Before his lecture on Monday, history professor Jonathan Spence made exactly 500 copies of the course syllabus for his “History of Modern China” course. By the end of the class, not a single syllabus remained, and many students had not even received a copy.
Spence’s popular classes are well known to Yalies, but his reputation has also gained him a national position beyond the packed lecture halls of the Elm City. Last month, he was elected president of the American Historical Association.
The American Historical Association, or AHA, is the largest historical society in the United States and functions as the umbrella organization for historians of varied specialties.
The AHA’s Web site describes the group as concerned with the “promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts, and the dissemination of historical research.” The group boasts approximately 15,000 members, including faculty members at secondary schools or colleges, graduate students and independent historians.
“The Association is the principle, major association of history in the United States,” History Department chairman Jon Butler said. “It is the most important and the most prestigious of historical organizations in the U.S., and perhaps the world. There is no other organization which compares to it.”
Spence recalled his joy at hearing the news.
“It was hard not to be rather excited,” Spence said. “I’ve just been teaching and writing lately, so this is a very different kind of job. Intellectually, it can be exciting, but it’s also a lot of bureaucratic work.”
Because the AHA’s elections are held a year in advance, Spence will begin his term as president in January 2004. Until then he will serve as president-elect, which Robert Townsend, assistant director for research and publications, described as “president-in-training.”
Next year, after his presidential address in Seattle, Spence will chair the Governing Council of the Association and will be responsible for dealing with all wide-spanning problems which may arise in the field of history.
“I am both apprehensive and eager to see how it goes,” Spence said. “I’m touched by the people who voted for me.”
Spence first became interested in Chinese history when he came from the University of Cambridge to Yale with the Claire Mellon fellowship. He came to study Western civilization and Western history, but he enrolled in a Chinese history class “just for fun.” Spence said the professor, Mary Wright, inspired him to study Chinese and to apply for the doctoral program. Since then, Spence has become an extremely noteworthy historian with an expansive list of honors and awards. Spence began teaching at Yale in 1966.
Lately, Spence has been working closely with John Delury GRD ’05 on his research in early Qing dynasty intellectual and political history.
“Professor Spence is truly the ideal advisor, a mentor in the full sense of the word,” Delury said. “I have a theory that he has a secret Taoist handbook which he uses to create time ex nihilo.”
Butler said the position reflected well on both Spence and the University.
“It’s a great honor to Jonathan,” Butler said. “It’s a great honor to the department, and it’s a wonderful distinction for the University. Everyone knows that Jonathan Spence is a superlative historian and a fabulous colleague.”
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