Publication Date

May 1, 1992

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

The 1991 Program in Chicago, December 27–30, 1991, took as its theme the observance of the Columbian Quincentenary. Of the 142 sessions that constituted the official AHA program, a total of twenty-three regular sessions plus two plenary sessions focused on the history of the encounter of cultures and on the issues raised by this observance.

The plenaries were held consecutively, rather than simultaneously, although this schedule made for a long evening for the many members who attended both sessions. The Program Committee made this choice because it wished for all members to have an opportunity to attend both. We felt that the two sessions worked together to set a strong basis for the discussion of the meanings and consequences of the Columbian encounter in the three days of panels that followed.

The first plenary session, “Global Encounters, 1430–1750,” included distinguished panelists Joseph Miller of the University of Virginia, who looked at Africa; A.J.R. Russell-Wood of Johns Hopkins University, whose responsibility was Latin America; and James Axtell of the College of William and Mary, who spoke on North America and Latin America. Helen Nader of Indiana University, who has recently been honored with the Leo Gershoy Award for her scholarship on Habsburg Spain, served as chair. This session focused principally on the process and consequences of the encounter, although Professor Axtell moved to some degree into the subject matter of the second plenary with his discussion of the moral issues involved in this historical experience. Unfortunately, as the panel ran long, there was no opportunity for discussion by the audience.

The plenary on “Alternative Views of the Quincentenary” included a Latino perspective, delivered by Ramón Gutiérrez of the University of California at San Diego, recipient of the AHA Pacific Coast Branch Book Award for 1991; and an African-American perspective, presented by Joseph E. Harris of Howard University. Unfortunately, Rayna Green of the Smithsonian Institution, who was scheduled to deliver a Native American perspective, was prevented from attending by the death of a family member. She was ably, and extemporaneously, replaced by Michael Fraga of Northern Illinois University. The panel was chaired by Evelyn Hu-DeHart of the University of Colorado, who gave up her plan to provide an Asian-American perspective so that there would be time for discussion from the audience. Among the many ideas emerging from the session, a particularly important point was raised by Professor Harris, chair of the AHA Committee on Minority Historians. He eloquently called upon the Association to play a major role in exploring alternative views of the legacy of Columbus through the perspectives and situations of Native Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, and other groups. Such an effort would help reach a more authentic, realistic reconstruction of the past as a basis for better contemporary understanding and relations. The Association could play a major role in helping to define an approach to a reinterpretation of this issue through its pamphlet series, in articles in the American Historical Review, and through the publication of books with the AHA imprimatur. The panel was followed by a spirited discussion of the issues raised by the panelists, and after it ended, a number of members stayed on to talk. The room did not clear until after 11:00 P.M., indicating the level of interest in the presentations.

The quincentenary theme was carried out in a number of other sessions. The Committee is particularly grateful to several affiliated societies and other groups for their cooperation in developing sessions consonant with this theme. In particular, the Conference on Latin American History sponsored a number of panels, including one on teaching the quincentenary based on a course offered at Brown University. This session was proposed by the CLAH’s Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee. In addition, the AHA Committee on the Columbus Quincentennial, the Society for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities aided by each sponsoring a session on this theme. A very interesting and well attended panel was “Sex, Race, and the Politics of Conquest: A Roundtable,” a joint session with the Conference Group on Women’s History and the Coordinating Committee for Women in the Historical Profession, which included Native American, African-American, Latino, and Asian-American points of view.

A second major theme on which the 1991 Program focussed was the historical background of the current changes now sweeping Central and Eastern Europe. The membership responded by offering a number of excellent panel proposals to the Committee, and twelve panels and a special NEH-sponsored roundtable, “Integration or Division? Putting Eastern Europe in its Place,” were included in the Program. Professor Donald Treadgold of the Program Committee is especially to be thanked for his efforts in coordinating this section of the Program. Of special interest to the membership was the session “Communist Collapse or Civic Revolution? Interpreting the GDR Upheaval, October to November 1989,” which attracted an audience of more than 100 persons.

Attendance figures also show that panels dealing with media presentations on historical themes were extremely popular. “’92: Historians and Television” and the special session “The ‘Medieval’ Film: Its Uses and Abuses” included both scholars and those involved in production of film and television materials. Both drew large and enthusiastic audiences. A special thanks must go to Barbara Abrash, who organized the first session, and to Jeremy Adams and the Medieval Academy of America, who organized the second with special help and financial aid from Holy Cross University and Southern Methodist University.

Other sessions that made excellent use of the resources of Chicago were the exhibition tour of “A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln” at the Chicago Historical Society, conducted by curators Eric Foner and Olivia Mahoney, and “Cartographic Resources for the Study and Teaching of History,” conducted at the Newberry Library and followed by a reception there. Another notable panel, “The Peopling of North America, 1600–1660,” highlighted with a presentation by Bernard Bailyn of Harvard University entitled “The Barbarous Years: The First Europeans and the Conflict of Civilizations” and commented on by Neal Salisbury of Smith College and Russell Menard of the University of Minnesota, drew an enthusiastic audience of over 200. The Program Committee is grateful to all involved in these outstanding events.

The Program Committee paid special attention to providing a wide variety of sessions devoted to as many different areas and time periods as possible. Feedback from the membership indicates that this effort was successful and appreciated. Although the number of total panels on Asia and Africa was still small, a number of comparative panels increased the participation of scholars interested in these areas. Distribution over the various areas—Europe, the United States, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and comparative—was allocated approximately according to percentage of submissions.

The meeting itself seems to have gone quite smoothly, and the problems that developed were solved quickly by the members on the scene. Great credit is due here to Albert Erlebacher of DePaul University and his indefatigable Local Arrangements Committee and staff. Sharon K. Tune of the AHA staff must also be commended for her contributions not only to local arrangements but also to her ongoing efforts to make each Program a success year by year. Jim Gardner of the AHA was also a constant source of help and guidance.

Very few complaints were received by the Program Committee, and most of them were addressed to the usual problems of room size and placement on the program. A particular difficulty that did surface, however, was overcrowding in the meeting rooms, especially on Sunday, the second day of the panel sessions. Although it has been Association policy in the past to schedule approximately the same number of panels on each day and at each of the six time slots available, the largest number of members in attendance is obviously on the middle day of the meetings, and sessions were understandably overcrowded. An adjustment might be made to provide a few more panels on that day, or perhaps larger rooms for those that are presented. Another possibility, as travel budgets shrink and more members can attend only part of the meetings, might be a change in format to three sessions a day for two days. Unquestionably attendance on the final day at the final session is much reduced in the current schedule, and leads to disappointment for presenters.

A continuing problem that surfaced again at the 1991 meetings was the failure of scheduled participants to attend. Ronald Walters’ and Jean Quataert’s report on the 1990 Program (Perspectives, September, 1991) indicates the same difficulty. I firmly agree with their statement about those who did not appear and gave no notice or gave notice too late for other arrangements to be made: “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.” I urge the Research Division to adopt the suggestion of the 1990 committee to keep a record of panelists who do not appear and who do not help to make arrangements to provide substitutes. I would recommend, as well, that the Research Division consider some sort of sanction against these scholars in regard to future appearances at the annual meetings.

By far the stickiest problems that faced the committee were those involving Section 6 of the Program Committee guidelines, which are largely directed to eligibility. It is in enforcing these guidelines that the committee is most often faced with requesting changes in the makeup of individual panels. Panel proposers almost always responded cooperatively and with good will, but these changes frequently required a great deal of effort on their part. Section 6 is designed, of course, to make participation in the annual meeting as open as possible, with the exception of 6a, which restricts appearances to members except in particular cases. Taken one by one, the provisions of section 6 may not appear to be unnecessarily complex, but the enforcement of all of them at once in the case of each panel is extremely difficult. 6b provides that no individual should appear in two successive years, “except under extraordinary circumstances,” and 6c that no individual appear twice in the same annual meeting, also “except under extraordinary circumstances.” I would recommend that 6c be kept in its present form, but that 6b be amended to apply only to paper presenters, and not to chairs and commentators. Currently, members who agree to serve in these categories are thereby prevented from presenting their own work for two years, and this restriction seems to me an undue sacrifice.

6d is less strongly stated but negates its milder wording in spirit by calling specifically for action on the part of the Program Committee: the Committee itself is enjoined to “actively seek to avoid gender-segregated sessions.” It is further requested to contact proposers of individual sessions to “ensure that whenever possible sessions include members of both sexes….” In this guideline, the committee is specifically directed to become involved in individual sessions, and this guideline is the only one in which the committee is so strongly directed. 6e, in contrast, directs the committee “to encourage proposers of sessions to include participants representing the full diversity of the AHA membership, such as ethnic and racial minorities and junior historians,” but without a specific direction to “actively seek” a particular result.

The Research Division, after the last meeting of the 1991 Program Committee, adopted language to appear in the “lore” of the Program Committee in which it indicates specifically that “guideline 6d should not be interpreted as requiring all sessions to be gender-integrated.” It does not, however, indicate how decisions on 6d should be made. The Committee is thus left with a directive to work actively to achieve a goal that the Association, as reflected in this recent change, does not seem to be quite willing to accept. 6d is already ambiguous; the Program Committee had difficulty interpreting it in 1991 and so did panel proposers. The current language of 6d itself leads to various interpretations. Is it a “principle,” a “symbol,” or a “requirement”? Proposers interpret the guideline in various ways, and the Program Committee is constantly put in the position of defending whatever stance it takes without clear language to back it up. As chair of the 1991 committee, I strongly recommend that the Research Division clarify the language in the guidelines themselves. The “lore,” which is normally available only to the committee, does not reach the membership and therefore leaves the committee to deal with the ambiguities. Moreover, since 6d is by far the most sensitive of all the guidelines, the misunderstandings that develop can lead to considerable bad feeling.

In any case, the 1991 Program included a substantial number of female participants, approximately 228 of 700 in the numbered sessions. Compliance with 6e, addressed to diversity, was more difficult to fulfill, and the number of ethnic and racial minorities participating in the meetings remained small. In fact, when Michael Fraga asked the large audience at the second plenary session whether there were any Native Americans in attendance, he turned out to be the only one in the room. Although the Program Committee made efforts, through the plenary on “Alternative Views of the Quincentenary” and the recruitment of other panels, to include more of these scholars, very few attended and fewer still participated.

Another major problem faced by the Program Committee was the extraordinary volume of correspondence and the lack of adequate time for consideration of individual proposals. The current structure places the responsibility for the selection of committee members; the collection of all proposals; the reproduction and dissemination of those proposals to committee members; the direction of committee meetings and the preparation of all lists and documents necessary for those meetings; the informing of all panel proposers as to acceptance or rejection, including requested changes; the preparation of the final program (although not its final publication); the collection of summer addresses for all panelists; the indexing of the Program; the inclusion of last-minute changes; and the final arrangements for all plenaries and special sessions, on the Program chair and his or her institution, which also normally bears all expenses. In some case these responsibilities are divided up between the chair and co-chair and their institutions. In addition, the Program Committee is charged with the enforcement of the guidelines (discussed above), and much of the effort devolves upon the chair and co-chair. The expenses and time involved are simply immense, and most committee chairs have, at best, student help. The pressures on the Committee fall precisely at the time that students are most likely to have other things to think about—midterms, for example.

Other associations have recently begun to organize the development of their program through a decentralized structure and to finance the effort much more heavily. The Latin American Studies Association, for example, in putting together a meeting with approximately twice as many sessions as the AHA, is providing its current Program Committee chair with a budget of $30,000, in addition to computers, answering machines, and other equipment, over and above the student help provided by his institution. This sum provided by LASA is adequate for secretarial rather than student help. Moreover, LASA has adopted a decentralized structure in which fifteen heads of sections collect and prioritize panel and paper proposals. (Within the AHA, the Latin American historians have been performing a similar service through the Conference on Latin American History by providing a slate of developed and prioritized panels to the Program Committee every year.) Many of the secretarial functions have been moved into their national office. The chair of the Program Committee is then responsible for choosing and coordinating the section heads, bringing them together for a two-day meeting to put together the final Program, and for coordinating all plenaries and other related activities. Other social science organizations, such as the American Political Science Association, have adopted a similar structure. Given the great importance of the Program to the AHA, I recommend that the Research Division consider changes in structure that would spread the responsibilities for the development of the Program between more individuals and institutions and the provision of more AHA support for the chair and co-chair of the Program Committee. The latter could be accomplished through budget support or the transfer of more of the secretarial functions to the AHA office in Washington or both. As the spring semester is the period in which the heaviest work occurs, part of the solution might be to provide the chair with a full-time secretary during that time. Further, a reasonable division of the workload might involve having a co-chair for each of three areas—Europe, U.S., and Asia-Africa-Latin America—although this suggestion in no way implies that panels should be allocated equally to each of these. Panel distribution will, of course, vary a great deal from year to year depending on theme and submissions. Comparative sessions could still be considered by the full committee.

In concluding, I want to reiterate my thanks to the wonderful members of the Program Committee, and especially to Richard Griswold del Castillo, San Diego State University, who served as my co-chair. Don Fixico, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Waldo Heinrichs, Temple University; Linda M. Heywood, Howard University; Stephen R. MacKinnon, Arizona State University; Carla Rahn Phillips, University of Minnesota; John C. Rule, Ohio State University; Linda K. Salvucci, Trinity University; and Donald Treadgold, University of Washington, served with enthusiasm, good humor, and startling efficiency. The two meetings of the Program Committee were a particular pleasure for me. Fred Hoxie, Newberry Library, and JoAnn McNamara, Hunter College-CUNY, co-chairs of the 1992 Program Committee, attended our meetings and helped enormously. I also want to thank the many members of the Association who submitted panels and who participated in the 1991 Program. It is to these dedicated colleagues and those previously acknowledged that the successes of the 1991 meetings must be credited.

Linda Hall, Chair, 1991 Program Committee
University of New Mexico