I made a post criticizing the American Historical Association. Criticism is easy—what would I want a professional association like the AHA to do/be?
The AHA originated in community building, both community in the sense of “bringing people together” and community in the sense of “keeping some people out.” Professional Associations were originally ways for people with similar interests, training, and background to practice history in formalized, standardized ways and thereby stake out a larger claim to social authority.
While the exclusionary part kind of rubs me the wrong way, professional organizations needed to differentiate themselves from amateur practitioners by establishing standards of evidence and its presentation.
But as Robert Townsend’s dissertation points out, “professional” didn’t always mean “professor:” in its early days, the American Historical Association had a much broader notion of who counted as a historian. Townsend argues that after WWII the AHA “narrowed the scope of historical practice admitted as part of the historical enterprise. In the pre-war histories, ‘history writing’ encompassed not just literary and interpretive accomplishments, but also the acquisition and compiling of significant collections of historical sources.“1
It seems as if before WWII, the American Historical Association was more ethnically exclusive, favoring white Protestant elites and excluding Jews and Catholics and the racially “other,” but less professionally exclusive, in that it had a broader notion of what counted as history. After WWII it became far more “diverse” ethnically but far less diverse professionally, with a much narrower sense of what counted as history. As the AHA becomes more “multicultural” the work historians do under its umbrella becomes more abstruse. It’s an interesting idea.
Though the kind of community the AHA built has varied, the basic “product,” the quarterly journal and the annual meeting, has lasted for years. I’d argue that they don’t serve us as well now, because new forms of communication have rendered them obsolete, and because they both now reinforce a very narrow sense of what historical practice is and who does it.
“Historian” now generally means “professor at a university.” The practice of history means teaching, which receives little or no tangible reward, and academic publishing, which is where the status and money are but which takes only two forms: the book and the scholarly article. Both are cumbersome and astonishingly slow: both have deep roots in the cutting edge technologies of, say, 1888. The combination of factors calls up words like “stodgy” and “hierarchical” and “stolid.”
Surely one of the things a professional association might do is what it originally did: foster new forms of scholarly communication, forms of communication more appropriate to what technology allows? And this would ideally include shorter articles; quasi-books, historically informed political engagements; debates with archivists and librarians about the shape and form of access; forms of scholarly writing that are published first and reviewed later. And surely we would all gain from a wider definition of “historical practice?”
The people running the AHA are not unaware of these possibilities, and indeed they do some of these things now. But the website, like the organization itself, still seems to be focused around these two primary “missions:” the journal, and the annual meeting.
I’d like the AHA to be a more lively, faster, more responsive “portal,” Iess wedded to hierarchy and to the stately and august AHR. I’d like to be in instant communication with historians who share my interests. I’d like the process of making meaning in history to be more discursive, more open, and less like a 19th century model of authorship.
For example, there are a LOT of independent history blogs out there. Some are really excellent. I’d like to be able to easily and quickly find blogs and blog posts relevant to my specific interests. The AHA website ought to be a daily first stop for historians.
It seems to me that the tension between inclusion and exclusion is the central issue. When I talk to skeptical colleagues about reforming the AHA, the first response is generally worry about having to sort through much unfiltered or poorly filtered stuff. Time is short: they want to see evidence of hierarchy and gatekeeping. This impulse is fundamentally at odds with the way digital media tends to work.
It’s also true that for better and worse, the humanities is encumbered with/improved by “the literary,” meaning not just “good effective prose” but bibliophilia; Mr. Chips; the romance of the musty library, the weighty magisterial tome. Just look at the ways scientists have organized information at “Faculty of 1000.” Or look at even something like the website of the American Physical Society, and compare it to the AHA. The literary past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.2
So is there a way to meld the possibilities of digital media to the reassurance that professionals generally want? What would the Professional Association 2.0 and its publications actually look like?
Update: It would not look like this: the AHA is asking people to post their recollections of attending past AHA meetings. It’s open only to members, and the tone of the query is nostalgic and fond. I think it speaks for itself.
- See Robert B. Townsend, “Making History: Scholarship and Professionalization in the Discipline, 1880–1940,” Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at George Mason University, Spring 2009 ↩
- please note: this is an argument for effective communication, not an argument against literature. It’s an argument that we should devise forms of communication–effective, economical, flexible, “deep”–appropriate to the media technologies available today. Why do we insist insist on only using models developed for an earlier era. Should we write on scrolls, or cunieform tablets? Does anyone out there want to defend “the discipline of the typewriter?” ↩