Professional 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 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.

  1. 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
  2. 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?”


  • I think my ideas are closely matched to your own.

    Right now most pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tions (not just the AHA) are expen­sive to belong to.

    They run con­ven­tions that are expen­sive to attend which are noto­ri­ous for their lack of engag­ing con­ver­sa­tion and the frus­tra­tions and anx­i­eties involved in interviewing/being interviewed.

    They occa­sion­ally lum­ber out to take awk­ward posi­tions on issues of pub­lic con­cern that are tan­gen­tially related to the dis­ci­pline or spe­cial­iza­tion while often hes­i­tat­ing to say any­thing pre­scrip­tive or focused about issues that are cen­tral to the dis­ci­pline or specialization.

    When they do take forward-looking posi­tions (like the MLA on pub­li­ca­tion) they lack mean­ing­ful insti­tu­tional lever­age to have those posi­tions cat­alyze transformations.

    They often become a redoubt for peo­ple with an overly for­mal or stag­nant vision of dis­ci­pli­nar­ity or spe­cial­iza­tion to attempt to defend resources against rival­rous prac­tices. The peo­ple most drawn to asso­ci­a­tions are also often those most invested in authority-centered par­a­digms for knowl­edge pro­duc­tion and curation.

    So yes, absolutely, if the base­line idea of aca­d­e­mic asso­ci­a­tions has con­tin­u­ing use­ful­ness, the orga­ni­za­tional forms have to be more nim­ble, less cen­tral­ized, less expen­sive to par­tic­i­pants, less exclu­sive, and in many cases less pompous and self-congratulatory. There are some which are already mov­ing in those direc­tions; many aren’t.

  • That was extremely well put, and sadly true. What’s the best way to nudge the paradigm?

  • I guess it’s the stan­dard branch­ing choice: reform the exist­ing orga­ni­za­tions or build a bet­ter mouse­trap. I think it depends a bit on whether the lead­er­ship & mem­ber­ship of a given asso­ci­a­tion have already shown strong inter­est in change or whether they’re just dully going through the motions of same now and again to keep the annoy­ing young’uns happy. In the lat­ter case, I think it’s worth con­sid­er­ing what some­thing built from the ground-up might look like.

  • Lit teacher’s per­spec­tive:
    The poem “Mend­ing Wall” (R Frost) describes two neigh­bors who are inter­act­ing as they repair the wall between them.

    There are two refrains:
    a. “Some­thing there is that doesn’t love a
    wall.” (the speaker)
    b. “Good fences make good neighbors”

    And the call to reflect: “I should ask what am I walling in and walling out.”

    Liv­ing in ten­sion” is eas­ier for lit peo­ple, per­haps. The democ­ra­ti­za­tion of knowl­edge is prob­a­bly one of the great­est lanterns in the 21st cen­tury (as shown by the repres­sion in Egypt and China).

    Yet, in acad­e­mia, “good fences make good neigh­bors.” I don’t like that I don’t have access to infor­ma­tion (“some­thing there is that doesn’t love a wall”), but I don’t have the edu­ca­tion to make me a valu­able con­trib­u­tor to AHA (“good fences make good neighbors”).


  • […] This post was men­tioned on Twit­ter by Dan Cohen, Jen­nifer Howard, John Lyles, Joseph Adel­man, Mike O’Malley and oth­ers. Mike O’Malley said: Lit­tle help? Look­ing for dialogue/comments on “Pro­fes­sional Asso­ci­a­tions 2.0.” What should they look like? […]

  • I’d love to see the AHA and other history-discipline asso­ci­a­tions put their heads together to build a good sys­tem for open-access pub­lish­ing and post-publication review. The exist­ing sys­tem at SSRN, which is mostly peer-reviewed preprints and some work­ing papers, pro­vides one model. The way Medi­a­Com­mons hosts open peer review for Shake­speare Quar­terly is another.

    In a time when any­one with a blog can put a PDF up for review, the time and atten­tion of qual­i­fied review­ers is really the com­mod­ity. The long review times at print jour­nals are proof of this, and those long review times mean that I have to wait for 1–2 years to see my col­leagues’ work in print, or else I have to know them already and ask them for a draft. We could do a lot bet­ter than that. As is, we’re left crowd­sourc­ing info on jour­nal response times via wiki. In a bet­ter world, pro­fes­sional orga­ni­za­tions would either be doing that func­tion or pub­li­ciz­ing the work of those who are.

    I’d love to see an online sys­tem which hosts both author-driven, small-group, closed review (cir­cu­lat­ing a draft to 5 hand-picked col­leagues for com­ments by a par­tic­u­lar date– the day before your writ­ing group meets?) and author-driven open review (“this paper’s the best I can make it; it’s rel­e­vant to the fol­low­ing subfields/areas/etc; schol­ars with exper­tise are invited to review it and ask ques­tions.”) A tally sys­tem to track how col­le­gial some­one is (num­ber of papers reviewed, qual­ity of someone’s com­ments as ranked by the peo­ple receiv­ing them, etc) might also be a good way to quan­tify the labor review­ers put in.

    For some peo­ple, maybe could be that, but it doesn’t have the stamp of approval from The Dis­ci­pline, a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple (many with tenure) have no rea­son to par­tic­i­pate. AFAICT, the exist­ing dis­ci­pli­nary asso­ci­a­tions are the only bod­ies with enough pull among tenured/senior fac­ulty that they can make changes like this pro­fes­sion­ally viable.

  • I agree that the pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tion as open-access pub­lisher seems like a promis­ing model. In addi­tion to the SSRN exam­ple, there’s also the Amer­i­can Phys­i­cal Soci­ety (APS, with its very respectable slate of OA jour­nals (along with other con­ven­tional func­tions of an asso­ci­a­tion). As my col­league Mark Riley at FSU insists, as pub­lish­ers they are not for profit but also not for loss. But the pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tion mem­ber­ship model can poten­tially cover the (already reduced) costs of pub­lish­ing as com­pared to an oth­er­wise inde­pen­dent OA pub­lisher. I won­der if the MLA, which has recently seemed recep­tive to dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing and open access ini­tia­tives, might con­sider just such a transformation.

  • MIke — another great piece but I go to this quote

    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.” right — from my point of view I want to make sure dig­i­tal media isnt work­ing that way, because I do think gate­keep­ing has its use­ful­ness. We could argue that the preva­lence of crack­pots or , for ex, folks who per­sist in believ­ing that slaves fought for the con­fed­er­acy (despite over­whelm­ing evi­dence and thought­ful decon­struc­tion of his­tory texts, by you and other col­leagues) only proves that gate­keep­ing is a fail­ure or irrel­e­vant, but to me that only is tes­ti­mony as to why we have to keep apply­ing rig­or­ous stan­dards to our work.

    That said, no one, least of all pro­fes­sion­als, has a monop­oly on expert knowl­edge. So what would a pro­fes­sional 2.0 org do that could be a ben­e­fit? in an age of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, in addi­tion to the por­tal and facil­i­tat­ing of con­ver­sa­tions you men­tion, it might bring together peo­ple work­ing in sub fields of inter­est, and con­nect them with other orgs, uni­ver­si­ties, local groups, etc.

    But in a world where every­one has less time, do we want to spend it increas­ing democ­racy, or increas­ing effi­ciency? (I know not fully fair choice) as long as the uni­ver­sity and pro­fes­sional sys­tems really only rewards the lat­ter (What­ever they pro­nounce about the for­mer) I dont think we’ll get very far…

    my hasty 2 cents

  • […] can a pro­fes­sional orga­ni­za­tion be in a dig­i­tal age? Though the kind of com­munity the AHA built has var­ied, the basic  “prod­uct,”  the […]

  • […] Edi­tor 2.0 Con­tin­u­ing thoughts on what would pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tions 2.0 look like, what would the job of edit­ing look like? Let’s look at what it’s […]

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