Publication Date

May 1, 1990

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

The French Revolution presented itself as the all but inescapable theme for the AHA’s 1989 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. To be sure, there had been no shortage of conferences during the previous months and years, commemorating the Bicentennial of that event—including over 100 in France alone and perhaps twice that many in other countries throughout the world. Yet the Program Committee hoped to take advantage of the Association’s unusually broad membership and interests in order to expand the focus of thematic inquiry to include synthetic and comparative perspectives on the influence of the French Revolution in Europe and the world and on the general problem of revolution from the ancient period to the present. Unexpectedly, the dramatic occurrences during the year in China and Eastern Europe rendered the theme all the more appropriate. Indeed, the events in Beijing, Bucharest, Sofia, East Germany, and elsewhere found frequent reference in the participants’ papers and influenced debates in numerous sessions.

In order to organize the overall program and sort through the colossal amounts of paper involved, I was fortunate to have the assistance of an exceptionally capable and dedicated Program Committee, chosen to represent the various constituencies and professional interests of the Association. The members included James B. Gilbert, University of Maryland, College Park, cochair, for U.S. intellectual and cultural history; Clayborne Carson, Stanford University, for African-American and U.S. urban and labor; Gregory Freeze, Brandeis University, for Russian and modern central and eastern Europe; Linda B. Hall, University of New Mexico, for Latin American, Mexican-American and women’s history; Marjorie McIntosh, University of Colorado, for English, medieval, Renaissance-Reformation, and ancient history; Sally Marks, Providence, Rhode Island, for twentieth century European, international and diplomatic studies; Howard J. Shorr, Downtown Business Magnet School, Los Angeles, for history teaching, California and U.S. history generally; Lorena Walsh, Colonial Williamsburg, for U.S. colonial and public history; and Ernest P. Young, University of Michigan, for Asian history. An additional member, appointed to represent Africa and the Middle East, found it necessary to resign in September 1988, and Marcia Wright, Columbia University, graciously agreed to fill in as a last-minute replacement.

In the preliminary stages of organization, a primary goal was to stimulate the creation of sessions involving the participation of the major scholars of the French Revolution and other revolutions from around the world. But we rapidly established a number of other important objectives for the 1989 program. First, we sought to continue the outstanding efforts of the previous Committee toward encouraging a significant number of non-Western and cross-cultural comparative sessions. Second, in reference to the location of the 1989 meeting, we would encourage the formation of sessions dealing with the history of San Francisco, California, and the American West generally. Third, we would make every effort to maintain good working relations with the Association’s affiliated societies. With full realization of the impossibility of including all of the close to 100 affiliates on the program, the Committee would attempt to work closely with the proposers of the most promising sessions, particularly those who turned in their proposals sufficiently early to allow such collaboration. Fourth, we would scrupulously follow the AHA guidelines stipulating that ethnic and racial diversity must be encouraged and that, except under exceptional circumstances, no sessions would be “gender segregated,” and that no individuals could take part in more than one session nor deliver papers if they had done so in the previous Annual Meeting.

In the end, a total of 273 panel proposals and a scattering of individual paper proposals were submitted to the Committee. The overwhelming majority of these—perhaps 90 percent—came directly from the membership and the affiliates. However, Committee members were also asked to encourage the creation of a certain number of sessions in areas related to the theme or where there were gaps in topical and/or regional coverage. In the initial stage of the evaluation process, each proposal was assigned to the appropriate Committee member for a preliminary assessment. Prior to the first deadline, mid-October 1988, Committee members were advised to assist in the development of the most promising panels, in order to improve their content and cohesiveness if necessary and to ensure that they were complete and followed the AHA guidelines. Unfortunately, for proposals submitted shortly before the second deadline, mid-February 1989, there was often insufficient time to pursue this kind of collaborative process. But in any case, all proposals were subsequently read, discussed, and voted on by the entire Committee.

The first full Committee meeting took place in Washington, November 18–19, 1988. At that time there was a preliminary ranking of the ninety-five proposals received thus far and a determination of the specific areas which were underrepresented and which would have to be promoted more vigorously during the following weeks. Perhaps because of the program’s theme, a particular weakness emerged in the number of proposals submitted in U.S. history. During the following weeks, the Committee—and particularly Howard Shorr and Jim Gilbert—would spend a considerable amount of time attempting to rectify this problem. After a brief interim meeting, December 29 at the 1988 Annual Meeting in Cincinnati (among those members who were able to attend), the full Committee convened once again in Washington, March 11–12 to make its final decisions. The ultimate determination of the proposals to be retained was a difficult and frequently frustrating task. Confronted with the necessity of ensuring breadth of coverage and with the outside limit of 140 panels which could be placed in the Meeting, the Committee found itself forced to reject many excellent proposals from both individuals and affiliated societies. For the issue of coverage, a very rough and flexible quota system was developed based on six-panel units. In the ideal case, the Committee hoped to identify six first-rate panels (or, in the case of the more popular areas, twelve first-rate panels or more) for each of the major regional areas and periods represented in the Association or suggested by the program’s theme: thus, for example, six in medieval history, six in Russian history, twelve related to the French Revolution, etc. Theoretically, this would allow the Committee to distribute the sessions over the six standard time slots at the Annual Meeting—thus avoiding the problem of conflicting sessions in the same areas—and also to ensure the presence of a critical mass of scholars working in those areas. Of course, in practice, the Committee frequently found itself departing from these rough guidelines, as a function of the number and quality of the proposals actually submitted. Yet the approach did enable it to assemble interesting sets of panels in areas (like Chinese history, medieval history, etc.) that have often been underrepresented in the past.

In the end, 140 panels—the maximum possible—were retained, just over half of all those submitted. Inevitably, given the theme, the largest proportion of the panels, a total of 57, were in European history. Another 37 were in U.S. history, while 29 were in Latin American or non-Western history, and 17 were comparative or methodological in nature. In the published version of the program, printed before a certain number of last-minute changes were made (changes over which the Committee had little or no control), 35 percent of all the participants were women—up very slightly from the previous year—and only 7 of the panels were not gender balanced (6 with all men and one with all women). Emergency modifications late in the selection process necessitated two double appearances and 3 or 4 repeaters who had delivered papers in 1988. A total of 44 panels were jointly sponsored by affiliated societies or other societies or organizations, and another 6 were organized in conjunction with the various divisions and committees of the Association itself. The Program Committee was particularly pleased that a good working relationship was reestablished with the Conference on Latin American History—in large measure through the able efforts of Linda Hall.

In all, ten sessions dealt specifically with the French Revolution—including the participation of many of the best known specialists from the United States, Europe, and Australia. An additional seven touched on the influence of the Revolution in various corners of the world, while twenty were related to the broader problems of revolution and rebellion in general. The effort to obtain a wide selection of panels on revolutions was successful, in part, because of the substantial number of excellent panels submitted by the membership, but also because of the vigorous efforts of Gregory Freeze, Marjorie McIntosh, Sally Marks, and Ernie Young to nurture these proposals and stimulate the creation of others in areas where few or no panels were initially forthcoming. Other particularly cohesive sets of panels were assembled in twentieth-century China, California, and the Western United States, the relation of film and history, twentieth-century international relations, contemporary intellectual history, and the social and cultural history of medieval and early-modern Europe. Gregory Freeze (with the timely assistance of the Director) almost achieved a major coup, when he obtained the initial agreement of the eminent Soviet historian Roy Medvedev to deliver an opening night address—an agreement which ultimately fell through when Medvedev opted to remain in Moscow and participate in history rather than talk about it in San Francisco. On the other hand, the Committee was disappointed by its inability to engender more than three proposals in the important area of ancient history. Much of the problem here stems from the fact that the AHA and the American Philological Association normally meet at the same time of year in different cities. (It is to be hoped that the two societies might be able to make some arrangements to avoid this situation in the future.) Finally, beyond the 140 program sessions, the Committee decided to set up three events hors catégorie for the evening of Friday, December 29: a “mock history” session subtitled “Revisions and Revulsions,” inspired by the similar sessions held each year at the Kalamazoo medieval conference; and two film presentations, one exploring cinematographic depictions of the French Revolution and one previewing the PBS series Eyes on the Prize II.

The actual realization of the program at the 1989 Annual Meeting was, by almost all accounts, a considerable success. This achievement was due in no small measure to the hard work of the AHA staff in Washington—led by the Convention Manager, Sharon Tune—which took over after the full program was delivered in June 1989; and also to the efficiency and organization of Local Arrangements Committee Chair Peter O. Pierson, Santa Clara University. Official paid attendance, excluding the complementary registrations accorded to a substantial number of Bay Area high school teachers, came to just under 3,400. This excellent turn-out, particularly gratifying given the West Coast setting, was surpassed in the decade by only two other meetings, in Washington and in New York. As established by the Committee the program called for the participation of 715 individuals, of whom 55 were from outside the United States. In addition to colleagues from Canada, Mexico, 13 European countries, Israel, Australia, Taiwan and Japan, special note should be made of the presence of Professors Qingzhao Hua, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, and Kapepwa I. Tambila, University of Dar es Salaam, both of whose travels were partially subsidized by the Association.

Ultimately, only two panels had to be cancelled altogether: the opening night session that centered on Medvedev; and a panel on the French Revolution in Eastern Europe whose principal speakers, Professors Virgil Candea and Stefan Pascu, were caught by the extraordinary events unrolling in Romania late last December. Unfortunately, however, a number of individual participants from both the United States and abroad were unable to appear. To extrapolate from the limited number of reports sent in by session chairs (only 40 of the 138 actually followed through on this responsibility) almost a third of the sessions had one or more missing members or last-minute changes in participants. Many of the no-shows had apparently been hit by a particularly virulent form of the flu active on many campuses around the country in December—and also in the San Francisco hotels during the meeting itself. A minor crisis arose when the two protagonists of a showcase debate on the origins of the French Revolution backed out less than a month before the meeting: Professor Michel Vovelle because of serious illness and Professor William Doyle because Vovelle would not be present. Fortunately, the Committee was able to improvise a last-minute panel to read and discuss the papers which the two had mailed. The Committee is especially grateful to Elizabeth Eisenstein, Lynn Hunt, Gary Kates, Colin Lucas, and Donald Sutherland for filling in on this occasion, and for in fact pulling together one of the most exciting sessions of all those dealing with the French Revolution.

The meeting’s theme was well set by the two opening-night presentations: 1) a major address by Colin Lucas on Revolutionary violence, commented upon by Charles Tilly, Simon Schama, and Isser Woloch; and 2) a session dealing with four black radicals on revolution and including papers by Thomas Holt, Paul Buhle, Cedric Robinson, and Kapepwa Tambila. Among the other successful theme panels was a session on comparative revolutionary revisionisms; an assessment of the work of Fran‡ois Furet (with Furet present and commenting); an assessment of a recent study by Franco Venturi (with Venturi present and commenting); and a variety of others dealing with the intellectual and cultural origins and impact of the French Revolution. The question and answer periods of these sessions often generated some fascinating dialogue among the numerous specialists in attendance at the meeting. Several of the papers and comments on the French Revolution most closely related to one another will be published in the fall 1990 issue of French Historical Studies.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend more than a few sessions outside the area of the French Revolution. But the reports turned in by panel chairs and the partial attendance figures collected by the AHA staff (available for 108 of the 140 sessions) give at least some indication of the general success of the program. Overall, the panels on European history had an average attendance of about 55 per session—with upward of 70 at those concerning the French Revolution—while Latin American history averaged 42, U.S. history 36, and non-Western history 34. Significantly, the strongest general category was what has been described here as “comparative history,” with over 58 people per session: an additional bit of evidence of the popularity of these kinds of panels that will hopefully be taken to heart by future Program Committees. Such Committees should also take note of the exceptional enthusiasm and support for the six panels on medieval history, which averaged a healthy 68 persons per session. Among the topical areas, intellectual/cultural history (averaging 79 persons per session) outdrew social history (61 per session), though both continue to pull in a somewhat stronger attendance than certain of the more “traditional” fields of political, diplomatic, and military history. As for the “events” organized by the Committee outside the framework of the formal program, the two film sessions and the experiment in “mock history” scheduled for the night of the 29th all received respectable attendance (of about 50 to 100 people each), despite the considerable competition from university “smokers” and other ad hoc evenings out. Equally impressive was the standing-room-only attendance at the round table discussion of the Tiananmen Square incident, improvised by several of the historians of China present.

It would be difficult to overestimate the expenditure of time and nervous energy necessitated by the duties of chairing the Program Committee, an experience at once frustrating and aggravating, but also fascinating and challenging beyond expectations. The experience was rendered a good bit more tolerable by the assistance, good humor, and friendship of other Committee members. Konrad Jarauch, the previous chair, and his assistant Norbert Mayr provided much excellent advice and a sense of continuity in the early stages of the enterprise. I would also thank Catholic University of America and history department chair Jon Wakelyn for early assistance, financial and otherwise; the University of California, Irvine; and especially its Dean of Humanities Terence Parsons, for their very substantial subsidies to the operations of the Committee after I moved to California. Finally, a considerable word of appreciation to my graduate assistants, Alex Burckin and Belinda Peters, who held things together much of the time, especially while I was away in France, Italy, or China participating in other bicentennial events.

Timothy Tackett
Professor, University of California, Irvine
Chair, 1989 Program Committee