Highlights from the 2014 AHA Annual Meeting

tags: American Historical Association, AHA 2014



David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network. Follow him on Twitter @davidastinwalsh.

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Day 3: Saturday, January 4

Again, alas, my resolution to post updates throughout the day on Saturday fell victim to the rocky shoals of overscheduling, but no matter. Here's a few thoughts on what happened Saturday (and be sure to check out the news stories and videos linked to at the top -- I'll keep the videos off of this page so it loads faster):

Weather continues to be an issue. With the arctic air of the "winter vortex" descending upon New England and the Midwest, returning historians could face significant travel delays. O'Hare in Chicago has already cancelled 180 flights.

How cold will it be? In my home state of Minnesota, the governor issued orders shutting down schools Monday. That has not happened before in my lifetime.

On to more historical matters. We'll be publishing the full video for the Peter Perdue-chaired session "Will China Rule the World?" later on in the week (an excellent panel, incidentally -- particularly the papers by Karl Gerth and Suleeman Khan, which sought to inject histories of consumerism and the enviroment and ecology respectively into the debate about China's rise) as well as James McPherson's George C. Marshall Lecture to the Society for Military History (I wasn't able to attend this one because I was covering the business meeting, but from the tweets it sounded like, to borrow an old-fashioned phrase, a hum-dinger).

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't briefly discuss this afternoon's panel "The Generations of Women's History," sponsored by the Committee for Women's History. It's a relatively rarity to attend AHA sessions that are led by people who actually made the history they're discussing, and it was both a treat -- and incredibly moving -- to hear from Leona Auslander, Crystal Feimster, Patricia Graham, Darlene Clark Harris, Linda Kerber, and Alice Kessler-Harris how, against oft-ferocious opposition, they carved out a place for women's history within the profession.

A few takeaways:

Darlene Clark Hine talked about how she had to defend African American women as subjects worthy of study; one of her colleagues, a woman, dismissed them as "beneath history."

Linda Kerber told the following story. In an AHA panel in New Olreans in 1972, a group of women scholars of all ages sat down and talked -- quite bitterly, remembered Kerber -- about the obstacles they'd faced as women in an overwhelmingly male profession. denied tenure, pay imbalances, hostile environments, etc. -- not to mention the near-impossibility to raise children.

One [older] woman angrily scolded everyone present that if they wanted to be historians, they should expect to make sacrifices … then stopped and said, “all of my friends are grandmothers now, and how do you think I feel?”

And that brings us to the most popular tweet HNN has ever published:

Day 2: Friday, January 3

Alas, my original intended posting scheduel -- brief blog updates throughout the day -- fell by the wayside today. But no matter. Thanks to a teensy bit of overscheduling which prevented me from writing, I was able to arrange a series of interviews with various luminaries in the profession, the results of which are below.

But more on that in a moment.

This was the view walking the streets near the Wardman Park Marriott this morning.

And Washington, D.C. was fortunate. Despite significant snow accumulation and freezing temperatures, the city escaped the wrath of Winter Storm Heracles relatively unscathed. That's more than can be said for the historians who were planning to make a day trip out of their panels -- Jeremy Adelman spent six hours on the train from Princeton, New Jersey, a trip that normally only takes two. Thanks to flight delays, some historians have been on the road for over twenty-four hours.

Fortunately, no further weather delays are expected in the Washington area until at least Monday ... though plummeting temperatures in the Midwest on Sunday could potentially cause complications for air travel (United Airlines briefly suspended flights to Winnipeg earlier in the week due to extreme cold).

In the face of such miserable weather, is it any wonder that the AHA presidential address was so well-attended?

It had nothing to do, of course, with the distinguished standing of Kenneth Pomeranz, the current AHA president (if you haven't already, be sure to read his essay on historians' habits of mind in the December issue of Perspectives), his decades of outstanding scholarship on modern China, or the topic of his address: overcoming the boundaries of the national in historical scholarship.

No, of course not.

In his speech (the AHA will be posting the video within the next few days) Pomeranz cautioned about the "conventionalism" of space that characterizes most history classes, at both the undergraduate and graduate level -- this, despite years of talk and research about the "new" global history. Political science, anthropology, and sociology are all far less nation-focused in their curriculum, but history remains an outlier. Forty-six percent of all introductory history courses are focused on the national, Pomeranz noted, as compared to sixteen percent in anthropology.

In an increasingly globalized world, Pomeranz cautioned, historians cannot always assume that they will automatically have a place in the curriculum.

Update: January 6

The American Historical Association has posted the full video of the address:

The good professor's words were well-received, at least in the Twittersphere:

Of course, the presidential address was but the capstone to a day full of intriguing sessions. My personal favorite was "How Should Historians Respond to MOOCs?", which featured the University of Virginia's Philip Zelikow, Colorado State University-Pueblo professors Ann Little (she of Historiann fame) and Jonathan Rees (he of More or Less Bunk fame, and perhaps the most vociferious critic of massive open online courses amongst historians), and a slightly-harried-from-travel Jeremy Adelman.

I've written a bit in the past about MOOCs and thus won't go into a huge amount of detail (besides, HNN will be posting the full footage from the panel next week), but the panel served as a reminder that, despite the deflating MOOC hype, online education remains a fault line in higher education. Detractors like Rees and to a lesser extent Little are still concerned about the potential deprofessionalization of historians on the one hand, and the loss of in-person pedagogy on the other, while Zelikow, who ran a tremendously successful hybrid MOOC/flipped classroom at Virginia earlier this year, remains bullish on the potential for MOOCs to reach a global audience of history students.

Still, there seemed to be general consensus that whatever MOOCs may mean for historians, no one thinks they should completely replace bricks-and-mortar classes. Jeremy Adelman, whose world history MOOC from the fall of 2013 was one of the first history MOOCs conceived, said he was ambivalent about the technology, and Zelikow, after being challenged by Rees, said that in his experience even Daphne Koller, the founder of Coursera, would probably agree that MOOCs should not replace the traditional college curriculum.

With this debate in mind, I talked to Anthony Grafton this afternoon (Grafton is, of course, a former president of the AHA and a professor at Princeton) about what younger historians should know about digital history, and about the future of the print book:

I also spoke with Chinese specialist Maura Cunningham on Mao Zedong's 120th birthday, a significant anniversary in Chinese culture:

And with Jeremi Suri about U.S. strategy in the Middle East and East Asia (yes, I asked him aobut his New York Times op-ed where he called for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea):

And with Samuel Moyn, professor at Columbia, about human rights and armed humanitarian interventions:

Aaaand with Georgetown professor Michael Kazin on Barack Obama's contentious, yet fruitful, relationship with the American left:

Day 1: Thursday, January 2

11:55am

It's the first weekend of January, and that can only mean one thing for historians: it's time for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, this year in our nation's capital.

As usual, yours truly will be blogging and shooting videos from the meeting floor, with the first major update set for this evening. In the meantime, check out my AHA 2014 survival guide, my interview with AHA executive director Jim Grossman below, and read Vanessa Varin's liveblogging from this morning's digital history workshop, so popular it crashed the AHA's blog (don't worry, it's back up now).

10:22pm

The defining political scandal of the 1970s -- perhaps the defining political scandal of the twentieth century -- has paradoxically receded as a subject of study by historians.

So observed Yale University's Beverly F. Gage at the start of "The Unmaking of a President: Rethinking Watergate at Forty," Thursday's afternoon session at the American Historical Association's annual meeting, and a real treat. A standard narrative of the decade has emerged: the 1970s as a time of retreat from politics. This narrative is not without foundation, Gage said, but the 1970s also saw intense political clashes that produced momentous political reforms. The classic tale of Watergate, immortalized in All the President's Men, begins with the break-in and ends with Richard Nixon's resignation. But the story ought to be expanded further, argued Gage, to include subsequent developments such as the Church Committee's investigations of U.S. intelligences abuses and subsequent attempts at reform.

Ken Hughes*, a scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, expanded the Watergate story in the opposite chronological direction, all the way back to the 1968 election. After his election, Nixon created his infamous Plumbers, an unconstitutional secret police unit operating out of the White House, for the bizarre purpose of breaking into the Brookings Institution and stealing a report on the 1968 bombing halt. Why did Nixon take the enormous risk of committing a felony? Hughes argued that Nixon wanted to get his hands on all the intelligence collected in the closing days of the Johnson administration about the Chennault affair, a successful Republican attempt to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks that Johnson's bombing halt made possible. (Hughes has told the story of Chennault Affair and Watergate here on HNN.)

Katherine A. Scott of the U.S. Senate Historical Office urged greater attention to the roles that congressional investigations and the constitutional issue of executive-legislative relations played in Watergate. Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat chosen to lead the Senate Watergate Committee, was not just a safe political choice for the job as a conservative Democrat who voted with Nixon most of the time. Ervin had also been at the forefront of Senate investigations into surveillance, First Amendment issues, warrantless wiretaps and executive privilege, Scott said. All these issues bore on the relative power of the executive and congressional branches -- and all came dramatically to the fore during the congressional investigations of the Nixon administration. Watergate emerged as the perfect example of what happens if Congress doesn’t do its job.

Mark David Nevin of Ohio University at Lancaster found it ironic that scholarship about the biggest political scandal in American history doesn’t pay enough attention to politics. Yes, Congress did consider high-minded constitutional issues, but members also read the polls. Republicans in particular responded to polls showing they were about to get killed in the 1974 mid-term elections. A bellwether was the special election held to fill Rep. Jerry Ford’s House seat after he became vice president. Republicans had held that Michigan congressional district since 1910, but a Democrat captured it in the spring of 1974. One poll showed that more than 70 percent of district voters considered Watergate the most important issue. The declining political fortunes of the GOP in 1974 helped push Republicans to push the president to participate in his own demise by resigning.

Panel chairman David Greenberg of Rutgers University—New Brunswick noted that Watergate is the now the centerpiece of Nixon's legacy, but this was not always the case. In the 1980s, Nixon himself succeeded in focusing attention on his foreign policy achievements, presenting himself as an elder statesman. In the 1990s, journalists and historians reevaluated Nixon’s domestic policies as more liberal, activist, and accomplished than widely appreciated (his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency; his offer to Ted Kennedy to enact universal health care).But the impeachment of Bill Clinton brought Watergate back to the forefront. Republicans compared Clinton to Nixon, invoking the standard that no man is above the law; Democrats contrasted the two, arguing that Nixon’s offenses were far more serious than Clinton’s. But both arguments reaffirmed Watergate as the benchmark for presidential wrongdoing, Greenberg said. Clinton’s successor was also subject to Nixonian comparisons regarding the imperial presidency, government secrecy, isolation from the news media and more. Greenberg sees this not as coincidence, but inheritance, citing the reemergence of such Nixon-era figures as Karl Rove (head of the national College Republicans during Watergate) and Nixon White House aides Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in the Bush administration.

Even Nixon recognized late in life that his rehabilitation efforts hadn’t worked, Greenberg concluded. As the former president told one young aide: “Watergate -- that’s all anyone wants.”

10:30pm

Of course, one of the biggest stories in the D.C. area today has been the weather. It almost never snows this time of year in Washington, but the streets of Adams Morgan are covered in flakes.

Cold weather is moving in tomorrow, with lows in the 20s and a wind chill in the single digits. Fortunately, tweed is a wonderfully insulating fabric.*

*Special thanks to the gentleman who interrupted an interview I was conducting to ask where I got my coat.

11:54pm

Final update for the evening, and they're videos!

First up is Yoni Appelbaum, the Brandeis PhD student-turned-Atlantic columnist, on how he got such a swell gig, and the future of digital history:

Next is Richard R. John, the historian of communications at the Columbia Journalism School, on how network theory has changed the way historians think:

That will do it for me tonight! But check back tomorrow for more updates from AHA, including coverage of a panel that should be sure to spark some fireworks, "How Should Historians Respond to MOOCs?"


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