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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