Townhouse Notes February 2017
Each February issue of Perspectives on History is dedicated to recapping the most recent AHA annual meeting—a professional institution that’s rapidly changing, in ways that are positive. Although all national conferences can feel overwhelming, even for the seasoned, they can also reaffirm our collective commitment to free inquiry. The annual meeting takes place on many scales (to echo this year’s theme): chance encounters in the Exhibit Hall, planned conversations over coffee, discussion periods after presentations, public plenaries, nerve-wracking interviews, workshops large and small, and a wealth of receptions. Every time we interact, even heatedly, we advance historical knowledge. We take the annual meeting back to our workplaces and classrooms, and begin disseminating new ideas, methods, and pedagogical approaches.
Still, the annual meeting’s past is legendary, and not always in a flattering way. Historians were nearly all white men, and a good bit of hiring was done at exclusive departmental receptions called smokers (to which few, if any, women or people of color were invited). The discipline has diversified, and the Association is no longer largely focused on the interests of prestigious professors. To the extent that there remain vestiges of exclusivity, the discipline could suffer. We and many of our colleagues throughout higher education have been weathering funding cuts for years, but in an age of watch lists and alternative facts, we face uncertainty about whether our values can endure. That’s one good reason to keep coming together every year. The more people who attend, the more democratic the meeting.
So why does the gatefold cover (shown above) of this year’s annual meeting issue feature a panoramic photograph (which is so long we actually had to crop it!) of the 1934 annual meeting banquet celebrating the Association’s founding—an image full of white men and women in formal wear in the midst of the Great Depression? The cover isn’t meant to blindly celebrate the AHA’s past. Some of our most prominent founders were plainly racist, and history itself, like other academic disciplines that professionalized in the late 19th century, actively excluded “amateur” practitioners, many of them women. (Not coincidentally, nearly all of the women pictured were “wives of historians,” as far as we can tell.)
The cover image does capture something we can put to good use, though: pride in being a historian. I’d like all AHA members to feel entitled to this pride, which I hope can be dislodged from the snootiness of the image and reclaimed for our own purposes going forward. When I look at the photograph, I see a mountain of privilege, which our community is still struggling against. But I also see brazen confidence and swagger. The future might call for these qualities, to supplement our ability to contextualize world events for our students, our neighbors, and the public.
If we are ever able to snap another panorama that represents who we really are, it will have to capture diversity, mutuality, and respect, not the bonhomie of entitlement on tuxedoed display here. We might not be there yet, but we and our values are a long way from those days, as a look at this issue will show. As a venue, the annual meeting has helped bring the AHA of today into being and will continue to push us onward.
—Allison Miller, editor
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