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From the News column in the September 1998 Perspectives

Stay in the Conversation

Sara Evans and Ann Waltner, September 1998

We have read with interest accounts of the formation of the Historical Society which offer as one rationale the frustration of its founders with the annual AHA meeting program. As the most recent cochairs of the Program Committee, we believe this concern is misplaced and we are troubled by the perception that schism is an appropriate or necessary response.

Anyone who reviews recent programs and compares them to programs 20-30 years ago will certainly notice that the discipline represented there has changed. New questions, new methodologies, whole new fields of inquiry have taken their places alongside the traditional fields of political, diplomatic, and economic history. If those fields once defined the discipline, they are no longer dominant.

For those who are disgruntled by these changes the questions must be asked: is this a conspiracy? Has there been a deliberate effort to exclude? Are scholars who study what experts formerly regarded as the center of the field .. assigned the "Sunday morning" slot or excluded from the program altogether, as one of the founding members has argued? We would argue, after serving two years on the program committee, that this is not the case and that the discipline will be greatly harmed if substantial numbers of historians withdraw not only from the association but from the conversations and debates which the annual program represents.

Why, then, does the program look the way it does? First of all, the shape of the program very much reflects the shape of the proposals which are submitted. As best we can tell, sessions were accepted and rejected in roughly the same proportions across fields, however defined. Insofar as the program reflects the intellectual directions of the discipline, it behooves those who disagree to submit their challenges in the form of panel proposals for future meetings - much as scholars in the "new social history" analyzing women, race, family, sexuality, etc. pressed for inclusion starting about three decades ago.

Second, the traditional fields themselves are changing. Certainly, for example, feminist historians have returned to political history and taken up questions relating to the state and civil society with great vigor. Similarly, diplomatic historians treat not only relations among states but also a variety of cultural interactions linked to processes of international relations, colonialism, labor migration, and so forth. We have received some critical comments from people who deny these new directions a legitimate place in their traditional fields.

Finally, it may be true that some of the most traditional proposals have a difficult time gaining access to the program, but we would argue that this is in part because their authors either innocently or defiantly presume the importance of their topics and simply do not make the case for them. We had a number of proposals - despite many articles in Perspectives offering guidance and advice - which offered extremely minimal descriptions of papers and very little rationale for the panel as a whole. Sometimes, if we knew the names, we could make an educated guess that it would probably be very good, but to do so would be patently unfair to others who had taken the trouble to conceptualize their panels and make the case for the importance of the papers and the coherence of the panels. In other instances, it was not the traditional field that was the problem but the narrowness of the proposal itself. There are numerous historical associations focused on specific fields of inquiry, and there are many papers which address important but esoteric questions in those fields. Papers presented at the AHA need to be somewhat broader in their reach either by subject matter or by methodology. The function of the AHA is to engage us in broader discussions than we might otherwise find ourselves in. Papers need to be framed in a way which enables such discussion. We would like to add a concluding note about scheduling.

Evaluations this year - as probably every other year - complained most bitterly about placement on the program. If there is to be a Sunday morning session, whoever is assigned that slot is likely to be unhappy. What was particularly interesting is that we got complaints about all but one of the time slots as explanations for small turnouts. And we also learned that several Sunday morning sessions were large and vigorous. How are these schedules set up? Our committee sorted sessions into a series of lists by fields, broadly defined, and then by large, medium, and small sessions. These lists were then rotated through the time slots, letting them fall where they may. Once that first sort was done, we scrutinized the lists for conflicts which inadvertently resulted made exchanges designed to avoid offering simultaneous sessions on very closely related topics. We did not go through the list and decide "this is a Saturday session" or "this is a Sunday session - send it to the graveyard." Indeed, we were under strict instructions to be sure that the Sunday schedule included some of the sessions we expected to be particularly popular. Our only concession was to reduce the total number of sessions on Sunday compared to the other time slots.

After two years service on this committee, we are struck more than anything else by the fairness of the process and the seriousness with which committee members undertake their responsibilities. If there are serious arguments about the nature of the discipline itself, those should be taking place within the annual meeting and we cannot imagine a program committee that would not welcome such discussions. Breaking away risks further fragmentation and a loss of the creative energy that is generated when genuine scholarly debate is given full sway. We hope that the founders of the History Society will reconsider and decided to stay in the conversation with the rest of us.

—Sara M. Evans and Ann Waltner are the cochairs of the 1998 AHA Program Committee.