What if the American Historical Association held an annual meeting and no one came?
That’s not likely to happen, but it’s an interesting question to ponder, especially in light of the recently published “Final Report and Recommendations of th Working Group on the Future of the AHA.” This report is well worth reading, both because it is an admirable summary of the challenges facing the AHA, but also of the challenges facing scholarly societies in the digital age.
Once upon a time the annual meetings of scholarly societies played a vital role in the exchange of information among scholars. Those with new ideas would come, present a paper, take careful notes on the feedback they received, and then go home and rewrite that paper into something like an article or a book chapter. Important issues for the discipline also were central to the annual meetings–teaching developments and challenges, advocacy, etc. As a result, annual meetings were the place to find out what the “next big things” were in a discipline and to possible have an impact on the directions of one’s profession.
Sometime after the Second World War, the annual meetings of many scholarly societies took on a new function–as job markets. Academic departments interviewed candidates on the fringes of the annual meeting (or in space rented to them by the association), those on the market presented papers in hopes of impressing search committees, and senior faculty wandered the halls networking on behalf of their doctoral students. To an awful lot of younger scholars who never knew the AHA annual meeting before it was a job market, this function became the primary reason one would want to join the association and attend its meetings.
The Final Report makes specific reference to this fact, citing the drop off in membership among younger scholars once they secure a tenure-track or other permanent position. If this is true, and I have no reason to doubt the report, I think it is pretty clear evidence that at some point in the past few decades the AHA lost its way with respect to its signature event.
So imagine this unthinkable scenario. One year in the not-to-distant future, the AHA Council decides to ban all job interviewing from the conference and makes an explicit statement that job seekers and search committees should henceforth consider the annual meeting unfriendly territory for their activities. Would anyone attend the meeting?
Of course they would. But the further into the future one projects this idea, the more likely it would be that the number of attendees would be small. Why? Because those other functions of the annual meeting I listed above are happening more and more beyond the confines not only of the AHA annual meeting (and all of the subsidiary smaller conferences historians attend), but also beyond the Association itself.
With each passing year more and more new ideas are being run up a digital flagpole rather than being read from a paper (no more than 20 minutes please!) at a scholarly conference. And the major issues of the day are being discussed more and more in blogs, on social networking sites, and in other digital venues. So if we can do all of those things online, why bother spending all that money to travel to a meeting?
Thus, I don’t think it is enough for the AHA Council to simply “redesign the annual meeting so that up to 25 percent of all sessions are dedicated to programs targeted toward” new constituencies identified in the report–AP teachers, community college faculty, and “public” historians. That just sounds like an expansion of the current structure to make the big tent of the AHA a little bigger.
Instead, I think that more radical surgery is required. Rather than nibbling around the edges of what’s wrong with the annual meeting, I think the Council needs to carefully consider the fundamental assumptions behind the meeting. Is it a job market? Is it a place for the exchange of information among scholars? Is it a place where new and interesting things can happen? And whatever the meeting ought to be, how should it change and how quickly?
As my colleague Roy Rosenzweig was fond of recounting, the last big “innovation” by the AHA happened in the Interwar years and was the addition of a discussant to the three paper panel (thereby making it a four paper panel and allowing for even less audience participation). Let’s hope that this time around the Council can do better.
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll consider those aspects of the Final Report dedicated to “Maximizing Use of the Internet.” In that post I’ll offer some suggestions for just how the annual meeting might change to make it more relevant in the digital age.