AHA Day Four: Start Early, End Strong
I don't teach classes before 9am: I just don't function at that level that early. I haven't taken a class that started before 9am since I was a first year college student. Conferences are high-energy affairs, requiring concentration in the sessions (yes, lecture has its flaws as a teaching method), constant movement in the book exhibits (and, in Seattle, shuttling back and forth between the main sites), and high-intensity social relations (old friends, new connections, mentors and mentees, interviews, etc). So by the last day, everyone is a bit tired. Instead of the leisurely breakfast-panel-lunch-panel-dinner schedule of days two and three, day four's first panel starts an hour earlier, and the second panel comes only a half-hour after the first one ends. Four hours of panel presentations and discussions in four and a half hours. I'm not entirely unfamiliar with this: the Asian Studies Annual runs panels through the lunch hour, and there's way too much good material being presented for me to skip a session without really good reason; US historians probably feel that way at the AHA and OAH, but I'm an Asianist.
Anyway, I went to the panel on Marginal Japanese Voices. The paper on discourses of whiteness in interwar Hawaii Japanese communities was interesting and had some good visuals, but would have benefitted from a clearer distinction between whiteness as Caucasianality and whiteness as a traditional Japanese marker of beauty (by traditional, I mean a thousand years or more). To be fair, anytime you tackle Hawaiian race relations it gets complicated quickly. Most interesting point: criticisms of middle-class Hawaii Japanese as"haole-fied" (haole being the Hawaiian term for Caucasians, particularly ones who aren't very much like Hawaiians) very much resemble the attacks on African Americans who pursue education and upward mobility as"acting white." The second paper addressed a late 18c catalog of"eccentrics" and the variants and followups it engendered: again, there are precedents in the classical and medieval era for similar collections of extraordinary individuals, so it was hard to accept the idea that this collection tells us something distinctive about the late-18/early-19c. The final paper, introducing us to a diary of an anti-colonial, Christian Socialist Japanese teacher in colonial Korea, would have benefitted from less discussion of the physical and organizational details of the diary and much more of the content promised in the talk title. Based on the discussant's comments, the actual paper starts with the teacher's arrest in 1930, the culmination of his rapid radicalization from 1928 on, leading to an attempt to organize an anti-colonial teacher's union. The first eight years of the diary are apparently quite apolitical, so a good analysis of the politicization could be worth looking forward to.
The second session was also about margins, this time the borders of acceptable behavior for historians. Ron Robin and Jon Weiner, both authors of books on what Robin called"deviancy" among historians, both gave stripped-down versions of their work. Robin went first, starting with a discussion of the ways in which cyberspace serves as a powerful tool for the unethical, the discovery of the unethical, discussion of ethics and behavior and cataloging past discussions of unethical behavior. Interestingly, as Robin pointed out, often the discussions of transgressions slip away from specific acts toward more general critiques of actors (e.g., the way the discussion of Ambrose turned his plagiarism into an example of the problems that come with slippage from professionalism to popularism); conversely, attacking writers' ideas by focusing hypercritical attention on details is a powerful diversionary tactic. Robin offered two conventional interpretations of the scandals as crisis -- the ironic postmodern challenge to"fussy" realism; the"disease" model of academia as socially corrupt -- but also proffered his interpretation of the scandals as necessary, healthy, didactic moments of the enforcement of norms. Jon Weiner offered a more political analysis of the scandals, concluding that the retreat of professional societies from investigation and enforcement has left the field open for political activists and irresponsible media.
Peter Hoffer, who also has a book on the scandals, wasn't on the panel, largely because the eleven month-long lead time from panel proposal to conference predated publication of his book. But David Hollinger, a member of the AAUP Academic Freedom Committee, stepped into the breach, offering a vigorous analysis of the"political balance" problem, which David Horowitz and others have cast in the language of scandal. He drew on Bernard Wilson's Truth and Truthfulness to provide a definition of professional discourse which is within a credentialed and professionally accountable community, with" concentric circles" of involvement and expertise drawing in the public without surrendering authority. Hollinger used Economics and Philosophy as examples of fields with high levels of discipline and very low levels of engagement with outsider interests: this is dysfunctional, in Hollinger's opinion, but worth considering as proof that, while academia should not be a"fortress" for scholars to retreat from engagement with broader discourses, it should nonetheless be capable of protecting autonomous departments from outside pressure when it so chooses. Neologism alert:"provostial" courage or cowardice are crucial components of the level of engagement, as academic leaders can both hold departments accountable and allow them to police themselves. Carla Rahn Philips, former VP of the AHA Professional Division, finished up with a discussion of the importance of"intellectual border control" to keep the adjudication of transgression out of the hands of irresponsible media and"loose cannons" of the internet (that's us, I think). She cited Eugene Genovese's comments on the founding of the Historical Society
reorienting the historical profession toward an accessible, integrated history free from fragmentation and over-specialization. The Society promotes frank debate in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and common courtesy. All we require is that participants lay down plausible premises, reason logically, appeal to evidence, and prepare for exchanges with those who hold different points of view.as a definition of functional and accountable professionalism, but the HS isn't going to get into the business of investigating charges of malfeasance anytime soon, either.
Then Ralph and I had lunch and wandered over to Chinatown, wandered back and parted. I picked up the traditional"what did you bring me?", went back to the hotel, talked to my wife, wrote this, and that's it.
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