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Looking Back and Ahead

An Executive Director Summary

James Grossman | Feb 10, 2020

James Grossman

AHA staff moved out of our offices at 400 A Street SE during the third week of January 2019. Because our architects had already figured out how to satisfy the Americans with Disabilities Act and our Neighborhood Preservation requirements—not an easy task—we had reasonable hopes that we might happily return to our offices in June. We didn’t. Issues surfaced and multiplied. The federal shutdown in January had downstream effects on city government operations in Washington, DC, which apparently slowed the permit process; a gas pipe needed to be moved; our insurance company decided that an engineer ought to open a wall before certifying that our plan would not result in a building collapse. These issues—or versions of them—will be familiar to anyone who has undergone a major renovation. Finally, with two acceptable bids, we chose the contractor whose schedule showed completion before the end of October 2019. 

We now expect to be back in our offices at the end of January 2020; by the time this piece is in print, I hope to have returned to 400 A Street SE through a new entrance whose imaginatively conceived ramp will finally make the building accessible to all of our members. Just inside that door will be a room large enough to accommodate Council and committee meetings, with the whole staff able to convene around a single table, or share lunch at smaller tables scattered just outside the new kitchen. After a full year in a “co-working” office space, with many of our colleagues working at home, we look forward to re-inhabiting a headquarters that combines the virtues of private office space with the informal interaction that brings us together as a community. 

A much larger community is equally important to our less-permanent site: the AHA annual meeting. The challenge we have set ourselves—to imagine, implement, and sustain a new kind of annual meeting—must rest, as AHA president Mary Lindemann reminded last month in these pages, on a “deep commitment to creating and sustaining community.” The AHA skated for years operating an annual meeting that could depend on, at minimum, a thousand attendees whose departments paid their way as members of hiring committees. Add job applicants to that list, and nearly half of the annual meeting’s attendees were present for reasons that had little to do with being members of a community of scholars. 

Should we resign ourselves to a smaller meeting? Or rethink the event itself, reimagining it as a community in which historians consider broader and more diverse contours of professional development and intellectual debate?

Now that the AHA has stepped back from providing a formal venue for job interviews, many of the long-standing reasons for attending the annual meeting are gone. At the same time, higher education institutions have cut back on discretionary travel budgets; climate change has prompted scholars to reconsider the carbon footprint created by long-distance travel; and digital technologies have enabled an ever-increasing set of communication options. In this context, we must ask whether the annual meeting is becoming an anachronism. Should we resign ourselves to a smaller meeting? Or rethink the event itself, reimagining it as a community in which historians consider broader and more diverse contours of professional development and intellectual debate? As Professor Lindemann’s inaugural presidential column in Perspectives argues, “We can create community in many ways: around a table, on panels, and sitting in audiences. We can sustain community in multiple ways, some face-to-face and some across the ether; we need not chose just one. Yet, however done, the construction of community is an intellectual, not only a professionalizing or social, endeavor.” 

To some extent, this might be described as an “internal” challenge. Still, we should at least ask whether our annual meeting can attract nonprofessional audiences and how that might enhance our community of historians. Certainly we can attract more students, who comprised over one-fifth of our annual meeting attendees this year. Many attendees noticed a different energy and tone: students at the meeting were not anxiety-ridden job applicants but valued participants in a community of scholars. 

But there are external challenges as well. How do we convince students, parents, and employers that history majors graduate with what is often referred to as “useful knowledge”? We can, and should, critically engage the extent to which “useful” too often degenerates into salary metrics. But “engage” should matter as much as “critically.” Our students do well. We need to do a better job of documenting their achievements and shaping the narrative of which they are a crucial part. The AHA’s Tuning initiative focused on this aspect of history education, and we have now published a capstone to an aspect of that work: Careers for History Majors is available free on our website and for purchase in print.

The major is not the only ship on which the discipline sails. We see more students enrolling in introductory courses, regardless of major. Our annual Texas Conference on Introductory History Courses is inspiring comparable gatherings elsewhere, most likely beginning with Utah in 2020. A new AHA initiative, History Gateways, brings together historians at diverse two- and four-year institutions to systematically reconsider the structure and content of introductory, college-level history courses to better serve students from all backgrounds. 

Running through all of this work is the AHA’s commitment to the value of historical thinking to public culture and public policy.

How we teach, and how our students learn, depends in part on what ideas about history they have in the first place. Indeed, this is true whether we teach history in classrooms, national parks, museums, or elsewhere. Historians need to know what our constituencies think history is, and how they encounter it. In collaboration with FDU Poll at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the AHA will administer a national survey of Americans to assess perceptions of and engagement with history. We hope to have results by the fall and will post the raw data on our website.

Running through all of this work is the AHA’s commitment to the value of historical thinking to public culture and public policy. Through the National History Center’s Congressional Briefings and aspects of our Career Diversity initiative, in Perspectives and in messaging to members, the AHA emphasizes that historians belong everywhere. Everything has a history, and all decisions benefit from historical perspective.

Hence the broad scope of the AHA’s initiatives, programs, annual meeting, and publications. The association limits its advocacy, however, to “the rights and careers of individual historians, historical practice in diverse venues, or the role of history in public culture” (Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance). Even within that relatively narrow scope, this activity has been increasing dramatically, culminating in a record 24 public statements during 2019.

On the other hand, our role in providing an arena for discussion of historical issues, questions, problems, and conundrums has few boundaries. Effective and inclusive community requires work, communication, and space for disagreement. I’ve often cited historian Elsa Barkley Brown’s argument that the work required to encompass a diversity of perspectives and an ethos of inclusion can be the very essence of community itself. If the AHA’s work doesn’t inspire disagreement and debate, we probably aren’t doing anything interesting. And if our publications and conferences don’t attract and inspire diversity of perspectives, then our discipline isn’t doing its work. 

Annual meeting proposals are due February 15; we welcome proposals on the many controversial issues that lie outside the scope of AHA advocacy but within the arena of historical debate. We especially welcome formats that facilitate discussion. Use your imagination and feel free to contact us if you have questions.


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


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