OAH's Developing Strategic Plan: An Update and More Survey Results Planning Takes Center Stage

Linda Shopes

As OAH Newsletter readers likely know, the Organization of American Historians has undertaken a lengthy strategic planning process, initiated in 2007 by then President Nell Painter and concluding this fall, with the presentation of the final strategic plan to the OAH Executive Board for action at its November meeting. This plan, succeeding one that has guided the OAH since 2003, will chart a course for the organization's activities for the next five years. In doing so, it builds upon the OAH's historic commitment to excellence and considerable achievements in recent years, even as it recognizes and responds to the economic, technological, and professional challenges facing the organization, its members, and the historical profession. Especially urgent is addressing ways new technologies are rapidly affecting OAH's traditional services and revenue streams, even as they create new modes of producing and disseminating scholarship and raise expectations for new forms of communication.

President Elaine Tyler May reported on the broad contours of the strategic plan as it is developing in the May OAH Newsletter; these merit repeating. The draft plan defines six broad goals:

  • sustain and strengthen the production and dissemination of historical scholarship;
  • create a larger and more inclusive OAH;
  • broaden and deepen the OAH's commitment to outstanding instruction in American history;
  • meet the challenge of the revolution in information technology;
  • communicate the OAH's mission, programs, and achievements to the profession and the larger public; and
  • create an integrated, sustainable, and efficient organization for the twenty-first century.

The draft plan was discussed at the 2009 OAH Annual Meeting, including at a forum open to all conference attendees. OAH members have subsequently directed additional comments to the Strategic Planning Committee. While comments have been generally favorable, members have also identified some concerns not directly addressed in the current draft: the need for a greater emphasis on advocacy, especially for issues related to the continuing reliance on contingent faculty and the erosion of requirements for history courses at all educational levels; attention to matters of assessment of student achievement, coherence of the major, and research productivity; more sustained collaboration with specialized historical organizations as well as other scholarly societies to address contemporary challenges; and the need to build in mechanisms for the OAH staff and executive board to implement the plan, monitor progress, assess success, and make appropriate adjustments over the plan's five-year life span. The committee will be considering these concerns in coming weeks and welcomes further input from the members through October 1.

May also reported some key findings of the online membership survey developed by the Strategic Planning Committee as an aid to its work: a general congruence between what members value and the core programs of the organization, with a particularly high value placed on the Journal of American History; a regard for the organization's capacity to keep its members apprised of the latest scholarship; a deep sense of professional pride and satisfaction in "being a historian" and "doing history;" a membership (at least as represented by survey respondents) dominated by college and university faculty--but not by much, as the organization moves toward a more inclusive agenda, a move members firmly endorse; and underdevelopment of the OAH's digital presence and services.

Additional Survey Results

What follows are some additional findings from the survey and some modest observations about their possible implications for the OAH and the strategic plan. Keep in mind that while survey returns were quite good (13% of OAH members) and responses might reasonably be understood to represent the membership in general, respondents were also a self-selected group, not a formally selected sample.

As May reported, respondents overwhelming identified "to be part of a community of historians" and "to receive the Journal of American History" as their primary reasons for joining the OAH--these two were selected almost twice as often as any of the other seven reasons listed on the survey. Also interesting are those reasons that were infrequently selected, among them "to receive the OAH Newsletter" and "to support advocacy and lobbying efforts." More on the Newsletter below, but what about the apparent lack of interest in advocacy and lobbying? Surely the OAH should not discontinue its efforts in this area. Perhaps it needs to inform members better about the value of these activities. Perhaps we historians need to be more engaged with the governmental and institutional policies that impact our work.

Responses to questions about the characteristics of members revealed some interesting patterns. One-third of respondents have been OAH members for five years or fewer; one-fourth, for twenty-five years or more. The membership also seems to be aging: 27%--the single largest percentage of respondents--have been members of the profession for more than thirty years. Clearly, the organization has a dedicated core of longtime members and has been quite successful in attracting new members, but numbers suggest that retention, especially of younger historians, is an issue. OAH members are also joiners: respondents noted membership in dozens of other historical organizations; nearly one-half are members of the American Historical Association; more than 10% are members of the Southern Historical Association and the American Studies Association. One final membership statistic deserves attention: of those respondents teaching at the postsecondary level, just over one-fourth are contingent faculty, underscoring the concern that the current draft plan does not adequately address advocacy on their behalf.

Many of the survey questions addressed the OAH's core programs: the annual meeting, the Journal of American History, OAH Newsletter, and the OAH Magazine of History. Survey respondents have not regularly attended an annual meeting; not surprisingly, cost is the most important factor in determining attendance--a fact that is not likely to change. Nearly one-third also noted that the meeting does not adequately cover their interests, listing dozens of scholarly fields they would like to see included more frequently. Predictably, most often mentioned were politics, diplomacy, constitution/law, economy, early America, Native America, religion, science, technology, and the arts. Also noted was an interest in more sessions with a broad focus and more state of the field sessions. Respondents also expressed considerable interest in a more sociable and programmatically diverse meeting, with additional opportunities for networking and informal conversation (34% of respondents); more sessions about teaching (33%), professional issues/professional development (29%), and public history (24%); and more new format sessions (25%). Still, 22% indicated the meeting should stay the same.

Reflecting the high value placed on the Journal of American History, 91% of respondents reported that they receive the Journal as part of their membership; nearly half read at least one article shortly after it arrives. Not surprisingly, book reviews are the most popular feature, read by 85% of those receiving the Journal; in addition, they read articles of general interest (70%), use the JAH to enhance teaching (44%), and to inform public history projects (18%). Insofar as 43% of respondents reported their primary professional affiliation as something other than four-year or university faculty, the Journal is clearly valued by all sectors of our profession.

While respondents ranked "to receive the OAH Newsletter" only seventh of nine reasons listed for joining the OAH, 62% ranked it as "very important" or "important" to their continued membership and only 9% reported not reading it. Nearly one-third, on the other hand, reported reading the entire OAH Newsletter, with feature stories and news and announcements of nearly equal interest. "To receive the OAH Magazine of History" ranked fifth among reasons for joining OAH, and 59% of respondents ranked it as "very important" or "important" to continued membership. It is, however, received by only one-third of respondents. Among MOH recipients, feature articles, historiographic essays, teaching strategies, and teaching with documents are valued about equally. More than half have drawn upon the Magazine's teaching strategies in their classrooms.

Issues of digital publication loom large for the OAH, and several survey questions assessed respondents' experience and views about online publication. In general, responses suggest that the online version of the JAH is underused: one-third of respondents do not use it at all; and only 13% prefer the online format. One-fourth use the Journal's electronic archives instead of saving paper copies. Of those who do access the Journal online, most frequent uses include Recent Scholarship Online (44% of respondents), assignment of online articles in classrooms (39%), and Teaching the JAH (19%). Almost three-fourths of respondents currently read the print OAH Newsletter exclusively; slightly more than half, however, would find an exclusively online Newsletter acceptable--a reassuring finding, since, as reported elsewhere in these pages, the OAH will discontinue its print publication in 2010. Still this move will likely prove disconcerting to some, as a significant minority responded that exclusive online publication would reduce the Newsletter's value and a small minority indicated they would not read it online. However, more than 70% of respondents also reported they would welcome periodic email updates or special announcements as a supplement to the Newsletter, suggesting a way new media can increase OAH's communication with members and hence enhance the value of membership. Among respondents who receive the OAH Magazine of History, slightly less than half would find an exclusively online version acceptable; a virtually equal number feels it would diminish the magazine's value, and a small minority--but slightly larger than for the OAH Newsletter--would not read it online. Thus there is more--but not by much--opposition to an exclusively online version of the MOH than to an exclusively online version of the OAH Newsletter. Overall, respondents, long used to print publications, are not eager to embrace exclusive online publications, but for the most part seem willing to accept them.

Responses to questions about the OAHwebsite indicate that it also is underused: 36% of respondents access the site once a semester, 28% once monthly; 20%, once annually; and 12%, never. Nearly two-thirds of those to access the site do so for information about the annual meeting; slightly more than one-third for access to the History Cooperative, Recent Scholarship Online, or membership information; and slightly more than one-fourth for information about professional opportunities. While some comments suggest a degree of skepticism about the value of web-based services and urge the organization to move cautiously and carefully in adopting them, respondents also indicated ways the OAHwebsite could be more useful to them: providing more resources for teaching (33%) and scholarship (31%), more news about the profession (24%), more information about jobs and employment (22%), and a location for online discussions and forums (22%). These preferences generally parallel ways respondents use electronic media in their professional lives--to develop bibliography and do research, support teaching, and communicate with colleagues. Very few--less than 10%--have developedwebsites for other than classroom use, maintain blogs, or use listservs or live chats for classroom discussion. Overall, respondents' interests in new media are quite conventional, and as a group they have not adopted more sophisticated interactive technologies. Their responses both suggest opportunities and advise a measure of caution as the OAH seeks to enhance itswebsite.

Overall, the survey of OAH members suggests a general level of member satisfaction with OAH programs and services and support for the broad framework of the developing strategic plan. It is not a mandate for sweeping changes, and that it not what the plan aims for. Rather, perhaps reflecting the intellectual culture of historians, the strategic plan is a set of judicious, measured recommendations aimed at advancing the organization over the next five years, while building on its considerable strengths.