Publication Date

April 14, 2020

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, From the Executive Director

Thematic

Medicine, Science, & Technology

Many of us have learned a lot about infectious diseases in recent months. We’ve read about the dangerous implications of airborne contagion, surface versus human contact, and other forms of transmission. We’ve pondered the dangers of that person who passes too close on the sidewalk, the runner breathing heavily just behind us. These reflections are about people, the intensely human implications of the public health emergency that has engulfed our lives.

As historians, we work hard to understand people—the people we study and the people we teach, in the classroom and beyond. We also study institutions, how they work, why they matter, and their role in shaping and contextualizing human interaction, including our own work. Other than in a figurative sense, institutions are not susceptible to infection. President Nixon surely understood John Dean’s reference to a “cancer on the presidency” as a plea for decisive surgery, but the metaphor did not extend to anything resembling chemotherapy. The status of corporate entities as individuals, despite its long and convoluted legal history, does not imply institutional quarantine—although I do find that image rather intriguing from time to time.

My perspective on the policy implications of the relationship between people and institutions is no doubt skewed by the physical immediacy of the Capitol, especially at a moment when daily walks along the National Mall are my only opportunity for outdoor activity and reflection (with an occasional rant thrown in). At no other time in my life, in no other place, would I have received email news bulletins reporting the latest manipulations, the tactics that determine who gets what when the proverbial legislative sausage is made. Negotiations over the CARES Act, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief legislation, included debates over the allocation of funds to individuals (including tax cuts, direct payments, and unemployment insurance) versus institutions (such as corporate subsidies and loans, small business assistance, higher education funding, and payments to states). Should the federal government provide relief to lenders in danger of bankruptcy because of mass loan defaults or funnel cash to homeowners who could then make mortgage payments? Either way, what happens to renters? It’s not quite as straightforward as it might seem. Institutions employ people and provide services to individuals. But cash put directly in the hands of individuals will be spent quickly, filling coffers from which wages are paid and services sold. Andrew Yang was hardly the first to suggest the macroeconomic impact of a guaranteed national income.

As historians, we work hard to understand people—the people we study and the people we teach, in the classroom and beyond.

These different approaches are relevant to the AHA’s concerns about how to help both individual historians and the institutions in which they work. Many of our most vulnerable colleagues are employed on a contingent basis in higher education. The AHA has sought support from foundations for direct immediate relief for individual scholars with insecure employment, but with no success so far; given the vast landscape of need, most funders are besieged with countless legitimate requests. Institutionally, we have publicly urged all higher education institutions that employ contract and/or part-time faculty to compensate them fully for courses already contracted for the balance of 2020. Larger and more influential associations, such as the American Council on Education, lobby on behalf of higher education, and we have notified our department chairs of the resources in a small part of this bucket that might be available to history departments.

As an institution that advocates for historians and provides mechanisms to support the work of individual scholars, the AHA looks especially to funders with a particular interest in our constituencies. Through the National Humanities Alliance and the National Coalition for History, the Association has advocated vigorously for additional funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH received $75 million in the CARES Act, and the AHA stands prepared to help the agency distribute those funds to scholars who need help and who can provide expertise useful to education and public culture.

What might such projects look like? The Works Progress Administration from the 1930s offers a likely analogue. Given the emergency, it’s especially worth considering ideas that don’t require creating new infrastructure. My years at the Newberry Library, for example, taught me how much public interest exists for thoughtful and informed conversation on humanities topics; these can be held online, led by unemployed and underemployed scholars with teaching experience. I would be surprised if there wouldn’t be substantial interest in such topics as plagues, epidemics, refugees, sports (since there are none to watch now), and more. Everything has a history. Indeed, this epidemic’s oral history should be recorded professionally and comprehensively. Even more obvious, with infrastructure in place, would be professional development for historians employed in any venue, or even webinars for non-historians who recognize that their work would benefit from historical-thinking skills. These employment programs would not be difficult to organize; historians work in institutions that have done it before.

What might such projects look like? The Works Progress Administration from the 1930s offers a likely analogue.

The AHA has already embarked on such work, but we can provide only useful resources, rather than employment. Once it became clear that higher education would quickly move to remote teaching, the AHA convened its recently appointed ad hoc committee on online instruction to write discipline-specific essays to help historians confronted with the challenges of rapid transformation from in-person to remote instruction. These short blog posts provide both pedagogical advice and technology tips. One is oriented specifically toward beleaguered history department chairs. With a bit more planning, we have also mounted the Remote Teaching Wiki Project at ahadigital.org, a space where historians can share discipline-specific, professionally vetted resources. We ask our members to contribute syllabi, recorded lectures, primary sources, and other teaching resources that could be helpful to fellow history educators.

Our conversations with colleagues indicate substantial need for these kinds of resources; much of what their institutions provide is necessary but not sufficient. It is imperative to learn how to use the systems at your institution and to get tips that relate directly to institutional culture and students, but it’s equally important to adapt those systems and methods to the work of a history classroom. 

This kind of work, coordinated by a staff itself operating from our homes, is central to the mission of the AHA. So is advocacy, exemplified by the statement published in this issue of Perspectives, which hopes to inspire both the employers of our membership and historians themselves to think about what we need to do our work, and the contributions that we can make. 

The AHA annual meeting is an especially important venue for this work, and we have been gratified by the interest shown by our members and affiliates as to whether we will be able to convene in Seattle in January 2021, as planned. We currently expect to do so, and our program committee met remotely in April to evaluate proposals. We hope that conditions will have returned to normal by fall, but are aware that this situation changes rapidly and is likely to remain uncertain for some time. We will regularly update members via our website, Fortnightly News, and social media, as advice from public health authorities and medical experts evolves. We will take whatever measures are necessary to maintain the health and safety of our members, while at the same time do all we can to promote the work and the interests of historians.

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Jim Grossman
James R. Grossman

American Historical Association