NOTE: This is a revised version of a post I wrote in January 2013.
What do all of these former American Historical Association presidents have in common?
2018: Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University
2017: Tyler Stovall, University of California-Santa Cruz
2016: Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh
2015: Vicki Ruiz, University of California-Irvine
2014: Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago
2013: Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago
2012: William Cronon, University of Wisconsin
2011: Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
2010: Barbara Metcalf, University of Michigan
2009: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University
2008: Gabrielle Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University
2007: Barbara Weinstein, University of Maryland
2006: Linda Kerber, University of Iowa
2005: James Sheehan–Stanford University
2004: Jonathan Spence, Yale University
2003: James McPherson, Princeton University
2002: Lynn Hunt, UCLA
2001: William Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin
2000: Eric Foner, Columbia University
1999: Robert Darnton, Princeton University
1998: Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia
1997: Joyce Appleby. UCLA
Apart from the fact that they are outstanding and groundbreaking scholars, they were all teaching at research universities while they served as president of the American Historical Association. In fact, the last president of the AHA who did not teach at a research university was Nellie Nielson. She was president in 1943. Nielson, who also happened to be the first female president of the AHA, spent most of her career at Mt. Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women in South Hadley, MA.
I can understand why so many AHA presidents come from research universities. They have time to write, produce, and thus make a name for themselves in the profession. But I wonder if it is time to buck this trend.
Back in 2012, William Cronon urged the profession to reconnect with the public through teaching, the Internet, and other digital efforts. I know that Cronon’s interests reflect the interests of the AHA staff. They are building a larger tent that covers not just academics who write award-winning books, but professors from smaller institutions, public historians, digital historians, podcasters, K-12 teachers, park rangers, and a host of other non-academics who “do history.”
So why not think about an AHA president who lives and works in the trenches–a sort of “people’s president” who represents the vast majority of historians in America, both inside and outside the academy? Why not have a president who is a professor at a liberal arts college who spends most of her or his time in the classroom, does her or his job well, and has few aspirations of working at a research university? Why not a public historian or a director of a historical society or history museum? Why not a high school teacher? It would be fun to imagine what kind of AHA presidential address these historians might deliver or what kind of initiatives they might promote.