From Obligation to Opportunity: The AHA Annual Meeting
Nearly everyone on the AHA staff has friends who are disinclined to attend the annual meeting because of lingering unpleasant memories of the anxieties of the academic job market. This includes former colleagues of our most senior historian, which means that the bad taste can fester for more than three decades. I bring news: the event has changed. Try it; you’ll like it.
Let’s start with what “it” is. The annual meeting of the American Historical Association (aka “the AHA,” as in “are you going to the AHA this year?”) is the largest annual gathering of professional historians in the world. The diversity of topics, formats, perspectives, and methods enables all historians to find a full complement of sessions that accord directly with their teaching, research, and other professional activities. In years past, historians (of all fields and periods) would lament that their interests were insufficiently represented—with “interests” implicitly referring to research specialization. Few, however, expend their energies solely on research; everyone can now also choose among the cornucopia of sessions on every imaginable work environment, ethical issues, teaching, and other aspects of historical practice.
Herein lies my enthusiasm for the continuing transformation of the annual meeting. Traditionally, annual meetings of scholarly societies were primarily research events. Historians came to “the AHA” to present and listen to formal papers. Especially for scholars outside of large metropolitan areas, such convenings offered the only venue for hearing about works in progress, as well as discussing and debating major issues in the discipline. The exhibit booths extended this research emphasis by showcasing books. Visibility at the annual meeting was essential to anyone who aspired to professional influence, other than those few scholars whose publications dominated the landscape of their field sufficiently that within the fraternity they were household names. People actually went home and enthusiastically briefed colleagues on the most significant papers.
Things have changed. Traditional research panels—three historians reading papers and one or two colleagues commenting—are now the most sparsely attended sessions yet still the majority of the proposals. More popular are a wide variety of formats that have an increasing presence on the program: “lightning rounds” (five- to six-minute presentations, usually on research but sometimes on teaching issues), roundtables, workshops, book clubs, forums, poster sessions, and approaches too new for a generic label. The call for papers makes it clear that almost any format can qualify as “experimental,” and our members are responding creatively. A decade ago few of us could imagine a panel of historians speaking for 6 minutes and 40 seconds, while 20 preset slides cross a screen for precisely 20 seconds each.
The meeting’s networking culture has changed as well. The “smokers” are gone, their appellation as obsolete as the culture they signified. The receptions that have replaced them are less likely to be invitation-only or held in hotel suites. Now, networking complements digital communication. Some predicted a rapid decline in attendance at the end of the 20th century, as scholars could now remain in touch through e-mail. This likely did have some effect at first, but with the emergence of social media a new function is emerging: the annual meeting as a meeting site for people who “know” one another only as digital personae. In the past few years the Bloggers and Twitterstorians reception has been among the most well attended at the meeting.
This is not to say that the annual meeting has morphed into largely a combination technology fair and gathering place for Internet communities. As readers of Perspectives and AHA Today will observe in the next few months, the most striking aspect of the annual meeting’s program and general tone is its diversity. We do have a theme, chosen by the president. But our presidents and program committee chairs work hard to make sure that the articulation of the theme, the call for papers, is topically and interpretively capacious. Moreover, the theme plays no role in the evaluation of submissions to the program committee; instead, approximately 10 sessions organized by the president address the theme, as does a portion of the 10 percent of the program the committee organizes.
The bulk of the program, therefore, is shaped by the membership and the affiliated societies. We do require that all US-based historians on the program join the Association, since formally the conference is the annual meeting of the membership. This is customary among scholarly societies; indeed, some require membership to submit a proposal. To facilitate conversation with scholars in other disciplines and occupations, however, we do not require presenters to join if they are not historians. We also permit them to register at the member rate. Our goal is to maximize intellectual stimulation and diversity, while also building community among historians.
Creating a welcoming environment drives our site selection as well. The AHA Council has set certain priorities that enter a dynamic mix, since no site is perfect. To maximize access to our geographically dispersed membership, we rotate location among regions. We tilt toward airline hubs to facilitate travel. Many cities seem desirable but don’t have the capacity we need. We have a union preference, which can be a challenge when meeting in the South. We try to keep hotel prices affordable. We like our attendees to be able to walk to restaurants, museums, and other attractions; there should be decent mass transit. We require that all hotels be accessible, and look for venues with places for informal gathering.
I urge members who have not attended an annual meeting in a while to give it a try. Or, if not, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us why you don’t attend. We cannot satisfy everyone’s desiderata every year; some desiderata we can never satisfy given what is available, what is possible, and what is affordable. But we can best meet the needs of the membership only if the membership tells us what those needs are.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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