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Highlights from the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association

Much breath was spent talking about the crises facing history today: the crisis in higher education, the crisis in primary and secondary education, the crisis in publishing, the crisis in periodicals, the crisis in archives, and a bevy of others. Panels with titles like "Exploring a Range of Careers Outside the Academy" have been relatively commonplace at the AHA for at least the past five years. Indeed, it has been the more or less professed goal of the AHA for at the least the past five years to bring the historical profession into the twenty-first century -- kicking and screaming if need be, because the pressures that face historians and their traditional mediums are simply not going to go away.

So, was new ground broken on this front at the AHA this year? The answer is a qualified yes, largely because of William Cronon's provocative keynote address on Friday, parts of which could've been appropriate on a Bob Dylan album (during his protest, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" period, not the "Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35" period).

Obviously, this ongoing paradigm shift within the historical profession has been the subject of considerable conversation in sessions, on Twitter, and -- most revealingly -- in bars with loosened lips. Younger historians tend to be more supportive of the ideas put forth by Cronon and other reformers (Dan Cohen, for example): an emphasis on narrative, communicating in an interactive way with a broad audience through the Internet, etc. But, until this "new" approach to history translates to hires and promotions, even supportive younger scholars are either going to hedge their bets by conducting traditional, monograph-driven research, or seek a career outside of the academy (John Fea has gone so far as to call on the AHA membership to elect a president who does not work at a research university in order to better represent vast majority of historians who don't work at R1s, either).

That's not to say that monograph- or academic article-driven research cannot be innovative or even disruptive: a case in point is the growing environmental history subfield of climate history. A series of three panels on Saturday presented some of the latest climate history research, the most provocative of which was "Climate Change and Big History: From the Origin of Modern Humanity to the Little Ice Age." Instead of phrases like "historiography," "narrative," or "construct," the terms "orbital eccentricity," "Intertropical Convergence Zone," and "Heinrich event" were used freely, so much so that the panel could easily have been mistaken by a layman for a biogeography conference. Queen's University Belfast professor Bruce M.S. Campbell brought the conversation back to a context more familiar (and comfortable) to historians by talking at length about a single year: 1258. 1258 was the year of reportedly harsh weather and famine in England, according to surviving chronicles, and archaelogists, geologists, and geographers have connected the famine to a volcanic eruption near the equator which occured that year, possibly by Mount Rinjani in Indonesia. But, as Campbell pointed out, the historical record does not necessarily support that interpretation: the English chronicle of Matthew Paris also notes that 1256 and 1257 were bad harvest years, and that English manorial records actually indicate an increase in population from 1257 to 1263.

Geologic events that occur within the span of recorded history, Campbell argued, can and ought to be interrogated by historians using historical sources. Paleo-environmental studies can pin eruption events and the like to within a few years, with the margin of error increasing the further back one goes. But historical documentation can pinpoint the catastrophic eruption of the Peruvian volcano Huaynaputina to February 19, 1600, because someone -- in this case, a Spanish conquistador -- witnessed the event. This is not mere windowdressing -- historians, argued Campbell, can provide these kinds of insights that are of great value to physical scientists.

Another kind of cross-disciplinary session took place on Sunday, the concluding roundtable of a series sponsored by the National History Center entitled "Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right." A panel of consisting of journalism school professors, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune/NOLA.com Jim Amoss, Wilson Quarterly editor Steven Lagerfeld, and History News Service editor David Nord dissected the decline of the daily metro newspaper and potential alternatives to the format. Oddly, historians seemed almost more perturbed by the decline of the newspaper than actual journalists -- Amoss, though acknowledging the difficulties facing the Times-Picayune, especially its recent change to a semi-daily print edition and the severe downsizing of the staff, was nevertheless optimistic that Internet journalism, though it requires a different style and way of thinking that newspaper journalism, can nevertheless fulfill the same kind of community-building role. The historians in the audience, on the other hand, were more concerned with the loss of the actual object of the newspaper, both for nostalgic reasons (this is the profession which, as William Cronon said in his keynote, has been wedded to the book-length print monograph as the sine qua non of academic seriousness for over a century) and, more importantly, for reasons of record. Internet journalism, by its very nature, is ephemeral and subject to frequent revision and correction (at the risk of being self-reflexive, this blog either has been or probably will be revised in some capacity), and while from a journalistic perspective this can be a great blessing, for the precision-driven historian, it makes life much more difficult than the simple microfilm.

But journalists are finding ways to adapt to the new environment and make the most of the new medium -- everyone in the room, audience included, spoke admiringly (and perhaps a little jealously) of the the New York Times project "Snowfall" as the new gold standard in Internet journalism. Though obviously few news organizations can match the resources of the Times, the feature offers a blueprint for the way forward online for journalists.

There do exist online blueprints for historians -- Zotero has been around for quite some time, after all. But perhaps what's needed -- and what the AHA was certainly pressing for at the 2013 Annual Meeting -- is the same kind of consensus journalists had over "Snowfall": that one particular project/mode of thought/form of presentation represents the next step forward for the historical field. There are certainly many candidates.