Publication Date

May 1, 2018

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

The Raymon Sutedjo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Raymon Sutedjo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

While students marched on Washington, and with media (traditional and social) abuzz about protectionism, gerrymandering, and adult movie actors, historians have been hard at work too. Hundreds of us have brainstormed with colleagues and submitted proposals for the 133rd Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, to be held in Chicago on January 3–6, 2019. Each of these proposals has been carefully considered by the Program Committee, which has accepted approximately two-thirds, a limit set by the amount of meeting space in our hotels.

The AHA annual meeting was once upon a time a “research conference.” The Program Committee diligently sifted piles of paper, evaluating claims to innovation, synthesis, controversy, and significance to be revealed by three scholars reading papers, followed by a learned commentary or two. We still receive many such proposals, perhaps even still a majority of the submissions. But we now also see more dialogues on professional issues, conversations about pedagogical practices, and discussions about the ways history is vital to its public audiences and policy communities. We also offer a wider variety of formats, including roundtables, interviews, lightning rounds, and posters.

How does a proposal make its way onto the program? It’s not always clear to AHA members, after they press “submit” on their proposal, what goes on in the Program Committee’s meeting room—despite stereotypes, it’s not full of smoke, though it is overrun by laptop cords. The Program Committee plays several roles. At its fall meeting, it brainstorms potential sessions to be organized by the committee itself and by the different divisions and committees of the AHA. In the spring, it also ranks the proposals (more than 350) submitted by AHA members and affiliated societies, and it selects those that seem most suitable for inclusion. Each proposal is read by the chair or co-chair and at least two other members of the committee. And unlike our forebears, who dickered with one another and the president to get their favored students on the program, committee members recuse themselves from evaluating panels when there is a conflict of interest.

Contrary to persistent rumor, the Program Committee does not automatically favor proposals that address the meeting’s theme. The president, who chooses the theme, develops sessions that often advance the theme of the meeting, but the committee strives to create a diverse program of interest to the many constituencies that attend, and to represent the best scholarship submitted. This year’s theme is “Loyalties,” chosen by AHA president Mary Beth Norton. Topics for presidential sessions developing around that theme include loyalism in the age of Atlantic revolutions, enslaved people’s loyalty and disloyalty, treason in Europe and the Americas, the conflicting loyalties of migrants and immigrants, and the relationship between political and religious loyalties. The Program Committee, too, has been creating sessions on the theme. We will hear about disciplinary loyalties to literature and history in writings on Saint-Domingue, about women’s loyalty to individual or collective power in the African diaspora, and about historians’ loyalties to archives.

One of the great pleasures of serving on such a committee is having a broad overview of contemporary historical research. Some of our panels will also take advantage of the wonderful resources Chicago offers. As many proposals show, historians are just as caught up in current events as anyone else, sometimes informed by a more recent past, but often by a much longer perspective. The majority of research proposals address 19th- and 20th-century history. But the committee considers proposals from all time periods and subjects imaginable, including the medieval and early modern periods, and on subjects ranging from the Mughal Empire to taxation in the Atlantic world and cartography in colonial borderlands.

Contrary to persistent rumor, the Program Committee does not automatically favor proposals that address the meeting’s theme.

But, although we are also pleased to note that, despite the turmoil of the last 18 months, historical inquiry also continues fruitfully in areas that are remote in time and space from our present anxieties, some panels will reflect recent headlines and debates. Some of these are roundtables tentatively titled “Neoliberalism: The History and Future of the Word,” “Nostalgia and Narrative after Charlottesville,” “Free Speech on Campus,” and “Prison/Education: Historians Take On a National Debate.” Others commemorate anniversaries, including events of 1969 and 1919.

Other proposals reflect the annual meeting’s emphasis on teaching and professional issues, whether it’s making history relevant through service learning, engaging students in the survey course, ensuring that surveys are up-to-date with the latest scholarship, or integrating nontextual material in our courses. Program Committee member Timothy Smit (Eastern Kentucky Univ.) is developing a pair of sessions tentatively titled “Teaching a Diverse Medieval Europe,” one on the undergraduate classroom and another on graduate training, while Ada Ferrer (New York Univ.) has developed two roundtables that feature historians who have collaborated with artists. We will learn about outcomes assessment and dual-credit courses; there will be sessions on career development and on social media and the academy, and at least one on how to prepare for a career at a two-year college. Other topics will include academic publishing, strategies for mid-career scholars, and community engagement.

We are particularly excited that the Modern Language Association’s annual convention will be meeting in Chicago at the same time as the AHA. The AHA and MLA have agreed to honor each other’s registration badges. That means that members of each association can attend the other’s meeting and participate in both programs without having to register for separate meetings. We have solicited proposals for sessions involving both AHA and MLA members, and for parallel sessions in which the same theme would be addressed from distinct disciplinary perspectives. The associations’ hotels are about a half-hour walk apart. Start planning your wardrobe now!

As this article goes to press, we are still finalizing the program. We can assure you that it will show that the historical profession is thriving: that there is exciting research being conducted on the history of all places and times, that we are meshing the best traditional and innovative teaching approaches, and that we are giving due attention to important issues and controversies in our profession, whether in the academy or elsewhere. We hope you’ll join us in Chicago for these important conversations—and for late-breaking sessions whose topics we cannot yet imagine!

Claire Potter (New School) and Brian Ogilvie (Univ. of Massachusetts Amherst) are chair and co-chair, respectively, of the Program Committee for the 2019 AHA annual meeting.

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