Disagreement, Debate, Discussion

James Grossman, September 2013

This is the theme of the AHA's 2014 annual meeting. We intend this conference, in Washington, DC, to offer a model of civil and constructive "disagreement and debate." Without the disagreement—and without the civility—teaching and scholarship would be severely impoverished. As the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct puts it:

Historians celebrate intellectual communities governed by mutual respect and constructive criticism. The preeminent value of such communities is reasoned discourse—the continuous colloquy among historians holding diverse points of view who learn from each other as they pursue topics of mutual interest. A commitment to such discourse—balancing fair and honest criticism with tolerance and openness to different ideas—makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge.

These values should apply not only to our scholarship, but to all aspects of our professional practice, from the classroom to our debates over professional issues. Differences of opinion about policy issues are expected—and welcomed. Our discipline would be in a sorry state indeed if it did not encompass a range of opinions as varied as the array of interpretive perspectives on historical questions themselves. Just as our community thrives on interpretive diversity and the debates that result, we should take pride in the breadth of perspectives on issues that affect the discipline itself. If we are not stirring an argument of some kind on a regular basis, we probably aren't doing enough to tackle difficult, contentious issues.

Historians will disagree on such things as the efficacy of testing, or the virtues of centralized curriculum frameworks. We might even disagree on whether early drafts written by federal historians ought to be available as public records: on the one hand, this is work funded by the taxpayers; on the other hand, how many historians working at public universities or on NEH grants would welcome scrutiny of their early drafts, at least until they choose to deposit their papers (or hard drives) in an archive?

Access is a complicated issue. This became especially clear recently when the AHA took an advocacy position on behalf of our graduate students. In July, the AHA Council issued a recommendation to PhD-granting universities that students filing doctoral dissertations be offered the option to "embargo" the digital version of their manuscript for up to six years. The AHA did not recommend that students choose any particular option. We simply argued that they be given a choice.

Why? Because members of the AHA Council had learned of students being told by some publishers that they are wary of book manuscripts based on "electronic theses and dissertations" (ETDs). Acquisitions editors, apparently, have expressed concerns about the implications of free and immediate download of a dissertation for subsequent book sales, depending on the level of revisions that might be required for publication. The Council's statement was widely discussed—and misunderstood.

I am not inclined to review the full controversy here, given the attention it already has received—first on Twitter and then on blogs and in mainstream media. A quick review of the comments posted on the AHA's statement will provide a substantial sampling of the debate, as well as links to a variety of perspectives. The issues are complex, and obscured by the confidential nature of much of the relevant conversation among acquisition editors, PhD students, and graduate advisers. Hard data has been elusive: One frequently cited journal article contained relevant survey data that, according to AHA past president William Cronon, was hopelessly misinterpreted.1 Another article, taking a different position, seems to have been simply ignored.2

Nonetheless, the debate was healthy. As Peter Berkery of the American Association of University Presses observed, the "AHA shined a light in a dark corner." From that dark corner emerged the voices of many graduate students who did indeed want a choice, as well as the voices of librarians, historians, and others who argued that the AHA was encouraging universities to construct an impediment to free and open distribution of scholarship. As one recent PhD put it during a spirited discussion of the statement at a workshop this summer, "I'm thankful the discussion is out there."

Historians should participate in just this sort of debate, and I remain heartened by the level of engagement and the range of scholars who participated in online conversations. They raised important questions about the relationship between format and content for historical scholarship, the future of scholarly publication, the role of the book in hiring and tenure decisions, and the AHA's advocacy priorities. Among the most constructive critiques was the importance of AHA recommendations on some of the larger contextual issues such as tenure and promotion standards, which we have engaged in the past but need to reconsider with the changing landscape.

I was less encouraged by the tone of many initial responses, mainly on Twitter, but also on some blogs. Some are best described as nasty, dismissive, superficial, or sarcastic. I'm pleased to be able to say that most of the worst offenses to any notion of civil discourse (such as one reference to the AHA as "pimps," and another to its "cowtow" [sic] to the financial interests of university presses) did not come from members of the AHA—and probably not from historians. Still, many of our colleagues argued, mistakenly and apparently unwilling to take the statement and its emphasis on students at face value, that the AHA had advised students to embargo their dissertations; even worse, had advocated that such an embargo be university policy. Ironically, one particularly dismissive historian seemed unaware that his university policy tracks closely the AHA's recommendation.

"It's easy to throw around words like 'farcical' and make ad hominem arguments about the AHA working out of 'fear' and 'nostalgia' when it's not your career," one graduate student commented on a blog widely read by librarians. This student and many others expressed dismay at seeing a recommendation on a serious issue dismissed as an association's final descent into the death throes of irrelevance. Most critiques that crossed the boundaries of civility had ignored a subtle but crucial distinction: the AHA recommended choice, not embargo, and included reference to the necessity of all dissertations being available in some form.

A comparable distinction escaped some commentators in another recent but very different kind of controversy, focusing on Purdue University president Mitch Daniels. While governor of Indiana, Daniels sent e-mails to staff members directing them to find a way to prevent a faculty member at Indiana University (IU) from continuing to assign Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to prospective school teachers. The AHA's statement was clear: it is a violation of academic freedom for a governor to interfere with a state university professor's assignments. The Washington Post and numerous local newspapers extensively quoted the AHA's statement, and specifically identified the AHA as the appropriate organization to offer such judgments.

The AHA Council found the mainstream media's inclination to defer to its "nonpartisan" authority gratifying. But once again, subtlety escaped some commentators, who reported that the AHA had defended Zinn, rather than the IU professor's right to assign his work. Indeed, even a careful and thoughtful article in the New York Times carried a headline with exactly that misleading reference.

Why review these controversies (and I could easily add others)? For two reasons: First, I hope that anyone who engages AHA advocacy will take the time to read our statements carefully and with a scholar's eye rather than as a partisan committed to a particular position. As history-education scholar Sam Weinberg put it in reference to media distortion of his position regarding Daniels and Zinn, "nuance was sacrificed to politics." Second, I hope to see debate take place on a plane consistent with the references in the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct to civility and respectful consideration of positions taken by colleagues with whom one disagrees. The first comment on the AHA's blog following our statement on dissertations started out by calling it "stupid and stunting." I can accept "stunting" as a substantive critique predicting the impact an action will have on future scholarly conversation. But I will assume that none of our readers would call a student or colleague's work "stupid." At least I hope not.

—James Grossman is executive director of the AHA.


1. Marisa L. Ramirez, Joan T. Dalton, Gail McMillan, Max Read, and Nancy H. Seamans, "Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings from a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers," College & Research Libraries 74, no. 4 (July 2013): 368–80; William Cronon, "Why Put at Risk the Publishing Options of Our Most Vulnerable Colleagues," AHA Today, July 26, 2013.

2. Ann R. Hawkins, Miles A. Kimball, and Maura Ives, "Mandatory Open Access Publishing for Electronic Theses and Dissertations: Ethics and Enthusiasm," Journal of Academic Librarianship 39, no. 1 (January 2013): 32–60.