The American Historian

The Year Before Us

 Like many of you, I attended the 2017 annual meeting in New Orleans. There, as I talked with colleagues from a range of ages and backgrounds, the conversations both heartened and concerned me. Our profession, as the program demonstrated once again, is surging with energy. New ideas, approaches, passions, and controversies animate explorations of an ever-growing array of topics. The award ceremony celebrated the  inaugural prize in LGBTQ history even as other prizes acknowledged excellent work in long-established fields of American history. Behind the scenes, colleagues worked to improve the OAH in many ways, from disability history to public history, from the status of women to the role of teaching. 

Like a shadow, though, worries and problems seemed to hover over public and private conversations. The tone of our national politics fed an undercurrent of anxiety, often conveyed as bitter humor. Outside the confines of the conference, the decline of professional opportunities weigh on graduate students and their advisors. The challenges and costs borne by growing numbers of contingent and adjunct faculty become ever more evident. Declining enrollments lead long-tenured historians to worry about their departments’ place in their institutions. The National Endowment for the Humanities, so important to the work of so many historians, faces an uncertain future. 

The sense of crisis has been building for years but recent political events have crystallized that sense into something more concrete and immediate. Some colleagues call for strong statements of purposes and principles; others believe such statements futile. Some historians call for collective action; others believe historical work is the most effective action. Some seek innovations to reach new audiences; others focus on scholarly books and the values they embody. 

 As the new president of the OAH, I listened to these conversations with interest and concern. As the annual meeting shows, the organization commands great strengths. We are a respected national organization with seven thousand members in every state. We earn authority through rigorous scholarship and peer review, embodied in the leading journal in American history. 

The OAH is increasingly a coalition rather than a homogenous professional body. Though we are tied together by our dedication to history, our differences are apparent. We come from all kinds of backgrounds and work with students and audiences from all walks of life. A high school teacher, a museum professional, and an archivist may approach the same period in American history in quite different ways. A filmmaker, a living history interpreter, and a digital historian can see history from particular angles.

These differences can sometimes seem to be organizational weaknesses, but they can be strengths if we use the difference in creative ways. Just as divergent historiographical perspectives illuminate a topic from different angles, so can the multiplicity of perspectives embodied in the OAH allow us to see our common work in fuller ways. 

The next annual meeting, in Sacramento, takes advantage of these differences and demonstrates commonalities that sometimes seem hidden. I had the opportunity to watch our program committee, expertly led by William G. Thomas and Claudrena Harold, weave together exciting proposals and ideas for a different kind of OAH meeting next year, one that acknowledges and celebrates the distinct forms in which we represent history. People submitted exciting proposals in public history, indigenous history, and digital history. The program includes innovative workshops called “Doing History,” which explores the possibilities of animation, podcasting, performance, and other ways of practicing our craft.

The meeting in Sacramento will also introduce another innovation, what we are calling the Amplified Initiative. Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the sessions at the meeting will be recorded in digital audio, augmented by a broad range of video interviews, and framed and disseminated by partners in K-12 teaching and public history. For teachers, the National Council on History Education, the National Humanities Center, and the College Board will offer useful highlights and syntheses. For public historians, the National Council on Public History and its allies will frame topics and issues of particular interest. H-Net will help us reach people across the profession.

The Amplified Initiative will also allow the annual meeting to reach members of the organization who are not able to travel to Sacramento because of cost, distance, or family responsibilities. Members will be able to stream hundreds of sessions, selected by theme or period. Those who attend the meeting can listen to concurrent sessions they missed or revisit a talk they heard but want to hear again. Those who make presentations will be able to download copies to use for job applications or promotion files. The Amplified Initiative will tap latent possibilities in our meeting.

There are other ways we can take advantage of the OAH to do things that we cannot do on our own as individuals, as departments, or as specialized fields. We can strengthen connections with partner organizations, from the American Historical Association to associations focused on particular periods and regions in American history. We can use the Journal of American History, The American Historian, and our growing online publications to build our collective purpose.

None of the challenges we face will disappear in the year before us. The best response, therefore, is to use our many strengths in many ways. In a time of national crisis, the historians of the nation bear a special responsibility to show historical thinking and knowledge in action.


Edward L. Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities at the University of Richmond and current OAH president. He is the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Bancroft Prize, and National Professor of the Year