The Future of the AHA (cont’d)

Over the past year or so I’ve written several posts about the future of the American Historical Association. In yesterday’s AHA Today blog, Rob Townsend offers up a concise review of how the reforms of the annual meeting initiated by Roy Rosenzweig have (or have not) taken hold at the meeting.

Roy’s hope was that it would be possible to get away from the tried and true and almost universally boring format of several people reading papers at the audience by offering participants new formats for their sessions. Rob’s piece makes it clear that despite the fact that attendance at those sessions organized in new formats is strong and growing, the vast majority of AHA members still prefer the traditional format.

Can you think of a reason why this would be so?

I’ve been attending the AHA for more than a dozen years (I didn’t make it this year for the first time in ten — budget cuts, don’t you know) and I have yet to attend a session in which more than one of the papers read at me by the panel was so energizing that I felt pleased that I had been there just to hear it. Mostly, I’ve wished that I could have read the paper in advance so that the author could have presented one or two of her main points for discussion, and then we all could have had a discussion about the issues she raised.

I suppose my colleagues — at least those in the vast majority that prefer having papers read at them — find that passive learning is more congenial. I wonder how many of those same historians teach in a lecture only format? Given what I know about college history teachers, I know that it can’t be the same vast majority. Too many historians utilize all sorts of interesting and engaging pedagogial practices in their own classrooms.

So why do they want to be the types of students they lament — the ones who just want to sit back and listen?

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3 Responses to The Future of the AHA (cont’d)

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  2. Steve Harris says:

    Academics are conservative; graduate students are scared; and some scholars are just trying to get through a paper they wrote 3-nights before and wondering why they signed up for the panel 12 months ago! Some hypothetical answers to your questions.

    Do we have similar data on academics’ opinion about alternative, more interactive formats for AAASS?

    On your point about having access to a paper before attending a panel. I agree this would help make the conference experience more interactive — like a standard workshop format or conferences specifically set up in this manner. Here’s a suggestion for improving the interactive nature of the mega conferences like AHA or AAASS (if it hasn’t been made already):

    Two-three weeks before the conference, a panel could set up a blog that explains their common topic, features bios on each participant, brief paper abstracts, AND (this is the important feature) a page with their papers on it. Conference goers could therefore read papers ahead of time and start a discussion of the papers BEFORE the actual panel and also AFTER. The conference’s main website could then post the links to such blogs before the conference so people could “shop” for the panels they want to go to. Nothing like a little market information on a product to motivate scholars to write something that will actually attract some consumers!

    For the anal academics who protect access to their papers as if they were Dick Cheney guarding state secrets, a panel could post papers on a password-protected page and distribute the password only to those who actually plan to attend the conference and e-mail the chair for the password.

    As I’ve found in my teaching, giving students an on-line forum to start discussing texts before class and follow-up after class improves the quality of in-class discussions and their understanding of the material. Perhaps something similar could work for an academic conference, if it hasn’t been done already.

    Want to try it for the up-coming SSCS in Charlottesville?

  3. Larry Cebula says:

    If historians are bad in this life they go to an eternal AHA convention after they die.

    The trouble with pre-circulating papers in advance is that no one reads them. Sterling (PhD in History above) was on a job hunting panel at the AHA this year where the papers were pre-circulated and I believe he said that two or three people in the audience had read the papers in advance. I like Steve’s idea for panel blogs, but I am not sure many more people would read them.

    Still there is no excuse for reading papers aloud. I am presenting at three conferences in the near future that are round tables. I think that theoretically these could be better than traditional panels but we will see.

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