Letters to the Editor

Panel Composition and Program Committee Guidelines

Various Authors, September 1992

As co-presidents of the Coordinating Committee for Women in the Historical Profession and the Conference Group on Women's History, both AHA affiliate organizations, we feel compelled to respond to Thomas Haskell's "Proposal to Change the Program Committee Guidelines" (Perspectives, April 1992). We are concerned first with Haskell's distortion of the statistical data on women's place in the historical profession. Specifically, we are stunned by the lack of historical context for the figures he cites on the proportional representation of women on the 1991 governing Council of the AHA. Relying on single (and often singular) examples is the centerpiece of Haskell's critique of the current Program Committee guidelines related to the gender integration of panels, an odd approach for a historian. Since Blanche Wiesen Cook has already responded to the misleading data offered by Haskell, we will focus our comments on the qualitative rather than quantitative impetus for actively encouraging the participation of women and men on AHA panels.

Having organized scholarly panels and served on program committees for conferences which encouraged gender integration, we have found that guidelines such as those employed by the AHA present an intellectual challenge to all involved. In history, as in so many other professions, women dominate in certain subfields and men in others. Thus, gender integration often pushes us out of our most comfortable categories and networks and demands that we make connections across specializations. The heightened diversity of perspective that results from this outreach often invigorates panel presentations, attracts more diverse audiences, and enriches our conclusions about a topic or time period. Moreover, the process of putting panels together offers a greater intellectual challenge and makes us more aware of colleagues of the opposite sex whose work helps to illuminate our own. This process can be a particularly valuable one for young Ph.D.s, who will carry on their careers among an increasingly diverse population of scholars and thus can only benefit from engaging issues of gender integration at the earliest moment.

The demand to attend to diversity has been made by many scholars for many years. But as historians know perhaps better than most, fundamental change in habits is a slow and uneven process. Such changes did not occur voluntarily over the first century of the AHA's existence. There is little reason to think that women, people of color, gays and lesbians, the differently abled, graduate students over traditional age, working-class students, or other groups whose presence in the profession in substantial numbers is relatively new will suddenly find ready acceptance in and easy access to positions of influence and authority without active encouragement. For most of these groups integration into AHA sessions is even harder to assure than is the integration of women, since many of these groups are still seriously underrepresented in the profession and since many members of these groups cannot be identified by anything so easy as a name.

It is our belief that active encouragement of gender integration on AHA panels has had beneficial effects for panel proposers, program participants, and scholarly audiences. We also hope that it has encouraged historians' sensitivity to other forms of exclusion and thus indirectly will encourage greater diversity on all fronts within the association and the profession. At a moment when the barriers to women's full participation in the historical profession are beginning to crumble, we applaud the decision of the Research Division to reiterate its support for gender integration and for general diversity on AHA panels.

Nancy A. Hewitt, Associate Professor
University of South Florida

M. Elizabeth Perry, Adjunct Professor
Occidental College

Blanche Wiesen Cook's "reply" to Professor Haskell's proposal (re: Guideline 6d) could not better have illustrated his caveat that "Professional associations are porous organizations, easily influenced by any dedicated interest group." How else explain so disingenuous a letter from one who holds the office of Vice President for Research in the Association!

Cook self-servingly dismisses the gravamen of Professor Haskell's letter with the gratuitous observation that he should be satisfied with the "vast apologies" he received for "the letter." In other words, the Program Committee admits to having shot Professor Haskell's acquaintance; he's dead, but it was all just a big mistake.

Next, Cook insists that Professor Haskell's argument is flawed because "it is based on the erroneous assumption that data regarding the larger universe of historians is the appropriate context for discussing matters that pertain only to members of the Association." It is, apparently, sexist for Professor Haskell to offer a statistical profile about women drawn from the larger universe of female historians, but wholly appropriate for Cook to remind her readers that: "In terms of numbers, white men now represent only eight percent of the world population" (!)

Since the AHA's Vice President for Research is confident in the electoral wisdom of the AHA's membership (" ... we have elections and are a democratic body ... ") then why not put the matter of 6d up for a vote of the membership? Surely this would be preferable to having 6d shoved down the collective throats of the membership by administrative fiat by the Research Division.

George A. Levesque, Professor
University Center at Albany (SUNY)

As a former program chair, I would like to offer some comments on Thomas L. Haskell's "A Proposal to Change the Program Committee Guidelines" (Perspectives, April 1992). I have no disagreement with most of what he recommends: the committee should choose panelists "mainly for the intellectual cogency and relevance of their expected contributions" (so far as these can be predicted), and the committee should also "give priority to panels that display a spirit of cosmopolitanism, both in the kinds of questions asked and in the range of perspectives brought to bear on them." My guess is that the committees think that they are already doing what he recommends. It is not really clear, in fact, how his recommendations would change current practice (unless we take him as calling for a reduction in the number of women on the program) except that committees could not be "coercive" in pursuit of cosmopolitanism and, perhaps, they would be limited to choosing among complete panels rather than "micromanaging" the composition of individual panels.

Haskell evidently assumes that in trying to avoid gender segregation program committees have ignored considerations of intellectual cogency. I very much doubt that any program committee has intentionally weakened a panel in pursuit of integration. Certainly in 1987 we never felt that such was the choice presented to us: we insisted on a great many changes in the composition of panels, sometimes adding presenters (taking them from otherwise rejected panels or from single-paper proposals), sometimes subtracting them, and frequently changing commentators. Our feeling was that the panels were strengthened; and often (though I admit, not always) those who proposed the panels agreed with us. I think it would be unfortunate if, in a backlash against "coercive measures," committees lost this authority. It should be remembered that avoiding gender segregation is only one of several goals that committees are supposed to pursue. Ethnic and racial diversity are important considerations. Other guidelines prohibit two appearances by a scholar in the same program or in consecutive years and encourage participation by graduate students, young scholars, retired scholars, scholars with varied professional careers, and non-U.S. scholars. If we care about "cosmopolitanism" or diversity, then I believe it is the program committee, rather than the proposers of individual panels, that must take chief responsibility. It was my strong impression in 1987 that, had the committee been restricted to choosing among complete panel proposals, we would have headed back immediately to the kind of convention that was common twenty or twenty-five years ago. Audiences would have been integrated in various ways, but the normal panel would have looked somewhat like the normal U.S. Senate committee.

Haskell asserts several times that the purpose of avoiding gender segregation must be to increase the number of female participants. In fact, in 1987 we removed women and added men to some all-female proposals (this was unnecessary with proposals from the CCWHP and the AHA Committee on Women—both included men) and sometimes moved women from one accepted proposal to another—in neither case increasing the number of women on the program. The point of integration was integration; the chief subsidiary benefit was the kind of cosmopolitanism that Haskell recommends. I don't believe that such an outcome would have occurred "voluntarily."

I have heard that the most recent committees have received a much higher percentage of integrated proposals than we did in 1987. I hope that is true; maybe after a period when program committees worked hard to carry out necessary guidelines, we can now expect the voluntary approach to be more effective. I hope that committee work will never become the legalistic proceeding that Haskell, with his talk of interrogations and presumptions of guilt, seems to imagine. But I still think it is important for the AHA to support the committees' authority to shape the program. I am glad, therefore, that the Research Division and Council declined to change the guidelines.

Lewis Perry, Professor
Vanderbilt University