Publication Date

February 1, 1997

The 111th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held January 2-5 in New York City, was marked by a number of firsts: the first time meeting attendance exceeded 4,500, the first time a female president passed the gavel to another female, the first time “poster sessions" were offered, and the first time a session at an AHA meeting was filmed for television. The 1997 Program Committee, chaired by Margaret Strobel (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago) and cochaired by Michael James Galgano (James Madison Univ.), and the AHA convention director, Sharon K. Tune, deserve a great deal of credit for the meeting's success. The program featured more AHA sessions and more sessions sponsored by affiliated societies than ever before. There were 154 AHA sessions (up from the 142 of every year of the past decade) and 65 affiliated society sessions.

Human Rights

As in past years, there was once again a rich array of sessions presenting new historical scholarship, particularly around the meeting's general theme, "Human Rights." The plenary session, "Human Rights, History, and Historians," explored the historical development of the idea of human rights, the challenges that human rights issues pose for historians as professionals, and the use of history to legitimate human rights abuses and claims. Chaired by the AHA's immediate past president, John C. Coatsworth (Harvard Univ.), the panel included Ann Elizabeth Mayer (Wharton School, Univ. of Pennsylvania), Roger Echo-Hawk (Denver Art Museum and Colorado Historical Society), and Allison DesForges (Human Rights Watch-Africa).

Poster Sessions and New Technology

The 1997 meeting was the first to offer "poster sessions"—modeled on scientific conventions—which allow scholars a space, a listing in the Program, and a period of time during which they present their poster and answer questions about their work. The sessions were well attended, with scholars actively discussing the different demonstrations. Interestingly, many of the “posters” at the 1997 sessions were actually highly sophisticated electronic presentations. This focus on electronic communications was not limited to poster sessions. The meeting program included many sessions in which historians explored ways to use new technologies to create and present historical knowledge.

Employment Issues

The meeting was also marked by a large number of sessions devoted to employment concerns. Four sessions and a department chairs' luncheon were devoted to current and future employment in the historical profession. The largest attendance was at the now-regular session, "Interviewing in the Job Market of the 1990s: A Workshop," in which more than 150 prospective applicants sought insights into the process of finding an academic history job. Other sessions included "Preparing Graduate Students for the Academic Job Market in the Late 20th Century and Beyond: A Workshop for Directors of Graduate Studies and Chairs of Graduate Programs"; "Downsizing in the 19905: A Roundtable"; and "Working Beyond the Classroom: Careers Outside the University in an Age of Professional Competition."

At the annual department chairs' luncheon, cosponsored by the AHA and the Organization of American Historians, chairs gathered at tables sorted by type of institution (using the taxonomy the AHA employs for statistical purposes). After the chairs participated in preliminary conversations with those seated at their tables, the meeting was opened to discussion of general issues of concern to departments of history, ranging from the effects of downsizing to creative approaches to designing new curricular programs. The discussion underscored the sense that all departments see themselves as subject to similar pressures, while recognizing that the mission and profile of particular types of institutions mean that they are differentially affected by these pressures. Perhaps the widest contrast emerged in perceptions regarding the use (or overuse) of part-time and adjunct faculty.

Suggestions to the AHA for ways to assist departments ranged widely; included were requests to establish a Listserv, through which chairs could exchange information and advice, and requests to explore possible accreditation activities (working, for instance, with the regional accrediting organizations) to ensure certain minimum standards of instruction and quality.

The growing employment needs of newly minted Ph.D.'s were reflected in the largest Job Register on record, with 777 applicants (up from 673 just two years ago). On the positive side, the number of searches also reached a high, with 71 positions open for interviewing at the meeting and 30 additional postings requesting submission of c.v.'s for later interviews. Interviews that had been prearranged were conducted for another 119 positions at the Job Register. With a 19 percent increase in openings over last year, most applicants reported that they had received multiple interviews this year.

General Meeting

The awards ceremony at the general meeting, chaired by AHA president-elect Joyce Appleby, reflected the depth of commitment to the field and the diversity of backgrounds and experience in the profession. This was the first year in which the Beveridge Family Award was conferred to recognize excellence and innovation in teaching. Heidi Raupp of Aspen, Colorado, was the first honoree. (Complete awards citations begin on page 13 of this issue of Perspectives.)

The awards presentation preceded AHA president Caroline Walker Bynum’s address, "Wonder," in which she discussed miracles and marvels in the European Middle Ages. She reflected on the responsibilities of historians today by exploring medieval conceptions of and responses to the cultural, natural, and supernatural "other." The full text of the address will be featured in the February issue of the American Historical Review.

AHA Business

On Saturday AHA officers presented reports at the Association's business meeting. Michael Grossberg, the editor of the American Historical Review, commended his predecessor, David Ransel, for his 10 years of service, and discussed future directions for the journal. William Rosenberg, vice president of the Research Division for the past three years, offered valedictory comments summing up the division’s accomplishments during his tenure and expressing concern about the future of history scholarship in the United States. The business meeting was concluded with the formal passing of the gavel by the president to her successor.

Oliver Stone's Nixon Discussed

A discussion on Saturday night of the 1995 film Nixon drew a capacity crowd and the cameras of C-SPAN. Filmmaker Oliver Stone debated the merits of his film with former presidential candidate George McGovern and historian and former presidential adviser Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Film historian and Perspectives contributing editor Robert Brent Taplin chaired the session.

Planning is already under way for the Association's next annual meeting, which will be held in Seattle, Washington, January 8-11, 1998. We look forward to seeing you there.

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