The Future of the AHA (cont’d)

Yesterday I took up the question of the future of the American Historical Association in the Web 2.0 world. Today I want to continue that discussion by taking a look at the part of the report I mentioned that deals with the AHA’s plan to “maximize use of the Internet.”

I think that the committee charged with drafting the report was absolutely correct in making the changes being wrought by digital media on our profession a central aspect of the report. So for that they deserve praise.

But I also think that they’ve really missed the boat with their recommendations and so I’m very pessimistic–at least for now–about how this report is going to have a positive impact on what the AHA does with respect to digital media and history.

The first problem I see rears its head right at the beginning of the “Internet” section of the report:

“Thus it is incumbent on the AHA to both understand and utilize all the cutting-edge possibilities of these new technologies, while transferring its traditional role as gatekeeper and authority for the discipline to this new medium.”

Yes to the first part of this sentence, but a definite no to the second. “Gatekeeping” and “authority” are concepts that worked very well in the analog and even Web 1.0 world. But for the AHA to really be relevant in the Web 2.0 world, where “authority” is a much trickier concept and “gatekeeping” is almost anathema to the whole idea of social computing, the association is going to have to really rethink this approach. As scholarship moves more and more toward the open source model, a focus on maintaining authority or being a gatekeeper will seem pretty anachronistic. Already it seems so 2005.

A second problem with the report is that the authors say that the AHA should “become known as the home for a number of history blogs…” Alas, that ship has already sailed. The History News Network already offers such a place to history bloggers. And, because the blogosphere is a place of dispersed conversations, seveal sites have already begun to aggregate history blogs on specific topics–the excellent Frog in a Well site being the best example I can think of.

The other part of the sentence I just quoted asserts that, in addition to history blogs, the AHA should become home to “gated discussion forums for members on specialized subjects.” Alas, that ship has both sailed and is foundering. For a very long time now (in Internet years) H-Net has provided an admirable platform for such gated forums. I know the report’s authors know this, so I’m puzzled as to why they would propose duplicating what H-Net already does. And, as I have previously written here, I think the entire gated discussion forum idea is doomed.

Moreover, the whole idea of creating “gated discussion forums” specifically works against the other big goal of the report, namely, to expand the AHA’s membership base. I’m simply at a loss to understand how denying the general public access to what we are discussing among ourselves will in any way help to expand the association’s membership list.

The last of my complaints is that there is no mention of digital scholarship. Could the report’s authors have missed the transformation of the profession taking place before their eyes? Born digital historical work is appearing all over the Internet in all sorts of shapes and sizes. To not even mention a role for the AHA in this transformation of the discipline is, well, very surprising.

Lest it seem like I’m down on the whole thing, I have to say that this part of the report is not all bad. While I think it’s a really bad idea for the AHA to invest its scarce resources in hosting blogs, I do think that the AHA could play a very positive role in a slightly different way. The single biggest problem with history blogs is that they go off line and disappear. Thus, one thing they AHA could do that would be a real service to the profession would be to create some sort of partnership with the Internet Archive to archive and aggregate history blogs and put an access point on a redesigned AHA website. Rather than acting as a gatekeeper or “authority”, the AHA could provide a very useful (and quite inexpensive) resource to its members and the general public.

I loved the language in the report about making sure that someday the entire annual meeting will take place in a wireless environment. This year’s meeting in Washington was mostly wireless and that was a real boon to those trying to do digital work at the meeting–blogging, presentations, looking up information, etc. I would also encourage the AHA to create a blogging space at the annual meeting where history bloggers can sit together in a sandbox environment, work, collaborate, and put faces with blog titles.

I could go on with what I think is good and less good about this report as it relates to digital history, but I think you get my drift by now. I think it will be a real shame if the AHA Council decides to act on these recommendations without putting them out for further review and comment–in particular review and comment from leaders in digital history. To do otherwise will be to commit the association to spending money on ideas that are, as I said above, so 2005.

12 thoughts on “The Future of the AHA (cont’d)

  1. tkelly7 Post author

    This comment was submitted by Katja Herring. I’ve posted it for her because she was having some difficulty getting the comment function to work–MK

    Begin: Just as a comment on the side: It is rather misleading to call H-Net a “gated forum.” Except for H-Grad and H-Bahai, which are password protected, all H-Net discussions and reviews are open and accessible to the public (that is: that slice of the public that has internet access). You can either go to the H-Net homepage: and do a keyword search of either the logs or the reviews, or you can do a google search, and the specific reviews or discussions will show up. Just try: “Slovakia” in the H-Net review search, or type “Slovakia and H-Net” into Google and look at the results. If you want to submit a comment or review, you can simply send it to one of the list editors, who are listed on each homepage for the individual lists. If you submit a comment and are not subscribed to the specific list that you address, you won’t get the email through the listserv, but can still look at the posts through the public logs. So, all discussions and reviews are open to the public and available to read as soon as they are posted, while comments and reviews are edited and moderated. I find it inaccurate to call the process of moderation a “gate,” as moderation can help to open up a discussion as much as it can close it. But if you insist on calling the act of moderation a “gate,” you’d have to call your own bl og a “gated forum,” since you also moderate the comments before you post them. But I’d rather reserve the term “gated” for those forums or publications that are indeed only accessible to a restricted number of subscribers. Katharina Hering.

  2. tkelly7 Post author

    Hi Katja:

    Thanks for the response. I agree that H-Net forums are open for public perusal. But it’s not correct to say that they are all open to the general public to take part in. For instance, the list I used to edit (HABSBURG), restricts membership so that, for instance, high school students may not participate and undergraduate students are discouraged. There are some good reasons behind this approach–it cuts down on the number of “I’m working on a paper and need some sources” queries to the list, for instance. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other H-Net lists have similar membership guidelines. So there’s a gate–grown ups only.

    There is another kind of gating that goes on in the listserv environment, whether in H-Net or other similar collaborative endeavors. Here I’m referring to editorial policies that prevent “non-scholarly” contributions from making their way onto a list. There is an implied elitism to much of the discourse among scholars that either through our jargon or our syntax excludes “the public” from our conversations. I know that some H-Net lists are “tightly edited” as one editor told me a while back, by which he meant non-scholars/non-experts in their field would have a difficult time getting something posted on the list. By contrast, I also know that some H-Net lists are much more wide open in their approach. But this sort of “soft gate” does exist and creates a barrier between academics and those outside the academy.

    By contrast, see the comments on my recent post “That’s Not Your Name” about the Macedonian naming controversy. The bulk of the comments are from those who are clearly not college professors.

    There is a place for the “elevated discourse” of the professional scholars and I’m all for that. My point here was that the AHA should not try to recreate something that already exists and is working well.

  3. Mk

    “Thus, one thing they AHA could do that would be a real service to the profession would be to create some sort of partnership with the Internet Archive to archive and aggregate history blogs and put an access point on a redesigned AHA website. ”

    For blogs one can use for faster searching and maybe some sort of archiving integration can be achieved with them.

    Although, maybe better approach would be buying a license for one of the well established online forums, they do come with a lot of features lately and can give you more flexibility than blogs.


  4. PhDinHistory

    Why do you dislike the idea of the AHA serving as a gatekeeper and authority when it comes to digital media? Couldn’t this role and involvement of the AHA count as a form of peer review and increase the possibility that blogging (and other forms of “digital scholarship”) would count towards tenure?

    Why are you calling H-NET an “admirable platform” when last fall you published a post that expressed concerns about the health of H-NET?

    Why are you pessimistic about what the AHA could do with discussion forums and blogs to foster collaborative research and writing? Do you see much collaborative work coming out H-NET discussion lists?

    I really like your idea about archiving and aggregating history blogs. Have you seen anything that can do what is described in this blog post?

  5. tkelly7 Post author


    Thanks for the comments. I dislike the idea of the AHA serving as a gatekeeper and authority because the whole idea of gatekeeping by some sort of established organization or agency runs against the tide that seems to be sweeping into digital scholarship–the tide of open source or social construction of knowledge. How do you think a small organization like the AHA could possible serve the function they aspire to in the report?

    Here’s just one example. Let’s say that a group of historians decides to put up a digital archiving project that encourages historians and the general public to start uploading historical images from their personal collections a la How would the AHA manage to be a gatekeeper for such a project? Back in November someone uploaded the 2 billionth image to Flickr. Now I’m not suggesting that historians and the public would upload so many images. But what if they uploaded more than 10,000 a year? This number is well within the realm of the possible based on our experience here at CHNM with the September 11 and Hurricane Archive projects. Acting as an authority or gatekeeper on such a project would overwhelm the AHA’s tiny staff.

    Here’s another. Let’s say that a group of historians decides to create a wiki project on some area of historical investigation. How would the AHA act as gatekeeper or authority on that? Or what about my blog (or yours)? Would the AHA put an official “stamp of approval” on our blogs? And if so, how would they staff such an effort?

    I called H-Net an admirable platform for the delivery of email. I still think that it’s a dying communication system…but H-Net is already doing it, so why would the AHA replicate that (especially since it’s dying in my view)?

    Here’s what I don’t have a good feel for and maybe you could write about this…How does the rising generation of PhDs feel about the AHA and what are your expectations of the organization?

  6. john theibault


    I haven’t read the report yet, so should perhaps hold back on comments on your interesting set of observations.

    In very broad strokes I agree that if the AHA is trying to insert itself into successful ongoing digital genres such as blogs and listservs, then it is probably making a mistake. On the other hand, while the word “gatekeeper” is potentially worrisome, I do think there is a place for an imprimatur of professional integrity, especially in a Web 2.0 environment. If the AHA aggregates information and allows for wiki-like interaction, it should do so in a way that distinguishes it from wikipedia and technorati.

    I am especially interested in your observation that the report makes no mention of digital scholarship. I think that digital scholarship is precisely the forum in which professional societies in general and perhaps the AHA in particular could play a significant role as a platform and permanent home. Right now, there are competing models of where to house digital scholarship — centers for digital humanities like CHNM, digital collections at university libraries, digital imprints of scholarly presses, individual web pages of scholars, departments, museums, archives. I think the lack of an obvious “go to” place to publish digital scholarship (unless you happen to be at e.g. George Mason, or Virginia, or Maryland) has been a significant drag on its progress. (Also obviously the fact that you need a team to create the digital product in the first place.) The AHA’s experience with the E-Gutenberg project may have turned them off to playing that role for digital scholarship a bit; but now they host all of the resulting scholarship. If they can continue to foster the development of what I call “digital monographs” i.e. not scholarly editions or databases, but works that make an historical argument in a digital format, then they will be adapting themselves to the new medium without becoming just another open discussion forum.

  7. PhDinHistory

    I not really sure what the rising generation thinks of the AHA. It never came up in seminars or HGSA meetings. But I think the response to Mike Bowen’s article last January says something about the level of discontent with the job market, which spills over into a fair amount of misdirected frustration with the AHA. I think the AHA needs to raise more money, work harder to fix the job market, advocate more aggressively for issues important to historians, improve history teaching and promote its importance, embrace technological innovations and digital media, and become more relevant for historians and history teachers who are not employed at research universities and liberal arts colleges.

  8. tkelly7 Post author

    One suggestion I have had for several years that might help with the job market is to have the AHA provide its most accurate statistics on the job market in a one-page handout and then have that posted prominently on its website and sent to all PhD granting department chairs. Those department chairs should then be strongly encouraged to send a copy of that handout to any student requesting information about the PhD program–a sort of “truth in advertising” statement from the professional association. Such an approach would mean that anyone who went ahead with their application was (a) doing so because he/she really, really wanted to be an historian and (b) was giving up the right to complain later when the job market was still bad.

    A second suggestion I have that I think would really make a difference is for the AHA to take a leading role in bridging the professional divide between historians who teach at four year institutions and those who teach at two year institutions. Since the majority of American college students are enrolled at community colleges, the number of jobs available to PhD historians at those institutions is quite large. I have several friends who teach at community colleges and couldn’t be happier. But I also know that the reaction of so many people I know (who teach at four year institutions) is that if you take a job at a community college, it’s because you “couldn’t get a real job.” Not surprisingly, this attitude stands in the way of bridging that gap in a meaningful way. But I think the AHA is in a position to provide real leadership in this area–and by doing so to significantly expand its membership pool.

    I also know that many community college presidents are actively seeking PhD trained scholars to take positions at their institutions because they see those with more graduate training as better prepared for leadership in their institutions down the line. At least this was the feedback we got here recently when we met with a group of community college presidents and provosts.

  9. Larry Cebula

    What is the AHA really? It is the jobs conference and a journal. That is what the AHA is. I don’t often read the journal and I have been to the conference exactly once. (I got the job, thank you very much.) Oh, and they have a blog now, and it is pretty good. I do not see where the AHA has much of anything to do with me or my job or my research. Am I missing something?

    As to the idea of anyone being the virtual gate keeper–well, it is so quaint as to be amusing. As you said it is far too late in the day for the AHA to get out ahead of blogs or listservs, and they seem unaware of digital scholarship, where they could have a voice if they get started last week.

  10. Mills

    Hi Larry:

    Thanks for the comment. I think that the AHA is actually very aware of digital scholarship. I think it’s the members of the committee that put together the report for the AHA that seem unaware. And I agree that the AHA blog is a good asset for the organization. I find it quite useful for keeping up on larger issues in the discipline.

  11. PhDinHistory

    Mills: Sorry it took me so long to respond. I think you are right to stress the importance of statistical studies of the academic history job market. It sounds like you are holding history doctoral students accountable. I agree that these prospective students need to be educated about the risks and face the consequences of their decisions. But I think the responsibility is even greater for history departments. As I see it, history departments have admitted too many students and created an oversupply of history PhDs. This has put us in this situation where there are not enough jobs for historians. Moreover, university administrators have decided that they can get history professors to work for relatively low salaries. I totally agree with you that the AHA should do more outreach to history instructors at community colleges. These individuals need feel just as valued as anyone else in the AHA.

    Larry: The AHA does so much more. But I think it doesn’t do a very good job of publicizing all of the other work (besides the journal and the conference) that it does. I wonder if the movement of historians away from the AHA is related to the withdrawal of American workers from unions. I find it hard to understand why American historians have become just as individualistic as American workers. Like American workers, we have been placated with promises of salaries and benefits–even though these benefits are slowly but surely decreasing. Maybe the AHA needs to carry out some consciousness raising among historians.

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