AHA Meeting Reforms at Year Five

It has now been five years since Roy Rosenzweig (the former vice president for research) initiated reforms of the AHA annual meeting, so I thought it would be useful to go back and take a big picture look at what we managed to accomplish, and what still might need work.

Roy wanted to discourage the formal reading of papers; promote a variety of alternative session formats (discussion roundtables, poster sessions, workshops); encourage a more activist Program Committee; and foster a larger meeting. The principal instrument for reform was the Annual Meeting Guidelines (which at that time were called the Program Committee Guidelines and dealt primarily with the composition of the committee). So following his lead, the Research Division completely overhauled the guidelines to nudge members to make the meeting more interesting and engaging, articulate a number of new session types, and establish policies that would empower the Program Committee and give it a greater sense of ownership over the meeting.

Unfortunately, our surveys of meeting attendees and attendance show something of a split decision in terms of how these reforms are playing out in practice. Overall, meeting attendance has grown, and attendance at sessions using the alternative formats and/or sponsored by the Program Committee or the divisions clearly draw the largest audiences.

Despite that, a survey of 2008 meeting attendees found that members still hold the traditional paper sessions in the highest regard, and indicates that most members (84 percent) have noticed little substantive change at the meetings. It is a small comfort that 15 percent of the respondents did report that they thought the reforms changed the meeting for the better, while less than 2 percent thought it changed the meeting for the worse. On the bright side, the more meetings a member had attended, the more likely they were to say the meeting had improved.

Clearly this is an ongoing process, as we try to work out a proper balance between the different activities that go on at the meeting. But as we continue on, I welcome comments and suggestions for how we can make the meeting more engaging and informative for you as scholars and members of the history profession.

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  1. Kelly Woestman

    Encouraging and supporting a diversity of presentation styles is especially important as we incorporate new technologies before, during, and after the conference. I sensed that audiences were more engaged and that there were more active conversations than before these new approaches were first incorporated into the annual program. (I attended my first AHA meeting in 1992.)

    Additionally, the diverse formats help break down some of the perceived walls between the distinct types of institutions we each represent and open us all up to larger conversations.

    Most importantly, I applaud the AHA’s efforts to incorporate more teaching-specific panels on the program as an important way to ensure that the highest forms of scholarly activity, including the scholarship of teaching and learning, reach the largest potential number of audiences possible. As one example, the work being done by the National History Education Clearinghouse is already making great strides in bridging the gap between research and practice and merging the latest in scholarly research with the most recent discoveries in our understandings of how we understand history and how all of our students learn history.

    Reaching out to wider public audiences was another feature of this year’s program and also deserves to be recognized.

  2. Mills Kelly

    Thanks for this review. It’s nice to see that some progress is being made. One other innovation in the program that I think is worth considering is running an “unconference” track within the larger program. In this format, those coming to the meeting suggest topics they want to discuss/see discussed and then, shortly before the meeting, the organizers set the program for those sessions based on audience interest. Such an approach would make the meeting even more responsive to both participant interest and to “breaking news” in the profession—a new and controversial book, a decision by the courts to allow a government official to destroy all records of his tenure in office, etc.

  3. Larry Cebula

    I really like Mills’ idea about an unconference track. I would like to see more digital history programs and show-and-tell sessions for new websites and the like. The poster sessions are a decent idea, but in D.C. at least (and I didn’t go to NYC this year) the poster presenters were banished to some dungeon far from the maddening crowd. Put them front-and-center, perhaps right next to the book exhibit hall.

    The biggest problem with the AHA conference however has nothing to do with the presentations, it is how the job interview process infects the whole atmosphere. I would love to see the whole exploitative conference interview model eliminated.