From the Executive Director

Mysteries of the AHA Annual Meeting

James Grossman, May 2018

James GrossmanWhy does the AHA hold its annual meeting when and where we do? Why don’t we have more “coffee breaks”? Why does the program still feature so many scholars reading papers in the same manner our ancestors did a century ago? Why is it so expensive? Why can’t everyone who wants to be on the program have a place, instead of a gatekeeping committee picking and choosing? And how do they choose?

These are good questions, and AHA staff hear them frequently. Before joining the AHA staff in 2010, I asked all of them myself, even though I’d co-chaired the program committee of the Organization of American Historians five years earlier. Although this service provided an introduction to the intricacies, obstacles, and possibilities of organizing a large convention, it did not take long after my arrival at the AHA for me to realize that I was still clueless, despite regular conference participation dating back to 1978.

I vividly recall a single aspect of that first academic conference. It was a narrowly gauged gathering, a subfield with a regional identification, held at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a graduate student. For my presentation, I adapted a seminar paper that had been the seed of my dissertation proposal. My performance was most likely rather stiff. Substantively, it was less than successful, and the commentator was less than merciful.

Two years later, the OAH met in San Francisco, an easy trek across the bay from Berkeley. Other than the excitement of an off-site session relating to maritime workers, I recall only the anticipation of attending a session highlighting the senior scholar whose work was probably more influential than any other’s in shaping my dissertation. He rambled and found it impossible to finish turning his sheaf of papers in the allotted time. Not even close.

My first AHA annual meeting came in 1981 (for a job search, of course). But at none of these moments did it cross my mind that I would play a major role in organizing one of these circuses. “Becoming a historian” of the working class did not include considering the work required to build the academic conference that I was privileged to attend. Becoming a historian of communities did not include thinking about what it takes to build communities of historians, or the effect our gatherings had on our host cities.

One thing is required above all else to plan an annual meeting: reflection on the purposes of the conference.

One thing is required above all else to plan an annual meeting: reflection on the purposes of the conference. What was once largely a space for presenting research, gathering affiliated societies, maintaining professional networks, and serving employment purposes has also become a site for building community, nurturing the work of students and early career historians, communicating with non-historians (the AHA plenary is now open to the public and widely advertised), offering opportunities for professional development, exploring ideas about teaching and learning, and networking in more democratic forms. This list of purposes increases after the meeting, as we monitor social media, analyze surveys, read email, and take the lessons of hallway conversations to next year’s planning meetings.

Change can be difficult. The majority of session proposals still comprise three or four formal presentations of current research, augmented by a learned commentary. But actual attendance is highest at workshops, roundtables, conversations about teaching and professional issues, and experimental modes of presentation (lightning rounds, for example). A cynic might contrast our eagerness to stand and deliver our own work with our apparent preference for more dynamic formats when others are at the front of the room.

But first, a stimulating program must be created, in accordance with reasonable standards of evaluation. The AHA president recommends two program co-chairs to the Council, then collaborates with them to select the full committee. Each proposal is read and ranked by two members of the committee and one of the co-chairs. Proposals whose ratings fall into the middle range are discussed by the full Program Committee when it meets in late spring.

The meeting includes vigorous discussion; the selection of committee members takes into account a scholar’s ability to evaluate work whether or not they agree with its interpretation. Committee conversations typically include such remarks as “Yes, this proposal is brilliant, but will anybody outside the field be interested?” and “Will this roundtable stimulate thinking across fields or methodologies?” It costs time and money for our members to attend the meeting, and the committee’s role is to do its best to make those investments worthwhile.

Time and money raise issues of venue and cost. Some aspects of the program and the meeting’s general ambience are affected because of substantial expenses for seemingly minor details—from adding sophisticated elements of technology to coffee. (We would love to have coffee flowing between sessions, but the $150/gallon price tag is a bit too dear.) Our registration fees are about the same as peer organizations and even low compared with most other associations. Meeting at another time of year would dramatically increase hotel costs—not only for us but for our members who book rooms in our meeting hotels. (The first week in January is always difficult for the hospitality business.)

But the location of the meeting always generates the most intense conversation. A recent AHA survey dramatically favored airline hubs, hardly surprising given shorter travel time and lower airfares. Our members also prefer venues located in their home region—with the major exceptions of New Orleans, which remains attractive beyond its hinterland, and New York City, which considerably outdraws other northeastern locales by a factor of 20–25 percent. Members seem to prefer New York, as it generates the highest annual meeting attendance by far.

The Program Committee does its best to make it worthwhile for members to attend the annual meeting.

Cultural amenities and hotel costs contribute to preferences as well, but to a lesser extent. Many respondents pointed to the advantages of “second tier” cities, such as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. Others wondered whether a more democratic site selection process could lower costs even more by meeting in such places as Little Rock or Albany. Our space requirements rule out the latter category. The overwhelming preference for airline hubs diminishes the appeal of secondary airline markets (AHA staff actually plot out sample journeys).

Surveys also reveal quirks. Los Angeles elicits striking levels of enthusiasm and dismissal, with more extreme ratings than other cities. Even Midwesterners seem uninterested in Minneapolis compared not only with Chicago but just about anywhere else as well. Relatively few respondents ranked “legislative climate” as a high priority, but those who did still were inclined to rank New Orleans above locations where state legislation poses fewer problems in terms of equal treatment of our members, perhaps prioritizing city over state legal and cultural frames.

It’s clear that venue shapes attendance potential. Our surveys and attendance point to a narrow band of choices. But when it comes to what we do at the meeting, it’s imperative to tilt toward breadth, to be as expansive as our imagination will stretch. Although some things are not possible for reasons of cost, technology, or even legal constraints, there is plenty of space for experimentation. Keep the new ideas coming. If we can’t do it, we’ll say so. It’s much more rewarding, however, to figure out how to say yes.

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


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