Sunday, January 6, 2013

It is Time for a President of the American Historical Association Who Does Not Work at a Research University

What do all of these former American Historical Association presidents have in common?

2012: William Cronon--U of Wisconsin
2011: Anthony Grafton--Princeton
2010: Barbara Metcalf--U of Michigan
2009: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich--Harvard
2008: Gabrielle Spiegel--Johns Hopkins
2007: Barbara Weinstein: University of Maryland
2006: Linda Kerber--University of Iowa
2005: James Sheehan--Stanford University
2004: Jonathan Spence--Yale
2003: James McPherson--Princeton
2002: Lynn Hunt--UCLA
2001: William Roger Louis--U of Texas
2000: Eric Foner--Columbia
1999: Robert Darnton--Princeton
1998: Joseph C. Miller- U of Virginia
1997: Joyce Appleby--UCLA

Apart from the fact that they are outstanding and groundbreaking scholars, they were all teaching at research universities while they served as president of the American Historical Association.  In fact, the last president of the AHA who did not teach at a research university was Nellie Nielson, who was president in 1943.  Nielson, who also happened to be the first female president of the AHA, spent most of her career at Mt. Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women in South Hadley, MA.

I can understand why so many AHA presidents come from research universities.  They have time to write, produce, and thus make a name for themselves in the profession.  But after attending the recent American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans, I wonder if it is time to buck this trend.

As we have noted extensively on this blog, outgoing AHA president William Cronon urged the profession to reconnect with the public through teaching, the Internet, and other digital efforts.  I know that Cronon's interests reflect the interests of the AHA staff.  They are building a larger tent that covers not just academics who write award-winning books, but professors from smaller institutions, public historians, digital historians, K-12 teachers, and a host of other non-academics who "do history."

So why not think about an AHA president who lives and works in the trenches--a sort of "people's president" who represents the vast majority of historians in America, both inside and outside the academy?  Why not have a president who is a professor at a liberal arts college who spends most of his or her time in the classroom, does his or her job well, and has few aspirations of working at a research university? Why not a public historian or a director of a historical society or history museum?  Why not a high school teacher?  It would be fun to imagine what kind of AHA presidential address these historians might deliver or what kind of initiatives they might promote.