Highlights from the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago
David Austin Walsh is an editor for the History News Network.
Notes from the AHA Business Meeting
David A. Walsh and Rick Shenkman
It’s always a curious affair when the American Historical Association meets north of the Mason-Dixon Line, as the colder weather tends to put a damper on the festivities. But this year’s unseasonable warmth in Chicago (it’s January 5th and there’s still no snow on the ground!) won’t cause anyone to complain. Digital historians, in particular, have cause to celebrate this year, as the 2012 AHA conference has more digital history panels than ever before.
Indeed, in what is perhaps the least shocking development in the historical profession since the advent of the footnote, the Twitter hashtag #aha2012 has been dominated by digital historians and, more specifically, by today’s THATCamp. THATCamp is not a traditional panel per se, but an informal conference-within-a-conference (or unconference, as its participants prefer to call it) sponsored by the AHA. THATCamps have been organized on a regional basis for several years, but this is its first appearance at a major academic conference.
THATCamps have no formal agenda—participants suggest topics for conversation before the actual event, then those proposals are discussed by the entire body before the larger group breaks up into sub-sessions. These sub-sessions function more as forums and roundtables than traditional paper presentations—the purpose of one group, for example, was to offer advice to a team of academics who intend to set up an e-journal. THATCamp was easily the most popular of today’s sessions—even given the AHA’s usual Thursday slow start. It was filled to capacity, attracting over one hundred historians—people were literally being turned away due to space constraints.
Afterwards, participants retired to one of Chicago’s innumerable Irish pubs, where over wine, corned beef, and Guinness, many expressed their satisfaction with the AHA’s attention to the digital history field. Digital historians have been marginalized in the past, said one professor, but digital history will increasingly come to be accepted as history, not just an arcane subfield. “Right now,” he said, “a lot of the older generation of scholars—and frankly a lot of the younger generation, too—don’t really understand digital history. But eventually, digital projects and digital scholarship—which is to say digital work like a website which makes a scholarly argument—are going to be used in tenure and hiring decisions. Even now at teaching universities, digital experience is definitely a plus for job hunters.” Still, there’s real resistance to digital history in a lot of quarters—to hear another digital historian tell it, “a lot of historians, since they inhabit the past professionally, have a problem relating to the present and future.”
“Digital history is undergoing a sea change,” said one student from Nebraska. “There’s been some resistance amongst more traditional historians to the concept of digital history, but I’ve received a lot of support at my institution and increasingly from groups and sessions like THATCamp.” Indeed, the atmosphere at the pub almost felt like a coming-out party for a group of scholars who often feel like persons apart from their institutional peers. “When I was still in school,” an M.A. student related, “I felt that I almost had to hide my digital interests from my advisor, even though I think he actually would have been very supportive.”
The AHA’s support has not gone unnoticed, either. High praise was freely given to both AHA president Anthony Grafton and executive director Jim Grossman for their efforts in the media to promote alternatives to the traditional academic career path and for their outreach to the digital history community. With praise, however, came a note of caution. Said yet another graduate student, “Sea change would imply long-term change. Right now, we’ve got an AHA president who’s supportive of digital history. We’ll see what happens when the next one comes in.”
Of course, the AHA hosted dozens of different sessions this Thursday afternoon, of which THATCamp was only one. The conference is divided, as always, between two hotels—the Sheraton, right on the Chicago River, and the Marriott, about four blocks away on Michigan Avenue (indeed, a stroll down Michigan Avenue between the Chicago River and the John Hancock Center—the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s scenic bastion of consumer capitalism—will no doubt be the highlight of many historians’ trips). A group of distinguished historians and political scientists assembled at the Marriott this afternoon to discuss the life and works of Niccolo Machiavelli, the man who is most often identified with his tract The Prince (reputedly a favorite of both Napoleon and Mussolini) but who was in fact one of the leading proponents of democratic government in Renaissance Italy, and the new book Machiavellian Democracy, by University of Chicago political scientist John McCormick.
During the session, Professor McCormick received both praise and criticism from the assembled panel—Julius Kirshner and Michele Lowrie, colleagues at the University of Chicago, Mark Jurdjevic of the University of Ottawa, and Jack Rakove from Stanford.
Rakove initially seemed an unusual choice for a panel on an Italian political theorist from the Renaissance, but as he himself freely acknowledged, he was there to serve as the “alter ego” of James Madison, whom McCormick had contrasted with Machiavelli in his book. Unlike the Italian, Madison was not a believer, or at the very least was a late convert, to the concept of democracy—he far preferred a deliberative republic with emphasis on legislative procedure. Machiavelli, on the other hand, had, to paraphrase McCormick, an appetite for violence notable even by Renaissance standards. Machiavelli thought nothing of killing political criminals—persons who abuse their power and status—provided the sentence was decided democratically. Indeed, Machiavelli, were he alive today, would no doubt call for the death of much of America’s financial elite!
This evening’s plenary session was originally to have been the awarding of the Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award to former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, but that ceremony has been moved to tomorrow. Justice O’Connor will be unavailable to receive the award in person, but Diane Wood, a federal judge and University of Chicago law professor, will accept it on her behalf.
Never let it be said that there's no room for technology in the study and practice of history, for truly the best way to stay informed about the goings on at this year's AHA meeting is to follow #aha2012 on Twitter (having a mobile device comes in handy). A loose network of twitterstorians (lest opponents of neologisms protest, that’s what they call themselves) has been tweeting updates from the conference floor for the better part of twelve hours (HNN has been doing its part, too). Special mention should go to Miriam Posner, whose tweets today were practically indispensable. Some of the best moments of the AHA have been captured in the wry, observational tweets of the twitterstorian brigade—the highlight of today was no doubt Jen Rutner’s “Overheard at AHA: I don’t care if 5 people read it as long as it gets published.”
It’s probably sentiments like that which inspired the provocatively titled session “Did We Go Wrong? The Past and Prospects of the History Profession,” with the College of William and Mary’s James Axtell, AHA deputy director and all-around statistics guru Robert Townsend, and NYU’s Thomas Bender. Axtell provided a history of the development of the history profession—a history of history, as it were—before moving on to contemporary concerns. He wondered aloud whether professors are “just creating ego driven clones of ourselves in our PhD programs” and expressed his hope that newer, technology-driven history would eventually compliment more traditional approaches.
Robert Townsend followed by presenting statistical evidence outlining the explosive growth in PhD-granting institutions over the past forty years. Almost all of the new degree programs are public, usually regional, universities, but Townsend did not share the commonly held opinion that there necessarily needs to be a reduction in the number of PhD-granting institutions. He pointed to Central Michigan University, which holds the distinction of having the highest job placement rate in the nation, typically at two- and four-year colleges and universities in the Michigan area. Schools like CMU, Townsend argued, fulfill a critical need at the local level that national programs like Harvard, Yale, and even the University of Michigan simply do not. Simple solutions like a blanket reduction in the number of PhD-granting programs, Townsend said, are not sufficient to solve the complex problems of the academic job market.
Thomas Bender offered some rather audacious comments after Townsend turned the podium over to him. He acknowledged and applauded the efforts of AHA president Anthony Grafton (who was himself present for the panel) and executive director Jim Grossman in starting a conversation about rethinking the nature of the academic job market. Bender noted that there are multitudes of different ways in which to practice history—particularly public history—and that MA and PhD students themselves often have no intention of pursuing academic careers after they receive their degree. Indeed, Bender argued that humanities PhDs in general, and history PhDs in particular, are sought ought by consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte for their humanistic, as opposed to strictly quantitative, analytical and research skills (considering the salary of a McKinsey consultant, perhaps Newt Gingrich’s seven-figure fee for historical work at Freddie Mac wasn’t entirely fatuitous).
Bender went further, proposing that the entire structure of graduate, and indeed undergraduate, history education include a pre-professional track to better prepare history students to enter law, civil service, consultancy, software engineering, and even medicine—he went so far as to propose joint MBA/BA programs in history. He used his own somewhat unorthodox career to illustrate the kind of outside-the-box thinking he advocated within the context of an academic career, and told the audience that his daughter, a classics PhD candidate at Columbia, was receiving interest from several Silicon Valley startups. The classics, he said, may lose a promising young scholar, but academe’s loss will be Silicon Valley’s gain.
The discussion became more heated in the follow-up session “Jobs for Historians: Addressing the Crisis from the Demand Side,” which originated in an HNN article Jesse Lemisch wrote back in November in response to Grafton and Grossman’s Perspectives article “No More Plan B.” Lemisch called for the AHA to immediately endorse a WPA program for unemployed historians—noting that digitization projects seem particularly fertile ground for such treatment. The kind of alternative training for historians proposed by Grafton, Grossman, and presumably Bender seemed to Lemisch to be “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” as there are simply no jobs available for aspiring young intellectuals.
Duke’s Edward Ballestein responded by saying that trained historians can work in public policy, and from those positions of political influence will be capable of creating additional historical jobs. John Dichtl noted that the historical profession was in this situation before, back in the ‘70s—the National Coordinating Committee, which became the National Coalition for History, was founded in that era, and became essentially a permanent historical lobby in the United States. We can’t suddenly start fighting the good fight, Dichtl said, because the AHA and the NCH have been fighting for every last federal dollar for years. And in any event, Dichtl wondered, what will happen to Lemisch’s proposed WPA for historians when funding for it inevitably dries up? Dichtl expressed support for the kind of re-evaluation that Grafton has proposed. The profession, he said, needs to shift to be more accepting of public history and nontraditional paths, by, for example, encouraging grad students to seek out internships and indeed seek out allies among other disciplines.
Lynn Hunt concluded by offering a defense of the AHA’s past and present policies, noting that the AHA is on record as advocating for adjuncts and pushed for graduate program placement stats. She called Lemisch’s proposals unrealistic, noting somewhat wryly that the Left has much more pull with the AHA than with the average taxpayer. She called for more attention to be paid to the coming advent of online courses, saying that forums like the AHA and Perspectives are an ideal venue for such a discussion.
Considering that the room was packed nearly to the gills, the comments from the audience were a true highlight. Indeed, Grafton tried vainly to keep the session going after the allotted time expired, but alas, the room was reserved for another panel. And indeed, the comments were wide-ranging, from a former department chair who decried the bevy of unqualified applicants he waded through while making his latest hire, to an adjunct who, if anything, felt Lemisch’s proposals didn’t go far enough.
Friday evening saw the presentation of the various AHA awards to this year’s crop of honorees, and, of course, the presidential address. It’s a pretty daunting challenge to keep a group—any group—of people listening attentively to a lecture at 10:30 pm, but if there’s anyone up to the task, it’s AHA president Anthony Grafton. His lecture on the early modern American polymath Francis Daniel Pastorius was alternately fascinating, enlightening, urbane, and, judging by the guffaws from the audience, quite witty—a wonderful cap to one of the best AHA days in this writer’s experience.
“So pleased that this year’s AHA meeting is in a warm-weather locale” tweeted Dan Cohen, director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Friday morning. Chicago continued its streak of wonderful weather on Saturday, with highs again the mid-forties, ideal weather for strolling along the shores of Lake Michigan or walking to the Newberry Library or the Art Institute of Chicago.
The reception at the AHA this morning for Chicago’s favorite (almost) native son, Barack Obama, was nearly as warm as the weather outside. No, the president didn’t put in an appearance (though one imagines he’d be welcome to), but this morning’s “Historians and the Obama Narrative” panel took a very close, and fairly complementary, look at the president and his personal, political, and intellectual history, and the manner in which he has been portrayed by the media.
After introductions by AHA executive director Jim Grossman, Harvard’s Jim Kloppenberg—who wrote an intellectual biography of Barack Obama, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition—opened with a seemingly self-evident statement, but one of which the Left does often need reminding: Barack Obama is not Stokely Carmichael. Obama is temperamentally and intellectually a moderate reconciler who self-consciously rejects the universalist idealism of his parents’ generation—the title of Obama’s book Dreams from My Father takes on a double meaning in Kloppenberg’s telling. Yes, those dreams about universal morality et al were laudable, but, says Kloppenberg, they remain just dreams. Barack Obama is a particularist who has that rare desire to actually reconcile with his political opponents in order to seek common ground. Democracy, Kloppenberg said, requires a willingness to lose to your own worst enemy, and that’s what Obama has.
Fellow Bostonite and Tufts University professor Peniel Joseph, while tracing the importance of the black power movement to the success of Barack Obama, echoed Kloppenberg: Barack Obama, despite commonly being portrayed in black popular culture alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, is neither MLK nor Malcolm X. He’s not Frederick Douglass—he’s Abraham Lincoln. He’s not Stokely Carmichael—he’s LBJ. Barack Obama is a politician and not a black power activist, but, Joseph said, he appeals to the black community by quite deliberately using the language of black pride (when speaking at black events) and the language of self-respect and self-responsibility.
Ironically, he noted, the black middle class to whom that rhetoric resonates the most has been eviscerated by the Great Recession, and the black underclass is in considerably worse straits.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Thomas Sugrue then analyzed Barack Obama’s seeming inability to contend with an obstructionist Republican Congress. He reminded the audience that the powers of the president are fundamentally constrained by Congress, but more to the point, Barack Obama, like Kloppenberg intimated, is an aspirational bipartisan who attempts to persuade and compromise. In that sense, he’s not like LBJ, one of the most masterful strong-arm politicians in American history. Obama is also constrained by his race, Sugrue noted—LBJ could give obstructive senators his famous in-your-face “treatment” without being labeled an angry black man. Of course, as Sean Wilentz pointed out in a question to the panel during the audience Q & A (right his before his cell phone went off—he hinted that the caller was someone important in the Clinton administration), there’s a big distinction between an angry black man and a “man of power.” Obama should be trying to project the latter, he said.
The AHA blog has an interesting analysis of the panel written by Brigham Young University senior Scott Nielson. You can read his blog posts from the floor of the convention at the AHA’s website.
This morning also saw a very moving talk by University of Minnesota Barbara Welke at the breakfast meeting of the AHA Committee on Women Historians. Ms. Welke lost her 18-year-old daughter last year to a sudden stroke—she spoke about the impact the loss of her daughter has had on her scholarship. Reportedly, most of the room was in tears by the end of her talk.
University of Michigan professor, Middle East historian, and prolific blogger Juan Cole spoke at a session on the journalistic and historical implications of the Arab Spring sponsored by the National History Center later in the morning. Cole argued that, especially with the advent of the Internet, there’s no reason why quality historical work cannot be written about recent, even contemporary, events, and the Arab Spring is the perfect example. Thanks to Internet sources, he said, it would be easier to write a history of Egypt in the 2010s than it would be to write about Egypt in the 1970s.
Cole then analyzed the Arab Spring as a series of social revolutions against entrenched, corrupt, and stagnant economic elites. In Egypt, several percentages point of economic growth were lost every year for decades due to the incredible corruption and nepotism of the Mubarak regime, a fault it shared with most of the other dictatorships in the region.
The toppling of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—along with the serious challenges to rulers in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries—will significantly diminish U.S. power in the region. On this point Cole and the commenters on his paper (Hofstra’s Carolyn Eisenberg, Tufts’ Leilia Fawaz, and journalist David Moberg) were in agreement. In fact, the rising power of the BRIC nations—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—has been one factor in preventing Libya-style intervention in Syria’s civil war.
Sparks flew briefly during the Q & A after the paper presentation when a University of Iowa professor accused Cole of acting as a war propagandist before and during NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya. Cole adamantly denied playing that role, pointing out that the initial uprising in Benghazi was at first a Tahrir Square-style protest, that Gaddafi was the one who initiated the violence, and that the protesters were totally unable to defend themselves until a) they attracted the support of Berber tribes who had some experience with weapons for hunting purposes and b) NATO starting dropping bombs on Gaddafi’s tanks. “I do not accept the charge that I functioned as propagandist,” Cole said. “I was outraged by Gaddafi’s atrocities.”
Later in the afternoon, AHA president Anthony Grafton chaired a presidential session in honor of historian Tony Judt, who died last year after a very public struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Panelists included former New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, Harvard’s Peter Gordon, and Yale’s Timothy Snyder, and offered a nuanced portrait of the late historian by noting both his exceptional merits and his often sizable flaws. Gordon in particular deemed Judt wanting as an intellectual historian due in large part to the polemical and moralistic tone of his writings, particularly Past Imperfect, his book on postwar French intellectuals. Timothy Snyder, however, who edited Judt’s forthcoming posthumous book Thinking the Twentieth Century, defended him, saying that historians are needed in the public sphere, and in today’s soundbyte and Tweet-driven commons, historians need to say something more in five words or less than, “well, that’s a complicated issue.” Tony Judt provides a model.
This evening saw the George C. Marshall Lecture on Military History, co-sponsored by the George C. Marshall Foundation and the Society for Military History. This year’s keynote speaker was Boston University’s Andrew J. Bacevich, who called for a fundamental rethinking of the narrative of twentieth-century history in the United States.
There are, Bacevich argued, two ways of thinking about the twentieth century: one, the so-called “short twentieth century” of 1914-1989 which focuses on the triumph of Western democracy, capitalism, and liberalism against the totalitarian forces of fascism, Nazism, and communism. This is the dominant narrative in American popular memory, and it’s this narrative of victory that led Tony Judt to note some years ago that the lesson the United States learned from the twentieth century was that “war works.”
But, Bacevich said, there’s another narrative, the “long twentieth century,” which focuses generally, though not exclusively, on the greater Middle East, and the domination of that region by imperial outsiders. “We need to kick down the doors of the moral memory palace” that focuses on the good war experience of World War II. “We need to let fresh air in” so that one day the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided up the Ottoman Empire between France and Great Britain, has the same moral memory weight as the Munich Pact.
The final day of the AHA annual meeting is always a bit anticlimactic, save for gossip in the coffee line about who drank too much of what the night before, just what exactly is the best cure for a hangover, and just how much one of the awards recipients rambled on Friday night at the opening of the general meeting.
There were also, of course, substantive panels, albeit ones which were somewhat lacking in the audience department (due to departures and quite probably hangovers—an 8:30 am start on a Sunday is tough even on teetotalers). This morning’s “Popular Protests in Global Perspective,” chaired by Iris Berger, compared and contrasted contemporary protest movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street with past unrest, especially in South Africa and Eastern Europe. Indiana University’s Padraic Kenney proposed that the Occupy Wall Street movement in particular drew as much, if not more, from Eastern bloc protests of the 1980s than the French Situationalists of 1968.
Kenney stressed the importance of inclusivity, pluralism, and entertainment value/theatricality in forming a successful protest, contrasting Czech and Polish protests of the 1980s with the “exclusionary” anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s. HNN conducted an interview with Kenney after the panel concluded.
One of the final sessions of the AHA, appropriately enough, looked to the future: “Whither the Future of the History Textbook.” Bill Lombardo, an editor at Bedford/St. Martin’s, talked about the impact that ebooks will have on the market for survey textbooks. Ebooks are not going to replace textbooks anytime soon, Lombardo argued, partially because current ebook readers are “worthless,” but five years down the line, who knows? There are possibilities provided by the ebook format that are not even conceivable at the present moment.
And, on that rather positive note, the 2012 annual meeting of the American Historical Association concluded.
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