Progress toward a Simple but Audacious Goal
A year ago, Ashley outlined “A Simple but Audacious Goal” in this column. In short, at the AHA, we believe that Perspectives’ “content and its author pool should reflect the diversity of the AHA’s members.” We began taking proactive steps to improve the breadth of our coverage and to recruit new authors to write for the magazine.
An important part of this effort was moving beyond using “gut feelings” about topic coverage and author diversity as a barometer of success. To that end, we started collecting anonymous, voluntary, and self-reported demographic data from authors after publication and began tracking the tags used to categorize posts. We then compared that data to the AHA’s membership demographic data (also voluntary and self-reported, reflecting only about 50 percent of the membership). This data helped us evaluate the publication in a more nuanced way than we have in the past. It also confirmed some of what we already believed about the magazine and revealed areas that require our attention, particularly around content coverage.
According to the self-reported data from 58 percent of 158 authors (excluding staff, Council members, letters to the editor, and In Memoriam writers), Perspectives authors are slightly more diverse than the AHA’s membership. For fiscal year 2021, July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021, 58 percent of authors identify as women (55 percent) or nonbinary (3 percent), but these groups make up just 41 percent of the membership. Our author pool remains predominantly white (74 percent) but less so than the overall membership (83 percent). Educational background is also slightly more diverse among Perspectives authors than it is for the AHA. While the majority hold a PhD (68 percent), an additional 23 percent reported that the MA was their highest degree earned. This is quite different from the membership, in which 83 percent hold PhDs and just 12 percent hold an MA as their highest degree. Finally, the authorship more widely represents various employment sectors, from higher education (50 percent) to libraries and archives (8 percent), and “other fields” (15 percent). Although a majority of members work in higher education (73 percent), other fields are much less represented in the membership.
If we were buoyed by the relative diversity of our authors, we were disappointed by the breadth of our content. Although the distribution of coverage across our three primary areas of focus—research (44 percent), teaching and learning (24 percent), and professional life (27 percent)—was about what we wanted to see, particularly given that articles can be tagged with both a research topic and a teaching tag, we could have better aligned our coverage of research topics with our members’ interests. In fiscal year 2021, articles tagged North America, a category dominated by US history, constituted approximately 25 percent of our coverage, roughly mirroring the 27 percent of members who report the United States as a topic of interest. However, members’ second- and third-most-common interests, Europe and Latin America, respectively, were not as well represented. Instead, we tended to publish articles on current events in historical context and public history. In some respects, the focus on the United States and current events is easy to dismiss in 2020 and 2021. There was an election, a pandemic, an insurrection, and coordinated attacks on the practice and teaching of history in this country. However, we believe that we can better serve members interested in non-US topics and fields, such as religion and gender and sexuality.
This data is imperfect and limited. We relied on a small set of authors to respond to an optional survey. The tags we use are only an approximation of topics, and they lack nuance and subtlety. However, we believe that this transparency is vital to creating a publication that can cultivate the community of historians and promote our work.
Ashley E. Bowen is editor of Perspectives on History; she tweets @AEBowenPhD. Olivia Ricche is a junior at the University of Alabama and was a research and publications intern at the AHA in the summer of 2021.
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