U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Post-OAH Meeting Wrap-Up, Part I: Whither the Organization of American Historians?

I’ve just returned from the 2009 meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Seattle, Washington. In an effort to be more bloggy in my blogging, rather than write a single, long post about the OAH, I’m going to write three shorter ones.

Before heading out to Seattle, I e-mailed the other folks involved in USIH in the hopes of gathering to discuss the state of our subfield, plot world domination, or at least have a few beers. To my surprise, not a single other member of our collective was planning to attend.

Now, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I haven’t exactly been an OAH annual meeting regular myself. The Organization of American Historians is the professional organization for historians of the United States (not to be confused with the American Historical Association, the professional organization for historians in the United States).* Though I’ve been a member of the OAH for about two decades, I’ve only attended about half a dozen OAH meetings, the last in 2003 in Memphis.

But this year’s meeting was unusually sparsely attended, with only 1,800 registrants, significantly lower than was expected (lower even than the 1,900 who showed up at the 2007 meeting in the more bicoastally out-of-the-way Minneapolis). And the main culprit appears to be the economy. Indeed, the entire meeting was shadowed by our current economic woes, as Rick Shenkman reported on HNN. C-SPAN wanted to cover the convention, but couldn’t afford to send a crew. The book exhibit was half empty and reported poor sales. Even the OAH business meeting was clouded by economic woes:

Officials reported that the organization’s endowment is down some 30 percent. Contributions are down 40 percent. Income from the exhibitors was down $38,000, though this loss was offset by strong receipts from corporate sponsors. As it usually does, the annual convention is netting a substantial profit, some $95,000, but that’s lower than is usual.

The OAH is not expecting to lose money this year, but there are fears that things may get worse before they get better. Most troubling is that these economic worries come in the midst of a longer-term downturn in professional association memberships. The OAH had 9,300 members last year. This year it has 8,750.

And this gets me to the point of this first OAH post: in our changing information, professional, and economic environment, what does the future hold for professional organizations like the OAH? Despite my poor attendance at OAH meetings past, I’ve always enjoyed these conferences. Significantly smaller, more focused, and less haunted by the job market than the AHA, the OAH tends to offer a much higher percentage of interesting panels and opportunities to exchange ideas. And yet it’s a large enough conference that, as at the AHA, one bumps into people with whom one has fallen out of touch. As an intellectual and cultural historian who works on the post-New Deal U.S., I really haven’t had a smaller subfield conference to attend for most of my career, so the OAH is particularly nice.**

But it’s not clear to me that such an organization will matter enough to enough historians to remain vibrant in the future. As such meetings get smaller, the costs of attending will likely rise while the intellectual value will likely decrease, both of which will, in turn, further drive down attendance.

Before turning to my (very positive, as you’ll see) intellectual experiences at this year’s OAH, then, let me open with a series of questions, especially directed at the U.S. historians among our readership: Do you find the OAH annual meeting–or mid-size conferences like it–to be valuable? Why or why not? And what, if anything, would we lose if we didn’t have an organization (and an annual conference) dedicated to covering all of American history?

* I’m sure most readers of this blog are aware of this fact…but we might as well flatter ourselves and assume that there are some non-historians reading this.

** Historians of the West and the South have the Western and the Southern. Historians of the antebellum period have SHEAR. Diplomatic historians have SHAFR. One of the reasons I started blogging here is that I so appreciated last year’s inaugural USIH conference–which I didn’t help plan–and wanted to get involved in this effort to create some professional infrastructure for at least one of my subfields.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. USIH is my favorite conference, but I love OAH. The reason is simple: it’s about US history, in which I am very interested. AHA has to be all things to all people and, as such, simply doesn’t feature that many panels that grab me. Moreover, it is completely dominated by the job-seeking sideshow, which makes the emotional atmosphere incredibly tense and desperate. And the political posturing at the American Studies Association conference does not always make for rigorous or interesting scholarship. OAH, on the other hand, is mostly a lot of elbow-patch types jawing about U.S. history. What’s not to like?

  2. The C-SPAN bus was indeed there, JCS, but at least according to Rick Shenkman (in the link above, which includes a nice picture of the bus), they didn’t send along a broadcast crew.

  3. It should be said that West coast OAH meetings always have a smaller attendance. L.A. in 2001 and San Jose in 2005 were both around or under 2,000. East coasters do not like traveling West, it seems, and the majority of OAH members are out East. It was not as deathly as they thought it would be, it seems, but there are some who would wish people to think it was.

  4. There will always be a place for a macro-level organization and annual conference on U.S. history. While the size and scope of that organization and its meeting will vary, the innate desire for professional input on new and budding work will remain. The macro-level conference gives the presenter an opportunity for input from across the subdisciplines. And of course socializing is important too. So it doesn’t matter whether the OAH meeting is large or mid-sized, so long as new work on U.S. topics comprises the vital center of the meeting. The demand will always be there.

    The question, of course, is whether the OAH properly recognizes and values the market, as well as caters to current conditions. In my opinion, the OAH needs to make its meetings friendlier to graduate students and young scholars by making larger efforts to hold down costs. Traveling to the coasts, particularly the NW coast, constitutes insensitivity to cost. I realize the meetings are planned well in advance, but flights to the NW coast are generally never cheap.

    I could not attend this year’s conference due to funds and a personal need for a “conference break.” My job holds forth limited support for conference travel, and I’m currently invested, primarily, in making our USIH conference a self-sustaining entity. Plus, after the completing the doctorate, I went on a conference binge—attending almost 10 in a little over two years. I was trying to assess the lay of the land in terms of organizations related to my sub-disciplinary interests. 2009 is sort of a calm break for me.

    But if I can only do one or two conferences in a year, which is a fine situation to be in, then my current preference is to make the two OAH and USIH. The question is whether OAH will make an effort to hold down costs.

    – TL

  5. I don’t know if you looked into airfare to Seattle, Tim, but this year’s conference happened to take place in the midst of what appears to be a fare war among the airlines. I flew roundtrip OKC-Seattle for $300 (including tax and fees), which is very reasonable IMO. At any rate, fluctuations in airfare over time account for more difference in travel costs (at least from a place like OKC) than do different regional locations for the conference.

    The official hotel, on the other hand, was monstrously expensive (I ended up staying elsewhere).

  6. Ben,

    I didn’t look into airfare for this year’s meeting because of my temporary, personal moratorium. But I do not doubt you’re correct in that one could get there in a reasonable cost range. And like you, one can also hunt for better deals on hotels—even staying at a distance and taking public transportation. And of course fast food (even the healthy Subway variety) is always available in contrast to the hotel restaurant or nearby nicer places. But it takes so much energy to do all of that, yes? Couldn’t the OAH (or AHA for that matter) make better efforts to be budget friendly?

    After posting my comment I read Rick Shenkman’s conference report. He noted that one of the ways the OAH is trying to make its budget work is by increasing OAH membership fees. When you factor that into the costs of the conference (the separate conference fee, room, board, travel), it gets overwhelming.

    Even if the OAH did the following for symbolic purposes, I wonder what a cost-conscious conference would look like? You know, staying in a mid-range hotel, hosting in an accessible location, etc.

    – Tim

  7. Excellent points, Tim! I completely agree that the OAH (and the AHA) need to do a lot more in the way of cost containment for those attending their conferences. I had only meant to question whether refusing to have meetings in West Coast cities was the best way to go about doing that.

    In addition to your other excellent ideas, perhaps sliding conference registration fees based on income and/or distance traveled might also help.

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