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Highlights of the 2010 Annual Convention of the American Historical Association in San Diego


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Day 1: Thursday January 7, 2010

With metaphorical storm clouds on the horizon of this year’s annual AHA meeting in San Diego, one fact is indisputable: the actual weather is phenomenal. While much of the rest of the country is experiencing highs more suitable to an icebox, the forecast for southern California is positively balmy. This morning, temperatures hit the mid-60s, and there is even a possibility that the high will reach above 70 sometime during the convention – weather more suited for seersucker than tweed.

Despite the pleasant clime, there are weighty issues on the docket at the AHA. Attendance is down, due to the bad economy, bleak job prospects for aspiring academics, and a distant conference location from many AHA members on the East Coast, according to AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones. Since the publication of Robert Townsend’s report on the job market earlier this week, the blogosphere has been abuzz with comments on the worsening situation.

Another big question on everyone’s mind at the AHA is the controversy surrounding the location of the convention at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. As attendees of last year’s conference will remember, Douglas Manchester, the owner of the Grand Hyatt, contributed $125,000 to the successful Proposition 8 campaign to ban gay marriage in the state of California. Gay-rights activists have called for a boycott of the hotel, an unclear factor in the low attendance numbers. Because of the expenses involved in canceling the convention, which has been pre-booked at the Grand Hyatt since 2003, the AHA decided to embark on a radical course – to feature a 15-panel threaded “mini-conference,” which, in a departure for the AHA, will be open to the public. The local media has already taken notice – this morning’s San Diego Union-Tribune ran convention coverage as its leading story, and local TV station San Diego 6 interviewed AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones about the public focus of the conference.

Despite the efforts by the AHA to publicize its LGBTQ panels, a protest is planned for tomorrow afternoon in front of the hotel by boycott backers. Historians Against the War, embroiled in its own controversy due to a recent statement by David Beito accusing the organization of bias against its libertarian members, will be holding a session in the adjacent Marriott in order to honor the boycott.

Easily one of the most popular sessions from today was Session #3: Is Google Good for History? Chaired by Shawn Martin of the University of Pennsylvania, and featuring the historian Dan Cohen of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Paul Duguid of UC – Berkeley’s School of Information, and Brandon Badger, one of Google’s engineers and a prominent figure in the Google Books project. The conversation was generally friendly, and the answer to the question on the part of all panels was an emphatic yes.

Professor Cohen and Professor Duguid, however, were not hesitant to sometimes harshly criticize Google Books. Professor Duguid declared that Google Books is good for history, but it is not good enough for history. In this from his address, Professor Duguid addresses Google Books’ problems with metadata, that is to say information about a book that Google either distorts or misidentifies:

Another concern was voiced during the question-and-answer session by Andrew Lee, a graduate student and librarian at NYU, who worried that Google Books, because it is such a convenient tool, will cause students to become overdependent on it, especially when it comes to foreign-language material. A student could come to him and say that “I can’t find anything on Google about… [the the Turkish removal of Greeks after World War I]… if they don’t know Turkish [or] Greek, Google Books isn’t going to help them."

With the job crisis, a boycott, scheduled protests, and a smaller-than-usual turnout, the situation may appear to onlookers to be grim. The mood in San Diego, however, is generally positive. The official opening of the meeting on Thursday night featured a session, introduced by AHA President and Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, on"Musical Encounters in the Early Atlantic," which included musical performances and sound excerpts to convey to the audience a sense of different aural sensations throughout history.

Another part of the overall sense of levity among participants no doubt stems from the surroundings. AHA-goers are spread out in several different hotels along the beautiful San Diego coast – befitting a convention with the theme “Oceans, Islands, Continents.” Many historians are staying at alternative venues than the Grand Hyatt, either out of courage of their convictions or because the Hyatt was simply filled up. On the to-do list for most is to enjoy the beach and pool facilities – the Marriott in particular has a gigantic tropical-themed pool area, and, while conventioneers do not typically wear their credentials in the water, at least one historian was overheard to declare: “After my presentation, I’m hitting the pool!”

With three more days of the AHA meeting ahead, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Day 2: Friday, January 8, 2010

Although attendance may be down at this year’s annual meeting, the weather is still spectacular! With crystal clear skies and a high today predicted to exceed 70, shorts may easily make an appearance after hours on even the more crusty members of the historical profession. “I feel guilty,” said one passerby, “about leaving my family in 7 degree weather!” Indeed, convention-goers have the tropics on their minds after hours as well – at the bar, historians are sipping daquiris, rum, and mojitos in addition to wine and beer.

Last night, San Diego 6 ran a piece on the evening news about the boycott, and ran a brief interview with AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones, who reiterated the AHA’s position and called for public participation in the conference. There are no firm numbers on the number of public attendees, but there have been very few conference-goers without AHA member IDs.

Judging by the comments board on the San Diego Union-Tribune’s piece on the meeting yesterday, there are plenty of people still unhappy with the AHA’s decision to keep the meeting at the Hyatt. So far, there have not been any protests, but there is one planned for Saturday outside the convention from 2-4 PM. In addition to Doug Manchester’s donation to the Proposition 8 campaign, unfair labor practices at the Manchester Grand Hyatt are also expected to be picketed. At noon today, a handful of demonstrators began drumming outside of the Grand Hyatt, passing out leaflets to advertise the larger protest tomorrow.

The other big story is, of course, the abysmal job market. Session #36: Interviewing in the Job Market in the 21st Century, a workshop for job seekers, drew a very large crowd, possibly the largest of all morning sessions. According to one AHA official, the number of attendees this year was probably record-breaking, a sign of the bad economy. Based on conversations that I had with several graduate students awaiting their job interviews, pessimism is the watchword of the day, but some students are trying to keep their spirits high. One graduate student I spoke to from a large Southern university was very optimistic despite the recent news. All of her colleagues have had at least some interest from hiring departments, and according to her advisor, the situation today is still better than the “big crash” in the 1970s.

One of the most topical panels of the day, and not coincidentally one of the best-attended (after the interview workshop), was Session #59: “What Has Obama Learned from History? A Roundtable on Politics, Economy, and Society.” The panel consisted of Jason Scott Smith of the University of New Mexico, Alice O’Connor of UC – Santa Barbara, Julian Zelizer of Princeton, and Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman of San Diego State. One audience member thanked the panel for “a very interesting and thoroughly depressing panel,” and indeed the main focus of the panel was the disappointment that many progressive historians feel after a year of the Obama administration.

Professor Smith offered perhaps the most hopeful outlook, drawing comparisons between President Obama’s agenda and the New Deal.

Alice O’Connor spoke at length about the transformative agenda of Barack Obama and the lessons to be learned from previous transformative presidents, especially FDR and Ronald Reagan. Professor O’Connor also noted that President Obama’s hesitancy to commit himself to a totally transformative agenda stems from his deference to entrenched interests and a overriding goal to avoid policy failures.

Julian Zelizer gave a very compelling speech on the problem of national security, drawing comparisons between the debate within the Obama administration over Iraq and Afghanistan to the tapes of LBJ’s policy meetings on Vietnam. Professor Zelizer identified several major obstacles to national security policy reform: institutional paralysis (particularly the supermajority requirement in the Senate), the dissipation of the spirit of Obama’s presidential campaign, and the president’s leadership style, which appears to be shaped by events instead of imposing upon them.

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman offered perhaps the boldest remarks, illustrating the constraints upon policy choices by American presidents because of the United States’ unique position as the guarantor of the international order and the need to maintain international credibility. Professor Hoffman said that perhaps the best way to remove these constraints upon U.S. foreign policy is to “withdraw” from its position and force the EU, China, and the ABC countries in South America to take a more active role in guaranteeing the international order.

Friday’s afternoon program was dominated by Session #71: “Gay Marriage and Proposition 8: Reflections,” located in the Grand Hyatt, both because of its high turnout and the combined presence of CSPAN and a security guard, fueled by fears of disruption by protestors. Professor Jennifer Manion of Connecticut College spoke briefly about the presence of LGBTQ history within the wider context of the historical profession, and about the conundrum of whether LGBTQ scholars should attend the conference in light of the political situation.

Professor Jonathan L. Walton, a religious studies scholar at UC – Riverside, gave a stirring address on the identification of the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s, an analogy which agitates some elements in the African-American community, a agitation which Professor Waltons summarizes as “gay ain’t the new black,” but that black and gay are both “queer.” Professor Waltons explained that gayness and blackness have both been historically defined as abnormal, and this is the essential link between the struggle for minority rights and gay rights.

Stuart B. Schwartz of Yale had prominent place among the honorees and award recipients at the evening’s General Meeting, receiving three book prizes for his All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World. Other honorees included the Nazi Germany expert Saul Frielander of UCLA and the American historian Leon Litwick of UC – Berkeley, who were honored with the AHA Award for Scholarly Distinction.

Friday closed without any major protests, but with a major protest scheduled for tomorrow at 2:00 PM, Saturday should prove to be interesting…

Day 3: Saturday, January 9, 2010

Maybe it’s just the weekend blues, but the AHA this morning seemed a lot less chipper than it had been on Friday. The weather is still fantastic – blue skies, temperatures on the comfortable side of 60 – and the city itself is lively on a Saturday, but conventioneers were less lively than yesterday. No doubt many historians took the opportunity of a weekend in San Diego to go see the sights or take in a jog – and sightings of academics in shorts are decidedly on the rise.

The real problem is that there is still precious little good news to come out of the convention. At a panel this morning entitled “Whither History PhD Programs? The Education of Historians Report after Five Years,” NYU’s Thomas Bender, one of the authors of the original report, said that the job crisis was not really a crisis at all, but a the result of “a thirty year structural problem” in the academy, and that the crisis of reduced funding for public universities, so dramatically illustrated by the University of California system last year, has been in progress since the 1980s. Despite the recommendations in his 2004 report, basic information about graduate programs – like the percentage of students who successfully find work – is still not collected by universities, and that “this is information all the more vital because of the high stakes” for graduate students. Students need to be given the honest facts about the historical profession and prospects for job placement.

“The percentage of PhDs in history,” according to Professor Bender, “who end up in academic positions is two-thirds to three-fourths,” a figure which means anywhere from 25-33% of history PhDs work outside of academia. Very little attention is paid by academic historians, the people who are responsible for training new PhDs, to this reality. “The master-apprentice system is not a good model,” said Professor Bender, because it encourages students to view their careers as failures if they do not find a position at a top tier research university. As major research universities only account for about 30% of the job market, this is a statistical impossibility. Katherine Hijar of CSU – San Marcos praised the report for its realism about the direness of the job market, noting that it has been the proverbial elephant in the room for a very long time.

Professor Bender also spoke briefly about the dichotomy between elite institutions, many of which are reducing admissions rates, and public institutions, which are expanding the number of grad students in order to increase the pool of cheap TA labor. Professor Bender called this a “corruption of the institution” and in a later remark in the hallway as “deeply unethical.”

Largely missing from the discussion was the issue of the so-called “adjunctification” of higher education, although some audience members expressed concerns about this trend, and indeed recent lay-offs of adjuncts at large schools in favor of grad student labor.

The session, although bleak and somber, did end with a stimulating discussion of alternative PhD paths, particularly joint history programs. Princeton’s Julian Zelizer talked about the successes that he has had organizing joint public policy/history PhD programs, and UC – Irvine has been having its own victories with its history/education program. As one audience member put it, there are intellectually stimulating jobs OUTSIDE of the academy.

Although “Whither PhD?” ended on a (relatively) positive note about joint program successes, the outlook for the future of the historical profession appears to be rocky. This impression was not changed by the next session, “What Becomes of Print in the Digital Age?” Chaired by the AHA’s own Robert Townsend and featuring James W. Cortada, a trained historian and former product manager for IBM, Princeton’s Anthony Grafton, and Abby Rumsey, an independent consultant holding a Ph.D in Russian history from Harvard, the panel discussed the increasing digitization of academia. Mr. Cortada assured a rather nervous audience that “books aren’t going away,” and that even if electronics will eventually replace books, these process will take time, and probably will not be complete within our lifetime. Still, in anticipation of change, Mr. Cortada recommended that new authors should try to write for print and digital formats simultaneously by, for example, using videos as footnotes.

Anthony Grafton told a wonderful anecdote about the formation of the University of Chicago’s library system to illustrate the similarities between the creation of the modern research library at the beginning of the 20th century with the digitization project(s) of today. Unfortunately, part of the problem is that university trustees do not understand why research libraries continue to be vital to the academic life of a university.

Professor Grafton also had critical words for history departments, with the notable of exception of George Mason University, because they are not preparing their students and faculty for the implications of the digital revolution. The training of both students and faculty has to be simultaneously digital and analog, students and faculty have to be made aware that digital work is collaborative work, and that history as a discipline needs the same kind of institutional rewards that the sciences have for collaborative work.

Abby Munsey spoke about economies of abundance and economies of scarcity colliding on college campuses. Human beings have limited time and attention, but the amount of information available to students and scholars is unprecedented, and therefore the amount of material they are expected to master is enormous.

Ms. Munsey presented a future scenario where the AHA and other professional scholastic organizations represent the aggregate interests of their members and form a compendium of research libraries – the future organization of which will be determined by scholars – that will provide for the preservation needs of the profession.

During the question and answer session, the guarded optimism of the panel was undercut by the concerns of audience members. One professor expressed his skepticism that the AHA can effectively represent the aggregate interests of its members, a point conceded by the panel. Another audience member, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, complained about the treatment of historians by librarians, who increasingly dismiss historians as Luddites. This particular point was loudly seconded by many other attendees.

Dan Cohen, who was in the audience, raised some interesting questions and stimulated a good discussion about credibility. He talked about a “5% process” of verification and validation in peer-reviewed academic literature, and how with changing reader perceptions about the validity of sources of information, academic presses and journals can lose their privileged status to open access alternatives.

The evening’s program consisted of a very topical plenary session entitled “Marriage on Trial: Historians and Lawyers in Same-Sex Marriage Cases.” The panel was so topical, in fact, that two of the originally scheduled speakers, George Chauncey of Yale and Nancy F. Cott of Harvard, were unable to attend. The duo are preparing amicus briefs for the upcoming federal case in San Francisco on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, but their seats were filled by Indiana University’s Michael Grossberg and Stanford’s Estelle Friedman.

Along with Joan Heifetz Hollinger of UC – Berkeley’s law school and Linda K. Kerber of the University of Iowa, they discussed the dynamic changes in the institution of marriage in the United States, the doctrine of coverture and its replacement (some audience members scoffed at this remark) by the legal and social ideal of equality between partners.

Professor Hollinger deftly weaved very entertaining anecdotes into her remarks. She explained that neither California’s attorney general nor the governor disputed in previous court cases that marriage law is a static institution, and they even expressed pride that California was one of the first states to strike down its miscegenation law. The state’s defense was limited to the claim that it was essential to maintain the tradition of a union between one man and one woman with the potential for procreation. The state even pointed to domestic partnerships as a viable alternative to same sex-marriage.

Professor Hollinger also succinctly summarized the main issue in the upcoming federal court case: can a citizenry decide, as a popular majority, to take away a right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment from a minority group?

On a lighter note, while waiting for this afternoon’s protest to start, I ducked into a restaurant across the street from the Grand Hyatt called Kansas City Barbeque. Part of the movie Top Gun was shot there. Dozens, maybe hundreds of bumper stickers were posted up behind the bar, but one in particular caught my eye: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Who would have thought that a quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich would be in a bar across the street from the convention? Serendipity, almost as if the San Diego convention was meant to be…

Day 4: Sunday, January 10, 2009

The 2010 annual meeting of the AHA ended with a whimper today as participants filtered out of their hotels to catch their flights. Attendance at the last scheduled panel sessions was almost non-existent.

The day was not completely lost to travel, however. At a morning session entitled Reacting to the Past: Role Play, Persuasion, and Engagement in Undergraduate Teaching, Marsha Driscoll and Elizabeth Dunn from Bemidji State University in Minnesota, Nancy Reagin of Pace University, and Eastern Michigan University’s Mark Higbee ran a well-attended interactive session demonstrating a unique pedagogical method: the Reacting to the Past series, published by Longman.

Maybe the reason for the high turnout, despite the session beginning at 8:30 AM, on the last day of the meeting, the morning after a number of cocktail parties and receptions, was that the session was easily the loudest, most boisterous, and simply the most fun panel of the convention. Other panels have been, at best, guarded in tone – the disappointment that many progressive historians have about Barack Obama, the seismic changes occurring in the digitization of printed materials, the grim outlook for recent PhDs – but this morning’s session stood out for being the most optimistic and enthusiastic panel I have been to during the entire meeting.

The idea behind Reacting to the Past, which originated at Barnard College in New York in 1996, is not dissimilar to Youth in Government or Model United Nations, but transposed both to a classroom setting and to an historical event. Most useful for introductory courses and dedicated “reacting classes,” students role-play in a variety of games centered around a major historical event.

The session drew upon one of the simpler games, The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C., for an introduction to the dynamics of Reacting to the Past. This particular game is designed to have students engage with the arguments in Plato’s Republic. For this morning’s panel, a group of 20 historians sat around in a circle and played the role of the Athenian Assembly in 403 B.C.E., with the Oligarchs, Democrats, and Socratics engaged in fierce debate over the issues of the day. Other Reacting to the Past editions have games set in Tudor England, Revolutionary France, New England in the 1600s, and India in 1945.

Granted, the crowd this morning threw themselves into the game with a little more gusto than most college students, but Reacting to the Past has been almost uniformly successful in engaging undergraduate students, especially freshman and non-history majors. According to the panel, hundreds of schools now have at least one professor that uses Reacting to the Past in their lesson plans, and it has met with success at all ends of the academic spectrum, from state colleges to highly selective liberal arts schools. One of the participants in the session even expressed interest in using the materials at his university in China.

A fun, invigorating pedagogical meeting was just the way to end the convention. Why couldn’t I have taken a class like this? Most attendees didn’t stick around for the last session of panels scheduled from 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM, and the eerily deserted halls of the Hyatt underscored the most interesting feature of this year’s convention.

Unlike last year’s conference in New York, the San Diego meeting could best be described as sedate. True, the protest on Saturday did create something of a stir, but most convention-goers were either uninterested in the protest, unable to attend, or oblivious to it. The attendance numbers declined 25% from last year, and the grim job market dampened spirits.

There were few signs of despondency, but at the same time the vital energy of the conference appeared to be sapped. Despite local press coverage of the protests, the public showed almost no interest in the convention, and relatively little has been written on the blogosphere aside from gossip. If storm clouds were on the horizon on Thursday, they passed without unleashing a downpour, but overcast skies still linger.