Publication Date

May 1, 1989

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

In moments of irritation, the AHA convention seems a bit like a fruitcake: during the winter holidays it rolls around with a certain inevitability. Barely held together by a common aim, it is supposed to offer something to every taste, no matter how the nuts relate to the raisins and so on. Some scholars love it as a chance to get away and exchange ideas, others loathe it as a slave market and a gossip factory. At most, the Program Committee can decide on the precise mixture of ingredients—but academic tradition and affiliated society politics compel it to continue the basic recipe. Perhaps judgment on how the concoction turned out had better be left to the guests. Yet democratic custom requires an accounting of what went into the dough.

The 1988 Program Committee consciously sought to reflect the complex structure and divergent interests of the American historical profession. Co-chaired by the noted United States international historian Mel Leffler of Virginia, it was comprised of eleven official members as well as Joan Richards as liaison to the History of Science Society, a meeting held at the same time. Such distinguished colleagues as the American colonial scholar Joyce Appleby UCLA, the Russian specialist Peter Czap, Amherst, the recent United States historian Michael Frisch, SUNY-Buffalo, the East Asian authority Carol Gluck of Columbia, the French scholar Lynn Hunt, University of Pennsylvania, the African specialist John Hunwick, Northwestern, the Renaissance historian Charles Nauert, University of Missouri, and the American authority David Thelen, Indiana University offered distinctive methodological, institutional, regional, generational, and gender perspectives, and were able to reach out to many different constituencies. The only disappointment in its remarkable cooperation was the lack of participation by the high-school based member who was supposed to represent the teaching perspective. But our labors were greatly facilitated by the able and experienced assistance of Dr. Norbert Mayr and by the friendly cooperation of the AHA staff.

Since it was not burdened by bicentennials as the preceding and succeeding meetings, the Cincinnati program committee could literally seek to “promote excellence in research and teaching” as well as to advance “professional rights and responsibilities.” In contrast to the self-congratulatory tone of the 1984 commemoration, recent critiques of the discipline suggested the need for a more critical self-examination. So as to provide some intellectual coherence, the Program Committee adopted the theme of “history as inquiry and practice” and, after much discussion, constructed an explosive lead-off session to initiate the debate. Other priorities were given by the international interests of President Akira Iriye and by the joint meeting with the History of Science Society. In order to reverse the erosion of interest among United States specialists, it seemed necessary to devote somewhat more space to American topics while at the same time actively reaching out to Third World areas, habitually underrepresented at the annual conference. Out of the dynamic committee discussions grew a final set of goals, such as the continuation of emphasis on women’s history, the encouragement of public history panels, and greater stress on comparative work.

Instead of construing its charge primarily as gate-keeping, the Program Committee actively sought to develop superior proposals through its individual area specialists. Since Cincinnati was not quite as popular a tourist destination as other better known cities, there were slightly fewer submissions than in the previous year, but they still amounted to well over 260 proposals. In order to facilitate decision-making, the committee developed a double system of scoring according to intellectual excellence and compliance with the guidelines in terms of representation, nonrepetition, etc. After two exhausting screening meetings in November and March, it selected 140 proposals, only one of which ultimately dropped out. For the sake of greater flexibility with hands-on presentations, the committee also added a category of “workshops,” especially in teaching and computer-related areas.

While some difficulties have receded, several new problems required fresh solutions. The invitation of the new program chair to the previous year’s meeting has facilitated continuity between committees. But in spite of widespread use of personal computers, there was no software boilerplate to aid paper-flow and standardize procedures. While AHA support of telephones, correspondence, and materials costs has reduced the funding burdens, the chair’s department had to finance the administrative assistant on whom most of the practical tasks devolved. Contradictory imperatives of geographical coverage of far-flung Third World regions versus heavy workload in Euro-American core areas created cross-pressures on committee composition which could only be resolved by adding another member or two. To minimize disputes over ranked submissions by the CLAH, a Latin American specialist ought to be included in the future. While the affiliated societies were unusually cooperative, the AHA division proposals often arrived late and incomplete, requiring much last minute scrambling on both sides. The date of the meeting as well as the absence of any financial assistance also discouraged some interested foreign scholars from attending.

The resulting program was, nevertheless, balanced and well rounded. In geographical terms, sessions were divided evenly between American (37) and European/British (38) topics. Moreover, there were 24 panels of general interest and another 14 explicitly comparative sessions. Nine sessions dealt with Latin America, eight with the Far East, five with Russia or Eastern Europe and three addressed Near Eastern or African questions. While roughly one-half of the panels raised social or cultural issues (women, blacks, education, labor, etc.), about two-fifths of the sessions were devoted to political, diplomatic and military concerns, with the rest focused on historiography, teaching, or history of science. In terms of representation, 48 of the 608 participants were foreign scholars, a slight drop from the previous year, but one-third of the presenters were female scholars (201) and well over nine-tenths of all sessions (131 of 139) were gender-integrated, setting new records for parity. Due to committee vigilance, there were not more than a handful of double appearances or repeaters from the previous meeting, insuring broader access for the entire profession.

According to four dozen formal reports and informal comments, the response of AHA members to the Cincinnati program was generally positive. Over-all attendance reached 3,284, the third largest meeting of the last decade. Moreover, the book exhibit was the biggest ever, indicating a revival of historical publishing. The controversial lead-off discussion between critics and defenders of the “new histories” drew more than 800 involved colleagues and attracted favorable coverage in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The twenty or so theme sessions continued the debate before large and interested audiences. Many of the other star sessions were also well attended, while regular panels seem to have had a satisfactory echo (the 135 sessions for which there is a head count averaged 40.3 people). As always, politically controversial presentations (Nicaragua, the presidential election, the air war in Vietnam) were popular. The joint sessions with the History of Science Society introduced different but well-received topics into the program. Finally, the comparative sessions produced a fascinating broadening of perspectives. Only a few panels drew a disappointing response due to scheduling conflicts, while some important last day sessions had less impact than they deserved. But the workshops seem to have been a useful innovation.

Though revealing some of the current problems of history, the program also conveyed an encouraging sense of fresh opportunities. As a reflection of sharpening ideological and methodological divisions, the lead-off session demonstrated the fruitfulness of engaging the clashing views in a constructive debate. While critics like T.S. Hamerow and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned against the negative consequences of bureaucratization and the deconstruction of rational meaning, innovators like Joan Scott and Larry Levine defended the opening of the discipline to lower-class men, Jews, women and blacks as a chance for broadening historical explanation. Behind much of the methodological disagreement lurked an ideological power struggle over the return to a traditional, politically oriented narrative or the continuation of a progressive, socially concerned analysis of the past. As the latest installment of conflicts over orthodoxy, the present debate nonetheless suggested fresh solutions to older problems. Since there is no likely escape from professionalism, scholars would be wise to pay more attention to the perils of narrow specialization. When all historical writing is seen as deeply political, claims for superior rationality of political narrative or emancipatory analysis vanish in a competition of relative truths, tempered by proper scholarly methods. If cultural experience is construed as complex, a multiplicity of perspectives must replace the dominant uniform story of the past. Illustrating the futility of reimposing a single reading by force, the current discussion suggests a rethinking of history as a reasoned discourse about variable meanings of the past.

Echoing these post-modern uncertainties, the subsequent program illustrated that crisis signs are matched by possibilities for self-renewal. At the risk of subjective selection, some conclusions particularly stood out. The world-wide debate about the status of social history not only pits detractors against defenders but also pits champions of abstract, collective, and quantitative research against proponents of concrete, individual and emphatic understanding (No. 18). At the same time, international, political, and even military history appear to be enjoying a vigorous revival (Nos. 20, 92). With growing maturity and acceptance, some of the new approaches like women’s history seem to be abandoning stereotyping and asking more historical questions about the construction of gender in a particular time and place (Nos. 22,68). The statistically measurable decline of the discipline (in terms of majors, PhDs) is balanced by an astounding increase in popular interest in the past (No. 23). Moreover, cultural historians are reemerging from the “literary turn” with an enhanced sensitivity to text and authorial voice, but a renewed commitment to contextual perspectives (No. 89). Still struggling for recognition and resources, public history survives either in official (No. 88), non-traditional (No. 98) or museum (No. 117) settings. Due to renewed intellectual vitality and innovative research techniques, reports of the imminent demise of history are greatly exaggerated. But in order to recapture a broader audience, historians have to communicate less ponderously, present their insights effectively in the classroom and advocate their calling more convincingly in the public sphere.

In spite of some disappointments, constructing the 1988 AHA program was an experience in democratic professionalism. During the development of academic disciplines in the late nineteenth century, national meetings played a crucial role as a transregional forum for scholarly discourse and practical debate. Though threatened by routine and indifference one hundred years later, such conventions can continue to provide some opportunities for intellectual exchange, personal contacts, and collective action. While about two-fifths of the accepted panels were submitted by a sponsoring group, three-fifths of the sessions came from the members at large, thereby preserving considerable access for individual scholars. In contrast to ideological censorship in other countries, the Program Committee was careful to allow the presentation of politically controversial views (i.e. on the Waldheim case), as long as a scholarly standard was maintained. As a liberal compromise between the anarchy of the Modern Language Association and the tight control of the International Congress of Historical Sciences, the AHA system of peer review depends upon the cooperation and integrity of all participants. Even if such high standards cannot always be realized in practice, the principles of openness, freedom of opinion, and peer review are essential for the historical profession, if it is to remain a credible guardian of collective memory.

Konrad H. Jarausch, chair of the 1988 AHA Program Committee, is Lurcy Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.