Dan’s Report from the 129th American Historical Association Annual Meeting

I had the pleasure of attending the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in New York City from January 3-5, 2015. In this article, I’ll discuss two of the panels I observed, one of which featured Villanova’s very own Dr. Judith Giesberg, and some general observations from the conference.

A James McPherson Retrospective

Dr. Giesberg participated in a panel sponsored by the Society for Civil War Historians about the legacy of James McPherson’s seminal Civil War book, Battle Cry of Freedom. The panel also featured historians Lesley Gordon, Michael Landis, Daniel Sutherland, and McPherson himself. McPherson opened the panel by describing how Richard Hofstadter, C. Van Wodward, and Sheldon Meyer created the Oxford History of the United States series, and how he was picked to write the Civil War edition after many authors failed to get the book deal.

Michael Landis then offered an opening critique: Battle Cry is a product of slavery-oriented social history, but Civil War historiography today is less about contingency than calculated risks and strategies taken by the historical actors. In other words, Landis sees the war not as a product of accidental, contingent events, as McPherson argues, but rather as something more deliberate. Landis contended that the antebellum period should be studied separately, not merely as steps in a linear narrative culminating with the Civil War. Finally, Landis argued that Battle Cry is more about narrative and exciting events than a focused scholarly argument.

Lesley Gordon was a bit more positive toward Battle Cry, praising the book’s 1,500 footnotes. She described how the cultural turn came after the book’s publication and how fewer syntheses are written today. She related how McPherson blended military history into his narrative, but then asked rhetorically (and perhaps ironically, as she is a military historian) if military history still matters today. The answer is yes – Gordon sees Battle Cry as the blueprint for the next twenty-five years of military research.

Daniel Sutherland similarly praised McPherson’s epic narrative synthesis as a guidepost for future scholarship. Sutherland described Battle Cry as the culmination of a tradition of nationalist history that began with James Ford Rhodes in the early twentieth century. Battle Cry describes the debate over slavery and freedom, emphasizes historical contingency, and provides a Civil War synthesis balanced with McPherson’s own interpretation, emphasizing that the war was decided in battle. The book is also a part of the New Military History tradition that began with John Keegan and approached war from common soldiers’ perspectives. Sutherland added that Battle Cry could have done more to portray Civil War-era guerilla warfare, a topic that was covered in theses, not monographs, in the 1980s. Moreover, was the Civil War a total war? McPherson says yes in Battle Cry, but some now call the conflict a hard war, not a total one.

Dr. Giesberg then took the podium and related how she read Battle Cry in graduate school, at the same time that she read the pioneering work of Civil War gender history, Divided Houses. The two books influenced her decision to become a Civil War and gender historian, and McPherson’s opus gave her much material for lecture notes. Battle Cry in her view does tackle women’s role in the war, and the book also encouraged scholars to revise upward the war’s total casualties – a task that Lesley Gordon has taken up. Nonetheless, gender history has progressed further than Battle Cry in the last twenty-five years, especially in regard to sexual violence during the Civil War. Giesberg supports the study of military history, but wished that McPherson included even more gender and social history in Battle Cry, noting that Eric Foner has added many gender and social insights to his own books. In conclusion, Giesberg observed wittily that perhaps McPherson was correct not to include more gender history, for he left work for future historians to do!

James McPherson then returned to the podium and stated that he feels he could have done more on the gender and social history fronts, especially in regard to the war’s refugees. He continued that Battle Cry should have included more material on religion and the guerilla war. He also added that he self-taught himself military history, that the Vietnam War didn’t weigh heavily on his conscious mind when writing, and that the book’s rigid 1840-1865 temporal frame is because he was contracted to write on that period. In response to Landis, McPherson said that he feels the book’s passages of action narrative, such as the pages on William Walker, are more than just exciting padding to an already lengthy book. McPherson also contended that the section on the war should be longer than the pages on the antebellum period because of just how much happened during the conflict. Here, McPherson’s delightful bass voice rang out with that epic tone for which many classic and nationalist historians strive, but seldom achieve.

During the Q&A period, which Dr. Giesberg moderated, McPherson addressed the issue of writing a good narrative history that doesn’t play into the trap of teleology. McPherson argued that the author must realize that the story’s participants couldn’t know in their own time what would happen. Readers don’t know what will happen, either. As such, the author must avoid the inevitabilist trap. McPherson also stated emphatically that the Civil War was about slavery: “To say otherwise is denial.”

Overall, this was an outstanding career retrospective for the influential Dr. McPherson, and Villanova was well represented by Dr. Giesberg in the conversation!

James McPherson speaks to an early session of the AHA while Judith Giesberg and Lesley Gordon listen. Photo by Dan Gorman.

James McPherson speaks to an early session of the AHA while Judith Giesberg and Lesley Gordon listen. Photo by Dan Gorman.

Questions of Teaching History

On the afternoon of the Jan. 3 session, I attended a workshop on teaching for graduate students and young professional historians. This was a much more informal panel than the earlier one I saw with Dr. Giesberg and James McPherson. Here, we sat in a circle, a disparate and ethnically diverse combination of grad students, undergraduates, lecturers, tenure-track college and community college professors, education professors, programmers, and AHA administrators, all intrigued by more effective teaching. We spent a good amount of time discussing the Tuning Project, a national effort by Lumina Foundation and the AHA to use social science to codify teaching techniques for history. We all know the risks of using social science and quantification to dictate education policy – just look at New York State’s disastrous Common Core rollout, wherein teachers’ salaries will be dictated purely by test score results. However, the enthusiasm shown by the historians in the room for the Tuning Project indicates that quantification applied to education can be extremely useful, so long as educators, not just politicians, are actively involved in the design process.

We also discussed more general topics. What is a course for? What is your place as a young teacher, usually teaching survey courses, within a department’s broader curriculum? It is therefore important for teaching candidates to develop an actual philosophy of teaching, even if that philosophy is subject to much testing and revision over time (Hi, Tuning Project). At the same time, that philosophy of teaching must be adjustable, for you must speak a department’s existing language in order to be hired. Clearly, teaching history (or, really, any subject) as a young academic is a careful balance of politics, passion, and rigorous study.

Another topic that arose was the need for feedback and correspondence with other young teachers. The AHA’s online Communities are a great place to exchange information and ask questions about teaching. Nonetheless, the panelists, addressing the AHA admins in the room, expressed a desire for more teaching materials from the foundation. It would help to have codified resources on different styles of teaching (liberal arts, community college, R1 university), as well as working with students from varied ethnic and economic backgrounds. I, along with several other participants, expressed a particular interest in working compassionately with students who suffer from illnesses or other impairments. Several teachers recommended Universal Design for Learning, by which the teacher doesn’t assume that a textbook will work for all students and instead realizes that different students learn best with different materials. As such, the teacher selects (or streams) a variety of media – films, textbooks with or without pictures – and allows students to select their preferred type of homework. The goal is learning, not buying a textbook. One phrase stood out from this workshop: No one ever taught their way out of a job.

Important resources and web links that the participants mentioned include the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Chicago, the Teagle Foundation, the Tuning Project, the American Academy of Religion and Wabash Center’s syllabus database, the Toolbox Library from the National Humanities Center, sites on teaching history from Indiana University and Bowdoin College, and finally the book Engaging Ideas by John C. Beane. Several of the workshop participants lauded a blog called The Professor Is In. A professor from the University of Massachusetts Boston mentioned that his school is developing broad guidelines for history courses and how to teach them, but I cannot locate any current digital publications from the school on this topic.

Jan Goldstein, the 2014 President of the AHA, delivers the presidential address at the 129th Annual Meeting in New York City. Photo by Dan Gorman.

Jan Goldstein, the 2014 President of the AHA, delivers the presidential address at the 129th Annual Meeting in New York City. Photo by Dan Gorman.

As for the rest of the conference…

I learned quite a lot from strolling around the hotel and observing the etiquette of the other attendees, from speaking to people from all over the country, and by paying attention to the academic panels that I attended. Here’s what I learned:

  • Print business cards before attending an academic conference of this type.
  • If you don’t have business cards, you definitely need a notebook handy at all times to record the contact information of the people you meet.
  • Take notes during academic panels about topics with which you are not familiar, as well as topics that you might like to explore in your own research. For me, the topics I’d like to explore more were: (a) the history of morality classes taught in public schools; (b) whether or not Bernard Bailyn’s arguments on the nature of early America are still accurate; and (c) the history of Bible courses in public schools. If I’d gone to panels on other topics, from other temporal and geographic spaces, I’m sure I’d have a completely different set of questions. As such, it is best not to conceive of the AHA as one unitary conference, but rather a site where several smaller conferences happen at once, and where academics must carve out their own conferences based on their geographic and theoretical interests.
  • The AHA president gives an address on his or her historical specialty. This address is traditionally followed by a reception with a generally superb hors d’oeuvres buffet. This year’s address by president Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago, addressed scientific racism in nineteenth-century France.
  • If you enter or leave a panel early, that is socially acceptable among other historians, so long as you make as little noise and as few movements as possible.
  • “Beware of theological determinism.” – Leo Ribuffo, January 4, 2015.
  • The book fair has great discounts from academic presses, but many of the books must be ordered only, not bought in person. Bring credit card information – or a notebook, for writing down titles to order from your institution’s library.
  • The discounts offered at the book fair are still valid for a month or so after the conference, so long as you don’t throw out the free catalogs offered at each publisher’s booth.
  • Take time to speak with the people from various foundations, research centers, software companies, etc. You may gain many new ideas from these conversations.
  • Try to get to bed early. You will be getting up early and running long days.
  • Share a hotel room, stay with friends, and generally do whatever you can to reduce the cost of attendance, especially if you’re a young scholar!

    The key to reducing costs when attending conferences: Stay with friends whenever possible! Photo taken for Dan Gorman.

    The key to reducing costs when attending conferences: Stay with friends whenever possible! Photo taken for Dan Gorman.

  • Finally, as corny as it may sound, enjoy yourself. You are surrounded by your kind of people, and you’ll truly gain an insightful knowledge of the state of our profession.
    – Dan Gorman
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