From the Executive Director

Still Waters: When the AHA “Does Nothing”

James Grossman, January 2018

James GrossmanReaders of this column are accustomed to commentary on AHA activities across an array of landscapes. Our staff of 19, in collaboration with Council and committees, accomplishes far more than such small numbers suggest. These efforts make up the usual fodder for my monthly combination of claims and calls to action.

This month we’ll try something a bit different. Instead of trumpeting and drumming, I will turn to silences. When does the AHA choose to remain on the sidelines? When do we stay quiet, even in the face of members clamoring for action, reporters seeking juicy quotes, and supporters wondering why we aren’t crowing or asking for money?

In the interest of walking our career diversity talk about using bullet points, I offer what might be described as a memo to members, beginning with a list of the questions we put to ourselves whenever we feel compelled to scratch a civic itch:

  • Is this consistent with our mission?
  • Is this one or two people speaking frequently or truly a clamor? How many are members?
  • Is this more complicated than it seems?
  • Is this the right time to say or do something?
  • What is the right venue for AHA commentary?
  • Is AHA involvement prudent?

Mission

Much that is important to human existence lies outside the scope of the AHA’s charge. Whether it’s disaster relief or a more chronic venue of human suffering, a crisis of democracy somewhere in the world or misguided policy making at home, the AHA receives requests to weigh in and, on occasion, to “do something.” We must draw lines, the first of which marks a boundary around the very purpose of the Association.

If a substantial number of members think something—anything—is important, we take that level of interest seriously.

Our members pay dues with an expectation that we will put them to purposes publicly stated. The inside cover of this magazine refers to promoting “historical research, study, and education”; our web page adds “the professional work of historians and the critical role of historical thinking in public life.” Laying aside for a moment my imperial maxim that “everything has a history,” these references mark a territory whose boundaries are ambiguous but structurally significant and sound. A committee of the AHA Council recently revised our Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance, which provides more detail on this articulation of scope; AHA president Mary Beth Norton, who chaired that committee, will expand on these principles in an upcoming column for Perspectives.

Clamor

AHA staff members monitor news sources and social media assiduously, and although it might not always be apparent, I read all of my e-mail. When we receive e-mail or see “the AHA should do something” posts in social media, we take note and initiate conversations within staff and Council. A good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from one person or one hundred.

Conversely, if a substantial number of members think something—anything—is important, we take that level of interest seriously. Routine staff duties in working include noting the number of likes and retweets on social media suggestions. More than once, a Council member has received a message or a handful of e-mails referring to activity, conversation, or outcry on social media, when, in fact, the number of individuals posting remains quite small: in the single digits or, in some cases, from only one or two actual members.

If the AHA cannot figure out exactly what is happening, we might initiate queries, but we will not make statements.

And membership matters. Petitions, open letters, and Twitter threads signify more when the signatories are members, or at the very least historians. We cannot reply to all correspondence, but we do reply to all mail—paper and electronic—from AHA members. Not infrequently, we receive a request or a complaint from a historian whose membership expired years or even decades prior or who was never a member at all. Taking action requires the time and resources for careful research: the AHA never speaks or acts without sufficient evidence, work we could not accomplish without member dues.

The Facts

In her May 2014 presidential column, “The AHA as Bully Pulpit,” Jan Goldstein referred to “confirmation of basic facts” as “only the beginning. Interpretation is, as we historians well know, a more elusive and contentious art.” But even the facts are not always clear when it comes to what Professor Goldstein called the “outrage of the week.”

Interpretation is even more slippery. If the AHA cannot figure out exactly what is happening, we might initiate queries, but we will not make statements. Even with facts in hand, we also must achieve some clarity as to explanations and implications before we reach conclusions.

Professor Goldstein’s column offers good examples of how ambiguity and complexity can induce caution. To draw on a more recent example, we are not likely to issue a statement based on a single newspaper story or series of social media posts unless we can find appropriate documentation. When it comes to making public statements or taking action, the AHA maintains a high bar for facts, narrative, and interpretation.

Timing

Recently, in Fortnightly News, the AHA highlighted an upcoming House of Representatives vote on taxing tuition waivers for graduate students. We did not speak out with equal force on the Senate debate that immediately followed, because the timing was wrong: the Senate bill did not include the relevant clause, and the right time—the most effective time—to act is when the Senate is actually making a decision. We have been urged to take stands on legislation that our sources told us would never make it out of committee or even be taken seriously by the relevant committee. To keep our requests for member action to a minimum, we must ask whether an intervention should take place now or later. Often the answer is later, and in some cases, “later” thankfully becomes “never.”

Timing matters. We do not participate in Giving Tuesday, for instance, because we see no reason why that particular date is meaningful. When we solicit donations, our case for contributions is based on what we have accomplished, not on the fundraising equivalent of a greeting card holiday (well-meaning though it may be). Our timing is driven by our work.

Venue

Intervention is not only a matter of whether and when, but also where. Twitter? Facebook? Letter? Public statement? These are case-by-case decisions. Some situations require a letter from the executive director or president; others, a public statement. Our general policy is that we do not respond to tweets. Serious conversation on controversial issues (as opposed to announcements, references, questions, promotions, and the like) cannot take place in 280-character bursts. Nor do we comment on other blogs, which would entail our staff spending days scanning the Internet—writing and debating here, there, and everywhere. When something on social media seems to merit a response and is posted by a member, we will generally either respond privately by e-mail or offer a public commentary on AHA Today.

Prudence

Sometimes it’s important for an organization to “go on record,” even when leverage is minimal. But it’s also important to exercise caution, even if taking a stand buttresses one’s sense of virtue. Speaking out can cause harm. There are times when experts in a particular field advise us that weighing in on a controversy in another country will be counterproductive, that the American Historical Association risks being mischaracterized as either an official agency or a troublesome outsider. In some cases, decision makers—and many of our members—are more likely to listen to a voice that has a reputation for careful judgment. Advocacy is not merely about conscience, but is also about politics—even diplomacy. Our disciplinary mandate to take the long view applies not only to our study of the past, but also to our plans for the future.

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


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