No Theme for the 2020 Annual Meeting
The 2020 annual meeting of the American Historical Association will have no theme, an absence for which there is ample historical precedent. For its first hundred or so annual meetings, beginning in 1884 in Saratoga, New York, the AHA did not bother with themes. They gradually took hold in the 1990s, if we can trust the admittedly incomplete archival record. For a while, themes were optional. The 1994, 1995, and 1998 meetings went themeless. The last year without a theme was 2003.
There is no theme this year partly because so many good themes have been taken. In 2007, in Atlanta, the AHA used “Practicing History in Unsettled Times.” Had the AHA known what was coming, it might have saved that one for later. The last time the AHA was held in New York City, 2015, the theme was “History and Other Disciplines,” which I like—but it’s been taken. Just last year, the AHA used up “Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Global Perspective,” which would work well in any year. No doubt, however, a few good possible themes remain.
More fundamentally, I wonder what good it does to have a theme. Having served on the program committee for the 2012 meeting (“Communities and Networks”) and 2013 (“Lives, Places, Stories”), I developed the sense that too often people propose sessions under the false impression that their chances of acceptance rise if they twist their proposal to make it seem to fit the announced theme. I think I might have submitted one or two awkwardly contorted proposals back in the day (the first AHA for which I submitted a proposal was in 1985). All such contortions, however, are pointless. In fact, AHA program committees do notconsider relevance to the theme among the selection criteria when making their judgments. Next year, no one will be tempted to engage in misguided and pointless gymnastics to make a panel appear to fit a theme.
No one will be tempted to engage in misguided and pointless gymnastics to make a panel appear to fit a theme.
I hope that a themeless AHA will prove to be a maximally inclusive AHA. There will be no cluster of sessions devoted to “War and Peace” (2004) or “Uneven Developments” (2008) or to anything else. No one will refrain from proposing a session because what they have in mind doesn’t seem to fit the theme (and no amount of contortion could change that). Practitioners of every variety of history should feel equally encouraged to try their luck. As a result, the assortment of topics represented by the sessions should be entirely random. The offerings in New York City in January 2020 should then represent a fuller array of all the approaches, methodologies, topics, and, yes, themes that historians nowadays find compelling. That might well include a few sessions that would fit snugly under the rubric “War and Peace” or “Communities and Networks.” And maybe some that might have fit better with “Uneven Developments,” an admirably capacious theme because, after all, how many even developments are there in history? Maybe some would go better with “Oceans, Islands, and Continents” (2010) or “Archives and Artifacts” (2005).
Next year, as every year, the program committee will welcome all proposals and not consider relevance to a theme. For the first time since 2003, no historian will needlessly try to package a proposal to appear to fit a theme. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
John R. McNeill is president-elect of the AHA.
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