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May 24, 2004 4:02 am

A Conventional Summer ...

A major part of the rationale for the organization of The Historical Society in 1998 was to rally historians alienated in various ways from the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians and to pressure them to be more responsive to the needs of historians across the United States. David Beito's discussion of his experience at the recent OAH convention in Boston (here and here) illustrate some, but only some, of the grievances The Historical Society sought to address. Two major conferences this summer offer an opportunity to assess the successes and failures of that challenge.

On 3-6 June, The Historical Society will convene its fourth national conference at the Spruce Point Inn near Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. I evaluated the successes and failures of The Historical Society, itself, here (scroll down to 31 May 2003) and here. It has maintained itself as a national organization, engaged a number of important historians, and sponsors a lively journal, The Journal of the Historical Society, which is edited by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Its more populist and egalitarian appeal is an utter failure. We were told that the real work of the organization would take place in regional structures, but they are defunct, except if at all in limited parts of the east and west coasts. Its blog, Historicale, has been moribund for almost a year. We were told that The Historical Society would meet at or near university facilities to give impoverished graduate students, independent scholars, and teachers the opportunity of inexpensive housing. It meets this year at an exclusive New England resort.

But take note of an important feature of The Historical Society's conference program. Just under half of the presentations to be discussed at the conference are available there on-line. That's a huge step toward revitalizing conferences of historians. Papers do not have to be read to us. Those who are interested can read them in advance. The papers can be presented more informally and engagingly at the conference and our time together can be devoted to conversation about them. Those who are interested can read them, even if they cannot afford to attend the conference. Let the AHA, OAH, the Southern Historical Association and all our cabals take note.

Even if The Historical Society has not become all that it aspired to be, it seems to have had some effect in forcing the older organizations to attend to their membership. One example of that is the decision by the OAH to hold regional conferences. In addition to its annual national convention, each year the OAH is holding a conference in some major region of the country in hopes of reaching scholars and teachers who are unable to attend a national convention. A Southern regional OAH conference will meet on 8-11 July in Atlanta. Ironically, it is the OAH which responds to The Historical Society's egalitarian and populist challenge, by making inexpensive rooms available at Georgia State University, where the conference will be held, and offering 50 travel fellowships to pre-collegiate teachers. The conference program is available on-line here. Unfortunately, it is only in pdf format, with none of those sexy hot-links that The Historical Society's program boasts.

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David Lion Salmanson - 5/25/2004

Plus its really hard to make a fool of oneself doing karaoke with one's colleagues at a bar if the conference is on-line. Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2004

The travel costs probably weigh more heavily in a situation like yours, but they are significant for most historians west of the Mississippi. The kind of thing that you mention, posting papers or work in progress with some regularity and inviting responses, was done in a way at The Historical Society's Historicale and, as I said, it didn't fly. For queries and limited conversation, H-Net's listservs work well, but I don't think there's any real substitute for face-to-face conversation.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/25/2004

Well, it does undermine a significant portion of the rationale for conferences, and certainly the reason why most institutions subsidize faculty travel to conferences.

I agree with you, though: conferences are more than the papers. But we need to decide how much more, and how much that's worth if we really have lower-cost, higher-return alternatives.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2004

The tenure issue that you raise is an interesting spoiler. I can see no reason why a tenured professor would object to on-line posting of conference papers. I can understand the anxiety of untenured faculty to prove their credentials in dead trees. Still, even the on-line posting of conference papers hardly undermines the whole rationale for holding conferences. We've heard all the reservations about "distance learning" and the immediacy of direct conversation is not the only benefit of a conference.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/25/2004

The on-line papers is an interesting development. In the "hard" sciences there's long been circulation of pre-publication work, and publications of work-in-progress are more the norm than the exception; now there are even centralized databases of pre-publication papers, so that the science can spread without waiting for the publishing cycles to catch up.

The on-line publication of conference papers actually calls into question the very nature of the conference. We could, for example, create an HNN-style site which published 5 papers a week, and opened a forum for discussion which probably would be as fruitful as (though different from) anything that takes place in the conference rooms. Works in progress could get useful feedback; scholars could publicize their publications in e-lists and other fora (or just send e-mails) to attract highly qualified readers.

The problem, as always, is tenure. I'd do it in a heartbeat, both as commenter and submitter, but I won't d get credit for the work. Instead, anything which is published electronically is discounted (here, down to zero; other places not as much), and even conference presentations are not considered "evidence of scholarly production." And, of course, anything you submit to a print journal, after it's been published and commented on in an on-line form, will be considered secondhand and undesirable because it's not exclusive.

And before we get too huffy about history departments, let me just say that my department is quite interested in online publication and development, but we are too small to control our own tenure/promotion decisions; instead, we are subject to a Social Science Division committee which is traditionally highly unsympathetic to the way historians operate, and entirely uninterested in new ways of doing things. Then there's the university-wide committee, which is a complete crapshoot: you never know who's going to be on it, so you never know in advance what the standards are really going to be. Sure, there are stated standards, but tenured faculty don't seem to think the rules are all that firm, at least not when they're interpreting them. After all, they're protected. So all the rhetoric about 'reinventing the university' and 'cutting edge scholarship' goes out the window when all the committees and deans want to see is "leading" journals and academic press imprints.

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