Thursday, January 07, 2010

American Historical Association Annual Meeting begins today amidst controversy

The American Historical Association kicks off its annual meeting today, in San Diego, California, amidst controversy over the choice of location and problems in attendance.

Some of the events are being held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, whose owner contributed heavily to the campaign in the state against same-sex marriage. The 1,625-room resort has been the subject of a boycott by gay-rights activists since July 2008.

There were calls for the historians to boycott the hotel and pull out of hosting the conference there, but the AHA replied that doing so would cost over $800 000, which would be too expensive. Arnita Jones, the association’s executive director, said, "We’ve been around a long time, but our members are college professors, history teachers and librarians, and we aren’t a wealthy organization."

Instead, the AHA voted for the addition of a mini-convention called AHA Working Group for Historical Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage, which will be held in the hotel. A local same-sex rights group is expected to hold a demonstration on Saturday at the hotel.

AHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Historians aren’t policymakers and they don’t tell people what to do, but they can provide context, give us depth and help people see that they aren’t the first generation to be troubled by this issue.”

There are also signs that the meeting will see a significant drop in attendance. As of January 1, only 3,705 people had pre-registered. That's down from 5,400 last year, when the meeting was held in New York City, as well as the 2008 meeting held in Washington D.C, which drew 4,366. While AHA expect that hundreds of people may be registering on site, many observers believe that attendance this year will be way down, given that there are far fewer job openings and that many historians don't want to spend the money to travel this year.

The AHA also reported that there was a large decline in the number of academic job openings for historians. According to a report released earlier this month, job advertisements fell by 23.8 percent—from a record high of 1,053 openings in 2007–08 to 806 openings in the past year. This was the smallest number of positions advertised with the AHA in a decade.

Meanwhile there were 869 new PhD graduates from History programs in the past year, up from 741 in the 2007–08 academic year. The growing number of recent PhD graduates and the decline in job opportunities is called "troubling news" by the AHA.

The popular historian blog Nothing Recedes Like Success concludes that "it’s likely to be a bleak, long weekend in San Diego."

Click here for a list of sessions at the AHA Annual Meeting with medieval content