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. 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.


  • […] 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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