A Simple but Audacious Goal
I've used the expression “drinking from a fire hose” to refer to my work life more in the last five months than I ever have before. On one hand, it’s been inspiring to see the creativity and enthusiasm historians are bringing to the myriad crises of 2020. They’re offering important, nuanced takes on everything from COVID-19 to election issues, monuments, and remote education. On the other hand, I suspect that the sheer number of current events that demand historical context has distorted Perspectives’ focus.
Readers of the September and October issues, as well as much of the Perspectives Daily online content this summer, would be forgiven for thinking that Perspectives is primarily a publication that focuses on history of the 19th- and 20th-century United States. Two election-themed issues, coupled with a pandemic that shows no signs of waning and the urgent work of Black Lives Matter, mean that we’ve been somewhat myopically focused on the United States. Even the election articles related to international affairs have, by nature, centered on American interests. This is important work that I’m proud to see in the magazine; it is also not reflective of the historical discipline as a whole.
We have a simple but audacious goal for Perspectives: the magazine’s content and its author pool should reflect the diversity of the AHA’s members. At present, we fall short of that goal. Membership data from 2020 reveal that many of our members do, in fact, study US history—five of the top 10 field and geographic specializations are US-focused. Yet the Americas other than the United States and early modern Europe also make the top 10 and are woefully underrepresented in the pages of Perspectives. The thematic side is not much better. Cultural and political history are the two most popular thematic specializations among our members, so we could be forgiven for our heavy emphasis on articles related to contemporary politics and daily life. In contrast, religion, the third most popular thematic specialty among the AHA’s members, is all but absent from our recent work.
Author diversity is just as important to us as diversity of content. To that end, we have begun to collect self-reported demographic data from our authors so that we can establish a baseline on their race, gender, education, and employment. We launched that author survey in July and hope to be able to gauge where Perspectives stands in relationship to the AHA’s total membership next summer. Data alone do not solve problems—and can even create their own—but it’s better than evaluating such issues by gut feeling alone.
Reaching this goal will be a slow and ongoing process. As anyone who publishes knows, there is often a long lag between manuscript submission and publication. I don’t pretend that we will solve this problem quickly or that the results of our efforts to do so will be immediately visible. I am, however, certain that we can begin to make an impact by changing our practices: by querying different authors, connecting with new (to us) networks, and shifting our policies and procedures. Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. I am indebted to my predecessors, who took important steps toward making Perspectives a magazine that reflects the richness of the discipline and the diversity of historians.
As part of this process, I must ask for your help. Please pitch story ideas to Perspectives, encourage your students to submit their writing, recommend a colleague who could write for us. For information about submitting to Perspectives, including style guides and a submission form, visit historians.org/perspectives/submit.
At its best, Perspectives cultivates the community of historians and promotes our work. Cultivation is an intentional, deliberate process and one that I take seriously. Let’s continue to build a vibrant, diverse Perspectives together.
Ashley E. Bowen is Editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @AEBowenPhD.
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