Taking Stock: Five Years of Editing the AHR
Michael Grossberg, September 2000
From the AHA Activities column in the September 2000 Perspectives
I completed my first term as editor of the American Historical Review this past July. Before I embark on a second five-year term, I will be on leave for a year. I am pleased to announce that my Indiana University colleague Jeffrey Wasserstrom will serve as acting editor. Jeff has been the journal's associate editor for the last three years, and has made many significant and creative contributions to the AHR. I am confident that he will continue to do so during the coming year. Equally important, Jeff, who studies modern Chinese history, will be the first historian of Asia, indeed the first historian with a specialty outside of the United States and Europe, to edit the AHR. Our colleague Dror Wahrman, a historian of early modern Britain, will become the new associate editor.
In addition to announcing Jeff's appointment as acting editor, the mid-point of my editorial tenure at the AHR seems like an appropriate time to take stock of my work at the journal. During the last five years, I have produced 25 issues of the journal, read about 1,500 manuscripts, overseen reviews of almost 6,000 books, and sat in on countless meetings of the AHA's governing bodies. As a result of these editorial experiences, I have come to view the journal and the discipline of history quite differently than when I began editing the AHR in August 1995. I can explain my new perspective by drawing on some lines of Henry James. He tried to capture the impact of the U.S. Civil War on the citizenry by asserting that from the war Americans "got a certain sense of proportion and relation, of the world being a more complicated place than it had hitherto seemed." Despite some of the letters and messages I receive, I do not think historians are engaged in a civil war. After five years of editing the AHR, however, the discipline does indeed seem to be a different and a more complicated place than it did when I spent my time teaching U.S. history and writing about American legal history.
A story from my first AHR Board of Editors meeting explains why. During a general discussion about the journal, one board member declared that the AHR should publish only book reviews because there was nothing distinctive about AHR articles. In fact, he contended that it was impossible to make them distinctive. His declaration has become the challenge of my editorship: How to create distinctive AHR articles and reviews?
I have grappled with this challenge by trying to determine the contemporary meaning of the journal's long-standing mandate to publish significant scholarship that engages the common concerns of all historians. Pursuing that goal has impressed upon me the complications of trying to produce a general history journal in a period dominated by problems ranging from the continuing job crisis for new historians and declining markets and publishers for historical scholarship to the emergence of transnational critiques of professionalization and over-specialization and a general crisis concerning history as a way of thinking linked to postmodernism and information overload. Amidst these difficulties, three particular issues have dominated my editorship and thus my attempts to produce distinctive AHR articles and reviews: specialization, marginalization, and electronic publication.
The continuing fragmentation of history into a myriad of specialized subjects, organizations, and journals challenges us all. It is a particular challenge for a journal like the AHR that tries to engage the interests of all professional historians. Not surprisingly, each of my predecessors struggled with this problem in some form during his tenure as editor, and so have I. My efforts have focused on trying to figure out how to publish articles and reviews that command the attention of all or at least large segments of professional historians at this particular moment in the history of our discipline. I have done so by emphasizing as consistently as I can that the fundamental role of a general journal in an age of specialization is to speak across specialties to common concerns.
Every major policy of the AHR has been formulated or revised to achieve that goal. For example, revised guidelines for "Submitting Articles to the AHR" and "Book Reviewing in the AHR" were issued in the February 1996 issue. Guidelines for "Film Reviewing in the AHR" were drafted for the first time and published in the February 1997 issue.1 In addition, form letters sent to manuscript evaluators and book reviewers have been rewritten so that the instructions accord more closely with the journal's mission and the new guidelines. The journal's basic mission has also been pursued in a series of editorial initiatives. Review essays have been made a standard feature of each issue of the AHR. These essays are to address critical issues in contemporary historical scholarship that cut across specialties and to offer general analyses of the changing literature of history. I have tried to make the review essays as compelling as possible for a general readership by commissioning assessments of books on a common subject but from various times and places and by using multiple formats from the close assessment of a few key works to state-of-the-art analyses of particular fields to multiple-author reviews of seminal works of scholarship. I have also used the AHR Forums rather aggressively to achieve the journal's distinctive mission by commissioning articles and comments intended to raise critical substantive and methodological issues within the discipline. Thus, to take recent examples, the December 1999 issue included a Forum on the millennium and millenarianism, the February 2000 issue contained a Forum on revolutions in the Americas, and the April 2000 issue included a Forum on slavery across borders. Forums too have been presented in various formats, including the recent innovation of the Forum Essay, in which comments about a provocative essay are solicited from readers rather than commissioned from those that might be considered the usual suspects. The most recent is Charles Maier's essay in the June 2000 issue, "Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era." There will be an online discussion of the essay during the first weeks of September open to all readers of the journal. Finally, I have tried to achieve the AHR's mission by spending much of my time encouraging the authors of articles and review essays to engage a broad audience of historians. Much of my work in this regard has focused on suggesting revisions to essay introductions and conclusions that seek to explain to historians of different times and places why a particular essay might be of interest to them.
In these various ways, the other editors and I have tried to demonstrate that the role of a general journal is to promote a different level of argument and engagement with the past than those pursued in specialized journals. Our intent is to promote what I would call historical bilingualism: the ability of historians to write to one another as generalists as well as the more commonly developed ability to write to each other as specialists. After five years, I am convinced that tackling specialization in this manner is one of the most important ways that the AHR can produce distinctive articles and reviews that contribute to our understanding of the issues and methods of historical analysis.
Another way that the AHR can achieve its particular mission is to address the marginalization of fields and approaches within the discipline. Marginalization comes in many forms; indeed, the fragmentation of history has bred feelings of marginalization among almost all groups of historians. Perhaps its most obvious expressions are laments about the decline of particular forms of historical inquiry such as political or diplomatic history and thus the absence of articles and essays on those subjects in journals like the AHR. Clearly that has occurred. In various ways, I have tried to reach out to historians in such fields and urged them to send manuscripts to us. I do so again now.
However, my tenure at the AHR has led me to conclude that the most critical form of disciplinary marginalization involves the lack of engagement with the full geographic and temporal dimensions of contemporary history. Histories about the world outside of North America and western Europe and of times before the late 18th century are the most marginalized forms of historical scholarship today. Their marginalization has been institutionalized to such a degree that a journal like the AHR simply does not receive many submissions in those fields. In fact, the temporal and geographic realities of historical publishing expose a tension between the breadth of contemporary historical inquiry and the realities of the actual composition of historical fields that the AHR must address. By that I mean, as a quick look at the any AHR list of book reviews or a scan of the AHA Directory reveals, the discipline is dominated numerically and in terms of scholarly production by historians of North America and modern western Europe. But its membership and scholarship are much more diverse. Developing a reasoned and reasonable response to this reality is a critical issue for a general history journal like the AHR. As I have learned, it means confronting critical issues of disciplinary power expressed in terms of field hierarchies and customary practices. The challenge of publishing work on distant pasts and various parts of the world also raises questions about the value we place on fields marginalized by the academic marketplace and by our curriculums.
The challenges posed by the spatial and temporal diversity of historical scholarships are related but distinctive. Opening the AHR up to the realities of historical globalism means finding ways to integrate the world into the pasts that the journal publishes. In particular, it has meant grappling with the disciplinary meaning of the debate bound up in the epithet Eurocentrism. For instance, the constant complaints the editors of the AHR hear from historians in fields outside of North America and modern Western Europe are that the journal publishes too few articles in their areas, and that we review too few books in their fields and then always the wrong ones. And thus because of the privileged place given North America and western Europe, our critics charge that the journal should actually be titled the NATO Historical Review. The dominance of the "modern" in contemporary historical scholarship poses other problems for the pursuit of the AHR's mission. It is the product of the creeping presentism of our discipline that privileges the post-late 18th century, and particularly the 20th, in our publications and course rosters while simultaneously ignoring the farther past in all geographic areas. As an example, until later this year, the AHR will not have published a single article in ancient European history during my tenure as editor. We have received very few manuscripts on the subject, and even fewer on other parts of the world. Historians of ancient and medieval worlds regard the AHR simply as a journal of modern history.
Tackling the problems of historical globalism and presentism have compelled us to struggle with the question of whether historians of very different places and times can even speak to each other. We think that they must and that the AHR must be a primary medium for such conversations. Implementing that conviction by ensuring that the AHR publishes and reviews the full spatial and temporal range of contemporary historical scholarship, however, has been very difficult. I have tried to do so by actively soliciting article manuscripts and books for review in underrepresented fields of study. And I have struggled to overcome the perception that the history of North America and modern western Europe is the singular concern of the journal by combing through the annual meeting programs of the AHA and other historical organizations looking for possible articles to solicit, establishing new relationships with publishers of books on subjects ignored in the past, surveying the book review sections of specialized journals, and similar measures designed to broaden the scope of the journal's articles and reviews.
Many of these goals were pursued in the recent reclassification of the AHR's book review section. Though a subject index was added to the table of contents several years ago, the basic classification system had not been altered in many years. It no longer effectively represented the current state of historical scholarship, particularly issues of time and space. The new system debuted in the February 1999 issue. It is intended to achieve the goal of speaking across the specialties by replacing the outmoded General category with new categories of Methods/Theory and Comparative/World. These have been created as mediums to review books that we deem important to all historians. The new system also tries to address the spatial and temporal dimensions of current scholarship more effectively. It is purposefully less Eurocentric. Like the other initiatives I have described, the reclassification of AHR book reviews rests on the conviction that a general journal like the AHR must be a central vehicle for debates about specialization, globalism, and presentism by promoting a new historical cosmopolitanism among historians.
Thus as my second term begins, I renew my commitment to making the AHR more than a journal for historians who study modern western Europe and North America. I do so recognizing more clearly now than five years ago how difficult it is to fulfill that commitment. Despite some success, I understand that enticing historians to read outside of their chosen subject, time, and place is indeed a challenging task. For instance, our attempts to subject work on Europe to a world history critique often elicits complaints that we are marginalizing European history. And devoting more space in the journal to the study of times and places outside of modern North America and western Europe will generate more complaints no matter how hard we try to ensure that articles and reviews speak to nonspecialists. To put the issue most starkly: Will members of the AHA, the basic subscribers to the AHR, who are primarily historians of North America and modern western Europe, support and read a journal that publishes less work directly in their fields and more on other times and places? I ask that question knowing full well that historians of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the medieval and ancient world, and many others have done just that over the years.
The final challenge I have faced in pursuing the distinctive mission of the AHR has been confronting the emergence of information technology as a significant force in our discipline. During the course of my editorship, it has become clear to me that electronic publishing is not the wave of the future but of the present. This is the most unexpected development for me because I have not been drawn to the medium by an inherent interest in it. Nevertheless, I am the AHR editor who took the journal online. I did so because I realized that transforming changes in information technology are already beginning to have a significant impact on the production and dissemination of historical scholarship and that the AHR must participate in these developments to continue to perform its mission. Yet I also have learned that electronic publication raises substantive questions about the role of journals, authors, and readers in creating new forms of scholarship appropriate for the new medium. In short, the electronic future poses a set of intricate and interlocking questions and challenges that go to the heart of history journals as a form of scholarly communication. These must be addressed by all journal editors and by all of us who read and write for journals.
I have tried to tackle the challenge of electronic publication in a way that accords with the AHR's traditions and mission. I helped organize a 1997 conference on "History Journals and the Electronic Future" that sought to determine the key issues facing history editors as they contemplated digitizing their journals. I have followed up the conference with organized discussions about an electronic AHR among the staff, Board of Editors, AHA Research Division, and AHA Council. I have also tried to initiate broader discussions with panels, articles, and listserv discussions among historians and history editors. As a result of these discussions, the journal staff and I established four primary goals in taking the journal online: developing ways to take advantage of the new electronic medium for publishing and reviewing historical scholarship; maintaining the AHR's tradition of high production standards in the new medium; collaborating with other journals to share information and to use our fiscal resources and stature in the most advantageous manner for the discipline as a whole; and controlling costs as much as possible. After various explorations, we began production of an electronic version of the AHR in April 2000 as part of the newly created History Cooperative. The Cooperative is an electronic publishing initiative created by the AHA, Organization of American Historians, Illinois University Press, and National Academy Press. We think that the Cooperative is an innovative and effective mechanism for producing an e-AHR that achieves each of our goals for an electronic AHR.2 Our intent is to make it a central site for the production and dissemination of historical scholarship by adding journals that represent a range of historical fields and methods and by developing the most useful forms of technology for historians.
Now that the Cooperative has been formed and the initial challenge of taking the AHR online has been met, we must grapple with the substantive consequences of producing print and electronic versions of the AHR for achieving the journal's mission. Though the electronic version will replicate the print version completely, the print version will not be able to replicate the electronic one. Indeed, the e-AHR already has content that cannot be reproduced in print: the electronic supplements to Robert Darnton's recent Presidential Address included primary sources, a digital map, songs, a collateral essay, and an interactive discussion. Thus now that the journal has a digital outlet, we will have to begin thinking about how to encourage authors to use the new medium and what their use will mean for the mission of the journal and for our established evaluation and production procedures. Some of the issues are quite clear. For example, what sort of electronic supplements to articles should we seek? Should we seek them for every article or only for selected ones? Will the author or the journal bear the costs of producing electronic article additions? Will reviewers be asked to evaluate web documents and evidence in their analysis of manuscripts? If so, what technological and substantive standards should they use? How will electronic add-on features to articles affect the journal's double-blind peer review process? How can we construct online discussions that are more substantive than chat room conversations? What does it mean to create an edited online discussion? Most fundamentally, we must determine how electronic publication can be used to produce scholarship that addresses the journal's fundamental mission of speaking to the common concerns of professional historians and that represented the full temporal and spatial dimensions of contemporary history in a medium that encourages narrow searches for specific bits of information.3 Similarly, we must ensure that all historians have access to the e-AHR and that they can produce articles and reviews for it. Thus overseeing the evolution of the e-AHR will be the major test of our ability to achieve the journal's mission in this new medium.
I want to conclude this report on my first term as editor of the AHR by noting that the actions and initiatives I have chronicled in this essay represent my initial responses to the Jamesian lessons about disciplinary complications that I have learned editing this journal. The result, I hope, is a clearer articulation and execution of the journal's fundamental mission. However, I think that much more can be done to enhance the journal's role as a distinctive forum for timely and significant debates about our discipline and the pasts that historians recover and recount. I would like to make the journal livelier and more engaged with important issues confronting historians. I hope my year away from the daily production of the journal will give me a chance to consider the challenges of editing the AHR anew. I would also welcome your comments and suggestions. Please send them to me at the AHR (914 Atwater, Bloomington, IN 47405 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
It has been a privilege as well as a challenge to edit the AHR for the last five years. In my first AHR Annual Report, I pledged "to maintain the AHR's broad intellectual appeal and high standards that is the legacy of my predecessors while at the same time identifying selective innovations that can enhance the journal's ability to engage the interests of as many historians as possible." I want to end this report by reiterating those goals for my second term as editor.
—Michael Grossberg is editor of the American Historical Review.
1. All AHR guidelines are now available on the journal's web page: http://www.indiana.edu/~ahr.
2. Electronic versions of the AHR can be found at JSTOR.
3. For further discussion of the Cooperative and these issues, see Michael Grossberg, "Devising an Online Future for Journals of History," Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 April, 2000, B6–7.