January 27, 2009
By Robert B. Townsend
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.