Publication Date

January 18, 2024

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, Behind the Scenes at the AHA

Submitting conference proposals is a common experience for historians. For a large annual meeting like the AHA’s, anywhere from 300 to 450 sessions and 30 to 50 posters are proposed each year. So how does the AHA select which sessions and posters will be included on each year’s conference program?

As with many scholarly associations, this monumental task is undertaken by a program committee. This group of 16 historians, led by a chair and co-chair, works to ensure that the program reflects the broad interests of the discipline across research topics and methodologies, teaching and learning, and professional development. The AHA Council appoints the Program Committee chair and the co-chair two years before the meeting they’ll help plan. They work with the incoming president-elect (who will be president at the time of the meeting they help organize), the meetings manager, and the executive director to build the rest of the committee for Council approval. This process takes diligence to ensure that the committee represents a broad array of historians, with members from different institution types, including public history institutions, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and K–12 schools. Given the committee’s size, it takes careful deliberation to ensure members represent the diversity of fields, methodologies, demographics, teaching interests, and professional lives. Each spring, the chair and co-chair of the next year’s meeting join the committee to become familiar with the process as they begin planning their own meeting.

Meetings manager Debbie Ann Doyle tells Perspectives that “a lot of work has already happened when the call for proposals goes out” each fall. In October, the committee gathers at the AHA townhouse in Washington, DC, to brainstorm, including for sessions that they will recruit. Program Committee members recruit 30 or more sessions, focusing on issues in professional development, research, and teaching they believe will be of most interest to attendees. As Debbie says, “When else are you going to get that diverse a group in one place to organize sessions?”

After the February 15 proposal deadline passes, the work begins in earnest. Every proposal is read by three committee members, including either the chair or co-chair, and each reviewer ranks the proposal on a scale of one to five. These scores are averaged, but that only begins the process of narrowing the field. The committee meets in April for a full-day meeting in DC. Much of the day is spent discussing the midranked proposals and the overall balance of the program. These decisions are issued in May. Additional sessions come from others within the AHA, including presidential sessions and those organized by AHA divisions, committees, and staff to reflect current organizational priorities and initiatives. Annual meeting attendees also can attend sessions organized by the affiliated societies; affiliate sessions accepted by the Program Committee are jointly sponsored with the AHA.

Next, the chair, the co-chair, and a graduate assistant draft a schedule, placing upwards of 300 sessions into time slots across the four days of the meeting. Then Debbie and meetings and events associate Jake Purcell revise the schedule, looking to balance subfields across time slots and days, prevent serious time conflicts, and put considerable thought into scheduling sessions when they will draw an audience.

Debbie offers a few tips for when you’re crafting your next proposal. “Because three people read every proposal, two of the people who read it are unlikely to be specialists in your field,” so it’s vital that you explain the significance of your proposal. The Program Committee is always drawn to sessions that can’t happen anywhere but at the AHA meeting, since you can feature “people who generally go to more specialized conferences talking to each other.” And the AHA has been interested increasingly in new session formats that encourage conversation and lively interaction with the audience. Whether you’re organizing a lightning round or a workshop on teaching or professional development, the AHA can be a place for “conversations you can’t have anywhere else.”

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Laura Ansley
Laura Ansley

American Historical Association