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. 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.]
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.