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

"Settling In"

James Grossman, October 2010

“Let’s get together once you’ve settled in . . .” Having started officially as AHA’s executive director on September 1, I am writing this column before “settling in.” And I write it with a gratifying stack of e-mails containing a variant of this welcome message and invitation. They come from longtime friends who live in Washington, and from people whom I have never met. But when will I have “settled in”? Amidst all of the excitement and challenges of a new job, this is clearly a question that requires an answer.

The challenge of “settling in” at a place like the AHA relates closely to my decision nearly a year ago to apply for the position. Having served on a variety of committees at AHA and other scholarly societies, I had a sense of the broad variety that the work would entail. Having long described my position at the Newberry Library as “the perfect job for a dilettante,” I found that broad variety especially enticing. At the Newberry I participated in a multidisciplinary community of scholars gathered around magnificent research collections in an institution committed to civic engagement. A perfect world for a scholar indeed. But if Richard Hofstadter was right in his oft-quoted reference to the United States as a nation that was “born in perfection and aspired to progress,” then what could be more American, more patriotic, than engaging the diverse new opportunities at the AHA?

The diversity, however, is mind-boggling. During the period between accepting the offer from the AHA Council and starting work, I had scores of conversations with friends and colleagues about the AHA and, in the case of those in either other disciplines or other lines of work, about scholarly and professional associations in general. Nearly all asked the same question: “what does the AHA do?” This included many of the historians, nearly all of whom (fortunately) were AHA members. All historians know that the AHA publishes a journal, though few are aware that the American Historical Review is the most widely read and widely cited historical journal in the world. And all of our colleagues know about the annual meeting, although many associate it with less-than-pleasant memories of the anxieties of seeking a job. Few seemed aware, for example, of the AHA’s role in the executive order issued last year that declassified millions of federal documents and made it far more difficult than ever before to classify an existing unclassified document. Even fewer were aware of the AHA’s participation in multidisciplinary coalitions that advocate for appropriate roles for the humanities and social sciences in elementary and secondary education. Or the AHA’s work in the area of intellectual property, a field of central interest to those who write and/or teach history (or any other discipline, for that matter). Or the importance of the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, which recently guided the recommendations of a panel appointed at a major research university to help in the consideration of allegations of research misconduct by a faculty member. Indeed, I have already invoked the Statement twice in response to inquiries from individuals curious about the AHA’s positions on particular issues. When asked, for example, whether the AHA defines who can be called a historian, I have observed that the AHA instead has guidelines about historical practices.

The AHA’s web site offers a rough map of the multitude of activities in which the AHA is involved. That site is admittedly difficult to navigate, in part because of that very multitude. I’ve noticed that it is also modest. We are better at telling visitors to our web site what we do than what we’ve accomplished, which, in some ways, people are left to infer from the impressive list of publications.

Settling in, therefore, means learning about all of those things that I want not only our members to learn about, but (perhaps even more important) those historians who are not our members. “Do historians know that we have done this?” I ask our staff. “It’s in the newsletter and our online communications,” is the response. We need to do more. We need to get the word out to our colleagues who are not members about the major accomplishments of the AHA, and perhaps it’s easier for me to do that than for my predecessor or the staff. After all, I can’t claim any credit for it. I’m just telling everyone what someone else accomplished.

So no, I haven’t settled in yet. At each turn I find I have more to learn, more to think about. Reading through files, attending meetings with our collaborators, asking staff what they do; any comparable new position entails such work before one can feel settled in. But I’m a historian. I won’t be settled in until I have a sense of the past at the AHA as well. I want to be able to tell members and potential members what the AHA has accomplished and why we need your help to build on those accomplishments. Once I begin to do that, I’ll have settled in.

James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA. Previously he served as vice president for research and education at the Newberry Library.