Shortly after the 125th Annual Meeting in January of this year, staff at the AHA conducted a survey of meeting registrants as well as all members who had not attended the meeting to get a better sense of their thoughts about the annual convention.
A Diverse Meeting Experience
The responses from the 930 respondents who did attend the meeting demonstrate some of the wide variations in the types of attendees we have at the meeting: While one in six of the respondents did not attend any AHA sessions, half of the attendees reported attending one of the sessions sponsored by one of our affiliates. Those two categories are not mutually exclusive, given the large number of AHA sessions that are co-sponsored by the affiliates, but it does reveal a high level of awareness of the affiliate presence in our meeting.
The responses also demonstrate how a diverse array of activities at the annual meeting adds up to the totality of any one member’s experiences of the conference. With the exception of the tours (which have very limited registration) at least one out of ten respondents participated in more than one of the other services and activities at the meeting. Not surprisingly, perhaps, job candidates were the least likely to indicate that they participated in other activities at the annual meeting. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of the job candidates said they had not attended or participated in a session, while only 13 percent of the respondents said they had not attended a session.
Those who participated in the different services and activities at the conference reported high levels of satisfaction, with over 60 percent of the respondents either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the parts of the meeting they attended (Figure 1). The film festival elicited the strongest sense of satisfaction, with 42 percent of the participants reporting they were very satisfied. Given the high-profile showing of The Conspiratorthis year, which attracted a particularly large crowd, it will be interesting to see how this attendance (and satisfaction) figure compares to the results next year, when we are not likely to have a high-profile film.
While the film festival had the strongest enthusiasm, the regular sessions attracted the highest level of overall satisfaction, with 85 percent of the respondents indicating that they were pleased with the sessions they participated in (either as panelists or in the audience). There was an interesting contrast in the open comments between those who said they valued the small sessions, which allowed them to really network and meet specialists in their area of interest, and other comments that dismissed the small sessions as too narrow and pedantic. The latter generally called on the Association to generate more sessions on “big issues and themes” that would attract a wide audience. A few recognized the apparent dichotomy between these two ideals, and suggested a better balance between the two types of sessions, recommending a few more plenary sessions to draw members together out of the “hyperspecialized” sessions.
The other recurring theme in the comments about sessions (even among respondents who expressed satisfaction with them) was a complaint about scheduling similar sessions in the same time slot. The definition of what constituted similar sessions seemed extremely expansive, however, encompassing “non-US or non-European sessions” and sessions on “a variety of culturalist/history of senses/technology and media panels.” Such comments indicate that attendees are not often aware of the difficult balancing acts involved in trying to cram 300 sessions into nine time slots. And just to highlight the challenge of pleasing everyone, a few respondents complained that the meeting was “too long” and contained “too many sessions.”
Among the activities under the Research Division’s purview, the poster sessions seemed to generate the most polarized opinions. Nevertheless, while 60 percent of those who went to the poster sessions said they were satisfied with it, 11 percent said they were dissatisfied. From the open comments, it appears that the strongest objections were about the location of the session, which they felt was a little too far off the beaten track. Looking at the numbers, however, I was a bit surprised that 12 percent of the respondents said they participated in or attended the poster sessions. If that number is accurate, it may pay to review the aesthetics and flow of participants through the room. The numbers suggest that many historians are walking by the posters, but very few are stopping to engage with the presenters.
Not surprisingly, the Job Center also elicited highly polarized opinions—while 61 percent of the historians who had some direct experience of the Center said they were satisfied, 16 percent said they were dissatisfied. The job candidates were the most dissatisfied, as 20 percent noted some displeasure (and 5 percent said they were very dissatisfied).
One of the most troubling findings from the survey is the wide disparity in satisfaction levels between those who were coming to the meeting for the first time, and those who were clearly regular attendees. On most questions, the satisfaction levels of first-time attendees were 10 to 20 percent lower than their counterparts among the regular attendees. The widest disparity was on the luncheons, where only 50 percent of the first timers said they were satisfied with their experience at the meeting, as compared to 76 percent of the attendees who had attended five meetings or more. The only meeting activity on which there was relative parity was on satisfaction with the sessions. And first-time attendees expressed slightly higher levels of satisfaction with the poster session than the regular attendees.
The first time attendees are, as might be expected, younger than the more frequent attendees, and their concerns generally reflect disparities in income and social networks. They expressed particular concern about the costs of attendance, but also voiced a number of other concerns ranging from the facilities at the meeting to a sense of alienation in the large and teeming crowds. Among those attending the meeting as job candidates, for instance, their deepest dissatisfaction was not aimed at the Job Center, it was directed at the networking opportunities at the annual meeting. Over the coming year we will be working hard to develop new events and activities to facilitate networking at the 2012 meeting.
Reasons for Not Attending
A separate survey of members who did not attend the meeting (which elicited 219 responses) suggests the wide variety of reasons that limit attendance. Happily, the reason cited least often was the quality of the sessions and activities on the program. Only 14 percent of the respondents cited that as a reason. Financial considerations were the greatest concern—cited by 56 percent of the respondents to the survey—and almost a third said either the location or scheduling conflicts kept them from the meeting this year. The members also cited an array of other considerations, such as the size of the meeting, departmental support for conference travel, and the challenges involved in setting up panels for someone who does not have an extensive network. The issue cited most frequently, however, was the weather. As one commenter observed, “Going north in the winter makes no sense. The chances of weather affecting transportation is too great. Go south in the winter and north in the summer. It’s that simple.”
When crosstabulated by the number of meetings attended, the responses from nonattendees differed sharply from the responses of those who did attend this year. Respondents who had attended at least five meetings but skipped this year’s meeting were the most negative about various aspects of the annual conference. While 82 percent of those who had attended the meeting only once were satisfied with the AHA sessions, for instance, only 70 percent of those who had attended five meetings or more expressed similar satisfaction.
Judging from the open comments, these were often older attendees who felt their particular areas of interest (e.g., military, diplomatic, premodern) were underrepresented in sessions at the meeting or that topics they did not care for (e.g., “politically correct history”) were overrepresented. And where 70 percent of the one-time attendees expressed satisfaction about the Job Center, only 58 percent of the regular attendees shared their sentiments.
From other surveys, we know that a large contingent of historians feel alienated from the Association for similar reasons—that their interests are given short shrift within the AHA and their experience with the Job Center was emotionally scarring. This provides an important indicator that those sentiments exist even within the membership of the AHA. Whether and how we can address these concerns going forward will obviously be a significant challenge for the future.