Saving the AHA

AHA Head­quar­ters

Hello, fel­low his­to­ri­ans. Do you love the AHA, your pro­fes­sion asso­ci­a­tion? No, me nei­ther. And why not?  Because it appears to do lit­tle except orga­nize a large and mostly dis­agree­able annual con­fer­ence and pub­lish the glossy, unusu­ally sized Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Review, which you no longer have room for. It’s expen­sive to join. Its mem­ber­ship is steadily declin­ing. The AHA in its present form is an idea well past its time:  like the type­writer it admirably serves a van­ished set of circumstances.

But pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tions like the AHA played a cru­cial role in mak­ing his­tory a profession–in estab­lish­ing stan­dards, in gate­keep­ing, and in polic­ing the qual­ity of his­tor­i­cal work. No scholar who does care­ful research, who believes in accu­racy and ver­i­fi­able results, takes these things lightly.

And frankly, I want aca­d­e­mics to have the sta­tus pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion con­fers. My daugh­ter will soon have to use the Vir­ginia state his­tory text­books, a dis­grace­ful chop-shop cobble-together of ran­dom facts, cliches, and wish­ful think­ing aimed at build­ing “self-esteem” and get­ting stu­dents past the Vir­ginia “stan­dards of learn­ing.” Pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans would have  noticed that WWI did not start in 1916, or that Stonewall Jack­son did not have two bat­tal­ions of black sol­diers. There’s such a thing as exper­tise, and there are ways to cer­tify it: the AHA seems worth sav­ing in the sense that it pro­vides a venue for talk­ing about stan­dards. So I’m going to sur­prise myself and come down on the side of pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion, because it strength­ens a bid for social influ­ence. My col­league Zach Schrag tells me that the AHA has been exem­plary in oppos­ing the empire of Insti­tu­tional Review.1

If the AHA were smart, it would be mak­ing itself indis­pens­able by estab­lish­ing a sub­scrip­tion based por­tal. It would aban­don the paper  AHR; mem­ber­ship would pay for the web­site and its atten­dant costs. Join­ing the AHA would get you access to the web­site. The web­site would con­tain arti­cles of many types  and reviews. There would be no paper jour­nal. Think about it: the AHA web­site could be the place jour­nal­ists, lob­by­ists, pub­lic advo­cates, lawyers, etc.  went when they needed accu­rate infor­ma­tion. I don’t under­stand the AHA’s finances, but there’s a large con­stituency out­side of aca­d­e­mics that wants quick access to expert his­tor­i­cal opinion.

So let’s start with what the AHA does. It pub­lishes the august Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Review, basi­cally the same thing every time: a few forty page mono­graphs and a lot of book reviews.

Why is that? What’s the magic of the 40 page mono­graph? I like 40 page mono­graphs, when they’re good, but when and why did that par­tic­u­lar for­mat become com­pul­sory? It’s no doubt a com­bi­na­tion of the eco­nom­ics of paper pub­lish­ing and the time bud­get of late nine­teenth cen­tury schol­ars: why can’t we have some other forms of schol­arly com­mu­ni­ca­tion? There could be–hold on to your leather wing chair–20 page mono­graphs! There could be ten page “research find­ings!” There could be all sorts of inter­est­ing things, if you aban­doned the paper jour­nal as the model.

The AHA web site would allow both tra­di­tion­ally peer-reviewed 40 page mono­graphs, and other forms of schol­arly work, includ­ing shorter peer reviewed arti­cles and non-peer reviewed post­ings by members.

If this appalls you, remem­ber, you would not have to read them! You could con­fine your­self to the weighty 40-pager. But the AHA could be a pio­neer in fos­ter­ing other forms of schol­arly communication.

Aside from the lock­step rigid­ity of 40 page mono­graph for­mat, the biggest short­com­ing is the egre­giously long time it takes to pub­lish any­thing.  Book reviews, for exam­ple. The Decem­ber, 2010 AHR includes a very nice review of a book I co-edited with James Cook and Lawrence Glick­man. It’s been out since 2008. That’s not the AHR’s fault nec­es­sar­ily. Reviews are uncom­pen­sated labor, every­body puts them off as long as pos­si­ble. But the model–a clear­ing­house of spe­cial­ized reviews by pro­fes­sion­als, pub­lished 4 times a year in paper–is a relic. It feels odd to keep using it in 2011.

The edi­to­r­ial board of the AHA chooses the review­ers,” my col­leagues say. “It finds per­sons with sim­i­lar inter­ests and estab­lished cre­den­tials, so I know I’m get­ting an expert review. I don’t waste time read­ing reviews by peo­ple who don’t know what they’re talk­ing about.”

There’s some truth to that. But there are so many bet­ter ways to do it!  Why not just let AHA mem­bers post reviews when the mood strikes, them, and when they have the time? Some books would have one or two reviews, some would have dozens. It’s not really very hard to read a dozen short reviews. But again, if you’re wor­ried, you could just look for reviews by peo­ple you know or peo­ple from insti­tu­tions you regard as worthy.

As far as I can tell, the AHA is wed­ded to its estab­lished prac­tices, and as far as I can tell, it’s becom­ing less and less rel­e­vant. I’ve posted before about the con­fer­ence. I’ve not been a mem­ber of the AHA in years. I read the jour­nal online via my uni­ver­sity, and I join up when I have to go to the con­fer­ence. But oth­er­wise, there’s no com­pelling rea­son to join. The AHA could give me a rea­son, if it wanted to aban­don 19th cen­tury practice.

  1. Per­son­ally I wish the ele­phan­tine and pon­der­ous AHA were more like a union: then we could use it as a tool for bar­gain­ing col­lec­tively or address­ing the egre­gious moral prob­lem of adjunct­ing. But it’s not like a union, and never will be, because its ori­gins lie in an idea more like the gentleman’s club than the Union hall.


  • […] This post was men­tioned on Twit­ter by Matt Shaw. Matt Shaw said: RT @theaporetic: What would my prof. assoc. have to do to make me actu­ally join it? […]

  • Dan,
    Thank you for your thought­ful sug­ges­tions, most of which are under dis­cus­sion in var­i­ous AHA com­mit­tees, includ­ing at least one in which one of your col­leagues has been such a valu­able con­trib­u­tor. I espe­cially appre­ci­ate your endorse­ment of the ideas we dis­cussed a few months ago regard­ing preprints and our web site as a “place jour­nal­ists, lob­by­ists, pub­lic advo­cates, lawyers, etc. went when they needed accu­rate information.”

    Please note that the AHA did speak out on the Vir­ginia text­book issue, within 72 hours of the orig­i­nal Wash­ing­ton Post story — on our blog and sub­se­quently on a major Wash­ing­ton, DC radio sta­tion. And then later in our newsletter.

    So thank you for gen­er­at­ing con­ver­sa­tion on issues that we both con­sider impor­tant. Mem­ber or not, you are an exem­plary pro­fes­sional citizen.

    Jim Gross­man, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Association

  • Jim, I, Mike O’Malley, wrote this post. I missed the AHA response, but I’m glad it happened.

  • You should close all future blog entries with, “I Mike O’Malley, wrote this post.”

  • First off, I’m so relieved to learn that I’m not the only lapsed mem­ber of the AHA (since 2006, and count­ing! This is like when I dis­cov­ered there were other mem­bers of our depart­ment with­out an MA). I stopped pay­ing because I didn’t feel like I was get­ting any­thing for it, and there are of course wor­thier char­i­ties out there.

    I’m not sure that a paid por­tal is the answer. The abom­inable web­site already *is* a paid por­tal, for things like job ads, and that’s not exactly work­ing out with H-Net eat­ing their lunch. And take Per­spec­tives, a pretty inter­est­ing pub­li­ca­tion that I never read once the cur­rent issue dis­ap­pears behind the paywall.

    One model that is pretty inter­est­ing is the Atlantic, which still man­ages to put out a solid monthly peri­od­i­cal with lengthy pieces, but in con­junc­tion with a web­site that reg­u­larly posts more fre­quent and shorter top­i­cal pieces. I hap­pily pay, because I feel like I’m get­ting some­thing. And I’m not alone, because they’re appar­ently also turn­ing a profit.

  • Yeah, a paid por­tal might not work. Prob­a­bly depends on what’s meant by “portal.”

  • First, why does Jim Gross­man think you’re “Dan”?

    Sec­ond, I think it’s ter­rific that you and Dan and oth­ers con­tinue to ask good ques­tions about the present and future of our pro­fes­sion. But please try to remem­ber that we’re not all you. If my life depended on being able to churn out fas­ci­nat­ing blog posts and 10 page “research find­ings,” I’d be dead.

  • I keep say­ing it’s not a zero sum game–the exis­tence of 20 page mono­graphs doesn’t pre­vent 40 page monographs.

  • Jim thought Mike was Dan because of Rose­mary, and Rob cleared it up with Jim. LOL.

    I’m at a mtg where Jim is present, and I said to him, oh, look what Dan Cohen just wrote! That was before I real­ized it wasn’t Dan writ­ing but instead link­ing to Mike. Argh, sorry every­one! Impor­tant thing is all you guys seem to be con­vers­ing about crit­i­cal mat­ters and mov­ing for­ward on them. This teaches me to mess with the AHA. Bet­ter stick to the twitters.

    Rose­mary G Feal
    Exec­u­tive Direc­tor

  • My apolo­gies for read­ing too quickly when two peo­ple sent me the link and said it was from Dan’s blog. I didn’t notice MIke’s name.

    That said, I would also like to make one other obser­va­tion. There are a whole range of things that AHA does that are not on the table, and that is because they are direct ser­vices. AHA works hard, for exam­ple, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with other orga­ni­za­tions to open pub­lic records to researchers. Our coali­tion scored a great vic­tory in late 2009 with the declas­si­fi­ca­tion of mil­lions of pages of fed­eral doc­u­ments. Mem­bers’ dues paid for the lob­by­ing that this required over a long period of time. Mem­bers dues also pay for advo­cacy in favor of Teach­ing Amer­i­can His­tory leg­is­la­tion, which I sus­pect many read­ers of this blog have ben­e­fit­ted from in var­i­ous ways. To join AHA is to pay one’s dues to a com­mu­nity of schol­ars who are work­ing together on behalf of a broad vari­ety of ini­tia­tives that ben­e­fit peo­ple who do his­tor­i­cal work in vari­ety of venues.

    Jim Gross­man

  • […] Asso­ci­a­tions v. 2.0 I made a post crit­i­ciz­ing the Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion. Crit­i­cism is easy—what would I want a pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tion like the AHA […]

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