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The AHR at 111: A New Editor Looks Back to the Future

Robert A. Schneider, October 2005

Anyone who has visited 914 East Atwater Street in Bloomington, Indiana, knows it to be a somewhat ramshackle building—in truth an old converted house—where four editors, seven editorial assistants, a production manager, and an office manager labor in cramped quarters to publish the American Historical Review five times a year. On August 1, I entered the office Michael Grossberg occupied there for the past 10 years to begin my term as the new editor of the AHR. Anyone who had dealings with the AHR under Mike’s direction knows it to be a first-rate operation, and this is one of the reasons I am so pleased to be his successor. He has left me both a splendid support team and a reservoir of goodwill throughout the profession that has made the transition a much less daunting process than I had anticipated.

The AHR has changed significantly in the last 10 years. Most visibly, it now publishes more non-Western history and reviews; it has been a pioneer in the publication of articles with electronic or web-based components; and it has expanded its review section to include films of interest to scholars and teachers of history. The journal has also been a leader in the founding of the History Cooperative, a consortium of history journals that, under the aegis of the University of Illinois Press, makes their contents available online. Less dramatically, but no less importantly, the AHR has been constant in its mission to publish the best and the most interesting historical scholarship produced today in the form of articles that, while solidly researched and sophisticated in their approach, strive to appeal to a wide readership of academic historians. Sometimes we are less successful than at other times, but I can assure readers that this has been and will continue to be our overriding goal.

In truth, however, this goal is often more elusive than we care to admit, and not for want of trying. The AHR, like any scholarly journal, reflects the state of the discipline’s scholarship; and in an era of increasing specialization it has often proven difficult to get historians to conceptualize their work in ways that will appeal to those outside their field of specialty. The editors often have to remind contributors that even highly original and brilliantly conceived articles must be drafted in ways that invite the attention of a wide range of nonspecialists. Some contributors and readers object: Why shouldn’t the flagship journal of the AHA be a showcase for the best historical scholarship being produced today—and leave it at that? Why should the editors insist that authors open up their work to those with little interest in their subject in the first place?

The question is more legitimate than it might first seem. To respond to it by simply asserting that otherwise subscribers to the AHR would have little interest in reading anything in its pages outside the few articles a year in their field of specialty just won’t do. For this is to make the justification coincide with the interests of the journal—hardly a compelling reason to cajole contributors into rewriting and often rethinking their contributions. Rather, the answer ultimately suggests another, somewhat existential question: Why should historians, both as readers and as potential contributors, want to connect with other historians in fields and with interests far from their own? Are there fundamental aspects of being an academic historian that transcend specialties and edify and enrich by being evoked and affirmed?

The very existence of the AHR (and the AHA, for that matter) is based on a wager that most historians would answer this last question affirmatively. They might answer it in very different ways, but like all existential questions, it is best considered as an ongoing interrogation rather than one with a well-defined answer. I am certainly not going to indulge in pronouncements on "what it means to be a historian today." But, in a sense, I see the AHR as a vehicle for us to interrogate ourselves precisely along this line—not so much in articles of a metahistorical nature (although these can be useful) but rather by exploring in the context of original scholarship what it is that draws us to the rigorous, analytical study of the past. Basically, this comes down to insisting that all contributions convey what is at stake in their expositions—that is, to make explicit what larger issues, problems, or questions lie at the heart of the matter at hand. Often this can be accomplished by bringing scholars together to contribute to the periodic "forums," which have as their goal precisely this desire to bring to light issues common to historians from different fields. As one of the few major journals on the planet having all of history as its purview, the AHR both can and must take on the task of seeking a common ground for historians.

But, one might respond, what if no such common ground exists? I am sensitive to this response, and I am not so starry-eyed and unaware as to believe that commonality, however desirable, can merely be wished into being. It is likely, in fact, that any formulation or set of understandings that all or even most historians could subscribe to would be so jejune as to be meaningless. But for reasons that cannot be rehearsed here—increased specialization, postmodern trends, a turn away from "grand" theories among them—it seems as though commonality is more problematic today than even in the recent past. And here is where the AHR might play a greater role in provoking historians to reflect on the potential for conversation across a discipline riven by specialties and methodological differences. I have thought, for example, that one useful exercise might be to revisit debates and controversies that flourished only a couple of decades ago, not out of nostalgia but rather to try to recover what it was that once brought historians, often from somewhat different fields, to engage in sustained and vigorous discussion. Many of these discussions attracted the attention of historians across the profession and beyond and set the terms for historical research for years to come. Where are today’s debates and controversies, and do they rise to the level of these earlier ones in terms of the issues at stake? As always, the AHR should be the prime showcase for those that warrant the attention of the wider profession. I suppose what I am suggesting is that in reminding ourselves of controversies now already half-forgotten we might recover a spirit of fruitful contention and even informed speculation that sometimes seem lacking in a profession where expertise, specialization, and cautious empiricism—all good things!—are the rule.

In short, while the AHR in some sense reflects the state of the discipline, it must do more than that. It must be proactive by giving shape to historical discussion, fostering engagement with large issues, and encouraging scholars to think beyond the confines of their own specialties. As the new editor, let me start by soliciting from you, the members of the AHA, ideas and suggestions for realizing this goal in the pages of your profession’s journal.

—Robert A. Schneider, who assumed the editorship of the AHR in August 2005, is a historian of early modern France. Before joining the AHR and the Department of History of Indiana University, he was professor and chair of the history department at the Catholic University of America. His publications include The Ceremonial City (Princeton Univ. Press, 1995) and Public Life in Toulouse, 1463–1789 (Cornell Univ. Press, 1989).