Atlanta 1996: Highlights of the AHA Annual Meeting
Robert B. Townsend, February 1996
The 110th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held January 4 through 7 in Atlanta, continued a recent string of highly successful and exceptionally well-attended meetings—in spite of being afflicted by the worst weather in over a decade. To the credit of the 1996 Program Committee, chaired by Renate Bridenthal (City Univ. of New York) and cochaired by Patrick Manning (Northwestern Univ.), and AHA Convention Director Sharon K. Tune, the meeting drew an attendance of more than 3,800. This is a re cord for one of the AHA's secondary meeting sites (locations other than New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.).
The meeting featured a rich array of sessions presenting new historical scholarship, particularly around the meeting's general theme, "Polities in Flux," which allowed for the exploration of the topics of nationalism and the meaning of citizenship. The meeting was also marked by the large number of sessions devoted to the treatment of pedagogical issues and the use of new technologies in the creation and presentation of historical knowledge.
The meeting opened with two plenary sessions. The first plenary featured distinguished historians and political activists Julian Bond (Univ. of Virginia) and Mary Frances Berry (Univ. of Pennsylvania and U.S. Civil Rights Commission), who joined an attentive audience in a lively discussion of citizenship in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement. The historical focus was then expanded in the second plenary, as Richard Barnet (Inst. for Policy Studies) and Misha Glenny (Ful bright 50th Anniversary Distinguished Fellow) explored historical pressures on the nation-state in the form of globalization and fragmentation.
The provocatively titled "Who Owns History?" lived up to its billing, as panelists Gary Nash (Univ. of California at Los Angeles), Spencer Crew (Smithsonian Inst.), and Natalie Zemon Davis (Princeton Univ.) engaged an overflow crowd with their discussion of assaults on historical integrity in the classroom, museum, and profession. While there was little optimism in evidence at the session, it was widely agreed that such discussions are extremely valuable and should continue.
A large proportion of sessions addressed questions about teaching history surveys, all of which drew large and attentive audiences. Among the most popular was a session entitled "Rethinking the American Survey," which enjoyed the active participation of a standing-room-only crowd composed of teachers from all levels. At another session, "Gendering the Survey," an additional room was needed to accommodate the large audience. Panelists discussed how incorporating gender into their surveys required changes in their pedagogy and a significant rethinking of their approach to their courses.
Renewed Attention to Technology
This year's meeting was marked by an exceptionally high interest in the use of computers in history. H-Net sponsored 3 sessions jointly with the AHA and 3 additional sessions of its own, allowing ample opportunity for the exchange of ideas about the use of computers in the class room and as tools for producing and disseminating history. In spite of some technical difficulties with hotel telephone lines, the sessions drew large audiences, further emphasizing that computers are becoming an intrinsic part of the historian's craft.
Alongside formal sessions, meeting participants received a guided tour of the new J-STOR project, which is creating searchable back issues of a number of scholarly journals, including the American Historical Review. At a luncheon for department chairs, Richard Ekman, secretary of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports the J-STOR project, discussed the larger movemen t toward creation of electronic texts.
Graduate Students and the Job Market
The status of the profession, and the treatment and training of future members of the profession in particular, received a good deal of attention in the sessions "Preparing Future Faculty" and "Interviewing in the Job Market of the 1990s: A Workshop." The growing employment needs of newly minted Ph.D.'s was reflected in the largest Job Register on record, as 769 applicants (up from 722 last year and 673 the year before) pursued 64 positions that were open for interviewing at the meeting. Twenty-two additional positions requesting submission of c.v.'s for later interviews were posted at the annual meeting. Interviews that had been prearranged were conducted for another 92 positions at the Job Register.
AHA General Meeting
The awards ceremony at the general meeting, chaired by AHA President-elect Caroline Bynum, was marked by the depth of commitment to the field and the diversity of backgrounds and experience exhibited by the honorees. This was the first year in which the William Gilbert Award was conferred for the best article on teaching. The recipients were Nora Faires of the University of Michigan at Flint and John Bukowczyk of Wayne State University for "The American Family and the Little Red Schoolhouse: Historians, Class, and the Problem of Cultural Diversity," published in volume 19 of Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies.
The awards presentation preceded AHA President John Coatsworth's address, "Welfare". Drawing on economic history, archaeology, demography, and physical anthropology, Coatsworth discussed new approaches to the cultural, political, and social determinants of changes in human welfare. The full text of the address will be featured in the February issue of the AHR.
The Association undertook a great deal of institutional and governance work during the course of the meeting, at the annual business meeting, and in the biannual meeting of the Association's affiliated societies. This year's business meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd that came to discuss a resolution of support for a number of history graduate students at Yale, who were striking for the right to form a union by with holding grades from courses taught in the fall term. The university responded to this "job action" by initiating disciplinary proceedings against three of the leaders of the strike and pledging to refuse new teaching assignments to the strikers. No disciplinary action had occurred by the time of the meeting.
At its Thursday, January 4, meeting, the AHA Council had passed a resolution supporting the students' rights and expressing concern over their treatment by the university. Renate Bridenthal (City Univ. of New York) introduced a resolution at the Saturday business meeting urging the AHA Council to add language to its resolution explicitly censuring Yale for its conduct. The resolution was debated for more than 45 minutes, with one member of the Yale history department speaking against the additional language, and a large number of graduate students and former graduate students speaking in support of the stronger language. In the end, those present voted overwhelmingly for censure of Yale.
At its meeting the following Sunday, the Council, after deliberation, chose not to incorporate the additional language into its final communication to Yale. (According to the New York Times, the graduate students gave up their action on January 15, without any concessions from Yale. The students cited the potential financial hardship of losing their teaching assignments.)
After debate on the Yale resolution was concluded, the business meeting turned to reports from the officers of the Association. Michael Grossberg, the new editor of the American Historical Review, commended his predecessor, David Ransel, for his 10 years of service, and discussed future directions for the journal. Drew Gilpin Faust, vice president of the Professional Division for the past three years, offered valedictory comments summing up the division's accomplishments during her tenure, particularly noting improvements to the processing and handling of cases of professional misconduct. Faust's complete report can be found on page 22 of this issue of Perspectives.
At the meeting of the affiliated societies on Friday, January 5, representatives from more than 20 affiliated societies discussed new criteria for obtaining affiliated status with the Association. President-elect Caroline Bynum explained that the Committee on Affiliated Societies, which she chairs, decided the changes were necessary to accommodate more diverse forms of historical organizations now beginning to emerge. Citing the examples of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honors society, and H-Net, Bynum noted the need to move from a definition based on the number of members with graduate degrees and the publication of a paper journal. After some debate over specific language, the new criteria were affirmed by those present. These revisions were subsequently accepted by the Council at its Sunday meeting.
The representatives of the affiliated societies in attendance also discussed recent attacks on the historical profession in the media, with particular reference to controversies surrounding history standards and exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. There was general agreement among those concerned that the Association and its affiliated societies need to do more to work in concert to inform their members about such attacks and coordinate efforts to respond by developing more grassroots support. There was also larger agreement that the Association and its affiliates need to do more to coordinate activities and resources in support of history. A generally enthusiastic tenor marked the exploration of future collaboration between the AHA and its affiliates.
The 1996 meeting was held in the first southern city the AHA has visited in more than a decade. Nonetheless, the meeting was plagued by winter weather. At the outset of the meeting, severe storms detained Council members and staff in the Northeast as snow blanketed the New York and Boston areas. Toward the end of the meeting, a freezing rain shut down most of Atlanta, before turning northward to bring blizzard conditions to the Northeast. Hundreds of AHA members, and most of the AHA staff, were trapped in Atlanta for an additional two or three days.
Planning is already under way for the Association's next annual meeting, which will be held in New York City from January 2 to 5, 1997. We look forward to seeing you there.