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Highlights from the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston


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Day 1: January 6, 2011

The 125th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association opened today amidst an economic climate even worse than that of last year. Robert B. Townsend’s annual report on the state of the job market made for particularly grim pre-convention reading. Job openings advertised with the AHA fell nearly 30 percent in the past year, the lowest point since 1985. This is most unwelcome news for the nearly one thousand newly minted PhDs, and that’s not even the whole picture. Faculty retirements are expected to plummet in the next decade. “Most history doctoral students,” Townsend writes, “are being trained for an academic job market that is now beset by crises. Departments should begin to carefully reflect on the type of training they are providing their students and the number of students they are admitting to their programs.”

There’s even more good news. Even though the vast majority of American college students are educated at public colleges and universities, the history departments at public institutions are disproportionately feeling the budget crunch. Again, Robert Townsend reports:

Chairs from private institutions indicated they were being very cautious about their revenues and expenses, but the concerns they reported tended to be fairly remote from the core activities of the department—modest cuts in the catering budget for the department, for example (mentioned by a dozen chairs at private institutions), and in support to bring in outside speakers (mentioned by five chairs)….

In comparison, the responses from departments at public institutions seemed to reflect a different reality. The public institutions reported a wide variety of economic problems, but most attributed a significant portion of their difficulties to budget woes originating at the state level—reductions that had already had a deep impact, and presaged more severe problems in the near future. One chair noted that, “Continuing budget deficits at the state level threaten absolutely disastrous cuts—we’re anticipating at least one, and probably two midyear cuts.” Ten other department chairs at public institutions noted that their department had been shielded from deeper cuts by federal stimulus funds, and the imminent loss of those funds was likely to add to their problems in the coming year.

It is fitting that, given the enduring crisis in the history profession, that the 2011 AHA meeting is located at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay. Not only because Boston is an easily accessible city that is itself host to dozens of major colleges and universities (around 4,600 people have pre-registered, a figure similar to last year’s conference in San Diego, but far more onsite registrations are expected), but also because nothing takes the doldrums out of conference-going quite like a shopping mall. The Hynes is located in the same complex as one of Boston’s upscale shopping malls. Most of the convention hotels are linked to the complex via skyway, so many attendees will find their way to their panels through a maze of glittering shops, drawing stares from shoppers and frankly bizarre exchanges from Boston’s youth, like the high-schooler who turned to his girlfriend as they watched a long line of historians amble by and said “these guys are gonna be talking about knowledge and stuff.” At least this year there’s no protests.

“Knowledge and stuff” of the crisis in public education will have to wait until tomorrow afternoon, when a panel will meet at 2:30 pm in Room 207 at the Hynes to discuss the matter. Another imminent, albeit slow-motion, crisis was addressed this afternoon by Dipesh Chakrabarty, in an incredibly insightful lecture on the implications of climate change on historiography. Dr. Chakrabarty, professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of “The Climate of History: Four Thesis” in the winter 2009 edition of Critical Inquiry, described how climate change is bringing down the academic “wall of separation” between human history and natural history and throws into question the very notion of human agency.

Click here to watch more of Professor Chakrabarty's presentation.

Chakrabarty discussed essentially two different historiographies of climate change – one that posits it as an unintended effect of human nature that needs to be dealt with on a just and fair basis based on per capita emissions of greenhouse gases. It is, as Dr. Chakrabarty put it, a story we all know: climate change read as inequality between nations. It is not, however, deep history in the sense of time—the inequality between the West and the rest of the world is a historical phenomenon on a human timescale, which is to say within the past five hundred years

Climate scientists, on the other hand, use a completely different timeframe, one of thousands, millions, even billions of years of geology and evolution, and subsequently apply a similar perspective to the consequences of climate change. Dr. Chakrabarty used NASA scientist and the “godfather” of climatology David Hanson and his colleague in geophysics at the University of Chicago David Archer as examples of this school. They do not question capitalism in the same way that the justice school does, but on the other hand, if development had occurred on a globally equitable basis, all it would have done would be to bring us to the crisis point sooner.

Chakrabaty proposed a synthetic view: capitalism is a necessary part of global warming, but it needs to be supplemented by the knowledge of climate scientists and specialists in evolution. It should be possible to seamlessly jump from a geological timescale to a human one, especially now that that the two are converging, at least where climate is concerned. The University of Southampton has an undergraduate course that folds global warming into the history of the crises of modernity, which is a welcome step in this direction.

The other major historiographical challenge is the question of agency. Experiential evidence is the cornerstone of historical research, but now climate scientists say that human beings as a species are agents in human history, but no human being individually experiences it. This represents a conundrum for historical thinking and means that, in order to conceptualize climate change, historians will have to give human beings a new sort of agency different from the kind applied to individuals or even groups.

It is important to note that Dr. Chakrabaty was not speaking of climate change as a scientific or social problem, but a historical one. The closest he came to proposing a solution, or rather a mechanism to cope with drastic climate change, was the hope that the shock of the crisis will eventually force humanity to come to terms with it. Rather, his lecture was about the difficult philosophical challenges that historians will face when coming to terms with the enormity of climate change.

Be sure to look for more AHA updates tomorrow morning!

Day 2: January 7, 2011

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has seen renewed interested in the popular memory of slavery. There are numerous sessions at the AHA this year grouped under the general title,"Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space." The session this morning, the second of six, focus on the intersection of history and tourism in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Bermuda. The issue is particularly relevant in Charleston, considering that the city hosted a “secession ball” less than three weeks ago. Indeed, two of the presenters, Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, both at California State University, Fresno, have written about the secession ball for the History News Service and HNN.

Charleston has faced controversy before in its handling of public remembrance. There is a large memorial in Marion Square, right in the heart of Charleston and close to most of the city’s tourist attractions, dedicated to John C. Calhoun, one of slavery’s fiercest defenders. There also stands in Charleston a memorial to Denmark Vesey, the ringleader of a planned slave rebellion in the city in 1822, but unlike the Calhoun monument the Vesey memorial is located in Hampton Park, a considerable distance from the city’s highly-trafficked center.

Stephanie E. Yule, from the College of the Holy Cross, followed Dr. Kytle with a more generalized discussion about how the institution of slavery is conceptualized in popular memory. It is a mistake all too commonly done, she said, to view slavery first through the prism of the plantation. This denies the fundamentally transactional and commercial nature of the institution and glosses it over with the haze of nostalgia.

Quito Swan of Howard University introduced an international perspective to the proceedings with a discussion of the politics of slave life in Bermuda. Spared the baggage of secession and civil war, Bermuda nevertheless remains an overseas territory of Great Britain and hence colonialism and imperialism weigh heavily on Bermudian history. Swan related the tale of Sally Bassett, a mulatto slave who was burned at the stake in Hamilton, the capital, after being accused of poisoning a white family. The location of Sally Bassett’s execution, however, is far more well-known to tourists as the site where Hamilton local Johnny Barnes has blown kisses to passing traffic for the past fifteen years. There’s even a statue of him at the site. “There was some discussion,” said Dr. Swam, “of ‘should her statue be right there?’ and the response was ‘no, because that’s where Johnny Barnes is.’… There’s no discussion of slavery at all [in Bermuda.]”

Blain Roberts bookended the panel and took the discussion back to Charleston, focusing on the city’s tourism industry itself and how it is structured into two parallel, but separate segments: one devoted to the antebellum South (think Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara—one tour guide even claimed that Gone With the Wind was filmed in Charleston. In reality, it was shot on a studio lot in Culver City, CA that is now home to condos) and the other to slave and Gullah life. The fact that African American history tour companies exist at all, however, is a significant step forward. Roberts acknowledged, however, that the economic imperatives of the tourism industry may preclude a truly integrated tourist history of Charleston.

Following hot on the heels of Robert Townsend’s report on the crisis in history departments at public universities in the latest issue of Perspectives, NYU’s Thomas Bender led a panel consisting mostly of university deans (all of whom were trained historians) in a discussion of the broader crisis facing public colleges and universities. Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities and former chancellor of UC Berkeley, had the privilege of making his remarks first (subsequent commentators noted that they were often reiterating Berdahl’s points).

The crisis is defined in three different ways by three different groups: For politicians, the crisis is that fewer Americans (proportionally speaking) are gaining college educations and college skills. External critics (pundits, for example) see the problem as one of accountability—overpaid faculty, left-wing bias, etc. Inside the academy, however, the crisis is defined in financial terms. All of these factors are interrelated.

One major challenge is demographic: the median age of the population in 1960 was twenty-six, while today it’s thirty-five. In 1960, the ratio of Social Security recipients to workers was 5:1, while today it’s 3:1 and declining. Even when excluding Social Security from the equation, Medicaid expenditures in all states now exceed allotments for higher education.

Roger Geiger, a historian of higher education at Penn State, did sound a note of very guarded optimism at the beginning of his remarks, saying that no one could have predicted, in the 1960s, that public education would be in such a crisis and private education would be relatively strong.

It is a mistake, Geiger said, to think about public higher education as a monolith. It includes community colleges and directional universities in addition to research institutions. While not diminishing the challenges facing the R1s, Geiger maintained that the size and selectivity of, for example, the Big Ten schools was itself the greatest strength of those institutions. The biggest crisis, at least in terms of its implications on class and social mobility in America, is at the community colleges and regional universities with open enrollment. Tuition increases at these institutions is both unsustainable for the schools themselves and will price out college education for the middle and lower-middle classes.

Douglas Greenberg, Executive Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University followed Geiger, went into detail about the challenges facing Rutgers specifically, which has been more dependants on state funding than many other public universities. He did express some guarded disappointment with the response of private university presidents to the crisis in the publics.

Carla A. Hesse from UC Berkeley went into great detail about the crisis facing Berkeley, but she had great faith in the resilience of the school and its public mission. But public, for Hesse, does not necessarily mean funded by the government. It is the mission, the culture, of Berkeley that is the determining factor. She related a story about her husband, who, like most historians, regularly receives emails from local high school students about their History Day projects. Had he been a professor at Harvard, for example, he probably wouldn’t have responded, but at Berkeley he felt that he had the civic responsibility to send out responses. That is the enduring utility of public higher education.

Terrence J. McDonald, dean at the University of Michigan, framed his remarks in the form of seven questions he wished academics would stop asking him:

  1. “I didn’t get a PhD in history, etc. to start talking about the budget.” Well, neither did I, and anyway we’re in a truly new economic situation.
  2. “Why do I have to teach undergraduates?” It’s a sadly pervasive problem in research universities, as the general public believes that the primary goal of research universities is to teach undergraduates.
  3. “My research is so important that I must teach less than my colleagues” There is nothing more demoralizing.
  4. “Why can’t the lecturers do it?” The relationship between tenure track and non-tenure track faculty. Universities assumed that non-tenure track faculty were a stopgap measure where tenure track faculty were unavailable. Almost all higher ed (public and private) relies on contingent faculty. 65 percent of positions in higher education are non-tenure track.
  5. “My department does not have enough graduate students?” To fill the graduate course that I teach.
  6. “Now that the financial situation is a eroding, it’s a good time to explore interdisciplinary approaches.” A disastrous mistake.
  7. “What are the liberal arts going to do about economic development and entrepreneurship?” “When are the liberal arts going to offer a business concentration?” Never. The error is of preparing students for today’s crisis, as opposed to the world to come.

Look for more updates tomorrow!

Day 3: January 8, 2011

For the first time since the beginning of the AHA, the glittering shopping mall connected to the Hynes Convention Center was quiet this morning. The only people scurrying about at 8:00 am on a Saturday were, of course, historians making their way to the first of the day’s three sessions. The solemnity of the place, if such a glittering Mecca of high-end consumerism can ever be solemn, was eventually shattered by its late opening to the general public, but for a time at least the only occupants of the mall who wore bow ties did so unironically (and, being trained and dexterous professionals, no doubt tied their own bows).

The first session of the day was interrupted at 10:00 am by a cryptic fire alarm that requested all persons in the building to “stand by” for an evacuation order. The order never actually came, but nevertheless panels and the exhibition hall emptied within minutes. At 10:10, the all-clear sounded—a malfunctioning air conditioner on the fourth floor had triggered the alarm, and at no time was there any danger.

Still, a fire alarm is more than enough to get the heart pumping in the morning, and attendees of the session on the academic job market certainly needed a jolt after Robert Townsend’s grim report on job openings and newly-minted PhDs. While Dr. Townsend had little good news to add to his report published in this month’s edition of Perspectives (indeed, he said he get nervous writing these reports because of the often “dysfunctional” response from PhD programs), there are two bright spots: 1) Job ads have, compared to December of last year, gone up 21 percent, and 2) history is far from the only field seeing such dismal numbers. Law schools, long the proverbial port-in-a-storm for many history B.A.s, were slammed in the New York Times today in an article openly questioning whether law school is a “losing game.”

After noting that the history profession has been in a state of semi-dysfunction for a long time, the alarm bells literally rang.

The afternoon saw a shift, at least with this reporter, from the internal dynamics of the history profession to the international dynamics of the so-called global war on terror in a panel organized by Juan Cole and Priya Satia. Carolyn Eisenberg of Hofstra University called on historians to take a much more active role in debating the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an appeal echoed by each member of the panel. The real challenge, though, is that there’s little point to academic activism for young career-minded historians when the job market is so tight and tenure is not granted for academic activism. But it is critical that young(er) historians get engaged. A study of the past, she said, even in an unrelated field, gives insight and wisdom, and historians do have the ability to contribute to public discourse.

Greg Grandin, located across town from Eisenberg at NYU, offered a living illustration of Eisenberg’s dictum. Grandin related how U.S. policy and perceptions of Latin America, specifically countries where the United States has intervened in domestic affairs (like Granada and Columbia) have influenced policymaking in the Middle East. Columbia’s counterinsurgency efforts, for example, are often cited by COIN advocates as proof of the method’s success.

Befitting a panel with war in the title, military historians were represented on the panel by Ohio State’s Peter Mansoor and Stanford’s Priya Satia. Dr. Mansoor served in the Army for twenty-six years, commanded the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division in Iraq from 2003-2004 (the unit was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation under his command), and was General David Petraeus’s executive officer when he served as the commander of multinational forces in Iraq.

Mansoor sought to outline the military history of the “wars of 9/11” by tying them to the evolution of American military doctrine in the post-Cold War world. For U.S. military theorists, the Gulf War symbolized the beginning of a new revolution in military affairs, in which cutting edge technology would lift the fog of battle and make wars quick, destructive, and fought from long ranges (in fact, this revolution has been ongoing since the invention of the microprocessor in the 1950s). The Bush administration embraced this thinking wholeheartedly in the initial stages of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and indeed the opening stages of the wars seemed to vindicate its position.

However, the military revolution was essentially tactical in nature, whereas wars are won and lost on a strategic basis (the German military performed brilliantly in a tactical sense during the World Wars but still lost due to faulty strategies). Furthermore, the Bush administration failed to recognize how military occupations are successful, despite the former president citing Germany, Japan, and South Korea as models in his memoirs. However, neither the Japanese nor the Germans had any will to resist due to the destructiveness of the conflict on their countries, but large swaths of the Iraqi people were essentially untouched by the war and hence the psychological conditions for a successful occupation were not met. The administration, Mansoor concluded, failed to appreciate the unchanging nature of warfare.

Priya Satia followed with an examination of Great Britain’s experience in Iraq after World War I. Britain entered Iraq just as it developed into mass democracy, a form of government which precludes easy imperial adventures. Satia explained that Britain practiced a form of “covert empire” in Iraq, a government effort to limit what information about Iraq was discussed in public. Historians were essential to maintain this control, and even acted as intelligence officers for the military and Foreign Service. This same cultivated public ignorance exists today in the United States—the government does not, for example, keep public records of Iraqi casualties. However, the father-son duo of Edward and E.P. Thompson offered another role for the historian beyond enabler: that of activist against the paranoid government secrecy that is an paradoxical corollary to mass democracy. Therefore, with one or two notable exceptions, the majority of academics favored by the Bush administration were political scientists, economists, and cultural anthropologists, not historians.

The problem is that many historians have abdicated their responsibility as public critics, and part of the problem is that so many historians believe that entering a public debate undermines their “academic seriousness.” To this, Satia offered this response: the historian’s real audience is the public itself.

Juan Cole regaled the audience with his own conflicts with Washington policy elites since 2003, detailing the faulty historical analogies of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney when they compared al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein to the threat represented by Nazi Germany, but in actual capability the former more closely resembles the Baader Meinhof gang.

A somewhat more pernicious analogy, according to Cole, is the British counterinsurgency in Malaya. He recalled when he was on a radio show with John Mearsheimer and Max Boot in 2003. Boot brought up Malaya as a successful counterinsurgency, but he failed to take into account three major differences between Iraq and Malaya. First, the British had been in Malaya since the nineteenth century; second, the insurgents were ethnic Chinese communists, not Malays; and third, as Mearsheimer put it, “Max, the British aren’t in Malaya anymore.” Boot also spoke positively of the Philippine War, something rare in the halls of academia (and in the Philippines). Cole found Boot’s views to be flawed and morally questionable, but Boot was speaking the language of power. We have to study this, he said, because it was people who thought like Boot who made the decisions that took us to war.

Dr. Cole also contributed the final word during the Q&A. A 9/11 conspiracy theorist had just started to expound on the supposed controlled demolition of the World Trade Center when Cole cut in, “I study al Qaeda for a living and you’re just wrong.”

On Saturday evening, as always, the AHA held its business meeting, where new AHA executive director James Grossman gave his first business address as AHA executive director. While AHA membership has declined over the past three years, Grossman admitted, over 5,000 people have attended the 2011 conference, 400 more than last year and, given the times, more than could have reasonably been expected. Still, the advent of digital communications have rendered the networking component of the AHA less important, and this could help explain reduced membership numbers.

Three days down, one more to go! Stay tuned for HNN’s wrap-up of the AHA tomorrow.

Day 4: January 9, 2011

Sundays at the AHA are usually sedate affairs, so it must have been the collective drawing power of John Hope Franklin and the global war on terror as topics that caused the crowds to gather (though it must be said many in the audience at both panels had luggage in their hands, testament to the noon checkout times at most of the hotels).

The panel, which included Dr. Franklin’s son John W. Franklin, currently director of partnerships and international programs at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, alternated between fond remembrances and antecdotes of the distinguished scholar with calls to action on the part of historians to write the kind of history that Dr. Franklin articulated. This theme was reinforced when the panel took audience questions and comments—one participant explained how Franklin viewed the black world as truly international, beyond the English-speaking Atlantic or even the French-speaking Caribbean paradigm. But there was also a call-to-arms: many were incredulous that most of their history students—even their African American students—did not recognize Dr. Franklin’s name upon entering their classrooms. Then there was the testimony of the panel chair, Tiffany Ruby Patterson of Vanderbilt University. She related a story her colleague, a residential advisor in the freshman dorm, told her about election night 2008. The colleague overhead a conversation between a group of white students, one of whom exclaimed, “I can’t believe there’s going to be a nigger in the White House.” A post-racial society indeed.

The very last session of the convention is almost always the most-poorly attended, so the sour grapes of the gentleman who noted with some bitterness in his voice that, ten minutes before “‘The Global War on Terror”…’ that the panel already had “four times the audience we had,” attributable in part to the star power of presenter Andrew Bacevich and chair Staughton Lynd.

After Lynd’s opening remarks, Dr. …. Bix of SUNY Binghampton launched  a scathing critique of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, unfavorably comparing the actions of the U.S. government and military today with the professed ideals of the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals. U.S. actions in Asia today, Bix said, are “criminal,” and he spoke of a system of deception to mislabel Afghan resistors to U.S. imperialism as “terrorists,” blaming deeply-rooted racism in American in part for brutality overseas.

Carl Mirra offered a similar perspective, albeit one that contained less loaded language and more voices from American soldiers themselves. Though he added the disclaimer that he did not use a necessarily representative sample of soldiers overseas, Mirra drew on reports and personal interviews with American military personnel to paint a picture of a military with deep misgivings about the strategic and moral mission in Afghanistan. Nearly all the cited men and women noted the anti-imperalistic nature of resistance to the occupation, with a special forces operator from Arkansas going perhaps the furthest: “I started to feel that I was somehow the terrorist [and] the real enemy in Afghanistan is the U.S.” He also questioned the morality, ethics, and effectiveness of the U.S. prison system in Afghanistan.

Andrew Bacevich certainly brought, as a Vietnam veteran and career military officer, the most impressive military credentials to the panel and, with the exception of Peter Mansoor, quite possible to the entire convention. Bacevich disclaimed that, unlike his fellow presenters, he believed that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in their initial stages strategically sound within the framework of the Bush freedom agenda. Bacevich also believes that Bush’s conversion to Wilsonian interventionism was sincere, albeit convenient. The problem with the freedom agenda was that it didn’t work. Iraq was supposed to be its proving ground, but even the Bush administration, especially during the build-up to the surge, was forced to admit the strategy’s failure. The surge in Iraq did succeed in the narrow sense that it averted outright defeat, but it did nothing to enhance the credibility of the freedom agenda.

So where lies the future of the “long war on terrorism”? Obama has doubled down on the war in Afghanistan (indeed, Iraq seems like a quaint memory in the American media landscape these days) because 9/11 was birthed in Afghanistan. Terrorists, however, can operate from anywhere, and in any event the war is dramatically destabilizing Pakistan, a country of far greater global and strategic importance. Few in Washington show any concern about this, which in and of itself shows the strategic bankruptcy of the endeavor.

When taken in tandem with yesterday’s panel featuring (among others) Peter Mansoor, Pritya Satia, and Juan Cole, it would appear that historians have lost any hope for a speedy resolution of the wars of 9/11. Indeed, in the Q&A following his presentation, Bacevich alluded to a deeper rot in American culture that has contributed to the origins and prosecutions of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, a rot which privileges consumption over engaged citizenship.

And, with that, the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association came to a close, in a convention center-cum-shopping mall.