The Forms of History: The Organization of American Historians 2018 Meeting and the Future of Academic Conferencing

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nationThe main activity of the Annual Meeting for historians has changed little since it was invented at the end of the nineteenth century. Now, as then, historians gather to read prepared papers to one another.

Over the years, people have tried to change this practice in ways large and small. Panels, roundtables, and plenary sessions now attract much of the interest and generate much of the energy at the meeting. Session chairs encourage presenters to be less constrained by the words on the page before them, to talk rather than read to the audience. Some presenters have turned to images and digital projects as ways to enliven their talks.

Yet the core activity of the meeting remains in place. Historians continue to present “papers,” it seems, because those written scripts provide the clearest means to test our arguments. Historians care about particular words, exact quotations, and crafted narratives more than our colleagues in other disciplines, who are mystified by our distaste for PowerPoint decks and our avoidance of more spontaneous styles of presentation. Despite perpetual, even ritualized, grumbling in the hallways about boring or over-long papers, most participants—even those who grumble—still feel compelled to read every word they have written when they are behind the lectern.

The program committee for the Sacramento meeting in April 2018 is trying a new strategy to enliven our gathering. The committee has encouraged many innovative elements, fittingly for a conference whose theme is “The Forms of History.” A new schedule will use evenings more intentionally and participants will discover on-going workshops on history in practice in the exhibit area.

The main innovation is what we are calling The Amplified Initiative. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Organization of American Historians will prepare digital audio recordings of every presentation. We will also establish a video studio, with professional sound and lighting, to interview people about their presentations and other topics of interest. Those recordings will be made available for OAH members unable to attend the meeting, in itself an important contribution to scholarly communication.

In a bigger change, moreover, partner organizations will be able to select from the presentations at the conference, edit them in forms suitable for their constituencies, and use their channels to distribute what they consider most useful.

Those partners include:

  • American Association for State and Local History
  • Big Ten Academic Alliance
  • College Board
  • H-Net
  • National Council for History Education
  • National Council on Public History
  • National Humanities Center
  • National Park Service

The relatively small scale of the Sacramento meeting makes it a useful test case. The lessons learned from the trial in Sacramento can be used for the subsequent, larger, meetings in Philadelphia and Washington, as well as by other academic organizations that may be inspired by the example.

The new plan, we believe, can help build membership and revenue for the Organization, foster a well-attended, vibrant, and productive meeting, and extend the Organization’s connections to audiences both within and beyond the historical community. The Executive Board of the OAH has enthusiastically endorsed this experiment and the staff at the central office is eager to help administer the finances and permissions.

The audio and video recordings will be tagged so that they can be searched and combined in new ways—by topic, period, or type of presentation. Social media will generate energy, ideas, and audience throughout the conference and will also be able to draw upon the recording to sustain the conversation after the meeting itself has ended. Digital humanities labs will explore and exploit the possibilities of the recordings for teaching and scholarship for higher education.

In short, this recording and remixing of the conference holds out most exciting possibilities, turning a one-time event into a resource that can be used for many purposes.

This innovative approach will require buy-in from the participants at the Annual Meeting, of course, and I have written the following statement to those whose sessions have been accepted:

The Amplified Initiative and Why We Hope You’ll Join It

The annual meeting of the OAH brings together more historians of the United States than any other event, ranging from scholars of early America to students of contemporary America, from academic scholarship to public history, from emerging historians to senior scholars. The meeting in Sacramento in April 2018 boasts an especially diverse program.

But not everyone who would benefit from those conversations can come to the OAH meeting. Colleagues with limited travel resources, family commitments, or unyielding schedules are unable to join us. Teachers in high school and interpreters at museums miss conversations from which they would benefit.

The OAH is launching an experiment, called the Amplified Initiative, to help overcome these lost opportunities. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we will make audio recordings of all sessions and then share those recordings in different forms for different uses.

Most obviously, OAH members unable to join us in Sacramento will be able to listen to what they have missed. In fact, even those who do attend will be able to listen to sessions or papers they could not attend. The sessions will be tagged, moreover, so that historians can trace paths of interest across sessions that may not be solely devoted to a particular topic or perspective.

In a more innovative use of the recordings, partners in public history and history teaching will select, combine, contextualize, and distribute selections from talks suited to the purposes of their members. The OAH will establish a mobile video studio at the meeting where we will interview a broad range of historians, publishers, and partners for specific uses in classrooms, museums, and public history.

The Amplified Initiative is a pilot project that we hope will grow into standard practice not only for the OAH but for other academic conferences. For it to succeed, we need those who present at the annual meeting to give us permission to share their talks.

Here are the important details: No one will profit economically from your work and only the OAH and its partners will have the capacity to access, edit, and distribute the recordings. You will give up no intellectual property if you agree to participate. Instead, you will find the reach of your contribution extended—amplified—to audiences who will appreciate and benefit from your work. We hope you will sign the permission form so that we can make the most of the annual meeting, of the OAH, and of your own insights.

Moreover, as you think about your presentation, consider ways that it may speak to wider audiences and purposes.

We look forward to seeing you in Sacramento.

The program committee hopes this effort will help energize the Annual Meeting, allowing the work of American historians to reach more people with more ideas.

Edward L. Ayers is is President Emeritus of the University of Richmond and Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities. He is currently President of the Organization of American Historians.

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