Publication Date

April 1, 1988

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

The members of the 1987 Program Committee were , Vanderbilt University (chair); Alexander Rabinowitch, Indiana University (co-chair); Carlos E. Cortes, University of California, Riverside; Kathleen M. Dalton, Phillips Academy, Andover; Kermit L. Hall, University of Florida; Sarah Hanley, University of Iowa; Penelope Johnson, New York University; Jon Kukla, Virginia State Library; Vernon L. Lidtke, Johns Hopkins University; and Anand A. Yang, University of Utah.

This was an extremely hard-working committee. We met for marathon sessions in November 1986 in Washington and in April 1987in Philadelphia; and most members put in long hours before and after these meetings, studying session proposals and working on individual sessions for which they took particular responsibility. One person experienced serious illness, one took on an onerous deanship, one was pregnant, and virtually everyone had heavy commitments at home and at work—scheduling our meetings was extraordinarily difficult. Yet, I always found the Committee responsibilities were carried out well and on time. In coordinating their work, I was grateful to be associated with such cheerful and reliable professionals.

We received much welcome help from the president of the AHA, Natalie Zemon Davis, who contributed in many different ways to the success of the program. Samuel R. Gammon, the executive director, responded to every request for advice or support wisely and generously. Eileen Gaylard of the AHA office worked closely with the Committee and took charge of all administrative details once the program was determined, thus freeing of a heavy load of additional cares. That everything ran so smoothly was largely due to her efforts. We also received assistance, unfailingly, friendly, and supportive, from James Gardner and Noralee Frankel of the AHA staff. Vincent E. Peloso, Bettye Gardner, and the members of the Local Arrangements Committee ought to be proud of the results of their labors. I should also like to thank the chairs of several previous Program Committees who answered many calls for advice and joined with me, during the 1986 Chicago meeting, in recommending to the AHA Research Division some changes that would be helpful in planning future programs.

Although I’m sure everyone on the Program Committee remembers that there were both high points and low points on the way to Washington, the meeting at the Sheraton Washington and Omni Shoreham hotels, December 27–30, 1987, was a gratifying conclusion to our work. Over 4,000 persons registered and attended—the best turnout in two decades. Almost everywhere there seemed to be a feeling of great good will; one veteran convention goer described it as “exciting and mellow.” I attended, at least briefly, dozens of sessions and was nearly always impressed by the intellectual quality of the presentations. Since we had worked hard to ensure at least thirty minutes of discussion time at each session, it was also good to observe the engaged participation of members of the audiences. I heard very few complaints. Some rooms were too cold and sound from one room sometimes interfered with business in another, but in general the two hotels accommodated our extensive program very well. I have received reports from the chairs of roughly half the sessions, and these confirm the happy impressions formed when I visited sessions. Most speak very favorably of the papers, comments, and discussion at their sessions; several even speak of them as high points in their intellectual lives. In a program like this one, much depends on the chairs to keep things moving promptly and smoothly; my thanks go to them all.

At the outset of our November meeting, I identified seven goals, and these were repeated in April: 1) We sought to present a good number of sessions related to the bicentennial of the United States Constitution, not only sessions focusing on U.S. history but also sessions on constitutionalism in international and comparative contexts. 2) We wished to take advantage of the Washington location by inviting speakers from the varied political and cultural communities that are concentrated there and by featuring sessions on the history of the city and political issues of current interest. 3) We sought to take notice of new work in fields associated with the distinguished career of the AHA president, Natalie Davis, such as the study of mentalités, of peasants, and of the lives of women in different historical contexts. 4) We hoped to do something to dispel the image of the AHA as a congeries of narrowly defined subfields by featuring sessions on issues that crossed national and conventional boundaries and on comparative inquiries. 5) We wished to find at least a few sessions exploring issues that extend beyond the province of history and engage intellectuals in all fields at this point in the twentieth century. 6) We aimed to develop a program characterized by many kinds of diversity. We had in mind a kind of “New Faces of 1987,” with a wide range of topics addressed by graduate students and retired scholars, women and men, a good representation of scholars from other nations, historians with many different kinds of professional careers and from varied ethnic backgrounds. 7) Our intention was to do better than ever in representing fields outside the histories of the United States and Europe. In other words, we did not interpret our task as that of simply choosing among the proposals that would come in, ready-made, within the various specialties of the profession, though inevitably and properly the majority of sessions would be of that kind. In every decision that we made we regarded the AHA as the most general and comprehensive of historians’ organizations. Its annual meeting should feature papers that seek connections among the various specialties and between history and other forms of intellectual endeavor, doing so with as much liveliness and diversity possible.

Without claiming that we succeeded perfectly in all these goals, I am proud of our overall record and believe it contributed to the unmistakable success of the meeting. The constitutional sessions, for which Kermit Hall took primary responsibility, with much assistance from others, ranged from close studies of historical problems of federalism in the United States to broad inquiries into race and gender and the Constitution. Several sessions addressed related issues in the histories of Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Japan. We had two sessions on the city of Washington, more than the usual participation by those who work in government, the news media, and the Washington cultural scene, and sessions on abortion, libel law, affirmative action, science funding, and other timely issues. There was a stimulating panel on new directions in the history of mentalités (in spite of disappointment that scholars from Romania and the Soviet Union, who sent papers, were not permitted to attend). Several panels discussed peasant studies, and there was a rich choice of sessions in women’s history. The New York Times took note of the way in which the program demonstrated, to use Natalie Davis’s term, the “capaciousness” of history.

We were pleased to have several sessions comparing historical experiences or tracing long-term historical connections on several continents. These included sessions on gender, miners, cigar workers, missionaries, and revolutionary cities as well as sessions related to the approaching Columbus Quincentennial. The hardest objective was to find or create sessions on major, current intellectual issues; several Committee initiatives fell flat. But sessions on narrative and reconstruction of the past, semiology, videotape and the intervention of the researcher in the subject under examination, jazz and popular culture, disease and public health, canon formation in religious history, and science policy were all steps in this direction.

By my count only fifteen of the 138 Committee-approved panels were all-male and only one was all-female. There were seventy-four scholars from other countries on the program (at least three of whom were ultimately unable to attend), about twice as many as in some recent years. Some were distinguished scholars like Eric Hobsbawm and Fritz Fischer, both of whom spoke to large audiences; others were comparatively younger scholars from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Much other evidence of diversity could be brought forward. I count (without including sessions on comparative history) six sessions devoted to Asia, three to Africa, four to the Middle East, nine to Latin America, and only one to Canada. More should be done if we wish to foster a sense of history that reaches beyond the United States and Europe, but we were pleased to do as well as we did. I attended several of these sessions, and they enriched my experience of the convention.

The Committee was concerned from the outset to present a good number of sessions related to the teaching of history. We sought sessions, wherever possible, that dealt with the content of courses rather than sessions where panelists simply talked about teaching. We also wished to avoid the format, tried in the past, of holding sessions on “applications” to teaching after “regular” sessions on scholarly subjects; we wished to avoid anything that smacked of giving teaching an inferior status. In the end, there were fewer sessions on teaching than we would have liked, especially after the cancellation of what would have been an important session on American and Soviet textbooks. But we were pleased to include sessions on the uses of film in the classroom and on integrating the history of science and technology into the history curriculum. There was also an exemplary four-hour short course on teaching about the U.S. Constitution. One of the liveliest sessions that I attended was on “Good History Teaching: A Dialogue Between Equals”; it included panelists from high schools, colleges, and universities, with much participation from the audience.

The Committee followed AHA guidelines scrupulously. I know that in doing so we offended some members, but we believed the guidelines to be well known, fair, and sensible. So far as I know, no one appeared twice on the program. Only four persons who had been on the 1986 Chicago program were on this one too. (In two cases we initially missed the repetition and concluded subsequently that it was too late to make a change. In one of these cases, and one other, we were also concerned about the composition of featured panels on the Constitution. In the fourth case, there were threats, late in the summer, that an entire session involving foreign scholars would be withdrawn without the participation of an esteemed American participant.)

In order to implement a guideline discouraging all-male or all-female panels, except when absolutely unavoidable, we requested adjustments in dozens of panels. We did not, of course, eliminate all gender-segregated panels. In two cases, men replaced women who dropped out of panels at the last minute; in other cases, those who proposed panels tried unsuccessfully to enlist women to serve; we were persuaded that a few panels addressed subjects on which no women were currently working. We heard arguments against our following the guidelines so “literally,” as one person put it.

With regard to double and repeat appearances, the case was made that senior, distinguished historians should be exempted. The Committee felt, however, that it was precisely to those individuals, who might easily be on the program every year, that the guidelines were meant to apply. Much as we admired their contributions to the profession and much as we hated to lose certain proposals, we understood the purpose of the guidelines to be an extension of opportunities to less well-known scholars. Some have said that our efforts to avoid all-male panels were exercises in tokenism and actually insulting to women. I understand the charge and have some sympathy with it. So many proposals for all-male sessions arrived, however, that if the Program Committee took no steps to change them, the AHA would swiftly return to the old days when audiences of men and women listened to panels usually consisting only of men. In most cases proposers happily made changes as requested, and often they agreed that their panels were strengthened as a result.

Probably the issue raised by our efforts will continue to be debated in the profession. They are similar to issues raised for those of us who teach in universities that have “affirmative action” plans but little consensus on how they can be coordinated with departmental recruitment decisions. Nothing that the Committee did took more time than our efforts to ensure diversity, and it was my impression that some of the excitement and good will in Washington was due to these efforts. One kind of diversity tends to open the door to other kinds—to new voices being heard, to new perspectives on old subjects. I should also say that our efforts to include more scholars from ethnic minority groups were much less successful, though not futile. A program committee cannot go very far to offset the failures of graduate programs and university faculties to achieve racial diversity.

We gave much thought to the scheduling of panels in individual time slots. In some cases our options were limited by panelists who could attend only at the start or end of the convention. The Committee worked together to avoid conflicts between sessions on closely related subjects. I have received only a few complaints indicating that we failed, usually because of a panelist’s schedule, an abundance of sessions on related topics, or the appeal of a single session to scholars in more than one specialty. Much more difficult was the question of which sessions to schedule in the final time slot, December 30 in the afternoon. There was some discussion among AHA officers, as I understand, of holding two sessions on December 27 and only one in the morning on the 30th. For good reasons, this change was not approved. The afternoon of the 27th might then become a dreaded slot, and there is no way of avoiding the fact that there will always be a last session and some people will always go home beforehand. The Committee was instructed to schedule extremely attractive panels on the last afternoon and see if we might thereby lure people to stay. That is what we did (and so those scheduled on the last afternoon should see this as a compliment). After dropping in on nearly all the final sessions—some of the most engaging of the entire convention—and after reading reports from the chairs, I can report that most were well attended. A few were not, and two chairs expressed the feeling that the Committee showed disrespect for their fields by scheduling them at that time. But several other chairs expressed surprise at the good turnout for their sessions and delight at the intense discussion even in the convention’s final minutes.

Like those who take on other assignments in the profession, those who are responsible for the program find themselves dealing with others with different agendas and priorities from their own. Those who represent affiliated societies, divisions, and committees of the AHA, subfields of the discipline, or sponsoring agencies and foundations, may have quite a different perspective from the Program Committee’s. They sometimes believe that they are entitled to field a session each year (though AHA guidelines specify that their proposals should be weighed by the same criteria as any other). In 1987 many of the strongest sessions originated with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Conference of Latin American History, the American Bar Foundation, the American Society of Church History, and other organizations too numerous to list. Without them, the program would have been measurably weaker. Difficulties arose when proposals were late, poorly developed, or inconsistent with AHA guidelines. While the Committee cooperated with the proposers to modify some of these proposals and make them acceptable, this could not be done in every case. In at least one instance, the Committee’s rejection of an exceedingly sketchy proposal, conveyed by telephone, was overruled by the Council. In another case, members of an affiliated society got quite exercised over a rumor that we would not be able to accommodate their late proposal. Problems like these have vexed every program committee. My own recommendation is that all proposals from societies and committees ought to be received by the fall deadline of the Program Committee, rather than later in the spring, so that reasonable communication and planning can take place.

Let me conclude by expressing my appreciation for the miracle of decentralized decision making that every program represents. I had help from James Douglas Flamming, a Vanderbilt graduate student paid out of AHA funds, from the already overworked Vanderbilt secretaries, and from a PC that I use inexpertly. I delegated as much as possible to Committee members, who in turn relied on the cooperation of scores of individuals in the United States and abroad. The chairs of sessions were in many cases unsung heroes. The AHA, of course, has a well-organized staff that takes care of much administrative detail, but it is almost astonishing how many hands are responsible for shaping the program and seeing it through. The system does not work perfectly. I am aware of some fields, for example, in which we received too few proposals and several slip-ups in the choice of panelists. It is a planner’s nightmare, but it works remarkably well, justifying some of us, perhaps in the faith that carried us into the utopian republic of scholarship. It is that memory, together with that of the excitement at the convention itself, that gives me such cheer as I conclude this report.

Lewis Perry is a professor at Vanderbilt University.