Ok, so I’ve suggested to the American Historical Association (AHA) that they should eliminate formal paper sessions with extreme prejudice. That goes for all big professional meetings (MLA, AAA, what have you): no more formal paper sessions in which participants take 15-20 minutes to read a paper, ever. The intellectual content of big professional meetings should be more like blogging, frankly: roundtable responses to current issues in the discipline. Roundtables on controversial books, on the discipline’s encounters with the public sphere, on major internal disputes within the discipline, and so on. The kind of thing that doesn’t get talked about except between the lines in the ordinary business of scholarly publication. Papers or formal writings are for small, concentrated, topically focused meetings.
Next on the chopping block: any pretense by professional associations to exert leadership over a discipline. On the issues where that leadership might actually matter in internal terms, such as sanctioning practicioners for misconduct like plagiarism, the big associations routinely duck, avoid or explicitly abjure an active stance. That’s probably a sound legal strategy, and may even be a sage admission of the necessary limits of the association’s capacity. Often when disciplinary associations try to address the deeper flaws inherent in contemporary academic practice (say the overproduction of doctorates in the field, or the misuse of adjunct instructors), they either come off like a butcher trying to perform brain surgery with a hatchet, or they offer hopelessly meek, mealy-mouthed, everybody’s-got-a-point responses that do nothing to address the situation but also convince onlookers of the inability of academics to police themselves.
What annoys me more is when any of the disciplinary associations attempt to take a position on behalf of the discipline on significant public or political issues. Not because I’m apolitical, or even because I disagree with the positions taken, but because the associations usually have no basis for exerting meaningful clout, because they’re inevitably amateurs playing a game dominated by hardcore professionals, because they frequently end up making the professoriate look worse in the public eye in the process, and because this often leads to wasting money on payments to lobbyists or consultants who are content to spin some wheels and look busy.
I’m not always sure I want my professional associations taking positions on issues that are legitimately and narrowly within their domain (say, the AHA on K-12 history curricula in U.S. schools, or the African Studies Association on Title VI funding for African studies) but at least that makes good sense, and often has productive results.
What else? Drop any association journals that aren’t established, prestigious outlets for publication in the discipline. The American Historical Review is an established, prestigious journal: the AHA ought to keep that. However, plenty of professional associations, especially the smaller specialized ones, churn out weak journal-type publications that probably end up in the garbage of many members. Kill vanity publication lines, or well-meaning but pointlessly tree-killing pamphlets that are meant to communicate some worthy but self-evident sentiment to members or to audiences that well-meaning members think ought to be the targets of some sort of outreach.
On the other hand, constantly data-mine the membership for the kind of information that we’re constantly thinking about in the administrative side of faculty jobs: what the distribution of specializations in the discipline is, what the current demographics of the discipline are, what the average size of departments in the discipline are (on a kind of “per capita” level, in comparison to other departments at institutions), what the ratio of people trained to people finding tenure-track jobs in the discipline is. Track what Brian Leiter tracks for philosophy (what Lingua Franca used to track for everybody): major movements of personnel in the discipline at the senior level, and hires at the junior level. There are a lot of times where it would be useful for me to be able to make definitive statements about whether history as a discipline is growing or shrinking, what the current balance of specializations actually is and how it has changed over ten years, and so on. None of this matters, however, unless you make this information available quickly and regularly to the membership.
Every professional association should have an active web presence, maybe even a blog or two. That’s where the data being collected constantly could be published, just as regularly. You should be able to renew your membership and deal with all other membership details quickly and painlessly online. The way some professional associations come at it, you’d think maintaining an online presence of this kind is a daunting technical challenge that has to be custom-designed from the ground up. Or alternatively, that it’s some amateur thing to hack out over the weekend.
The problem with trying to make any of these suggestions beyond a quickly-dashed-off blog entry, of course, is that you’ll inevitably end up asked to sit on an associational committee or worse yet, told to run for an associational office if you care that much. I don’t care that much, so I have no interest in going beyond blog-kibitzing.