AHA Dispatch: “Historians Behaving Badly”

Mike Davis is back!  See his previous AHA 2018 posts here. In this dispatch he summarizes a panel on professionalism in the discipline (or lack thereof!).  –JF

I attended two sessions on Thursday.  I wrote about a session on community colleges here. The other session I attended focused on community engagement and community building, inside of history programs. “Historians Behaving Badly”, chaired by LSU’s Suzanne Marchand and made up of UC-Riverside’s Thomas Cogswell, Chapel Hill’s Lloyd Kramer, and Northwestern’s Sarah Maza. (Princeton’s Jeremy Adelman was detained by snow), avoided the sexy scandal-mongering its title might suggest to engage with ways faculty members might build respect and collaboration with each other. Speaking anonymously through each other (the panelists exchanged papers to avoid violating confidentiality), the panelists reminded their listeners that the historical profession is under siege and that divisions inside the historical community only serve to undermine it.

More generally, the “Behaving Badly” panelists engaged with how historians have worked against each other – ranging from issues of misrepresented research, mistreated students, outright discrimination (in the speech read by Suzanne Marchand for Jeremy Adelman) to the talk read by Thomas Cogswell that dealt with issues of personal sociability ranging from falling asleep during seminars to the strategic use of electronics to avoid social engagements with other faculty. All lamented the lack of shared social space in the modern academy, and hoped for a revival of closer academic communities.

In addition to collegiality inside departments, the panelists engaged strongly with the great academic power imbalance – the job search. Though some had stories of the “divaesque” behavior of applicants, all agreed that the problem was generally not applicants (who at worst are usually not trained in the art of application) but departments that abuse their power relationship over applicants in a variety of ways, with each panelist taking turns sharing horror stories about which they’d heard or had personally experienced.

The panel closed with a discussion of electronic harassment, gender politics, and the need for faculty to avoid the “bystander effect” in interactions with each other and our students. We model good behavior as part of our role in promoting the public good – and part of that role is intervening when necessary.

During the first day of the 2018 AHA I attended an engaging set of panels, one that left me feeling energized for both the rest of the conference and the coming winter semester.