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From the 1998 Annual Meeting column in the September 1998 Perspectives

Report of the 1998 AHA Program Committee

Sara Evans and Ann Waltner, September 1998

The 1998 AHA annual meeting in Seattle was attended by 3,658 people, and offered a record number of official sessions. Detailed evaluations by session chairs of 76 sessions (49 percent) confirm that this was a very exciting and intellectually stimulating meeting.

The opening plenaries established two themes. Natalie Zemon Davis (Princeton Univ.) and Stuart Schwartz (Yale Univ.) spoke to the benefits and pleasures of doing comparative history and to the unexpected connections that crop up when one trains oneself to look for them. The second plenary on the role of national museums offered a stellar, international lineup. The presentations by Cheng Bo Feng (Nankai Univ.) and Alissandra Cummins (Barbados Museum and Historical Society) were powerful explorations of the kinds of public conversations—and the political constraints—that national museums address. Unfortunately, two of the panelists, John Kani (Market Theater Company, Johannesburg) and Spencer Crew (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution), were unable to come precisely because of the demands placed on their institutions.

The committee's active effort to encourage and facilitate comparative sessions was resoundingly successful. We set out to encourage genuinely comparative panels by publishing guidelines in Perspectives and by offering assistance to people who came to us with embryonic ideas. We insisted that comparative sessions seriously engage issues of comparison and that the roles of the chair and commentator were critical to their success. As a result of these efforts, the 1998 program had an unprecedented number of comparative panels, and evaluations repeatedly noted that the sessions had been constructed thoughtfully and that the commentators effectively drew together the comparative themes suggested by the papers. Audiences clearly responded as well, engaging in active, sometimes vigorous, discussions. We conclude from this success that future program committees should continue to provide encouragement and guidelines to people interested in comparative sessions. The possibility of conversation across the boundaries of all the traditional historical fields is unique to the AHA annual meeting.

Evaluations (by session chairs to whom the forms had been mailed) were extremely positive: 31 of the 76 evaluations (or more than 40 percent) were excellent in every respect, prompting such comments as "One of the best sessions I have witnessed." and "I have rarely enjoyed a session at the AHA as much." Another 33 evaluations referred to very good sessions which engendered "lively discussions" despite some imperfections such as overlong papers or a presenter absent because of illness. Seven sessions appeared to have been successful but not thrilling, and only two sessions were described in language that suggested they were genuinely disappointing. In one of those cases, the papers simply did not deliver what their titles had promised, and in another a presenter failed to submit a paper or show up for the panel and gave no advance warning or excuse. Although such unprofessional behavior is distressing, it appears to have been extremely rare.

Evaluations generally praised the facilities, which were unusual for the AHA in that they were not primarily hotel-based. Although most sessions were well attended (attendance ranged from 5 to 150, and most sessions were between 20 and 40), those that were small generally elicited explanations focused on program time slots. In fact, every single time slot, with the exception of Friday afternoon, had disadvantages. The most serious problems, however, were on Sunday morning when there can be no doubt that there were some sessions with small turnouts because people from the East Coast tended to leave early. The program committee had anticipated this somewhat by scheduling fewer sessions on Sunday than in other time periods. In the future, we would recommend that there be only one Sunday morning session—especially for meetings scheduled on the West Coast. It is important to note that the committee was cognizant of its strict instructions to place several highly popular sessions on Sunday. Indeed, we were careful not to match "popular" sessions with "popular" time slots. Our greatest concern was to avoid placing sessions on similar topics and drawing the same audience in competition with each other. Unfortunately, we have subsequently learned that despite our most careful planning, there were several cases of just this problem. This is probably insurmountable, given the crosscutting nature of intellectual interests at the annual meeting—time, geography, methodology, and subject matter. But we urge continued attention to the problem.

The AHA needs a program that speaks to the profession as a whole, drawing together our enormously varied interests and focuses. It needs regularly to present the greatest thinkers in our profession. At the same time, it should also regularly give voice to the most promising younger scholars, whose work may be shaping the historiography that is just emerging. The health of the discipline depends on our ability to keep the conversation going between newer and older fields and methods, and between historians whose priority is scholarship and those whose priority is teaching. Indeed, teaching sessions continue to be among the best attended. We must continue to balance sessions from which teachers in high schools and community colleges can benefit with sessions that pursue specific historical questions in esoteric detail.

In recent years a very large number of graduate students and brand new PhDs have been on the program. Some members of the AHA find this to be troubling. Many of the very best proposals that we received came from graduate students—in part because they were willing and eager to make the case for the importance of their work and for the conception of the panel as a whole, and in part simply because they are doing stellar work. We had fewer proposals from more senior scholars than we would have liked, no doubt in part because the career incentives for senior scholars to present papers at a meeting are much lower than they are for junior scholars. In addition, in some cases, established scholars did not articulate the coherence of panels or the arguments of papers as well as they could have, perhaps assuming that we would read between the lines and accept their papers because of work they had done in the past. We could not and did not accept panels on the basis of anything but the proposals we had in hand. The Association should continue to encourage senior scholars to submit panels, as their presence is important to the conference as a whole.

Additional criticism came to the committee from people whose proposals were rejected. Understandably, many of them believed in the worthiness of their proposals. Some went further and asserted that only blind prejudice and favoritism could have resulted in a rejection. Yet as best we can tell, sessions in all fields were accepted in rough proportion to the numbers submitted. As a committee, we reminded ourselves regularly of the need to be inclusive and to pay special attention to underrepresented fields such as diplomatic and military history. We strongly urge those who have been underrepresented to submit proposals and to take an active role in the shaping of the program.

It was a humbling and gratifying experience for us to see the depth and range of our profession. The committee labored long and hard (and with good humor) to assemble a program that we, and the Association, can be proud of. We would like to close by thanking our committee—Charles Ambler (Univ. of Texas at El Paso), Lonnie Bunch (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution), Joan Cadden (Univ. of California at Davis), John Chasteen (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Paula Findlen (Stanford Univ.), Eric Rothschild (Scarsdale, N.Y., High School), Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Morgan State Univ.), John Voll (Georgetown Univ.), and Eric Weitz (St. Olaf Coll.)—and the staff of the AHA, especially Sharon K. Tune and Sandria B. Freitag.

—Sara Evans and Ann Waltner
University of Minnesota
1998 Program Committee Cochairs