The Western History Association: A Scholarly Organization Charts a Future Course

A few days ago I blogged about my mild frustration with voting for new leadership at the Western History Association without adequate knowledge of the candidate's positions. As I put the post together I was reminded of the WHA's Next Fifty Years Committee Report from last year and the response that I wrote at the time. I thought these would make a worthwhile post at a time when every professional academic organization is wrestling with questions of identity and relevance.

The Next Fifty Years Report was the beginning of an admirable planning process to determine the future of the organization. The committee made recommendations in six categories: “Identity,” “Membership,” “Rethinking Constituencies,” “Finances,” “Governance,” and “Publications.” The report is thoughtful and makes many good recommendations--the WHA recommends amending it mission statement and logo to be more inclusive, expanding membership among minorities and other traditionally excluded groups, raising more money, etc. Though exceedingly modest in its recommendations the report is certainly a step in the right direction.

With the issue of the report, the WHA asked its members to weigh in--and did they ever! The organization received over 80 replies, many quite lengthy, and published them at its website. The volume of replies is testimony to the attachment and enthusiasm of its members for the WHA. The report and responses make for an interesting read for anyone interested in the future of scholarly societies. Below (lightly edited) is mine--but I would be interested in reading some of your takes as well:


As a western historian, a frequent attendee of the WHA conference, and a member of the WHA Technology Committee I am glad to see this report but disappointed with the contents. My overall reaction is that this is not a report about a historical organization, it is a report about a history conference and a journal. These are two methods of dispersing information that were developed in the 19th century and are of sharply decreasing relevance today. The conference and journal have become the tails that wag the dog. Possibly a mutant dog, what with two tails and all, but a dog nonetheless. The WHA should be about scholarship, teaching, advocacy and collaboration in all its forms. If the organization is simply a governing structure for a conference and a journal, the organization is not very interesting.

Some more specific reactions to individual recommendations:
  • More grad students is fine, but don't allow more than one per panel as they need to learn how to present from more seasoned historians.
  • I love the idea of appealing to members to bring along and sponsor their grad students.
  • The other most promising area for growth is to bring in more public historians--museums, historic preservationists, Forest Service and Park Service interpreters, and archivists.
  • The finances recommendations are largely unworkable, except for the idea of a speakers’ bureau. The prizes are so small it seems silly to work to develop endowments for each. The real benefit of a prize is that you get to put it on your vita and get a promotion, which is worth far more than any of our prizes.
  • The yearly themes are largely imaginary--we all propose to present whatever we are working on and tweak the title to echo whatever buzzwords are in the theme. And that is how it should be. (Heck, I cannot remember the theme from any year I have attended or even last fall--was it Many Wests? Western Stories? The Enduring Frontier? To Infinity and Beyond?) 
  • The publications section of the report was far too timid! We live in an era with more historical discussions involving greater numbers of people than ever before. They are happening online and we have removed ourselves from them and hence the whole organization becomes steadily less relevant. We need to take the WHA publications online and make them free and open access.
  • Create a WHA community blog, titled Many Wests or something like that. Allow any member in good standing to make posts. Appoint a half-dozen moderators. It could quickly become the place to discuss western history online, and would be a huge advertisement for membership in the WHA.
  • Publish the journal online and open access under a Creative Commons copyright, and link it to the group blog. Each article would become a discussion node for the topic and a place where professional historians interact with teachers, students, and the general public. We can still mail out a paper copy to those who want one. The idea that people join the WHA to get the journal is wrong, I suspect that virtually no one joins to receive the journal, they join to attend the conference or to support the organization.
  • Do adopt Montana: the Magazine of Western History and make it the first journal to get the above treatment. Its more popular style would make for an easier transition.
  • Get past issues of both journals out from behind the pay walls of JSTOR and MUSE and to where Google can find them. Every one is a potential advertisement for our organization.
  • Leverage our online presence with a Facebook page and Twitter account.
Things that are not in the report but should be:
  • Be an advocate for history. The near-silence of the WHA (and every other historical professional organization) as the government is poised to eliminate the Teaching American History program (that has pumped $1 billion into history education) is maddening and inexplicable. Where are the action alerts, the lobbying, the advocacy?
  • The conference needs more and shorter sessions--add lightning rounds, poster sessions/cocktail hours (posters + booze = win), lunchtime digital show-and-tells. And for the love of God, please ban the reading of papers out loud.
  • Organize a THATCamp to run before or parallel to the conference.
  • Connectivity--free wireless is simply a necessity, no matter what it costs, particularly if we are looking for a younger demographic. Free wifi is how conference goers will tweet and blog the conference and get the word out to a larger world of potential attendees.
  • A huge need for those of us working as public historians, digital historians, and in other nonconventional areas but with an academic tie is to be able to offer peer review of our scholarship to skeptical tenure and promotion committees and deans. The WHA should offer this as a service. 
  • Members could volunteer to serve as blind reviewers of digital projects, exhibits, etc., and the WHA would be the clearing house to put together the reviewers and the reviewed.
I am pleased that the WHA is on better financial footing these days and want to support it any way I can. At the same time I am skeptical about the future of all of our professional organizations. We need to adapt more quickly. Let me know what I can do to help.


Larry Cebula