Publication Date

May 1, 2010

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

One day a few years ago as I was working at my desk, a young assistant we had recently hired at the AHA walked into my office looking perplexed. “Someone is here to see you,” she said, “were you expecting a visitor?” “No,” I replied, “who is it?” Looking at the name she had carefully written down, she said “His name is J. Franklin Jameson but he didn’t say why he was here.” Quite a few different possibilities went through my head, not all of them pleasant. Of course, it wasn’t really the Jameson or his ghost who came to see me. It was, in fact, his grandson, a pleasant older gentleman who was in the neighborhood and was just curious to see the building and find out how the Association was getting along. We had a good chat and I signed him up for an honorary membership—it seemed the least we could do as a gesture to his grandfather’s memory.

But the encounter set me to thinking and I remembered it often over the past several years. What would Jameson think, after all, of the way I was doing my job? One of the founders of the Association, Jameson had spent decades lobbying the Congress to establish a National Archives, succeeding finally in 1934. Of late, though, it has been perpetually short of money and staff and beset by scandals—about security agencies surreptitiously removing declassified records from its shelves, or a former high government official walking out of the building with documents stuffed in his socks, or delays in establishing a means of preserving electronic records. Would Jameson believe my protestations that we were working hard to address these problems? What would he think of the notion of the American Historical Review (to which he had devoted a substantial part of his career) being published only online—a decision we have not made but which many advocate? Would he share my concern about the need to preserve a healthy subscriber base for the journal or would he join the many voices that argue for free and open access—the widest possible distribution worldwide?

The men, and the very, very few women, who created the American Historical Association 125 years ago believed they were building for the future, creating an institution that would safeguard the discipline of history and maintain its place in the national consciousness. Now we are that future; are our concerns so different from theirs?

The American Historical Association in 2010 is still beset by problems of finding enough resources to conduct the programs needed to carry out its mission. We must worry every year whether there will be enough members to sustain our programs, sufficient registrations to cover the costs of the annual meeting, enough libraries that want to invest in purchasing the American Historical Review, and an adequate number of outside grants to support needed special initiatives. Sometimes such problems have old roots. We have to be concerned, for example, about making a case for the value of a professional association in history that represents all historians, while also engaging the interest of historians in specialized fields. But this was an old problem as well: for example, some historians broke away from the AHA more than a hundred years ago, to create the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (which eventually became the Organization of American Historians) in 1907. In 1903 the AHA itself launched a separate auxiliary of the AHA, the Pacific Coast Branch, to meet the difficulty of getting West Coast members to the annual meeting prior to air travel The Pacific Coast Branch retains some ties to the AHA, but is a lively and important organization today on its own, with its own journal, thePacific Historical Review, a publication that focuses on the American expansion to the Pacific and beyond. The AHA is now striving to find a new solution to this old problem. The launching of special interest groups is expected to strike a balance between the needs of historians with special interests and the overarching aims of the Association.

The education of the next generation of historians is a problem we always share with those who came before us. When the post–World War II growth of higher education drove Dexter Perkins, Jacques Barzun, Boyd Shafer, and other leaders of the Association to undertake a special study of graduate education in history in the late 1950s they went to the Carnegie Corporation of New York for support. It was that help and their work that gave us The Education of Historians in the United States in 1962. Forty-odd years later, Thomas Bender and Colin Palmer convinced the Carnegie Corporation to fund a badly needed update of that pioneering study, and worked hard with many colleagues to produce The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century in 2004. Both these publications provided important information and guidance for the AHA and for graduate history programs, and—in the case of the latter—for graduate students as well.

Textbooks for the schools, much in the news recently, have presented a challenge to historians for most of the Association’s life. Very early in the 20th century the AHA sponsored The History Teacher’s Magazine to improve the teaching of history in the schools and participated in numerous efforts to create an appropriate history/social studies curriculum. From the 1940s on, beginning with Allan Nevins’s complaints about students’ woeful lack of knowledge of the past, hardly a decade has gone by without some form of attack on the teaching and learning of history. The history standards controversy of the 1990s still remains a vivid memory and seems likely to erupt again in other forms. A proposed revision of the history curriculum in Texas to downgrade Thomas Jefferson’s role in history because he supported a secular state, has been roundly criticized in the national press while various historical groups are planning to weigh in during the official comment period. Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April a Confederate History Month (and which initially ignored slavery as a reason for the Civil War) has also provoked a national outcry. I am encouraged that, this time, much of the commentary around such issues has drawn from—and supports—sound scholarship in history.

The job market for historians has been a problem, off and on, since the Great Depression. For more than two decades historians have been concerned about the growing number of part-time and adjunct teaching jobs in American colleges and universities. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education story takes that concern to a new level with a report about the effectiveness of virtual TAs, working from Bangalore, India, grading papers and providing richer feedback on writing assignments.

Maybe history and historians are making progress on some old fronts but we also have new and different challenges. Also in my morning mail was an e-mail from the AHA’s publications staff reporting that they are putting the finishing touches on a new AHA Business Facebook page; they also note that a few members have already found and started following us on Twitter. Some months ago we established a new Technology Advisory Committee to undertake some strategic thinking about the goals and purposes of the Association’s web site, particularly as it relates to a broader audience for historians and also as a professional tool for members of the discipline. Clearly all these issues are a part of the AHA’s future.

Like most executive directors of professional associations I have been employed under a contract with our Association’s governing Council. But I like to think that those of us who work and also those who volunteer their time for the AHA have a contract not only with members but also with past generations who have supported the organization so that its work could go on. We may not be able to commune with the spirits of the founders, but we can read what they wrote and consider from time to time what they meant the American Historical Association to be.

At a recent meeting with new Archivist of the United States David Ferriero I noticed a stunningly engaging poster propped up on his desk. It was an image of one of my great heroes, John Hope Franklin, sitting in an armchair, smiling warmly as he looks up from reading a copy of Leon Higginbotham’sShades of Freedom in the bookshelf-lined living room of his home in North Carolina. I admired it so greatly that Ferriero, who was chief librarian for many years at Duke University, had his friends there send me a copy. I have had it framed as a small gift to the AHA—a tangible reminder that the Association is a multi-generational and long-term project.

Arnita Jones is the executive director of the AHA. She will be retiring at the end of August 2010.

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