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How the Minds Have Met: The Annual Meeting through the Years

Roy Ritchie, February 2017

Roy RitchieI went to my first AHA annual meeting in December 1968. Before 1994, thousands of scholars, mostly men, took to the road between Christmas and New Year’s Day (not the first weekend of January) to get to New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, or San Francisco. The AHA rarely ventured elsewhere. My first trip, to New York, was anxiety-provoking, as I was going through the rite of the job market. In those days, without any such initiative as today’s AHA Career Diversity, the job hunt brought almost all young scholars to their first meeting. I hoped I had a chance of success at one of the interviews I had scheduled. I was interviewed by all-male groups: men dominated the meeting, as they did the profession. Besides a lot of tweed and dull colors, there was smoke everywhere, since “no smoking” was not yet a policy, even on airplanes.

But as anxious as I was, I was also excited that first year. I had hoped to meet scholars in my chosen specialty. I was doing early American history at UCLA and writing a dissertation on 17th-century New York. There were few New York specialists around UCLA, so the very idea that I could sit down with a group of scholars and just talk about New York was exciting. At the meeting, I met Doug Greenberg, Pat Bonomi, Stan Katz, and other New York experts. Not only did I enjoy our conversations then, they would become my friends and remain so today. I could create a long list of friends whom I first met at the meetings and whose company I have enjoyed over the years. I also quickly learned that the meeting was the place to keep up with friends in other fields and with old colleagues who had become members of other departments. I have also come to appreciate the role of the Exhibit Hall as a place not only to see what is new in scholarship, but also as a place to meet and greet.

At the heart of the meeting for me are the research sessions, which today are joined by roundtable discussions, teaching workshops, poster sessions, and various “lightning rounds.” Research sessions continue to provide all of us with the chance to keep up with trends in scholarship, as individual historians present their work alongside fellow experts. In fact, one of the reasons I read the annual meeting program is to see where the trends are and what is now capturing the attention of the profession. These trends give the discipline life.

At my first meeting, social history was coming to the forefront, challenging intellectual, political, and diplomatic/military history. Among early Americanists, social history flourished. A remarkable set of New England village studies introduced us to the Annales School and the English historical demographers. Social history would quickly come to encompass many aspects of ordinary life, as young scholars of my generation wanted to be a part of the new movement. It seemed for some time that social history would go on forever, but, like all movements, it would follow other fields into the background.

Another important impetus to scholarship and to positive changes in the annual meeting has been social movements. Women’s history resonated with a vigorous struggle for the recognition of women’s rights. Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement brought a renaissance in black studies, which soon dovetailed with the push for slavery studies and later advanced Atlantic studies. Current social movements are now pushing the development of many other fields—environmental, gender, LGBTQ, and disability history, for instance.

While scholarship is the essential aspect of the meeting for me, for many others it is dominated by concerns about careers. I was fortunate at that first meeting to have multiple interviews, leaving me hopeful that something would come through. That was to be the University of California at San Diego, where I would remain for the next 23 years. I was lucky to go on the market at a good time, as the baby boom generation created a significant increase in the number of state university campuses in California and across the country. The size of freshman classes at private schools also grew. UCSD was one such new campus. The boom would collapse in the 1970s, causing a great deal of anguish, as has every subsequent downturn. We all remember 2008–09.

Then there is the problem of the impact of scholarly trends on the academic job market. As some fields rise in stature, departments desire to be representative of current scholarship. Yet without the creation of new full-time equivalent positions, slots previously devoted to other specializations would have to change fields. The choice of the wrong field at the wrong time could thwart a career. For many years, too, administrations have been cutting tenure-stream slots in favor of part-time or full-time non-tenure-track faculties. So you might be interviewed, but not for the job you would like.

All of this heightens the anxiety of academic job candidates today. It will not make them any less anxious to know that being on the interviewing committee involves a different set of anxieties. Interviewing a dozen promising scholars over two days is in its own way stressful and gets more so once you leave the meeting and need to come to a decision. With the advent of Skype interviews and the expansion of careers for historians beyond he professoriate, it may well be that pressure from the academic job market will diminish, improving the general atmosphere of the annual meeting. While I believe that Skype is not the best way to make judgments, it does save a great deal of money for departmental budgets and candidates alike.

The annual meeting also exposes members to the work of the Association. Probably most of us have sat or will sit on prize committees as an aspect of our service. But this isn’t all. Year in and year out, the Association reports on the many ways it represents us, whether with government agencies, archives, or defending fellow historians in distress in other countries. When contentious issues come into the meeting, they are usually brought forward by the membership. In 1969, members opposed to the Vietnam War forced the AHA to consider an antiwar stance and the nomination of a second, antiwar candidate, Staughton Lynd, for Association president (an unprecedented event). Some of these same members would help form Historians Against the War, which in 2007 put through a resolution against the Iraq War at the Association’s business meeting. In the past few years, too, resolutions about Israel and Palestine have caused spirited debate. Ardent advocates often think that the AHA Council and even the membership at the meeting have been resistant to the most forward political positions. Nonetheless, these debates on the issues of the day produce some humdinger speeches and good political theater, not to mention modeling democratic discourse.

Not all business meetings are so enlivened. But if an issue matters, members should attend.

Having served on the Program Committee for the 2010 meeting in San Diego, I know how difficult it is to decide what to put into the program and what to leave out. Because much historical discourse is created by younger scholars, fields that graduate students and early career faculty are avoiding will not be very well served. Other fields, no matter how lively, may find they are being passed by. This is not due solely to the work of the Program Committee. Many field specialties have annual meetings, making participation in the AHA’s less imperative. In early American history, we can now attend meetings of the Omohundro Institute and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. When you know the attendees will be your own colleagues, you gain a sense of having a more attentive and critical audience. So, with some fields, the Program Committee is trying to attract session proposals when those particular specialists think they might gain more from a different conference. This will not stop complaints about “my specialty” not being served at the annual meeting. If you want your field to be there, apply next time.

My generation is now passing from the scene. I no longer see as many familiar faces as I used to. The meeting welcomes a far more diverse group of historians, and tweed has diminished as the cloth of choice (although dark colors still predominate). We have also gone from a practice of hearty handshakes to one of wholesome hugs as old friends meet. My colleagues would say that the meetings are now dominated by young scholars, very young scholars. It seems that in our day there were more “stars” at the meeting, and we would crowd into rooms to hear them. But perhaps we just don’t recognize the new stars.

In the future, we are informed, the academy will consist of professors who teach online mega-courses to the world, the rest of us be damned. But without the annual meeting, how will we see these new stars rising?

Roy Ritchie is former director of research at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.


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