The 2015 ACLS Annual Meeting took place at the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel in Philadelphia, PA on May 7-9. In attendance were members of the ACLS Board of Directors, delegates of the constituent societies, members of the Conference of Administrative 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 May 7. (Those in attendance are pictured in the image gallery at right.) For current board membership, see Board and Committees.
Thursday evening's informal session, "Aligning Humanistic Scholarship with Public Engagement, Collaboration, and the Digital Realm," featured a wide-ranging discussion of three distinct, but often related, extensions of scholarly activity. Nancy Kidd, executive director of the National Communication Association and chair of the executive council of ACLS's Conference of Administrative Officers, introduced the panel and its participants.
Timothy Lloyd, executive director of the American Folklore Society, moderated the discussion. The other panelists were Douglas Greenberg, Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick; Steven Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance; and James O'Donnell, University Librarian of Arizona State University and chair of the ACLS Board of Directors (read more about panelists). In his remarks, Greenberg pointed to ACLS publications from earlier decades on scholarship and the public humanities and on cyberinfrastructure, noting that the issues presently under discussion are persistent, if evolving. O'Donnell recalled the important outward-facing aspects of the public university campus, which often provides events and other opportunities for intellectual engagement to members of their surrounding communities. Kidd described a number of public humanities projects that enabled humanities students and faculty to partner with community organizations. He argued that it would be important for humanities advocates to highlight individual public engagement projects, and not merely affirm the value of the "public" in the abstract, when making the case for the significance of the humanities.
A discussion followed the panel's comments, during which some audience members expressed skepticism about the potential of digital publishing and affordances to increase access to the content of humanities research. Others urged further engagement between the scholarly community and the public, in particular where humanistic knowledge could inform new approaches to society's many grand challenges.
The annual meeting proper opened Friday morning with a presentation by current ACLS fellows in a session “Emerging Themes and Methods of Humanities Research,” which featured presentations by three recent ACLS fellows. The three speakers were Sylvia Houghteling, a 2014 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow who successfully defended her dissertation in History of Art at Yale University several days before the annual meeting; Grace Musila, a 2011 African Humanities Program Postdoctoral Fellow and a lecturer in the English department at Stellenbosch University in South Africa; and Margaret O’Mara, a 2014 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellow and an associate professor of history at the University of Washington. Nicola Courtright, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Art at Amherst College and vice chair of the ACLS Board of Directors moderated the panel.
While the three fellows covered vastly different geographic locations, disciplines, and subjects, a unifying thread through their talks was a consideration of scale and the interactions between micro- and macro-narratives. Houghteling, who spoke about her project, “Politics, Poetry and the Figural Language of South Asian Textiles, 1600-1730,” showed how the global trade of South Asian textiles in the seventeenth century sheds light on the global history of art and commodities. Aided by intriguing images of tapestries that were produced by local Indian artisans, Houghteling explained how both the aesthetic dimensions of the textiles themselves and the global trade networks that Europeans established in response to the growing demand for them contribute to a greater understanding of the trade of both culture and commodities on a scale that ranges from the local to the global. Musila then moved across the world and several centuries later to 1980s Kenya for her talk about the case of Julie Ward, a British tourist who was found dead and brutally dismembered on a Kenyan game reserve in 1988. In her talk, which was based on her project, “Kenyan and British Social Imaginaries on Julie Ward's Death in Kenya,” Musila focused on the contested narratives about the circumstances of Ward’s death and the subsequent investigations, trials, news coverage, and rumors that shaped social imaginaries across postcolonial Africa and Great Britain. She used this single case to explore how the rumors and stories that circulated in Kenyan society offered a space for Kenyans to critique and counter the oppressive local regime and, on an even broader level, how narrative creates and influences reality. O’Mara concluded the panel with a presentation based on her Burkhardt project, “Silicon Age: High Technology and the Reinvention of the United States, 1970-2000.” O’Mara’s project is a political and social history of the hi-technology revolution, which aims not only to chronicle Silicon Valley’s remarkable growth in the second half of the twentieth century, but, more importantly, to demonstrate how Silicon Valley’s ascent redefined American capitalism and American politics. In sharp contrast to the libertarian image of the hi-tech industry, O’Mara showed that the federal government was the industry’s first and greatest venture capitalist. O’Mara’s study of Silicon Valley disrupts (to use a term from that industry’s vernacular) and demythologizes the way that Silicon Valley is understood, which, in turn, contributes to much broader understandings of the historically evolving relationships between power and capitalism and between culture and politics.
President Yu’s Report to the Council noted the preparations underway for ACLS’s centennial in 2019. She reiterated the several areas where ACLS has been effective in the past and might expand its work in the future: creating new knowledge, catalyzing and curating communities of knowledge, and experimenting with new forms for the diffusion of knowledge. She spoke of the democratic vision of ACLS’s role in the academy. It is critical that the vital knowledge of the humanities, knowledge renewed through research, be broadly accessible, she asserted. Ms. Yu announced the expansion the Burkhardt Fellowship Program for Recently Tenured Scholars to include an additional ten residential fellowships each year for recently tenured liberal arts college faculty specifically. She alson noted that ACLS has begun a new collaboration with the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program (MMUF), which is sponsored by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This program, ACLS makes its first foray into the undergraduate domain. MMUF, which recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, addresses the underrepresentation of minorities in college and university faculties by encouraging more students from underrepresented minority groups to pursue PhDs in the humanities and social sciences. She concluded her report by stating that humanities will not thrive if they are not constantly renewed by new knowledge distilled by a vibrant research enterprise resting on a broad base of colleges and universities, of learned societies, and an engaged public.
ACLS Board of Directors Chair James J. O’Donnell presided over the Council meeting following President Yu’s report. Nancy J. Vickers, treasurer of the ACLS board, reported on ACLS finances and investments. Voting members (delegates and board members) approved the ACLS budget for FY 2016 and the following elections to the board:
- James J. O’Donnell, classics, Arizona State University, was re-elected to a three-year term as chair
- Donald Brenneis, Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz, was re-elected to a four-year term as member
- Terry Castle, English, Stanford University, was re-elected to a four-year term as member
Also by vote of the Council, the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) was admitted as ACLS's 73rd member society. The SAA represents over 1,000 prominent scholars, students, theatre practitioners, and digital humanists interested in the advanced study of Shakespeare's works, times, and afterlife. For more information, visit www.shakespeareassociation.org/.
Matthew Goldfeder, director of fellowship programs, reported on the 2014-15 competition year. By the close of the competition year, ACLS will award over $16M to approximately 320 scholars who have applied to 12 distinct programs. These programs, he noted, range broadly in terms of the sources of their funding, the fields or types of scholarship they support, and the career stages and location of scholars they target. Information on the array of fellowship programs can be found at www.acls.org/programs/comps/.
William “Bro” Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, spoke at luncheon. In his first address to the ACLS annual meeting, Adams paid tribute to the role of ACLS, with the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, in encouraging Congress to establish the Endowment 50 years ago. He reviewed the accomplishments of the past half century band while suggesting that the future course of the Endowment, and for the humanities, would need to be sure to engage the public in the great projects of humanistic inquiry.
In the Friday afternoon session, Philippa Levine, chair of the ACLS Executive Committee of the Delegates and Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, moderated a panel discussion on “Literacies in the 21st Century.” The keynote speaker, Deborah Brandt, professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, circulated a paper on the topic in advance of the meeting. On the panel to respond to Brandt’s remarks were Dominic McIver Lopes, professor of philosophy, University of British Columbia; Richard M. Valelly, Claude C. Smith ‘14 Professor of Political Science, Swarthmore College; and Holly Willis, research assistant professor, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California (read more on panelists). Brandt opened the discussion by noting that there is a shift to writing and away from reading among the public. Reading, she posited, has become subordinated to writing. “Literacy,” she suggested, has developed more through writing than reading; with writers becoming many and readers few. In response to Brandt’s opening comments, Dominic Lopes addressed the idea that words do not convey the whole messages; images and spatial reasoning need to be taken into account. The next panelist, Richard Valelly, suggested that the rise of book clubs may be a response to the shift away from reading and noted a growing resistance to reading for pleasure. The final panelist, Holly Willis, pointed toward a move away from reading and writing and into the visual, and then to networks. In 21st century literacy, the oral, visual, and digital overlap. She stressed the need to design curriculum to develop media literacy and digital tools for scholarship.
Following the panelists’ presentations, attendees were invited to ask questions, which included discussions of writing for work versus writing for pleasure; how thinking has changed; transformation in the nature of scholarship (the ability to search by key word is a different kind of scholarship); a transition in the way we produce knowledge; and changes in scholarly communication.
Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, delivered the 2015 Haskins Prize Lecture on Friday evening at the Benjamin Franklin Hall at the American Philosophical Society (biographical note).
The Conference of Administrative Officers (CAO) held its spring meeting on the following day, Saturday, May 9.
The 2016 ACLS Annual Meeting will be held in Arlington, VA, May 5-7. Cynthia Enloe, research professor in the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University, will deliver the 2016 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture Friday evening, May 6.