Publication Date

September 1, 1991

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

This final report on the 1990 Annual Meeting comes with a mixture of gratitude for those who contributed to a very lively program and relief that it actually happened.

The opening night plenary session—entitled “Understanding Democracies”—was both more timely and different from what we anticipated. George McGovern drew upon his experience as an historian and a public figure to deliver an impassioned critique of U.S. foreign policy-making. It was a talk that brought back memories of 1972. Nikki Keddie, a late addition to the session, discussed with great eloquence the variety of understandings—and of American misunderstandings—of democracy in the rest of the world, with particular emphasis on the Middle East, her region of specialization. Marilyn B. Young, who chaired the session, closed by telling the powerful and moving stories of recent refugees from China, reminding the audience of the individual, human, and often tragic face of democratic movements.

We should say a few words about what was not on the plenary session. It was to have included presentations by Mbuelo Mzamanee and Guillermo O’Donnell. Professor Mzamanee failed to appear without explanation, depriving us of strong voice representing the struggle for racial justice in South Africa. Professor O’Donnell’s inability to appear was the result of regulations regarding funding for travel and we regret the inconvenience to him, as well as the lack of a scholar of his stature to address the issue of democracy in Latin America. Last minute changes aside, we were pleased with the session itself which, thanks to Professor Keddie and to events in the Middle East, was more appropriate than we could possibly have imagined twelve months earlier, when planning for it began.

Although we announced no theme for the program, we encouraged panels that were comparative across geographical, disciplinary, and chronological boundaries. This reflected our conviction that the AHA is uniquely positioned among professional organizations for historians to bring together scholars who might otherwise not communicate with one another and whose work deserves discussion by wider audiences. In many cases it requires little more than a commentator from a different field to turn a strong panel into an imaginative and creative one. Our efforts met the predictable difficulties, and some fields such as Ancient, African, and Asian history, remained unrepresented or underrepresented. Among the successes of interdisciplinary and comparative history, however, were panels that brought together historians, art historians, political scientists, and anthropologists, as well as ones that examined institutions and social phenomena across continental, as well as national boundaries.

Among our goals for the program was the inclusion of a greater number of high-quality panels on medieval history in honor of the presidency of David Herlihy, whose courage as well as scholarship were inspirational. The positive results owe much to the hard work of Patrick Geary on our committee and the cooperation of the Medieval Academy of America, which, we are happy to say, reaffiliated with the AHA. We were also pleased with the ability of some sessions—notably ones on Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream and on Dwight Eisenhower—to speak to controversies, both among historians and within broader realms of public discourse. In the end, it was the breadth of work carried out by historians that most impressed us—the sessions encompassed scholarship on the environment, the construction of gender and sexuality, teaching, public history, race, film (including an appearance by Ken Burns and a showing of Berkeley in the 1960s), as well as the more traditional varieties of political, economic, and intellectual history. Our goal was to represent as much as possible the wide range of significant historical scholarship practiced today and to bring together, through the AHA, scholars who might otherwise have little contact with each other’s work. To the degree we succeeded, we are pleased.

The meeting itself went smoothly as possible, thanks to the AHA staff, especially Sharon Tune, Jim Gardner, and Noralee Frankel. Their hard work, along with the strong support of Sam Gammon, make complicated conventions a success. That is not to say everything was perfect in everyone’s eyes. We had the customary complaints from panelists about placement on the program, both spatial and chronological, for which the committee assumes responsibility and which could be partially alleviated by consultation between the affiliated societies and the committee before the program is set. There was also the troubling—and chronic—problem of irresponsibility: participants who failed to send papers to commentators or who changed topics and, most disturbing of all, participants who didn’t participate. Some of the latter had legitimate reasons and were duly conscientious about informing other panelists or sending a paper to be read. When their number is subtracted, however, a substantial fraction of the non-participants remains. Their behavior was unprofessional, a disservice to their colleagues, and unfair to the scholars who submit perfectly fine proposals that are not accepted by the Program Committee.

That leads us to the first of several suggestions for consideration by future Program Committees and the AHA:

  1. The AHA might consider changes in budgeting for the Program Committee and in regulations regarding travel funds for foreign scholars, like Professor O’Donnell, who also have part-time U.S. appointments. One such change might be to present the committee with a block budget, enabling it to try to save money in its own operations (or to seek it from the chair and co-chair’s home institutions) in order to allocate more for the plenary session.
  2. Future committees might wish to continue the practice of including a non-historian whose work commands the interest and attention of historians. In our case, Mary Poovey played an extraordinarily valuable role in broadening the committee’s intellectual and professional horizons. We appreciate her generosity and can imagine similarly important contributions in the future from her fellow literary scholars, or anthropologists, sociologists, and others. If the AHA wishes truly to encourage interdisciplinary work it can set an example by reaching out to sympathetic scholars whose primary institutional home is in another discipline.
  3. We urge our successors to continue the often frustrating task of fostering interdisciplinary and cross-field panels. This, as we said earlier, is something the AHA can do much better than the more specialized historical organizations and can lead to a much higher level of participation by scholars in underrepresented fields, where it frequently is easier to add a commentator than to create a whole session.
  4. Program Committees might well keep records of panelists who fail to appear without explanation and without helping make alternative arrangements. This would enable future committees to warn the offending scholars that they are aware of past irresponsibility and expect no repeat.

We want to conclude by expressing our appreciation to the scholars who submitted proposals and to those who (for the most part) bore with our various requests for changes with understanding and good humor. Our special thanks, however, go to fellow committee members: Judith Brown, Patrick Geary, Jacquelyn Hall, Barbara Howe, Ray Kea, Daniel Littlefield, Susan Mann, Mary Poovey, Eric Van Young, and Judith Zinsser. We cannot imagine a more engaged, constructive, or perceptive committee—or, for that matter, nicer people with whom to work.

Ronald G. Walters, chair, Johns Hopkins University

Jean H. Quataert, co-chair, SUNY-Binghamton