Annual Meeting Day One: Historians Address Challenges to the Discipline

Two separate sessions on the first day of the AHA’s 127th Annual Meeting struck a few common chords. In “Tuning the History Curriculum: The Vision and the Reality,” John Bezis-Selfa described a discipline increasingly “pressed to articulate the value of what we do.”  And in “Challenges Facing History Departments in the Twenty-First Century: Perspectives from Department Chairs,” Christy Jo Snider noted that historians are more and more expected to “justify” their vocation.

From both sessions emerged a sense that the job of being a historian today includes actively helping to maintain the discipline by joining the project to explain and defend it. One panelist on the “Tuning” session, Kenneth Nivison, used philosophy as a cautionary example: the degree of marginalization suffered by that discipline is a feasible future for ours if historians don’t find a way to respond to the demands for demonstrable value.

Panelists remarked on pressure coming not only from policymakers or administrators looking to cut budgets, but from parents who, in the words of Nivison, wondered if their children’s choice of a history major would consign them to a future of living “on a couch in my basement.”

Several panelists spoke about the importance of building a departmental consensus about what they do and want to do. For instance, Tracy Neal Leavelle (a participant on the “Challenges” panel and a participant in the Tuning project) described his department’s efforts toward “clearly articulated outcomes.”

The idea of transparency—of “pulling back the curtain” in the words of John C. Savagian (of the Tuning panel)—came up in several ways in separate presentations.

Finally, panelists highlighted the importance of enlisting students in the effort—of helping them to become their own advocates, and thus advocates for the study of history. Savagian took pride in students who could “speak pedagogy” and took it as a sign that they were thereby taking responsibility for their own education. Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt (on the “Tuning” panel) spoke of arming students with the vocabulary fully describe their own knowledge and skills.

Leavelle emphasized that history departments, after clearly articulating their value, can avoid becoming mere “abstract critical thinking programs” by emphasizing social justice–by reclaiming history’s subversive roots. He described this as a particularly empowering process for students, as it allows them to see history at the “intersection of inquiry and personal experience.” Matthew Loayza (from the “Challenges” panel) described a student able to understand and communicate the benefit of a history education as “an ally,” someone to help defend the discipline from intrusions or the appearance of irrelevance. Robbie Lieberman faced a more dramatic departmental crisis, one that involved a strike at her institution; the turning point, she argued, came when the students started taking the side of the faculty.

Suzanne Pasztor was confident in the claim that the study of history develops valuable and transferable skills. But she cautioned about the danger of over- emphasizing transferability and skill development, as this could prompt administrators to question hiring for coverage. Why would a department need an Africanist when an Americanist can teach historical thinking just as well?

We expect to see much more discussion along these lines—of the value of history, accountability, transparency, and empowering students—throughout this year’s annual meeting.

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