From the Executive Director

Advocacy (n.): The Promotion of History and Historical Thinking

James Grossman, October 2015

Head shot of James GrossmanA few years after my arrival at the AHA, someone queried me about the Association’s “advocacy budget.” I think the question implied the sum allocated to our participation in the important work of the National Coalition for History (NCH), the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), and the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA). Perhaps it could also have included expenses related to monitoring federal agencies involved in historical work of various kinds. Within this framework, it would not be hard to fix a reasonable estimate of costs: dues, officers’ travel to Washington, some staff time, and occasional fees relating to legal action. This would be a reasonable budget, and a reasonable definition of advocacy on behalf of the discipline.

This is important work—indeed, essential. This past summer alone, for example, the National Coalition for History worked on behalf of thousands of members of more than 60 history and history-related organizations to encourage the inclusion of history education funding in the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and to resist what has become an annual effort to strip funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). Over the longer run, we have been encouraging members of Congress to join the new History Caucus, and I encourage every reader of this article to contact their representative immediately (OK, finish the article first) with a plea to join. Cochaired by Tom Cole (R-OK) and John Larson (D-CT), the caucus has already provided useful contact points for discussion of legislation relating to history education and other work that historians do with federal support. Through the National History Center’s Congressional Briefings, recently on topics such as taxation, immigration, and Intelligence oversight (incarceration is next), we have been reminding congressional staff that everything has a history, and that effective legislation always requires an understanding of historical context.

We also collaborate with our colleagues in other disciplines through the NHA and COSSA. Although one focuses on the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the other the National Science Foundation (NSF), both have a broader remit as well. The federal government is the largest employer of historians in the United States, and the AHA and our allies in other disciplines both support the work of these colleagues and promote the visibility and influence of that work in the policy community. Like the NHPRC, the NEH and the NSF have faced recurrent threats in Congress in recent years, both in their funding and, in the case of the NSF (which has within its purview the work of social science historians), the very integrity of the peer review process. Like the NCH, the NHA and COSSA keep us apprised of relevant legislative activity and provide the expertise on the legislative process that is essential to effective monitoring and intervention.

For many associations, this kind of activity provides a useful definition of “advocacy” and facilitates budgetary allocation for such work. Members direct their resources to Washington, whether in the form of dues or communications to their representatives; associations, generally through a lobbyist, focus on Capitol Hill, the White House, and perhaps relevant agencies. This can even include our neighborhood Courthouse, where this year the Justices cited the “historians’ brief” in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark marriage equality case. Our amici brief here was less in the realm of supporting the work of historians than in applying that work to a case that had history at its very center.

This broad purview of Washington activity is still, however, too limited in its ambition and scope. The AHA takes a broader view of advocacy, in part because our charter refers to the “promotion” of historical activity and in part because a Washington-specific notion of advocacy squanders the strongest asset that we bring to the table: our members, historians who “promote” historical thinking and historical work in a multitude of ways and a seemingly infinite variety of places. Hence our website’s rotating display of member essays on history education at different levels, access to cabinet-level electronic records, faculty governance, and other issues of concern to historians.

Perhaps the links on our site (historians.org) to this good work by our members is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope so, which is why our budget has no line specified for “advocacy.” And I hope that as members read their colleagues’ advocacy work, they will be encouraged to follow suit, in local and regional media. Our 2016 annual meeting in Atlanta (January 7–10) will include a session on the op-ed, broadly defined.

AHA advocacy also includes our own activism beyond the Beltway. We have supported the College Board’s controversial efforts to dramatically revise and improve the framework underlying the Advanced Placement US History exam. In this vein the AHA Council has recently created a process that will enable the AHA to provide expertise for review of state precollegiate history standards. We now also provide guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship for promotion and tenure, as well as offer assistance to departments that need reviewing expertise in this area. In essence, our advocacy stretches in this context into our own world, as we promote and legitimate new forms of historical scholarship.

Promote and legitimate: these are important roles that the AHA can play as an advocate for the discipline. The Association must be both a voice for continuity—promoting existing standards of scholarship and teaching in all venues of historical work—and change, as we advocate on behalf of new methods and approaches. Some of this work will be controversial, and we encourage members to participate in debates at the AHA website and in Perspectives (see, e.g., Johann Neem’s thoughtful critique of the AHA’s Tuning and Career Diversity projects in the April 2013 issue of Perspectives). If we aren’t doing anything that generates thoughtful disagreement, then we probably aren’t doing enough important work.

James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association.


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