With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Day 3: Highlights of the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians

There's a lot of presidents news.

Let's get to the hard news first.  The OAH has selected Ed Ayers, the president of the University of Richmond, as its next vice president.  That puts him in line to become the president of the OAH several years down the road.  Here's the lineup if you're keeping score.  Today Alan Kraut gave up the job of president to Patricia Limerick.  Next year Jon Butler will take over.  He will be succeeded by Nancy Cott, who in turn will be replaced by Ed Ayers.  Study up.  There will be a  test on Monday.  (Extra credit for those who can figure out this system of electing presidents.)

This afternoon, just before President-Elect Limerick became President Limerick, we interviewed her about next year's program.  The theme is taboos.  That's gotten everybody talking.  So we wanted to know what she had in mind when she and her program chairs picked the topic.  Being Patty Limerick, she couldn't help but be interesting.  Adjuncts who think that a duel class system exists in the academy have an ally in Prof. Limerick.  Watch:

Most sessions were well-attended, but the prize for the group that drew a crowd so big the people in the room began to swelter was an uncool plain old-fashioned politics panel.  Yeah, politics is still a draw despite everything.  Official title:  "State of the Field:  US Political History Since 1945."  For a quick update on where things stand in current political research here's Matthew Lassiter, the panel's chair:

Once upon a time, of course, OAH meetings were dominated by politics.  That's when US history still had a theme to it.  Now everybody goes their own way.  That, says Rosemarie Zagarri, the co-chair of the convention's program committee, creates some challenges, shall we say.  Here's what she says it's like being a program chair:

The main event of the day was Alan Kraut's presidential address.  But before he delivered his hour-long paper there was business to be conducted.  So here's what you missed:

First and foremost, the organization membership has stabilized at around 8,000.  With initiatives like the new OAH magazine, "The American Historian," which every member will now receive (unlike the old magazine, which was discontinued), and helpful online services like a directory of postdoc opportunities, officials expect membership to grow. Other initiatives include:

  • an online career coach
  • discounts on products put out by Oxford, part of the OAH-Oxford partnership
  • travel clubs
  • new book award
  • new website (which debuted last fall)

The organization is in the black as it has been the last five years and is expected to remain in the black this year.  

Here are statistics executive director Kathy Finley compiled.  Some brought audible gasps.

  • number of members who have been with the OAH for 25 years:  2,271
  • number who have been members for more than 50 years:  375
  • number who have been members more than 60 years:  23
  • number who have been members for 67 years:  2

She said the OAH is changing and she joked that she had toyed with the idea of saying this isn't your father's OAH, but then she discovered that shortly after Oldsmobile adopted the similar slogan they lost their old reliable customers and the company collapsed.  So she emphasized that while the OAH is changing it's not changing so much that long-time members will feel out of place.  But the future's with the young, of course.  

Prof. Kraut noted that historians face a severe jobs crisis, but in his report as the outgoing president he emphasized the success of several of his initiatives.  He and past presidents have helped raised tens of thousands of dollars for a travel budget.  (The presidents themselves donated much of the funding.)   He established a committee on government affairs to give the OAH a presence in the United States capital and then, in what he acknowledged was an act of chutzpah, he named himself to a two-year term as the liaison to the committee.  He indicated he was proud of establishing the new magazine with three years of funding from the History channel ($33,000/annum).  

But he seemed most excited to talk about his "Hey, I Know Your Work" program.  The program pairs up new members with senior historians to put OAH first-timers at ease at annual conventions.  He got the idea for it when a young member shouted at him one day, "Hey, I Know Your Work."

And then it was on to the awards ceremony. Prof. Limerick began -- I told you, she can't help but be interesting-- "Good afternoon OAH comrades."   She then announced that a new award had been established in David Montgomery's name.  He would have appreciated her joking opening.  

By HNN's count, some 44 awards and prizes were handed out.  What was interesting was the disproportionate number of women among the beneficiaries.  26 women compared to 18 men.  The irony is that nearly all of the awards and prizes are named after men since they were established back in the bad old days when men ruled the OAH roost. There's just no getting away from our history.

Finally, there was Alan Kraut's rigorously argued presidential address, "Doing as the Americans Do:  The Post-Migration Negotiation of Identity in the United States."

The OAH recorded the address.  We'll post it as soon as it's available.  Despite the seriousness of the topic -- the many ways immigrants were encouraged to assimilate--there were moments that elicited outright laughter as Prof Kraut recounted the efforts of native-born Americans to tutor immigrants in Americanization.  One Yalie by the name of Carr wrote in a pamphlet put out by the D.A.R. that Italians would have a lot better chance of assimilating if they stopped gesticulating, spoke in a low voice, quit quarreling, and threw away their guns!  A similar pamphlet put out for the benefit of Jews suggested they'd be better off if they manned up.  

Immigrants eager to assimilate tried everything including, Prof Kraut recounted in detail, changing their bodies, shortening their noses, making their eyes look more European, and growing muscles by going to the gym.  

He ended his address with an embarrassing quote from Carl Bridenbaugh, the 1962 president of the AHA, who warned in his presidential address that urban historians (meaning Jews) never would be able to understand rural Americans because they lacked the right emotions.  

Here's the shuddering quote from Bridenbaugh's text:  

Notwithstanding the incessant chatter about communication that we hear daily, it has not improved; actually it has become more difficult. In former days, the ablest historians were educated amateurs, or perhaps a better term would be amateur scholars. They were men who had previously been men of action: Herodotus, Thucydides, Caesar, Comines, Macaulay, the Americans Bancroft and Adams, and today, Churchill. These great writers knew life at firsthand, life which they described critically and interpreted reflectively for their readers. Historians of our Recent Past shared a common culture, a body of literary knowledge to which allusion could be usefully made. Everybody knew Alice, and about oxen being gored, and not in the Pickwickian sense. Historians, and their readers, were well "fed of the dainties that are bred in a book," but never so stuffed with mere technical data that they built up a sort of mental cholesterol.

Today we must face the discouraging prospect that we all, teachers and pupils alike, have lost much of what this earlier generation possessed, the priceless asset of a shared culture. Today imaginations have become starved or stunted, and wit and humor, let alone laughter and a healthy frivolity, are seldom encountered. Furthermore, many of the younger practitioners of our craft, and those who are still apprentices, are products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is certainly not their fault, but it is true. They have no experience to assist them, and the chasm between them and the Remote Past widens every hour. In our graduate schools we are training a host of skilled historical technicians, but all of us here, I think, will have to conclude that very few of our colleagues rise today to the high level of significant generalization or display either profound analytical powers or marked narrative proficiency. Certainly it is a great event when we get some living characterizations or credible vignettes of the actors of history, and it is an occasion for prolonged applause when we encounter any appreciation of beauty, taste, or humor. What I fear is that the changes observant in the background and training of the present generation will make it impossible for them to communicate to and reconstruct the past for future generations.