From the Executive Director

How Will We Do History in the 21st Century?

Sandria B. Freitag, January 1996

In last month's Director's Desk column, I pointed out some of the essential services the AHA provides to the field through its conduct of the annual meeting. That analysis is part of a larger effort to identify key functions and audiences for the AHA at this moment in time. The goal is to fit the fundamental mission of the Association to contemporary circumstances, an exercise the AHA has undertaken periodically. In 1889 the U.S. Congress chartered the AHA, charging it to act "in the interest of American history, and of history in America." One hundred years later, a review committee defined the mission emerging from this charge as service to history professionals (defined as individuals with graduate degrees or some formal training in history) who practice history either through teaching or research or both. Teaching was defined quite broadly to encompass "a wide range of efforts at communication and dissemination in varied settings— museums and historic sites as well as classrooms—and involving the use of visual materials and artifacts as well as words." Research was defined as "the uncovering and exchange of new information and the shaping of interpretations. ... The profession communicates with students in textbooks and classrooms; to other scholars and the general public in books, articles, exhibits, films, and historic sites and structures; and to decision-makers in memoranda and testimony." *

This vision of the Association's mission serves us well at present. We look, however, to fine-tune our vision to fit new demands and challenges (particularly from a public that does not always understand the contribution made by historians) and new technological opportunities. In this issue of the newsletter we explore a number of the opportunities presented by technology, and some of the ways in which we hope to combine print and electronic dissemination.

But technology is only a small part of the picture the AHA needs to paint right now. More important is an effort to understand where the discipline is moving, and what role a professional association should play in that future. For that reason, the AHA Council began in May a fieldwide planning exercise, in which we will try to delineate "how we will do history in the 21st century." How and whom will we teach? How will our research questions, methods, and materials alter? What will be the range of formats and settings for scholarly communication? How will we convey to a general public what we do and why it matters to the civil society in which we work? We began the exercise by grappling with these questions in the fall meetings convened by the various committees and divisions through which AHA work is channeled. Some of the points made in these discussions are described below.

We hope to open up the discussions to the field at large to ensure that all voices in our multivocal profession are heard. In recent weeks, for instance, we introduced the question in discussions with participants at the annual conference of the Community College Humanities Association, and with a group of supporters of history who are not professionally involved in the discipline. The topic also loomed large in the meeting held in Atlanta with representatives of the 100 affiliated societies linked to the AHA. We are eager to hear additional viewpoints, and urge you to send us your suggestions and insights.

A prominent theme in many of the fall discussions revolved around the need for historians to connect more directly with the general public. In some cases this theme came in the form of a warning—"If we do not frame the issues, others will do it for us"—while in other cases it was phrased more positively—"We need to build bridges to other constituencies: it is important not to become fossilized." Among these other constituencies, K– 12 teachers and students featured prominently, as did the general public who absorb historical interpretations through museums and other historical site programming.

The impact of new technology, too, was anticipated both as a threat and a promise. On the one hand, the fact that increasing amounts of historical materials will be generated in electronic form places new de mands and difficul ties in the way of archiving materials for future researchers. It also suggests that differential access to materials and equipment could significantly disadvantage many members of our civil society. On the other hand, the historians who participated in the discussions saw electronic instruction as having the capacity to help mitigate the disproportionate effects on some populations of cuts and downsizing in schools and other educational facilities. Moreover, they felt that this broad yet localized mode of instruction would enable teachers to ensure that students learn about their own pasts and the inclusive frame within which their pasts were created. This dual capacity, according to the discussants, could enhance the inclusive nature of historical interpretation while ensuring that diversity of experiences received scrutiny.

The discussants identified a number of professional issues within the academy appropriate for the attention of a scholarly society such as the AHA. Some were simple employment issues: what would it mean for people to come into the profession and "become historians"? Certain patterns seem to be emerging in terms of downsizing: several participants suggested that history has been hit disproportionately hard in shrinking institutions, and concerns were expressed about the increased reliance on adjunct and part-time faculty. These and related issues, it was felt, would clearly affect the nature of institutional contexts for historians and would ultimately also alter expectations about research and teaching. Indeed, some AHA committee members felt strongly that the increased reliance on the lecture course and enlarged class enrollments make increasingly problematic the strong efforts now being made to integrate teaching and research. More innovative strategies will be required in the future to provide students with experience in active learning by doing history, even in large classrooms. In addition, it was felt that fundamental questions about how to evaluate teaching in these changing circumstances should attract the sustained attention of professional associations such as the AHA.

The AHA was also urged to provide leadership to departments in exploring and evaluating new forms of scholarship, such as electronic formats for dissertation work, and "publishing" on the Internet. (In this context, the difficulty now experienced by scholarly societies in creating fruitful relationships with campuses and departments can be seen as an important dilemma that needs to be addressed creatively.) Our changing understanding of the narrative, and new forms of investigation using new methods with new materials, will also challenge established norms of performance and rigor, thus providing new opportunities for contributions by professional associations. Many discussants agreed that a fundamental tension now being addressed, and likely to emerge as an ever-more-important issue in the future, is the simultaneous need for specialization (in order to understand complex historical contexts) and for cross-specialization of communication to avoid too narrow a focus.

Linked to the issues posed by new forms of scholarly communication are many of the topics that have emerged recently in the pages of Perspectives, including copyright constraints on fair use, maintaining the viability of scholarly publishers in an electronic environment, the dangers to continued publication of the monograph as a printed form of scholarship, the need to train graduate students to reach broader audiences and more diverse student populations, and the challenge to a field by calls for a politically defined and Eurocentric core curriculum.

Are these the signals to which you would point when thinking about how we will do history in the 21st century? We would like to hear from you on the issues suggested above or regarding topics that have not yet been identified. We hope you will seize this opportunity to help us think about the future of our discipline and our profession so that the AHA can chart a course that best serves its members.


* "We Have Seen the Future and It Needs Work: Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the AHA," Perspectives, September 1988.