Why I went (back) to the AHA

Last week I attended the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. Although I’ve always thought of myself as a historian, I hadn’t been to an AHA meeting since my first year of grad school in 2004. In part, I hadn’t been going because I’m affiliated with so many disciplines that it’s difficult to keep up with all the meetings. But I also hadn’t been going because I wasn’t sure what the AHA would do for me. I won’t be interviewing there, since I’m not applying for teaching jobs, and playing the big-conference game (pretending not to notice the thousands of ways people behave disrespectfully to each other) has started to seem unnecessary to me.

I did go back, though, for a few reasons. First, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve only recently come to understand how scholarly societies might be important sites of change within the academy. In my mind, AHA, MLA, SCMS, and their ilk were bureaucratic prestige-machines, awarding prizes and manning the gates for the old guard.

At this summer’s Scholarly Communication Institute, I heard from some of these organizations’ leaders and was surprised to discover that many of these organizations actually have agendas that are far more progressive than those of many department chairs (and those of many graduate students, to tell you the truth). Many of them, including the AHA, are interested in changing tenure and promotion, in exploring nontraditional publication models, and in promoting alternative academic careers. Better yet, they have a built-in audience of faculty and a great deal of scholarly credibility — the perfect partner for those of us interested in reform.

Second, the AHA has over the last year or two been a vocal supporter of digital history, and this year’s meeting featured a wealth of panels with a digital focus, and even a THATCamp. It was really exciting to see people whom I’ve generally encountered at digital humanities-specific events in a disciplinary “home.”

Finally, I’ve been impressed by several of the recent stances the AHA has taken toward issues that are important to me. Most personally relevant to me is Jim Grossman’s and Anthony Grafton’s “No More Plan B,” in which the executive director and (now past-) president argue that grad programs need to start seriously preparing students for jobs outside of the professoriate. I can’t tell you what it means to me to be able to show something like this to my graduate school mentors. I’ve also been impressed by the AHA’s work to track employment statistics, advocate for public history, and campaign for archives.

This is not to say that it’s a perfect organization, or that it’s doing everything I’d like it to do. I think we have to keep pushing at the AHA — and the MLA, and SCMS, and the ASA, and the ACLS, and everyone else — so that we can advocate together for the change that we want. That’s really why I showed up at AHA after all these years, and why I made a general pain in the ass of myself at the AHA’s Committee on Graduate and Early Career Professionals forum. We have an opportunity, I think, to press for change, and I think it’s important that those of us who want it make our voices heard.

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