The President's Preface 2006

When Jim Sheehan handed me the gavel in January 2006, I thought (like most AHA presidents when they begin) that I understood reasonably well the dependence of practicing historians on learned societies in general and on the AHA in particular. But no generalization is reliable; every year is different, and I only knew the half of it. This year the major challenges clustered in three categories: academic freedom, national history policy, and sustaining—dare I say revitalizing?—the annual meeting and the structure of the AHA itself.

Freedom of movement for historians is central to academic freedom and has been a long-standing concern of the AHA. We filed a letter in support of the Cuban scholars who were denied visas so that they could attend the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association. (LASA has now decided to move its next meeting outside the boundaries of the United States.) We tried to help historian Waskar Ari, the first indigenous Bolivian to earn a PhD in history in the United States, and whose visa has been denied for over two years, challenge the denial so that he could begin a job at the University of Nebraska. We wrote letters (and received in return exemplary bureaucratic boilerplate) and we wrote more letters. (As this report is published, we have received the good news that Ari has finally received his visa.)

When things work well, the relation of the health of the profession to national history policy is often invisible. This year, in many instances, it became very visible indeed. For example, in educational policy we had to decide whether we should endorse the inclusion of history in No Child Left Behind legislation. Similarly, we had to engage with several issues relating to the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

When the reclassification of declassified documents in the National Archives was revealed in the spring of 2006, we joined with other historical organizations in raising the alarm; again in the fall the National Archives announced a severe cut in hours (its response to the additional expenses of the review of wrongly reclassified documents) and once again we protested, accomplishing a modest shift in the hours of closing to include more evening and weekend hours than had originally been threatened.

The still secret and exclusive contract between the Smithsonian Institution and Showtime Television threatened to compromise the mission of the institution and free access to public resources; we insisted that all researchers, whether or not they are associated with any organization, have equal access to the materials in the institution’s care, and we submitted indignant written testimony to a congressional hearing conducted by the Committee on House Administration. It was good to see our role recognized in the skeptical report issued by the Government Accountability Office.

The severe underfundng of the National Endowment for the Humanities remains of major concern to us, as does the effort to zero out the National Historic Records and Publications Commission. A bright note was the rapid response of NEH chair Bruce Cole to our urging to offer additional funds to scholars in New Orleans who had held NEH fellowships the year or two before Katrina and whose work had been lost or materials damaged in the storm.

As for the AHA itself, the activities of the Task Force on the Future of the AHA , chaired by William Chafe, are energetically begun, with a lively open forum at the annual meeting in Atlanta. This was the first year that the opening plenary session, the presidential address, the open forum, and several other panels and informal gatherings received sign-language interpretation. The program reflected many of the improvements mandated by the new guidelines adopted at the urging of the Research Division two years ago, and it’s clear that these changes are making for a more vibrant meeting: a “film festival” of creative new work was held during the meeting; a Poster Session at which some 30 historians, senior and junior, presented their work in creative formats; a performance by actress Joanna Maddox and songs rendered by the Wendell P. Whalum Community Chorus and the D’Vine trio brought the arts into the program. Panels paid substantial attention to the conditions of graduate education and the conditions of work for historians. At a time when many call for transnational and international conversations, the program was marked by transnational and comparative themes—easier to accomplish because our membership addresses itself to the histories of so many nations.

“[N]ever yet have I read anything whatever about the League of Nations which was not unutterably boring,” a British journalist once wrote; change “the League of Nations” to the name of any organization and the point hits home. The small staff at 400 A Street S.E., in Washington, D.C., is doing so many significant things simultaneously, generally in collaboration with members scattered all across the country, that they cannot all be described at once. And when the ingredients are laid end to end for purposes of orderly description, the life leaks out of the story. But virtually no day at 400 A Street is boring; it is the originality, the energy, and the judgment calls that characterize each day that made possible the report that follows.

Linda Kerber (University of Iowa) was president of the AHA for 2006