Jim Grossman: Scholarly associations are like NPR -- a civic good

Historians in the News

Will disciplinary societies become the bowling leagues of academe?

Declining participation in those leagues symbolized the larger generational decline of social participation in Bowling Alone, the 2000 best seller by Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard political scientist. Similarly, scholarly groups have long served as hubs of academic life and the embodiments of their disciplines, but they face uncertain and divergent futures.

Some disciplinary associations are struggling to remain relevant and financially viable as demographic and technological changes threaten their traditional sources of revenue. The core of their membership—tenured and, especially, tenure-track faculty—is shrinking and, in many cases, aging, with adjunct instructors now making up about two-thirds of the professoriate. Attendance at annual meetings is getting squeezed as the job market weakens, travel grows costlier, and colleges cut back on their support for professional development. Meanwhile, demands for open access through the Web are eating into revenue from scholarly journals....

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, likens scholarly associations to National Public Radio.

"You don't get a hell of a lot individually from the tote bag," he says. People support enterprises like public radio or disciplinary societies, he says, because they do something for civic culture. "Part of it is a civic appeal, there's no doubt," Mr. Grossman says. "It's the nature and value of citizenship."

Many members look to to their organizations to advocate on behalf of their discipline, but such efforts can be invisible to members.

"What we've learned from marketing surveys," Mr. Grossman says, "is that people think we should do what it turns out we already do."...

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