Walls of Privilege: Inclusion at the AHA and Other History Conferences

Late last week and over the weekend, my Twitter and Facebook were buzzing with posts from historians at the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver. I was glad to see their posts, and especially glad to read of my friends’ and colleagues’ successes. The AHA’s digital success is a wonderful development, for all the reasons Stephanie Kingsley mentions in her Perspectives on History article published after last year’s meeting, but, for most historians, they might as well be tweeting from the fiery surface of Venus. Most of us–many thousands of grad students, historians working in government, adjuncts, secondary educators, and independent scholars, to name but a few–don’t have the freedom or resources to attend a conference in the Mile High City. We’re left on the margins of the conversation, attempting to piece arguments together from 140-character summaries made in the heat of the moment and conversations with colleagues after the fact. As the well-intentioned Tweets below suggest, it’s not always easy to follow along from the outside.

The AHA, OAH, and other professional bodies continue to advocate for the importance of historical training for students across all academic disciplines and the specific relevance of graduate training in history for students entering other professional fields. The OAH suggests that grad students should “develop [their] Plan A to include jobs that are not in academia and ones that [they] might enjoy equally as well as…teaching,” while the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians Initiative is working with pilot departments “to explore the culture and practice of graduate education and how it can better support the changing needs of graduate students.” These initiatives and suggestions are timely and smart. As Anthony T. Grafton and James Grossman argue in a recent article in Perspectives, “holders of doctorates in history occupy, or have recently occupied, a dizzying array of positions outside the academy” including positions at every level of government, the armed forces, and cultural institutions around the world. Historians are everywhere.

Thoughtful essays and career diversity initiatives are too easily forgotten when annual meetings roll around. These distant and costly affairs make it startlingly clear who the AHA, OAH, and other major associations see as real historians: scholars with deep pockets. (1) Most scholars are cut out of the conversation, unable to scale the walls of privilege surrounding the field’s most important gatherings. We can read programs, thumb through exhibitor’s guides, and try to live vicariously through social media, but the most important aspects of the meeting—the exchange of ideas and professional networking—remain depressingly out-of-reach. (2)

It should not be this way. Streaming live video, moderated chats and debates, and digital publishing are ubiquitous, accessible, and inexpensive. Sessions, round-tables, and addresses should be broadcast over the web, open to moderated discussion by all. H-Net and Reddit AMAs should play a significantly larger role in the digital infrastructure of the conference.

While historians can’t help but walk into the future staring backward, avoiding these technologies is not prudently conservative; it is counterproductive. Technology is not a panacea. One look at the last Presidential election lays bare the internet’s deep flaws. But as a professional organization dedicated to career diversity, the AHA should lead the way in 2018 to open the doors of its annual meeting to the thousands of scholars who cannot afford a plane ticket, hotel stay, or cocktails at the bar. The OAH and others should follow. Until then, I’ll be at work in my government office, squinting at #aha17 tweets on my lunch break and plunging into archival sources by night.

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