Initial Thoughts from the AHA / ASCH / ACHA

Today is the final day of the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, along with the annual meetings of the American Society for Church History and the American Catholic Historical Association, but I am back at my desk in Boston after spending the last three days in New Orleans.

This year was my first year participating in the ACHA, as part of a panel titled “A Matter of Individual Choice: The Lives of American Catholic Converts.” My co-panelists were Erin Bartram, Stephanie Jacobe (who organized the panel), and Charles Gallagher, and Una Cadegan chaired the panel. My colleagues each gave papers on individual converts: Erin on Jane Sedgwick, Stephanie on Thomas Fortune Ryan, and Charles on Emmanuel H. Chapman. My role on the panel was to attempt something like a synthesis (as much as one can in seven pages), which I did in a paper on “Catholic Converts in the Nineteenth-century Market of Souls” (PDF). I admired the depth of research that each of my colleagues have done into the converts that they are studying. More than any other panel I have been on, our papers worked together towards a common goal, and in the question-and-answer time we were able to productively talk with and question one another.

The past two times I’ve been to these conferences, the center of my orbit has always been the ASCH. The ASCH is extraordinarily generous to graduate students (so many free dinners!), and its panels are usually the most interesting. But because I was registered for the ACHA and thus not for the ASCH, and because I went to several of the plenary sessions at the AHA this year, this year I gravitated towards a theme I didn’t expect.

The theme was history as storytelling. I attended the first plenary session on “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age,” then Bill Cronon’s AHA presidential address “Storytelling” (video here, live tweeted by me and several others), then a panel on “Clio’s Craft: History and Storytelling” chaired by Marni Sandweiss. Since one of the subthemes of the conference was “blog more,” I’ll try to think through what I learned in a few more posts later on.

One last thought for this post, though. Several people following the conference on Twitter asked me whether the conference was as angst-ridden as it seemed. Sure—the AHA has angst a’plenty. Next year when I’m on the job market I’ll probably have enough of my own. But angst was not—for me, at least—the defining feature of the conference. Our profession faces deep problems, among them … oh, let’s not list them all here. Some of these are internal to the profession or the academy; almost all of them are connected to larger problems in society: legislatures’ divestment from education, the casualization of labor, poor education of students in primary and secondary schools, personal and governmental indebtedness, partisan gridlock and so on. Despite all those problems, I have the strong sense that the leaders of our profession are making every effort to solve them with competence and good faith. Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s proposal for “No More Plan B” and Bill Cronon’s emphasis on storytelling and the digital are only the two most recent examples. One would be naive to think that the future of the profession is bright. But I came away from the AHA with a renewed sense that the profession was valuable and could, by playing to its strengths, regain strength.

Unfortunately, beause of my early departure I missed David Hackett Fischer’s George C. Marshall Lecture in Military History, titled “Open Societies at War: A Comparative History, 1939–45.” The video of that lecture has been posted at the History News Network.

For much, much more on the AHA, see posts by John Fea and his correspondents Erin Bartram and Mary Sanders at Fea’s blog, posts at HNN, and posts at the ASCH’s blog.