AHA Activities

A Glimpse into the AHA Council

Andrew Rotter, March 2015

I spent the last three years as a councilor of the AHA’s Professional Division. When in December I confessed to feeling some sadness that I was “rotating off” Council, Jim Grossman encouraged me to write a piece about my experiences. These ruminations may or may not be instructive, but I am happy to share them.

I landed on Council through a series of unthinking decisions, each of which seemed innocent enough at the time I made it. A call from a friend on the Nominating Committee: Would I agree to be nominated? I said yes. Days later, a call from another member of the committee (a former colleague, as it happened): I had been nominated to run for the Professional Division; would I agree to stand? I said yes. I wasn’t yet fully sure what the Professional Division did, but I figured it didn’t matter because I was sure I would not be elected. Then, months later, following the election (in which I had voted for my opponent), a call from Jim Grossman: “You’ve got some work to do for the AHA in the next three years,” he said.

Despite an orientation session the night before, I found the first Council meeting, in Chicago, mostly bewildering. I was a bit star-struck: Tony Grafton was in the chair, flanked by Jim, Bill Cronon, and Barbara Metcalf. There was serious talk of issues that I had thought idly about for years but didn’t understand well, and I could not get my mind around the Tuning project, despite perfectly clear explanations of it by Patty Limerick and Anne Hyde. Jim and Tony had just published their Perspectives piece “No More Plan B,” and Council was fully behind what would be called “The Malleable PhD,” a revolutionary idea that would go to the core of what the PD would be planning for annual meetings thereafter. I mostly listened, which seemed the better part of wisdom.

Gradually I came around. According to its own job description, the Professional Division is charged with looking after “the welfare of historians, primarily by articulating ethical standards and best practices in the historical discipline” concerning such matters as interviewing and hiring practices, treatment of graduate students and contingent faculty, the practice of public history, “and so on.” (Our work often fell into the realm of “and so on.”) Council meets twice a year: once at the annual meeting—actually, it holds two sessions then—and again in Washington in early June. Each division also meets separately during the June meeting, and each holds phone conferences in the spring and fall. During my time on the PD, and in addition to looking for ways to stretch the discipline’s perception of the history doctorate, we worked on ethics issues, often brought to us in the form of depressing or infuriating e-mails from members, and on issues that perhaps came up just short of ethical. I helped revise Mary Lindemann’s superb guidelines for interviewers, then helped write a more granular Perspectives “Ethics” column on dos and don’ts for interviewers. I twice helped select awardees of AHA child-care subsidies. I organized PD-sponsored conference sessions: one on “Finding and Loving a Government Job” and two more on “Historians Writing Fiction.”

Beyond their divisional responsibilities, Council members also participate in the larger work of the Association. At annual meetings, I intruded on chairs’ luncheons and described life at a liberal arts college at the interview workshop. Council meetings demanded a bit of preparation, or rather more than a bit: the agenda for the most recent one ran to 400 pages. Some of Council’s work falls into the realm of the routine but important. Its members hear a lot of reports: from the National History Center, for example; from Lee White of the National Coalition for History; from the AHA Program Committee, Oxford University Press (publisher of the American Historical Review), and others. There were controversial issues, among them whether, or how, the AHA should involve itself in the then-pending Supreme Court case concerning the Defense of Marriage Act, and the recent discussion of a resolution condemning Israel for restricting educational exchange with the Occupied Territories and its alleged attack on an oral history center in Gaza. (For the record, Council did weigh in on DOMA, supporting a brief that emphasized the history of state jurisdiction over marriage, and declined to change the rules to take up the Middle East issue, leaving it to the business meeting to sort that one out; see Jim Grossman’s column in the February issue of Perspectives.) I cannot say there was never a dull moment, but there were fewer dull moments than I had feared going in.

In 2014, AHA President Jan Goldstein asked Farina Mir and me to work with her to revise the taxonomy the Association uses to classify its members’ research and teaching fields. I can’t speak for the others, but privately I thought this would take a little time but be pretty easy. I was mistaken. There was an economics to the project—we had too many categories, including, among others, “Dark Ages”—and also, and more important, a politics. What does one call the lands just east of the Mediterranean and west of China? The Near East? The Middle East? West Asia? (We chose to use the last two, together.) And with what continent ought this region be associated, Asia or Africa? (We settled on both.) How many new thematic areas should we introduce, and what should they be? We decided to “crowdsource” our first draft by asking the AHA membership to weigh in. We got dozens of excellent suggestions, and we were able to modify the taxonomy accordingly. And, as Jan reminded Council, none of it was set in stone.

My strongest and fondest memories are of the people I worked with over the past three years—Jim Grossman, the presidents (Tony, Bill, Ken Pomeranz, Jan, and Vicki L. Ruiz), the excellent AHA staff, colleagues from the other divisions, and especially my fellow PD members: the terrific vice presidents Jackie Jones and Philippa Levine, and Laura-Isabel Serna, Sara Abosch, Mary Lou Roberts, and Catherine Epstein. I will not miss meeting at 8:30 on the morning after New Year’s. But I will miss all of you.

Andrew Rotter is Charles Dana Professor of History at Colgate University, where he teaches courses in the history of US foreign relations and recent US history.


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