AHA Activities

After Ten Years: Reflections of an Editor

Robert A. Schneider, September 2015

Former AHR Editor Rob SchneiderAfter 10 years as editor of the American Historical Review, one would think I’d have a lot to say about our discipline. And indeed I do. A great deal of material has crossed my desk; moreover, I have had the privilege to interact with a host of historians far and wide, as well as the leadership of the American Historical Association. But despite the temptation to pontificate here, I will exercise restraint and limit myself to noting briefly both the innovations and the changes to the journal that have been introduced under my watch, and some challenges and obstacles that remain.

Innovations and Changes

◆ Establishing a Relationship with a University Press. Perhaps the most significant change—indeed, a move that meant a departure from several generations of self-publishing—was establishing a relationship with a university press. After an initial three-year contract with the University of Chicago Press, Oxford University Press convinced us that it had the in-house technical and marketing capacity to ensure that we could maintain our standing in the world of scholarly journal publishing. Overall, we have been most satisfied with its support and service.

◆ New Features of the Journal. The scholarly article—the classic “short form” of scholarship—has been, and always will be, the most important aspect of the journal (along, of course, with our extensive book review section). I believe, however, that we should vary the forms and genres of our publishing menu, in part simply to offer our readership a range of reading experiences, in part to take advantage of our unique position as a journal that can bring together in meaningful dialogue scholars from all fields and all periods. Accordingly, we have introduced a variety of new features:

◆ Featured Reviews. Every issue now includes anywhere from three to six reviews of books, chosen by the editors, the consultants, and members of the Board of Editors, that in our estimation warrant greater attention than is accorded to most of the others.

◆ Roundtables. We also introduced the format of the Roundtable, conceived as a series of between eight and ten essays that are somewhat shorter than usual (about 4,000 words), on a common theme. So far we have published several: “Historians and Biography,” “Historians and the Question of ‘Modernity,’” “You the People,” “History Meets Biology,” and “The Archives of Decolonization.” And there will be others. Some of these projects were conceived and commissioned by the editors; some were proposed to us by groups of scholars.

◆ The AHR Conversation. Since 2006, we have published seven Conversations, which originate as online discussions among five or six historians on a broad topic, moderated by the editor, and are then transcribed and edited for inclusion in the journal. These have allowed us not only to address important, sometimes timely issues for historians, but also to bring a wide range of experts together in one publishing venture.1

◆ Exchanges. This is another rubric we introduced, in which scholars were invited to respond to or address provocative issues or recent articles. Perhaps the Exchange that has attracted the most attention, “On The History Manifesto,” appeared in this year’s April issue.

◆ In Back Issues. Along with In This Issue, which summarizes the articles in the present issue, I introduced another feature. In Back Issues is designed to call attention to the extraordinary inventory of material in the 120 years of the American Historical Review. The approach is to peruse issues from 100, 75, and 50 years ago, and select articles and features that might be of interest to today’s readers.

◆ The AHR as an E-book. In order to maintain an awareness of the nature and importance of the journal as a whole, as opposed to the individual articles it contains, we have worked with Oxford University Press to produce an electronic version of the AHR, which readers can consult as a “click-through” experience, thus preserving its integrated quality.

In short, it is my sense that, without pandering or compromising its identity as a serious organ of true scholarship, a scholarly journal today needs to vary its modes of presentation, especially in terms of form and format. It is my hope that in the past 10 years, the AHR has maintained not only its reputation as the leading purveyor of historical scholarship, but also the interest of a wide range of readers—who, we all can recognize, increasingly have other venues competing for their attention.

Challenges and Obstacles

When I took this position in 2005, I thought that the main challenge would be ensuring that the AHR continued to attract and publish the best historical scholarship out there. And it’s true that this must be an editor’s primary mission. What I did not anticipate is that matters relating to publishing, digital publishing, and in general the mechanics and technicalities of producing a journal would occupy so much of my time.

◆ The general challenges of the digital age. Conceived under and still tethered to the print model, journals need to explore different modes of publishing digitally. I’m not sure when or even whether we will leave print behind definitively: all predictions on that score have turned out to be wrong. But I suspect that in the near future, the digital journal will look very different from what we see today on the OUP website. Indeed, my hunch is that the “journal” will morph into a website of its own, conceived and designed to preserve the integrity and coherence of the printed issue, which has the virtue of exposing readers to a vast range of content. As I have argued elsewhere, one of the consequences of encountering journal content digitally is that it is disaggregated—ripped out of the overall context of the journal—such that the range of material is largely obscured from readers’ attention. My hope is that those who value the virtues of the journal form will invent ways to preserve these virtues in the digital mode.

◆ Streaming book reviews. Well before we proceed to reinvent the journal, I am pretty sure that the next editor will have to entertain a prospect I only flirted with: publishing reviews online as they are ready. Reviews are time-sensitive and valued for their timeliness. There is no longer any reason to hold them in reserve for an upcoming issue. Still, the prospect of simply streaming them, unleashing them in a piecemeal fashion, tends to work against our effort to expose readers to a whole range of reviews, especially those outside their field of expertise. In short, while I concede that this mode of publishing reviews is quite likely and even desirable, I hope that the temptation to accommodate our readership’s appetite for timely reviews does not entail tossing them willy-nilly into cyberspace.

◆ Open Access. A lot has already been said about this issue. Clearly, it represents a legitimate alternative to traditional publication methods and business models. Like many other journals of its size, the AHR endorses the principle of open access, as long as we can be assured of having the resources to fulfill our mission. In any case, I think that those of us entrusted with the direction of major journals, which require substantial support in order to accomplish their tasks, need to do a better job of explaining the value of costly, time- and labor-consuming tasks, such as peer review, curating material, editing, and copyediting, as well as maintaining a book review process that in our case means vetting 3,000 books a year and publishing more than 1,000 reviews.

◆  Born-digital material. Under my predecessor, the AHR was a pioneer in featuring material that took advantage of digital techniques, such as they were at the time. As I sought out appropriate submissions of this sort, however, I found that those historians who were committed to digital scholarship were largely occupied with constructing and maintaining websites. The problem was that this material was ill-fitted to the “short form” of the article—something worth preserving. Clearly, born-digital articles will require cooperative curating on the part of editors and digital authors alike.

Serving as editor of the AHR these past 10 years has been an incredibly rewarding experience, sometimes exhilarating—and yes, often relentless in its demands—but always stimulating. I have learned much; indeed, it will take me a long time—and some time away from the position—to appreciate just how much I have learned. But among the many things I have come to appreciate are the intelligence, commitment, and goodwill of the people I have worked with. It has been a privilege to share a common purpose with Jim Grossman and Arnita Jones, with Rob Townsend and Seth Denbo, with other members of the great staff of the AHA, and with the host of presidents, vice presidents, and Council and Division members who make this professional organization work so well for so many. I am profoundly indebted to the people in our Bloomington office: Cris Coffey, Jane Lyle, Allison Madar, and Jessica Smith; the many, many graduate students who have served as editorial assistants over the years; and the five remarkable colleagues from the Indiana University Department of History—Maria Bucur, Konstantin Dierks, Sarah Knott, Lara Kriegel, and Alex Lichtenstein—who have occupied the crucial position of associate editor, reading every manuscript submission we receive. And then there are the successive members of the Board of Editors, the front line of our review process, leaders in their respective fields whose service to this journal ensures its quality. Finally, I cannot fail to acknowledge literally hundreds of scholars whom, however, I cannot name—indeed, whose service is entirely unsung yet utterly crucial. These are the outside experts, the historians across the field whom we call upon to review manuscript submissions to the AHR. We could not operate without these reports; they are at the heart of the peer review process. And they are usually thoughtful, detailed, and expert: I have received some reports that are essays unto themselves, running to thousands of words, fully footnoted and annotated. This is selfless, anonymous service at its best, scholarly labor freely contributed without any public acknowledgment or compensation—and without which the peer review system simply could not function.

Service, generosity, commitment: these are the values that have most impressed me in my 10 years as editor. I don’t know whether this experience has made me a better historian, but I’m sure it has instructed me in what it takes to be a better colleague, an exemplary professional, even a good person. And for this I am grateful.

Robert A. Schneider is editor of the American Historical Review.

Note

1. The topics in the Conversations to date have been “On Transnational History” (2006), “Religious Identities and Violence” (2007), “Environmental Historians and Environmental Crisis” (2008), “Historians and the Study of Material Culture” (2009), “Historical Perspectives on the Circulation of Information” (2011), “The Historical Study of Emotions” (2012), and “How Size Matters: The Question of Scale in History” (2013).


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