By Mike Conway
At some point during the AJHA conference I heard someone say they didn’t realize how much they needed the in-person experience until they got to Memphis. I couldn’t agree more. As much as I enjoyed our online conferences during the past two years and our ability to keep AJHA active during the pandemic, getting together with my fellow AJHA historians is what has kept me coming back to AJHA conferences for twenty straight years.
I have to admit that the past three years had me worried. I had already witnessed and heard about steep declines in academic conference submissions and attendance in the past year. We were sweating out reaching the hotel room minimum numbers to fulfill our contract.
But when we got together Thursday morning for President Aimee Edmondson’s welcoming address, there they were: the people that make AJHA such a special organization. In fact, attendance in Memphis matched our numbers at our last in-person conference in Dallas in 2019 and most in-person conferences in recent memory.
Those of you who joined us in Memphis and those who were only kept away because of circumstances or schedules made it another memorable conference. The reason we could restart our in-person experience so smoothly is because of our great AJHA volunteers. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Caryl Cooper and LoWanda James quickly reached out to the hotels in Memphis and Columbus, OH and pushed back our hotel contracts by two years without penalty. When we made the decision to go back in-person earlier this year, Executive Director Erika Pribanic-Smith and AJHA President Aimee Edmondson worked with the Memphis site team to pull together the logistics while 2nd Vice-President Tracy Lucht built and adjusted the conference schedule throughout the summer. It reminded me of re-starting an engine that had been idle for a few years. It took some extra effort, but once we got it running, it was just like the AJHA conferences we remembered.
The Future: Columbus and Beyond
It’s customary at this point for AJHA presidents to put forth a vision for their year leading the organization. Mine is quite simple. I want to do whatever I can to continue AJHA’s mission to help media historians dig into important issues and provide an encouraging and safe venue for the presentation and publication of that scholarship. I want all media historians to view AJHA as I have for the past two decades, as a welcoming organization that does its best to provide resources to encourage research and an organization filled with members willing to share their time and expertise to lift up those who are building their careers. I was drawn to AJHA over other academic organizations because the top scholars were welcoming and supportive, not lording over graduate students and assistant professors as if they held the keys to an exclusive club.
If AJHA does not have that reputation for all of us, then what can we do to make it more inclusive and welcoming? The pandemic and the current political and cultural climate have made some existing issues quite clear. Universities are cutting back on research and travel funding, make it more expensive for us to visit archives and attend conferences. In some less enlightened cases, scholars are being told to stay away from historical research in favor of quantitative methods to increase the number of publications. At the same time, some states are passing laws to limit what history can be taught. These efforts show us the power and necessity of our work. AJHA should be our advocate to keep us pushing forward in our area of media history. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues.
Finally, a less exciting, but just as important topic: money. We need to give serious thought to how we keep AJHA working for media historians into the future. Our Board of Directors is very generous every year, budgeting roughly $15,000 a year more than we bring in. There’s nothing nefarious about this. As AJHA Finance Guru Lisa Parcell always tells us, the money we spend fits directly into the mission of AJHA, providing grants, travel stipends and other financial incentives to conduct, present, and publish our research. We also have a bit of a financial cushion. But at this rate, we will run out of money in about 13 years. We have to look at our annual membership dues, fundraising, and establishing an endowment to provide stable funding for our next generation of scholars. We’ve put together an ad-hoc committee to look into the endowment idea. AJHA Finance Director Lisa Parcell, Treasurer Ken Ward, Joe Campbell, and I hope to present a plan to our Board in the next several months. Aimee Edmondson and the Long Range Planning Committee will be surveying AJHA members about the future, especially what we’d like to see as our conference experience in the coming years. As always, ideas and comments welcome at email@example.com.