns, but they are largely limited to developing a program out of the submissions for panels. The Council decided that these problems needed to be dealt with proactively, and empowered future presidents to develop up to six panels a year. It is important to note that these new sessions will not come at the expense of panels submitted to the Program Committee, which will still have 150 or more session slots.

Since I was the first president given the privilege of devising "presidential sessions" for the annual meeting, I had no particular formula to follow. I tried to set up sessions that would highlight some of the most important developments in European history but also bring European history into conversation with other areas of history, especially non-Western histories. One of the sessions was subsequently chosen by the Program Committee to be the opening plenary session, "Provincializing Europe." In a provocative book with that title, the South Asian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argued that it was time to "Provincialize Europe," that is, make it just one of many sources of our historical theories and practices. From its origins as a discipline in the 19th century until the end of the 20th century, history got most of its theories and practices from Europe: Marxism, nationalism, and poststructuralism come readily to mind but also the worldwide influence of Ranke's seminar method, and later the Annales school, Italian microhistory, and German Alltagsgeschichte. Historians of China, India, Africa and South America were expected to read exemplars in European history as well as Marx and Foucault, but the converse did not hold; Europeanists did not read the histories of other parts of the world to get inspiration for their work. This session will dig into the issues raised by Chakrabarty (and many others) with contributions by specialists in Ottoman history, Latin American history, and French history. Gabriel Piterberg, Ann Farnsworth-Alvear and Bonnie Smith all have interests that go far beyond their specialties, however, and like Chakrabarty himself, they also bring a lively engagement with both European and non-Western perspectives to their work. It seemed only appropriate to have a living exemplar, Natalie Zemon Davis, chair the session and to have Dipesh Chakrabarty serve as commentator. Is European theoretical and methodological dominance now a thing of the past? What better place to discuss this issue than at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association?

One of the advantages of the presidential sessions is that they provide more leeway for experimentation with format. Two of the sessions break with the customary format and highlight the work of one particular historian as a way of launching a wide-ranging discussion of historical method. A paper by Charles S. Maier will be the focus of the session, "New Approaches to International History." Chaired by Carol Gluck, with comments by Matthew Connelly and Paul Schroeder, this session promises an exciting, multidimensional discussion of the ongoing reconceptualization of diplomatic, military, and geopolitical history not just of Europe but also of the world.

Similarly international but with a very different point of departure is the session entitled "The Future of Feminist History" with a central paper by Joan W. Scott. Feminist history has had a more enduring and transformative impact on the theories and practices of history than any other perspective of the last 30 years. After these successes, what does the future hold? Is the success itself a danger? Chaired by Mary Lou Roberts, with comments by Afsaneh Najmabadi and Evelynn Hammonds, this session is bound to provoke a lively and timely discussion not only of the past but also of the future of feminist history.

Textbooks do not usually count as "work," that is, as accomplishments that establish one's research credentials for promotion. Yet textbooks reach many more student readers than most history books. As the coauthor of a Western Civilization textbook, I have long found irksome the widely shared professional disdain for textbook writing. No new historiographical position really proves itself until it makes its way into the textbooks for students. In recent years, world history has steadily established its presence—and in some cases, dominance—at the introductory level. Will the history of Western Civilization change in significant fashion with the rise of world history and global concerns? Must the two approaches be mutually incompatible? A roundtable of authors of textbooks on Western Civilization will take on this topic and offer a variety of views on writing the history of Western Civ in the global age. Lloyd Kramer will chair the session; Thomas Martin, Thomas F. X. Noble, Merry Wiesner Hanks, and Patricia O'Brien (in the order of their chronological specialties) will share their experiences as authors of Western Civ textbooks.

As a specialist in the history of the French Revolution, I have enjoyed more than 30 years of working on one of history's perennial hot spots. Since its first days, the French Revolution has been the testing ground for just about any general theory, from Marx's concept of bourgeois revolution to discussions of the origins of totalitarianism. In the last few years, interest in the links between the Enlightenment and the various revolutions of the 18th century has taken new directions; so it seems only appropriate (at least to me) to have a session titled "Enlightenment and Revolution: New Perspectives." Chaired by Suzanne Desan, with papers by Dror Wahrman, Sarah Maza, and Carla Hesse, and a comment by Isser Woloch, this session will no doubt demonstrate that the age of revolutions has lost none of its capacity to spark controversy.

Last but not least could not be more apt than in the case of the session titled "Towards a New History of the Self." Despite the influential work of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault, the history of personhood has never attracted much sustained interest. But a few notable historians have been working hard in recent years to change that. This session brings some of the most prominent of them together in an attempt to galvanize interest in the subject. Chaired by William M. Reddy, the session will include papers by Barbara H. Rosenwein, David Sabean, and Thomas W. Laqueur (again in chronological order), with a comment by Jerrold Seigel.

Organizing these sessions has reminded me that there is no one necessary format for our annual meeting. Perhaps the presidential sessions will help open up the broader question of how best to represent our research, teaching, and professional interests. As the number of sessions at the annual meeting continues to grow inexorably, should we rethink the way we organize our meeting? Is there a better way to encourage discussion between or across fields? Many have expressed their dislike of the current organization of sessions, but no other viable arrangement has been proposed. I would be very interested in receiving your comments after the 2003 annual meeting (

—Lynn Hunt (UCLA) is president of the AHA.