Regarding the Annual Meeting
Editor’s note: The following letter was received in January 2016, shortly after the AHA’s annual meeting in Atlanta.
To the editor:
I am a new member and have just returned from the annual AHA conference held in Atlanta. I hope my impressions might be of interest to some AHA members.
First and foremost, I found many warm and welcoming individuals from whom I learned a lot. These kind people correctly sensed my abiding love and deep appreciation for history, as I sensed the same in them. They made my attendance well worthwhile.
Importantly, they did not seem to care that the only degree I have is a BA in history from the University of Denver, and that I have not taught history (other than as a guest lecturer). They appeared genuinely interested in the fact that I’ve spent 40 years as a professional journalist, magazine editor, and book author. And that my self-published World War I nonfiction book, Behind the Lines: WWI’s Little-Known Story of German Occupation, Belgian Resistance, and the Band of Yanks Who Helped Save Millions from Starvation. Beginnings, 1914 (Denver: Milbrown Press, 2014), has received national recognition, such as inclusion in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014.
Sadly, others at the AHA conference were not so warm and welcoming.
Overall, I’ve come away from the conference with a thought I can’t shake. In my mind’s eye, I see in the distant past a group of people who had an innate love of history. One faction took its love of history and went off and constructed a castle, set up a moat and drawbridge, and developed a caste system. No one would be allowed in without fulfilling rigorous requirements, conforming to tough standards, and promising to uphold the system.
The rest of the original group took their love of history and went in among the general public and became storytellers.
On rare occasions, a few of the castle people have come out and become good storytellers, and a few of the great storytellers have been accepted into the castle.
To me, both factions could learn an enormous amount from one another, but rarely do.
The storytellers need to be reminded of the sound principles of research, objective analysis, and proper attribution. A good academic historian can give so much to a storyteller willing to learn.
On the other hand, the castle people need to learn the art of inclusive presentation. In today’s world, if academic historians want their fascinating topics to reach the largest possible audience, whether it be students or general readers, scholarship is not enough. A good storyteller can give so much to an academic historian willing to learn.
I believe many AHA members are already aware of this situation, as evidenced by the standing-room-only sessions dealing with how historians can better interact with the media and the general public outside the castle walls.
I look forward to other AHA conferences, where I know I can learn a lot from members and, I hope, others might learn a little from me.
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