ASCH: Suddenly Single?

Elesha Coffman

The American Society of Church History has been holding its annual meeting in conjunction with the American Historical Association since at least 1909. Owing to changes in the way AHA relates to its affiliated societies, however, the two groups could part ways in future years. Readers of this blog who attended the meeting in New York City in January likely noticed some differences in the registration procedure and may have heard chatter about an impending split following the Sunday night business meeting. As a member of the ASCH council, I would really like to hear from you all regarding what you think we should do--or, more specifically at this stage, what questions we should ask, and of whom, as the ASCH enters the process of making a decision.

To outline the situation very briefly: Recent policy changes by the AHA will make it more expensive for members of affiliated societies (including ASCH, ACHA, and all of the others listed here) to attend the AHA annual meeting while also giving affiliated societies less control over their portions of the meeting--how many paper sessions they have, where those sessions meet, what kind of displays the societies can set up, and so forth. These changes seem to leave ASCH three basic options: (1) to keep meeting with AHA, though under less congenial terms; (2) to affiliate with a different scholarly society (or societies); or (3) to go it alone and plan its own, separate annual meeting, analogous to though larger than the current ASCH spring meeting.

A survey laying out these options in detail and inviting feedback from constituents will be available later this year. I'm helping draft the survey, and there are some things I want to think more about--and hear from more people about--to try to make sure we get the most useful information from all of the people with a stake in the ASCH's next move. So here are some of my big questions:

1. Who, besides current, active ASCH members, cares about the ASCH annual meeting? In identifying a target audience for the survey and, by extension, the meeting, obviously ASCH members are in the center. I'd expect the next ring to be populated by folks who typically attend the winter meeting as members of AHA, ACHA, or another affiliated society but drop into an ASCH session or chat with their ASCH friends in the hallways. Are there historians who don't attend AHA but would like to be in conversation with ASCH members? What about scholars of religion (AAR types) or other fields? Who, in other words, are the ASCH's current and potential conversation partners?

2. What's an annual meeting for? There are many answers to this question, and scholars answer it differently at different points in their careers. Job interviews. Book contracts. Book purchases. Presentations to put on the c.v. Professionalization and socialization. Hearing papers that inform research and teaching. What else? Which of these, if taken away, would force a conference off your "to attend" list? Assuming differences in the needs of grad students, early career scholars, and later career scholars, whose needs should ASCH prioritize, and why?

3. For that matter, what's a scholarly society for? I raised this question back in January, and I don't feel any closer to an answer. My graduate advisor was deeply invested in the ASCH, and I've attended the annual meeting consistently over the past 10 years, so I just assumed it would always be there, doing ... whatever it does. I'm getting a clearer picture now that I'm on the council, but I still struggle to articulate what its unique role is or to make a strong sales pitch to the many "members" who don't pay their dues.

The proliferation of outlets for academic writing makes the journal Church History, while still the gold standard in the field, perhaps less indispensable as a source of information or c.v. lines. The "religious turn" in the field of history means, among other things, that there's a lot of church history scholarship happening outside the ASCH. The profession is under significant pressure, but ASCH doesn't involve itself in job placement or advocacy. What does ASCH do that's compelling enough to convince people to keep paying for it, even if the annual meeting becomes more expensive or less attractive?

If you number yourself among those who have a stake in the course of the ASCH, please share what you think about these questions or suggest other questions to consider. The last thing anyone wants is a repeat of the AAR-SBL divorce. Help us do better.


jbh said…
Honestly that time I got a book panel rejected that included: Daniel Walker Howe, John Modern, Winnifred Sullivan, and Kevin O'Neill made me pretty sure that I never, ever wanted to be involved with ASCH again.
Unknown said…
Collaboration with AAR is compelling. The best and worst things about the meeting are that it is a very, very big tent. AAR and SBL have patched things up, at least for the foreseeable future, incidentally.
John Fea said…
Thanks for this, Elesha. Sounds like you and the committee have some tough calls to make. It is a shame that the AHA is making it so difficult for affiliated societies. I think this will definitely hurt the vitality of the AHA meeting in the long run. BTW, do you have a document or statement about this AHA policy decision that you can share or has been made public? I would like to blog about this because, at first glance, it seems like a bad move.

My connection to the ASCH these days largely comes through the AHA meeting in January. I usually register for AHA and then attend two or three ASCH sessions. As an American historian who teaches history and who does some research and writing in American religious history, I can craft a personal conference schedule for myself that cherry-picks from the best of the AHA and the best of the ASCH.

I am often asked to chair and/or comment at the January ASCH, but to be honest, I would probably decline if the ASCH met with the AAR. Moreover, my experience at AHA would be diminished if the ASCH was not there. I have never been to an AAR before and with a limited travel budget it would not be high on my priority list. I would, however, be attracted to a big national ASCH conference.

I will fill out the survey distributed later this year. Thanks again.
Unknown said…
Thanks for posing these great questions, Elesha. As a grad student, I am grateful to have the ASCH meeting alongside the AHA.

Like many others, I write primarily on religious history but teach on broader themes in North American history. Being able to attend sessions from both ASCH and AHA feeds the two parts of my academic work, and allows me to build networks in the same. I definitely do what John Fea describes, customizing a conference schedule from both programs.

Also a quick word about cost. Although I wasn't able to attend the NY meetings, my impression was that the cost of registering at the AHA would not have been prohibitive, especially compared with travel to a second conference (or realistically, having to choose between them).

I would definitely attend a stand-alone national ASCH conference because I value the academic community and the great work presented there. But I hope the connection with the AHA can continue.
KKY said…
How about meeting, as a separate organization, at the same time (but at a different hotel) of a larger meeting, such as AHA or AAR, but I don't AHA will appreciate this arrangement.

This contention with AHA has created an opportunity. ASCH should try something different, like meeting alongside AAR or meeting by itself for 3 years as a trial.
Elesha said…
To respond to a couple of items raised here:

Regarding the increased cost of ASCH continuing to meet with AHA, as I understand it, the primary changes would be (1) requiring all ASCH participants to pay conference registration for both AHA and ASCH, with the increased amount dependent on one's professional status; and (2) requiring the ASCH to pay for each of its own sessions, which would probably mean either that ASCH registration became more expensive or that ASCH would reduce the number of sessions it offers. It's hard to put a dollar amount on any of this yet. Change (1) was instituted this past January, and I think it raised my total attendance cost by $75 or so.

The more immediate concern from the ASCH was that all conference registration now has to go through the AHA system, which didn't include an option for renewing ASCH membership (or, if it did include this option, lots of people didn't see it). This is a back-end logistics issue but also can be seen as an attempt by the AHA to grab for itself people who have not been paying AHA dues but have been members of ASCH, ACHA, or other affiliate societies. Because membership dues are commonly bundled with conference registration, whoever controls registration (now AHA) has the inside track on collecting dues as well.

If you have to pay AHA registration to attend the conference, but once there can also attend ASCH sessions, why not just buy AHA membership instead of ASCH membership and get a discount on the conference? People have been doing this already, but where it used to be cheaper, overall, to be an ASCH member paying for the ASCH conference, going forward it will be cheaper (I think) to be an AHA member paying for the AHA conference. Anyone presenting at an ASCH panel will still be required to pay ASCH registration, but someone just attending an ASCH panel would not.

As to meeting in the same city as, but not in conjunction with, either AHA or AAR, this is a non-starter. A conference the size of ASCH can't negotiate the kind of rates AHA or AAR can for meeting space and hotel rooms in major city centers. So, if one of the big conferences were in Chicago, ASCH would be out by O'Hare or something, and its sessions wouldn't be listed in the big program or on the big conference app. If ASCH were to meet on its own, it would be in a much smaller city.

Gene Zubovich said…
This sounds like a very difficult situation, with lots of things to consider. As a historian working largely on the history of religion, I have profited tremendously from ASCH sessions during the last few years. Since I am deeply committed to the historical profession, decoupling the ASCH from the AHA would put me in a tough spot: I would have to chose between a conference I have to attend (the AHA) and a conference I want to attend (the ASCH), or to incur the additional financial burden of attending both. And while attaching the ASCH to the AAR would be an advantage for scholars working primarily in religious studies, this would mean that historians would be less frequent visitors, because the AAR does not entail the kinds of professional obligations that the AHA does. Good luck with this difficult decision, and thank you for deliberating about this so carefully.

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