Publication Date

November 22, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

To thousands of historians, “the AHA” refers less to an organization than to an annual conference, or as the 20 people who work for that organization refer to it, an “annual meeting.” Our formal, institutional vocabulary is fraught with meaning. The “annual meeting” of a membership organization is more than an academic conference that centers on four days of intense activity. Since the Association has dispensed with hosting job interviews, the academic job market will no longer be a major focus of the annual meeting (although memories of the stressful process will linger). Instead, there are issues both emerging and persistent, large and small, that frame and snake through a gathering that has institutional, intellectual, informational, and even informal purposes.

The foremost institutional imperative—and perhaps the most prosaic—of a membership association’s annual meeting is also among the most associated with unhappiness: time. The AHA works hard to create a welcoming, collegial, and collaborative environment; to negotiate the best deals for our members on things like hotel rates; and to generate more resources through our fundraising prowess. These factors are variable. But time is finite. Unfortunately, this often leads to competition among participants—including the unprofessional behavior of exceeding time at a podium. 

The first competition takes place less publicly, as presenters jockey for preferred time slots. As we do every year, we asked speakers at the 2020 annual meeting to notify us of any serious scheduling conflicts that we should take into account before we made final assignments. 

Out of 300 sessions, we received a scheduling request of some kind for 151.

The AHA tries to accommodate teaching schedules, family responsibilities, religious observance, and travel schedules, as well as ADA-related requests.

What is to be done? The AHA tries to accommodate requests due to teaching schedules, family responsibilities, religious observance, and travel schedules, particularly for attendees traveling from another country or from distant locations in the United States. We also accommodate ADA requests, such as not presenting early in the morning, if for ADA reasons it takes a presenter longer to prepare, or not presenting on two sessions in a row, if that would be an obstacle. If we can, we also take into account requests from those who have committed to attending another conference on the same weekend. We can avoid conflicts with meetings and luncheons, often organized by our affiliated societies, that take place simultaneously with sessions. 

We can almost always provide for requests that fall into these categories. When submitted along with a session proposal, these requests do not at all affect the chances of acceptance. There are major “pillars” of every annual meeting that are imperative and can’t easily be moved—such as the business meeting, awards ceremony, plenaries, and the presidential address—but when we know in advance about accommodation requests, these sessions too are likely to get fixed in place.

We cannot, however, so easily accommodate the most common request: “never on Sunday” (this year, actually a Monday because of the peculiar dynamics of our New York meetings). Although even the most intrepid researchers on our staff cannot locate a biblical injunction mandating the annual meeting be four days, we have not found a workable alternative. A few peer associations have begun to experiment with either eliminating day four or using that traditional travel day for workshops instead of a complete half-day schedule. Absent an incredibly compelling event on the third evening or developing a menu of attractive workshops with substantial capacity, eliminating the fourth day runs the risk of simply pushing the problem back. Why not leave in the afternoon of the third day and save a hotel night? Even more important, the Program Committee’s peer-review process would need an even sharper blade if we were to reduce the number of session slots. We continue to search for a solution and, in the meantime, have adopted a policy that anyone who has presented on the last day in the past two years will not be scheduled for this final day. 

It’s impossible to satisfy everyone; we annually receive complaints from people about too many attractive sessions in the same time slot.

But there is also the problem of presenting on the first day. Many of our members prefer to avoid sessions during check-in time, too. Potential attendees might encounter transportation delays. Most people want days two and three, under the assumption that attendance peaks on those days. Not necessarily. Overall conference attendance is indeed highest, but day three is also the most competitive of the entire meeting, due to luncheons, the activities of affiliated societies, and other events. 

We still, however, can accommodate many, if not most, requests that come in early enough to be part of the initial scheduling puzzle. Once the proverbial Rube Goldberg machine is in place, however, changes are difficult—especially if fully half of all panelists make such requests. It’s not always just a matter of switching one panel for another. A certain number of speakers are “protected” from day four because of the rotation policy. Since we permit individuals to present on two panels as long as the roles are different, and since some panelists are in official AHA meetings (Council, committees, focus groups, projects), not everyone can be easily switched from one time to another. Faith commitments on Saturday and Sunday are readily honored when we find out about them early, but they also yield another cohort of immovable sessions. We try to be sympathetic when told that travel schedules are awry because someone didn’t realize the conference this year is Friday to Monday. Or that a child’s birthday somehow slipped off the calendar this year. Or that a last-minute family commitment leaves only four possible time slots. But there is a limit.

Once all of the renovation has taken place, the landscape also is more likely to have topical overlaps that we originally tried to avoid. We consider not only chronology and geography, but also topical focus, including methodology and pedagogical interest. In some fields (notably Latin American history), the embarrassment of riches is such that there inevitably will be multiple sessions in each slot. We also try to spread out those fields that have fewer sessions. As part of this process, the Program Committee looks over the schedule to spot conflicts in their specialties. But if there are more than 12 sessions on a topic, there will be overlap. 

It’s impossible to satisfy everyone; we annually receive complaints from people about too many attractive sessions in the same time slot. We have thus far avoided AHA president John McNeill’s typically tongue-in-cheek solution to this dilemma: scheduling fewer interesting sessions.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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