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2018 ACLS Annual Meeting

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ACLS Board of Directors in attendance. Front row: Karl W. Eikenberry, Jimena Canales, Pauline Yu, William C. Kirby, Ann Fabian, Carl Pforzheimer III; back row: Elaine Sisman, Peter Baldwin, James O'Donnell, Michele Moody-Adams, Donald Brenneis, Marwan M. Kraidy. 


The 2018 ACLS Annual Meeting was held on April 26-28 at the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel in Philadelphia. In attendance were members of the ACLS Board of Directors, delegates of the constituent societies, members of the Conference of Executive Officers, presidents of the constituent societies, representatives of affiliate organizations, representatives of college and university associate institutions, ACLS fellowship recipients, committee members, foundation representatives, and other invited participants.

The ACLS Board of Directors met on Thursday, April 26. (Those in attendance are pictured above.) For current board membership, see Board and Committees.

The Contested Campus: Speech and the Scholarly Values

Thursday evening’s session probed the complex ways a commitment to freedom of speech intersects with the educational missions of colleges and universities.  Steven Rathgeb Smith, executive director, American Political Science Association, introduced the session’s theme and moderated the session, whose panelists were:   

  • Leon Botstein, president of Bard College
  • Jerry Kang, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of California, Los Angeles
  • Judith Shapiro, president of The Teagle Foundation and president emeritus of Barnard College, and
  • Ben Vinson III, dean of Columbian College of George Washington University.

The panelists focused on a set of thorny questions related to the session's topic, including how colleges and universities should counteract divisive tactics that seek to "weaponize" civic and scholarly values; how faculty and administrators can model ways for their students to have hard conversations across differences; and how higher education, and society at large, might frame a set of ground rules for behavior on campus. The speakers, all of whom are or had been senior administrators, pointed to the unpredictability of responses to on-campus provocations, and stressed the need for training higher ed administrators to be more agile and mindful of the complexity of campus relations. Panelists also pointed to the centrality of teaching in moments of campus strife and noted that scholarly associations have a responsibility to support and defend their members who are thoughtfully and carefully engaging with controversial topics. 

President’s Report to the Council

The annual meeting proper opened Friday morning with President Pauline Yu’s Report to the Council. President Yu began her report by recalling the turbulence on campuses and in learned societies in 1968, 50 years ago.  She noted that the political divisions of the 1960s echoed in the Culture Wars of the 1970s and '80s, during which new scholarly currents in the humanities unsettled some even as they brought new energy and inclusivity to the field. The challenges confronting the humanities today, she asserted, were to maintain a vigorous presence across all strata of higher education, to engage the public in the humanities’ search for meaning and understanding, to build global networks of inquiry, and to apply the interpretive power and critical analysis of the humanities to the very human and ethical dimensions of the digital transformation.  She outlined ACLS initiatives addressing all those challenges.   (A video of the president's report will be available later this summer in our media collection.)

President Yu invited retiring Vice President Wheatley to address the Council.  He thanked ACLS for the opportunity to have served ACLS and its noble mission for the past 32 years.  Ms. Yu commended Mr. Wheatley and announced that an anonymous donor had seeded a fund in his name to strengthen the ACLS’s work with its member societies.  

Micro-reports from Five ACLS Member Societies

Representatives of five member societies reported briefly (under three minutes) on topics on which their societies were currently engaged. Presenting were: 

  • Jack Fitzmier, executive director, American Academy of Religion
  • Robert Judd, executive director, American Musicological Society|
  • Elizabeth Higginbotham, delegate, executive committee of the delegates, American Sociological Association
  • Hunter O’Hanian, executive director, College Art Association, and
  • Lena Orlin, executive director, Shakespeare Association of America.

Meeting of the Council

ACLS Board of Directors chair James J. O’Donnell presided over the Council meeting.

Nancy Kidd, executive director of the American Sociological Association and member of the Nominating Committee, announced the following nominations to the board: 

  • William C. Kirby, History, Harvard University, elected to a three-year term as chair,
  • Michele Moody-Adams, Philosophy, Columbia University, elected a two-year term as treasurer complete William Kirby’s term as treasurer,
  • Frances Daly Fergusson, Art History, President emeritus, Vassar College, elected to a four-year term as member, and
  • Michele Lamont, Sociology, Harvard University, elected to a two-year term as member to complete Michele Moody-Adams’ term. 

The nominees were elected to the Council.

Elaine Sisman, delegate from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Executive Committee of the Delegates, reported on the nomination of three new members to that committee:  

  • Dorothy Hodgson, African Studies Association,
  • Elizabeth Higginbotham, American Sociological Association, and
  • Stephen Hartnett, National Communication Association

The nominees were elected by the Delegates.

William C. Kirby, treasurer of the ACLS Board of Directors, reported on ACLS finances and investments. Voting members (Delegates and board members) approved the ACLS budget for FY 2019.

Matthew Goldfeder, director of fellowship programs, reported on the 2017-18 competition year. ACLS will award over $24M to about 350 scholars who have applied to more than a dozen distinct programs. Information on the array of fellowship programs can be found online on ACLS Competitions and Deadlines. 

Emerging Themes and Methods of Humanities Research

This annual session features presentations by and discussion with recent ACLS fellows on their research projects. This year’s session was moderated by Don Brenneis, professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz and member, ACLS Board of Directors.  

  • Mattie Burkert, a 2015 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow and assistant professor of English at Utah State University, presented her project “The Theater-Finance Nexus,” which looks at the connections between London’s public playhouses and the financial revolution that took place in eighteenth-century Britain. Her project marshals new sources in the study of early modern theater—performance records, financial data, ephemeral periodicals—which had previously been considered ancillary, to demonstrate the pivotal role early modern theater played in understanding changing financial markets and vice versa. Her project also includes a significant digital component in which she is creating a relational database that will allow users to compare versions of performance records so as to conduct further research on eighteenth-century British theater.  
  • Quito Swan, a 2016 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellow for Recently Tenured Scholars and professor of history at Howard University, spoke next about his project “Melanesia’s Way,” which took the audience across time and space to late-twentieth-century Oceania. Swan’s project is a study of the Black Power movement in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere across the Indian and southern Pacific Oceans. He uses a range of sources, including periodicals, literature, art, and photography to show how Black Power activists in this region connected both to the broader black internationalism that was spreading across the world in this period as well as to local issues of exploitation of natural resources, Indonesian expansionism, and indigeneity.  
  • Rian Thum, a 2017 ACLS Fellow and associate professor of history at Loyola University New Orleans, concluded the panel by speaking on “Islamic China,” which looks at the history of Islamic teaching and practice in that nation over the past 300 years through a multilingual corpus of sources in Chinese, Persian, Arabic, and Turkic. His project has two overarching goals: first, he aims to naturalize the idea of Islam in China, which are two concepts that are not typically associated with one another despite centuries of Islamic presence in China; second, his work advocates for the reemergence of ethnographical historical practice, in which historians engage not only in traditional archival research but also with deep ethnographic fieldwork. This methodological intervention is especially important in regions in which textual archives are difficult to access or simply incomplete or nonexistent.  

While these three projects cover vastly different topics, regions, and time periods, they are united by the innovation and hybridity of their methodological approaches and by their efforts to expose unexpected connections—theater and finance; Black Power and Melanesia; Islam and China—to help make sense of a complex world. 

The presentations were followed by comments and questions from the audience. (Videos of the presentations will be available in our media collection.) 

Luncheon Speaker

Jon Parrish Peede, newly confirmed chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was the luncheon speaker. He spoke about several events in his past that have provided him an abiding love for the humanities and inform his perspective as chair, as well as some of the goals and initiatives for the Endowment in the future.

Democracy and the Contemporary Mediascape

On Friday afternoon, Marwan M. Kraidy, professor of communication and the Anthony Shadid Chair in Global Media, Politics & Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, introduced the session’s theme and both moderated and participated in the discussion.  The other discussants were Tara McPherson, associate professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, and Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor of Media Studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia.

This panel analyzed the dynamics of a fraught, and sometimes frightful, mediascape.  Scholarship prizes weighing evidence, reasoned argument, and respectful deliberation.  Those same values have long been thought essential for democratic self-governance.  While digital communications once seemed to reinforce democracy by allowing more voices to be heard, it is also apparent that these new technologies can sow invidious division and give rise to powerful corporations whose self-interest is not democratic. Panelists described how the very business models of major social media platforms focus on attracting users through passions—too often expressed as anger and hostility—cultivated by self-defined and self-isolated communities of use and do not reward inclusive dialogue across diverse populations.  Focusing on the role of humanities scholarship, panelists stressed how essential it was to promote spaces, in and beyond cyberspace, where facts were valued precisely because they were to be continually tested against evidence.  (A video of the conversation will be available later this summer in our media collection.)

Breakout Sessions

There were five hour-long concurrent sessions on the following topics:

  • Free Speech and Scholarly Values. Steven Rathgeb Smith, Executive Director of the American Political Science Association, facilitated this breakout. The conversation resurfaced a number of the issues from the previous evening’s  featured discussion on “The Contested Campus: Speech and the Scholarly Values” and the preceding session on “Democracy and the Contemporary Mediascape,” including connections between verbal and physical violence; “dialing back” adversarial rhetoric and defending the notion of campus as a space for intellectual exchange; and the importance of developing and administering institutional structures to support students and faculty members alike as they navigate questions of free speech. Participants were especially keen to discuss how dynamics between faculty members and university administrators can either exacerbate or defuse conflicts about free speech on campus. A number of faculty members offered anecdotes about colleagues whose institutions censured them on the basis of dubious undergraduate or graduate student claims related to academic freedom.  Treating faculty as a single constituency, one participant averred, erodes trust on campus and contributes to the sense that administrators are not custodians of scholarly values, but in fact are complicit in their degradation. Participants also spoke about challenges in the classroom, specifically students’ embrace of experiential knowledge and its fraught place in academic discourse. They wondered: how does one validate personal experience as a mode of knowing and make space for students to share their experiences openly, while at the same time maintaining a rigorous, evidence-driven classroom? Potential solutions included “crucial conversations” seminars or courses that hone interpersonal skills and teach faculty and administrators how to talk to colleagues and students constructively, as well as student orientation programming that models difficult communication. Participants concurred that while colleges and universities must be vigilant in managing external threats, the focus should be on bolstering the internal professional norms and structures that can keep campuses safe and permit faculty to carry out their research unencumbered.

  • The Humanities at Community Colleges. The lively and well-attended breakout session was facilitated by Andrew Rusnak, associate professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County and executive director of the Community College Humanities Association, an ACLS affiliate. Rusnak opened the session by sharing data collected by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project that show approximate humanities enrollments, the number of faculty members teaching humanities courses, and historical trends of associate’s degree completions by field. Taken together, these data show that both in terms of student and faculty engagement, a vast number of people encounter the humanities at community colleges. 

    The conversation then turned to participants sharing what their societies, institutions, and organizations are doing to incorporate community colleges. The Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies is the only member society whose delegate to the Council is from a community college: delegate Mara Lazda is assistant professor of history at Bronx Community College. The Organization of American Historians has a representative from a community college on its program committee for each conference, and that committee is charged with getting more faculty from community colleges involved in panels. The World History Association has slots for both community college faculty and K-12 teachers on its committees and awards teaching prizes to recognize these members. The Modern Language Association is focusing on the pipeline of students transferring from two-year colleges to four-year colleges and universities to encourage more of these students to major in the humanities. The University of California, Irvine, has noticed that of incoming students who declare majors in the humanities, a large proportion of them are transfers from community colleges. 

    Still, the group recognized that there is much work to be done to better involve and serve scholars at community colleges. For example, there are financial barriers to community college faculty joining learned societies and attending conferences. Many societies have sliding-scale membership rates, but perhaps more could be done make conferences more affordable or to hold smaller regional conferences that would involve less travel. Also, there could be more recognition of the variety and breadth of research that community college faculty are engaged in, to include pedagogical and community-oriented work. Finally, there was broad agreement that one of the most important steps to greater inclusivity is simply having more community college representation throughout learned societies and across the higher education ecosystem. This includes inviting community college faculty and leaders to participate in learned society committees; take on leadership roles; serve on boards of directors; volunteer as editors for scholarly journals; and provide venues for community college faculty, four-year faculty, and graduate students to share research and best practices around teaching and learning.

  • Learned Societies and Professional Misconduct/Accusations of Sexual Harassment. Amy Ferrer, executive director of the American Philosophical Association (APA), facilitated a discussion that focused on learned societies’ policies regarding how to handle professional misconduct and accusations of sexual harassment.  John Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, discussed the importance of establishing a set of reliable investigative procedures and noted a communication problem (“no one reads policies or reads emails about policies”).  Questions focused on procedures for sanctioning institutions, establishing standards, and procedural safeguards.  Ferrer noted that there is a limit on what you can do; APA stays out if there is on-going litigation.  Kutsko noted that in cases of assault, an individual should go to the police. A “hostile environment” doesn’t rise to the level of a formal complaint.

    The general discussion involved exploring what constitutes misconduct, including being too critical of a colleague (on a panel, for example) and bullying.  How do you judge when someone is crossing a line?  How do you enforce “being nice?”  The group discussed ways to communicate expectations of appropriate standards of behavior, including professional conduct at meetings.  Other issues included how to navigate a difficult conversation and how to give negative feedback constructively.  It was asserted that there is a need to establish “rules of engagement” including statements about dialogue and debate and what we want to see at meetings.

    It was noted that many large societies, such as the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association, are able to do more by way of establishing professional standards than are small societies.

  • TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem. This initiative of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Association of American Universities (AAU), and the Association of University Presses (AUP) aims to demonstrate the viability of a pay-to-publish model of scholarly communication. Peter Berkery of AUP and Jessica Sebeok of AAU outlined the project.  Participating universities provide at least three grants of $15,000 to publish new monographs as open access e-books at participating university presses.  Participants in the breakout session probed the relationship of print to digital publishing and speculated how this initiative could include independent scholars.

  • The Contemporary Mediascape. Marwan Kraidy moderated discussion following on the earlier session on this topic.

2018 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture

The annual meeting concluded with Sally Falk Moore, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Anthropology Emerita at Harvard University, delivering the 2018 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture on Friday evening. (The lecture will be available later this summer in print and video.)

The Conference of Executive Officers (CEO) held its spring meeting on the following day, Saturday, April 28.

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Related Links

FUTURE ANNUAL MEETINGS

2019, April 25-27
ACLS Centennial Meeting

New York Marriott Downtown Hotel
New York, NY

2020, April 30-May 2
Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel
Baltimore, MD

Visit our media collection for annual meeting videos.