Wednesday, September 16, 2009

More Cowbell: My Plan to Revive the OAH

So I was looking at the Organization of American Historians new 2009 Draft Strategic Plan and their request for member comments. The OAH is suffering the fate of many professional organizations--an aging and declining membership, fewer subscribers for its journal, less interest in its annual conference. I was typing out a long email response when it hit me: I have a blog.

I have only occasionally been a member of the OAH, usually when I go to the annual conference to present or to listen. I respect the organization, but it has never seemed very relevant to me. The articles in the Journal of American History tend to be narrow and densely written--which is fine when they publish something in one of my subfields, but of course this doesn't happen very often. The OAH conference consists largely of people in suits reading fledgling JAH articles out loud. I have drawn on the valuable OAH Speakers Bureau when designing a Teaching American History grant, and I do like the Magazine of History that they began putting out a few years ago. I always thought the OAH should be more of an
advocacy organization for funding for history programs but they don't seem to do much (correct me if I am wrong). So I have supported the OAH intermittently, sometimes feeling guilty for not doing more. Anyway, here is my plan:

1. Drop the print journal. The declining readership of the JAH is not a reason to "continue and further develop" that journal. There is simply a declining public and even professional interest in this sort of scholarship. Eliminate the print edition entirely and make it a digital publication to save money (à la the University of Michigan Press). The Magazine of History on the other hand is pretty good and should continue.

2. Reboot the conference. The conference needs an overhaul! 3 panelists + 1 commenter + passive audience = snooze fest. (The accompanying picture is of the audience at my last OAH presentation.) So
me changes:
  • Ban the reading of papers and shorten presenters time to ten minutes.
  • One-half of each session should be dedicated to discussion with the audience.
  • Ask presenters to summarize their evidence and arguments on a conference blog in advance of the conference. Allow others to comment and engage the presenters.
  • Ditch the roundtables, which are actually even more of a snooze than the traditional panels because no one prepares anything new to say. The majority of roundtables come off as the most forced and awkward imaginable sort of cocktail party conversation.
  • Free wireless throughout the session, and encourage use of a Twitter hash tag to open another channel for conversations. This is important.
  • In short, make the conference a bit more like THATCamp. Try including some "unconference" sessions at the 2010 meeting.
3. One blog to rule them all. Establish a year-round OAH community blog and discussion forum. Community blog means that any member of the OAH can create a post! Have some loose guidelines (no advocacy except for historical advocacy, no pictures of your cats) and name some moderators (and yes I am volunteering). The H-NET lists are largely moribund and online historical discussion has been atomized across a hundred different forums. The OAH can bring some of it together and gain scholarly energy and relevance. The closest model for what I have in mind is the general interest community blog MetaFilter, except limited to historians and requiring users to post under their real names.

(BTW, Katrina Gulliver and I have been discussion this at considerable length, mostly via email but here is a post where she elaborates on some of the ideas.)

4. Build up from the grassroots. Encourage smaller regional informal gatherings--OAH Pizza, Beer and History nights, OAH historical tours, the OAH History Book Discussion groups, etc. These could draw in school teachers, folks who majored in history in college but work outside the profession, and others.

5. A lifeline to independent scholars. Offer a home to independent scholars and public historians. And by a home, I mean access to the scholarly databases that are the 21st century life blood of our profession. Academic discussion boards are full of plaintive pleas from unaffiliated historians who lost access to these resources when they left graduate school and whose scholarship is hamstrung because of the fact. Work out a deal with JSTOR and MUSE and the Evans Collection and to give OAH members access as part of their paid memberships. (I see that the American Economic Association is already on it, at least with JSTOR--why not the OAH?)

6. Get on the grants train. The OAH should try to offer it services as a partner in more grant activities--especially the Teaching American History Grants. And industry of history content providers has arisen in response to the more than $800 million that the Department of Education has pumped into this program so far. Some of these content providers are frankly shady shallow commercial outfits with marginal qualifications. ( Why isn't the OAH getting on board? Its expertise is sorely needed, and could be generously rewarded.

The OAH was founded in the early 20th Century on a 19th Century model. Can it make the leap into the modern era? Can any of or professional organizations?


Candace Nast said...

I'm Canadian but it all sounds good to me! Have you heard yet? Any word if they've taken on all your suggestions?

Seriously, what you've proposed sounds like a remarkably vibrant and dynamic organization that would be attractive to and meet the needs of many. I would love it because it sounds like ThatCamp that I'd love to attend and other unconferences I've been to (BlogHer, NorthernVoice). I love unconferences. I've never understood crossing the country to listen to someone read a paper. I'd rather gather to join in things that are harder to do over distance - things like converse, workshop, demonstrate, interact...

What does it take to shakerattleandroll a bunch of historians who've been doing things the same way as long as an organization like the OAH? They say they want change, but do they really? Maybe what they're really looking for is the kind of change where nothing really changes.

Larry Cebula said...

Well the OAH is in a tough spot--as membership declines, keeping members becomes more important. But the members you have left are the ones who like things as they are, and the people who might prefer a changed organization are not members.

Jeremy Young said...

Larry, I'm way ahead of you here. I originally advocated for a history-wide community blog back in January 2007. I also suggested a history advertising network and, more recently, a Bloggers' Caucus within the AHA to advocate for counting blogging activity in tenure considerations, among other things.

Rick Shenkman of HNN is completely behind the metablog idea, by the way. He's even willing to cover hosting fees on SoapBlox. The only reason we didn't do it back in 2007 was that I was starting grad school and didn't feel I had the time.

Katrina said...

Hi Larry - thanks for the link. Some of your suggestions would apply to the AHA too - I wrote a while bag asking if there would be a twitter hashtag for AHA 2010 and I haven't heard yet.
The World History Association has also had a discussion recently on H-WORLD about the format of its conference, with various suggestions for breaking away from the traditional panel format. I agree with you about roundtables, but I thing pre-circulated paper sessions can work well (if the audience reads the paper!).

Jeremy Young said...

Also, I forgot to mention -- on one of these posts you talked about wanting some sort of feed aggregator for history blogs. There are already two such out there. Andy Walpole from History Nexus put one together a couple of years ago, but seems to have abandoned updating the project. Marcin Wilkowski also has a really good one, but it's only for digital history. Both are available on the right-hand sidebar at Progressive Historians.

qmackie said...

I have been thinking about the conference reboot a bit as well. 20 minute papers are often undisciplined rambles assuming the audience are simultaneously (a) idiots and (b) already completely familiar with why your research is important. Can't be both! (Well, seldom). Anyway, if I want to know every detail of your research, I will read your paper. If I want to decipher your charts, I will read your paper. If I want to know more or less what you are up to so I can decide if I need to read your paper, I will come to your talk, and, really, for many people that is exactly why they are in the audience.

Next conference I am planning a 5-minute theory speed-dating thing, where I will invite a dozen people who are at the conference anyway to come and show ONE Powerpoint slide addressing the question "what is the most important problem in NW Archaeology today?". Or something similar, open + provocative.

Then schedule this for one hour long session right before Beer-thirty, ten presentations, then drinks and discussion.

Larry Cebula said...

Jeremy: Everyone is ahead of me (except maybe the OAH?). Get in line! Seriously, good post. And I will check out the digital history aggregator. The trouble is that aggregating posts does not necessarily bring the conversation together.

Hey Katrina! The trouble with precirculated papers is that not everyone reads them. And by "not everyone" I mean "no one, not even the presenters' mothers." I was at the AHA a couple years in such a session and one graduate student presenter foolishly asked the audience members to raise their hands if they had read his paper. The look on his face when no one raised a hand still haunts me.

Quentin: I LOVE your ideas on this. What conference would this take place at? I want to come--I was trained as an ethnohistorian and I can probably follow along OK, or at least nod my head at the right moments.

You comments reminded me of a conversation with Bill Turkel before our OAH session on blogging last year, where we complained about the three papers format. "I could read it myself faster than you can read it to me," he said. Nicely put.

Katrina said...

(apologies for the typos in my earlier comment)

qmackie: The speed-dating thing sounds fabulous! I'm all for new approaches at conferences.

Part of the WHA discussion (which I mentioned earlier) included debates on who the conference was aimed at: one person suggested each panel include both research and HS teaching elements; this was shot down by a response that (some) people already stay away from the WHA conference because they feel it is too focused on high-school teaching and not on university research. (not having attended the OAH, I don't know if that is an issue in play in this case).

But for big conferences like the AHA or OAH, it's a difficult line - are you presenting to historians from outside your specific area (for whom you may wish to clarify some things) or are you presenting a paper for three or four people who work in the same area to nod along to?

You're right about the precirculated papers not being read - a further problem is if they're not even WRITTEN until 10 minutes before the presentation...

qmackie said...

Larry - probably NW Anthro conference 2010 (Ellensberg), if I get my shit together. I thought of a refinement: if you go longer than 5 minutes/1 slide then: DRINK.

Suzanne Fischer said...

Larry, these are fine ideas, but OAH, and in general large professional organizations made mostly of academics, have very little relevance to my work. OAH doesn't have much to say to public historians, aside from some handwaving about inclusion--which is why I dropped my membership, and a poll of internet friends came up with no good reason to renew. I appreciate good new scholarship, certainly, but I don't need to go to a broken conference to hear about it. If OAH reinvents itself as a big tent resource for all American historians, then we can start talking.

Jodi A-B said...

Bravo, Larry, and let's get the Society of American Archivists to do the same. Also, if we're going to present papers, let's make an option to do it virtually. It's absurd at this point to have to spend $1000 or more to listen to papers, or to present one.

Mary said...

I love history, but I'm not a historian per se. I've attended a number of history conferences and I can avow that nothing is more snooze inducing than listening to anyone (graduate student/professor/scholar) read their paper aloud. The most fascinating topics are rendered deathly dull in a matter of minutes. PowerPoint is the most popular software in the classroom now - it's long past time for OAH and others to ditch the reading of papers.

In addition, please save the academic peer review of the students for private time. The audience doesn't need to hear how Joe Student neglected Pivotal Source A, and spent too much time on Overrated Source B. This practice only serves to embarrass everyone involved, in addition to making the reviewer sound like a pompous windbag.

Brian Sholis said...

For what it's worth, you certainly don't need to ask the AHA to get behind a Twitter hashtag. I doubt that tweeting historians are looking to the AHA program/guide for information about how to comment on the proceedings. Just do it! Post word on all of your blogs and the tweets will come. #AHA2010 seems
short enough.

Larry Cebula said...

Quentin: I love the east slope of the Cascades--I'll see you in Ellensburg if I can.

Suzanne: Yeah, for the OAH and similar organizations being inclusive means saying you are inclusive and adding a session at the conference. The gesture is appreciated but it is hardly a reason to join.

Jodi: Are you active in the SAA? You might be aware that there was a spontaneous THATCamp unconference organized to run either before or after the SAA this year, Google for "THATCamp Austin." I am, by title at least, a digital archivist these days and will be going to the SAA as soon as my state lifts the travel ban for state employees. If you have an in to the conference planners let me know.

Mary: You make "pompous windbag" sound like a bad thing. Well clearly you aren't an academic historian! We prefer to say "beloved senior scholar."