The OAH Distinguished Lectureship Program celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. OAH President Gerda Lerner and the OAH Executive Board founded the program in 1981 and during the 1980s, a handful of senior historians, many of them former members of the Executive Board, volunteered to serve as the first OAH Distinguished Lecturers.
“The program’s initial goal was to make available to underserved and underfunded colleges and communities the talents and expertise of leading American historians,” remembers Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia University, who retires from the program this summer after having served since its inception. “OAH Lecturers were asked to offer one lecture per year in return for which the OAH would receive a standard fee of $750. The modest honorarium, plus travel costs, enabled many institutions that could not otherwise afford to do so to expose their students to leading minds. The speaker would be challenged by new experiences in unfamiliar locations and with unexpected audiences. The OAH used the fee to cover the expenses of running the program and benefitted from the recognition it garnered for providing a service to students of history everywhere.
“The program has been enormously successful,” Kessler-Harris continues, “annually expanding the numbers of lecturers added to the list and increasingly incorporating younger historians with provocative ideas. Ironically, perhaps, its success fostered a second goal—to enhance the OAH budget. The OAH now relies on the funds generated by the Distinguished Lectureship Program to sustain some of its many other activities. By increasing the ‘standard’ lecture fee to $1,000 and then establishing the current range of fees [$1,000 to $5,000 per lecture], the program encourages larger, more robustly funded institutions to offer more generous support without penalizing less affluent institutions. Generous historians continue to contribute their time and energy to the program, taking pleasure in serving wider communities. As they do so, the OAH expands its reach, bringing the best of American history scholarship to new audiences.”
From a few dozen OAH Lecturers in the 1980s, the roster has grown to more than 500 speakers in 2016-2017. Participating speakers include OAH prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Bancroft Prize winners, National Humanities Medal recipients, and elected members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Identified and endorsed by a subcommittee of the Nominating Board and appointed by the President-Elect, OAH Lecturers also include numerous recipients of university teaching awards—the mark of expert communicators and educators. A dozen current OAH Lecturers, including Kessler-Harris, have served since the 1980s, demonstrating their long-term commitment to the profession and the organization: Clayborne Carson, William Chafe, Pete Daniel, Roger Daniels, former OAH executive director Joan Hoff, Stanley Katz, Linda Kerber, Morgan Kousser, Leon Litwack, Mary Beth Norton, and former Journal of American History editor David Thelen.
Since 2001 OAH Lecturers have visited every state in the United States except for Hawaii. (OAH members in Hawaii: contact me and we can remedy this!) The top three most-visited states during this period were New York, Missouri, and Illinois, each hosting more than 100 OAH Lectures. Our speakers have ventured from Alaska to Puerto Rico; Eileen Boris spoke at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2004, while Donna Gabaccia, Ramón Gutiérrez, Virginia Korrol, and the late Alan Dawley worked with teachers engaged in Teaching American History workshops at Universidad Interamericana in San German, Puerto Rico, between 2005 and 2007.
OAH Lectures happen primarily during the academic year on college and university campuses. Our busiest months, in order, are February, January, March, and October.
“The Distinguished Lectureship Program is amazing and I am so grateful to you for all of your help over the past years in bringing such marvelous programming to Creighton,” says history professor Heather Fryer of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. “My colleagues, students, and community friends still talk about how much they enjoyed all of the lectures that you have made possible for us.”
Our hosts on college campuses are diverse and not limited to history department faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate history clubs; they also include interdisciplinary programs, humanities centers, law schools, and business schools. And one-third of recent hosts are outside the academy, including such institutions as the Allen County Public Library in Indiana, the Boca Grande Community Center in Florida, Grand Lake Gardens retirement communities in California, Green Spring Gardens in Virginia, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, the Minnesota History Center, the Old Governor’s Mansion in Georgia, and public and private schools and school systems.
“Each talk we’ve organized through the OAH Distinguished Lectureship Program has been wonderful,” says Joe Schmidt, senior instructional specialist for social studies with the New York City Department of Education. “This program and its organizers serve a real need in bridging the gap between the academy and the K-12 worlds. Thank you!”
These days, OAH Lecturers’ talks and ideas can reach even wider audiences online. Selected OAH Distinguished Lecture recordings have been produced and posted on the OAH’s YouTube channel and on the lectureship program’s webpages since 2012. More than 50 lecture video and audio files are currently available. The most-watched recordings are David Blight’s “The Civil War in American Memory” (filmed at the Minnesota History Center and posted in Spring 2013), Mark E. Neely Jr.’s “Lincoln, the Civil War, and the Constitution” (also filmed at the Minnesota History Center, posted in Summer 2012), and Kathleen DuVal’s “Spanish Ambitions in the American Revolution” (filmed at the Virginia Military Institute, posted in Spring 2014).
And OAH Distinguished Lecturers have contributed to this blog since its inception last year. For example, Martha Jones contributed, “On The Cherokee Rose, Historical Fiction, and Silences in the Archives,” one of the top ten most-read blog posts in Process’s first year.
“I was thrilled when OAH President Eric Foner asked me to become an OAH Distinguished Lecturer back in the early 1990s, and I’ve had many rewarding experiences responding to invitations under the program,” says OAH President Nancy Cott. “The lectureship program is a win-win arrangement. Everyone benefits: selected historian members of the OAH gain the privilege of becoming lecturers, host institutions have the advantage of consulting a long list of suggested topics and speakers to spark their imaginations and then have the lecture itself to enjoy, the OAH gains a contribution, and all parties involved have the satisfaction of knowing that the organization benefits. We’ve added scores more historians and topics to the list since I came on to it, and I expect we’ll continue to do that, offering an ever wider array of possibilities for future hosts. I hope and expect the program will continue to thrive.”
You can contribute to the future of the program, promoting the spread of historical research and the good work of the OAH, by arranging to host and/or volunteering to serve as an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. Contact me for more details or visit http://www.oah.org/lectures/