A report of The American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in Chicago, 3-6 January 2019

On 2 January 2019 I flew to Chicago to represent BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review and the Royal Netherlands Historical Society at the Annual Meeting of our sister organization, the American Historical Association (AHA). This Annual Meeting is very similar to the Historian’s Days organized by the Royal Netherlands Historical Society which will be held in Groningen this coming summer. 

The Annual Meeting demonstrates the state of affairs of history as a discipline and as a profession in all its bearings in the United States. At first sight (and also at second sight), the American professional group is doing well. The Annual Meeting attracted over more than 7,000 (!) participants and was held in two glamorous and completely packed hotels in downtown Chicago. The conference, its organization and its facilities were all-American. At least, it responded to some stereotypes Europeans have in mind when thinking about American peculiarities, such as the massive scale of nearly everything – from the cars, to the roads, to the buildings and the cups of coffee. And indeed, above all, the meeting was a mass event in every way, no less than 24 parallel sessions were held every two hours. These sessions and panels were flanked by breakfasts, luncheons, buffets, receptions and drinks organized by the AHA itself or its affiliated societies, such as the Central European History Society or the Conference on Latin American History, in private dining rooms situated in the different hotel suites. An equally massive book fair informed participants about all the latest publications in history worldwide. Oh yes, you could get lost easily, but you would never remain intellectually unchallenged or starve to death, for sure.

The general theme of the conference addressed a historical analysis of the concept of ‘loyalty’. A large number of panels investigated how traditional loyalties towards the nation, the empire and predominantly white and male power structures were challenged by the rise of regional, anticolonial and internationalist identities and emancipatory feminist, black and migrant movements defending alternative forms of loyalty. The sessions demonstrated clearly a predilection for modern history, which is highly problematic, as experts in antique, medieval and early modern history were relatively poorly represented. On the other hand, the geographical span of the sessions seemed rather unlimited and covered nothing else than the whole world, although African history was underrepresented. 

Although (many famous) academic historians dominated the panels, the AHA gave, as usual, ample room to history teachers, curators, librarians and archivists to present and debate their work. Therefore the AHA remains loyal to its ambition to be the professional organization of áll historians in the United States. In a session organized by high school history teachers and university faculty, for example, the best pedagogical practices to promote historical thinking skills were pitched. Another panel ‘On the Front Lines of History’ brought together curators and educators at historical sites and museums to reflect on their mediating role in connecting academia and public history and on the different models of museum education.

The American Historical Association also honours a tradition to critically assess the field of scholarly publication, engaging editors, publishers and book reviewers to join in. In this context, I participated, as the Managing Editor of BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, in the Journal Editors’ Breakfast where we discussed how journals could engage a variety of audiences, by for instance adding additional sources to articles, providing teaching units and giving access to ‘field notes’ of the author. Other sessions such as a ‘Meet the Editors’ with the editorial board of the American Historical Review, a question & answer session (q & a) with journal editors from the Journal of Global History and Early Modern Women,and a second q & a session with publishers from Routledge were particularly inspiring for both the upcoming Historian’s Days this summers as well as the daily practices of BMGNLow Countries Historical Review. Yet, remarkably so, the challenge of open access, that dominates European conversations about academic publishing, was largely absent in all AHA-panels on publishing. In the United States, so it seems, open access is something of the distant future.

So far, the American field of history seems to be in good condition. Yet, at the same time, historians based in the United States are clearly struggling with several issues that sound quite familiar to Europeans as well. In ‘how to diversify the journal’, the AHA and its prestigious journal initiated a session about the ongoing dominance in academic publishing of white, male and senior researchers. Another panel questioned the precarious position of PhD-students and early career researchers. Finally, in the age of Donald Trump, the extreme right-wing attack on the humanities allegedly being ruled by ‘cultural Marxists’, the Me Too Movement and the rise of fake news, several panels were organized to discuss the position of women in the profession and the role of historians as academics and teachers in the current political landscape. By providing space for these more challenging and topical debates, the AHA positioned itself, more than ever, as the organisation that represents the interests of historians in the heart of their profession and in the heart of a deeply troubled and divided American society.

Tessa Lobbes

Managing Editor of BMGN-Low Countries Historical Review

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