2017 Annual Meeting

The 2017 ACLS Annual Meeting took place at the Renaissance Baltimore Waterfront Marriott Hotel, May 11-13 in Baltimore, MD. 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 11. (Those in attendance are pictured in the image gallery at right.) For current membership, see Board and Committees.

“Who Speaks, Who Listens: The Academy and the Community, Memory and Justice"

Thursday evening's session, "Who Speaks, Who Listens: The Academy and the Community, Memory and Justice," was devoted to exploring the ways that humanities faculty and students at colleges and universities can engage productively and cooperatively with local communities. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, introduced the session’s theme and moderated the panel:

  • John DeGioia, president, Georgetown University;
  • Denise Griffin Johnson, cultural agent, US Department of Arts and Culture; and
  • Nicole King, associate professor and chair of the Department of American Studies and Director, Orser Center for the Study of Place, Community, and Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Ms. Griffin Johnson discussed efforts to bring Baltimoreans into conversation around the complex concept of justice. She stressed the value of language as a window into culture and politics, noting that the different ways we describe highly charged events—was a recent period of civic unrest an “uprising” or “protest” or a “riot”?—reveal the presuppositions that inform our lives. Ms. King echoed Johnson’s sentiments about the value of dialogue, adding, “You can disagree with someone without being disagreeable” when discussing controversial issues. Public humanities projects, she said, should identify and probe tensions in communities, and should be based in rigorous scholarship, “because humanistic inquiry requires humility with respect to one’s sources and the past.” In describing his university’s recent attempts to grapple with its connections to slave-holding priests in the early republic, Georgetown University president John DeGoia highlighted the critical role humanities scholarship continues to play in Georgetown’s reconciliation process. In addition to serving as a central repository of information about the lives of the Maryland Province slave community, the Georgetown Slavery Archive [http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu] also facilitates outreach to the living descendants of that community. Like his co-panelists, DeGoia affirmed the essential values of humility and listening. As one audience member pointed out during the question and answer period, it is essential to ask oneself, in both research and civic life, just whose narrative we are discussing. Serious study of the humanities instills habits of asking, engaging, and respectfully listening, and those are habits of mind that could surely benefit today’s society.

President’s Report to the Council

The annual meeting proper opened Friday morning with President Pauline Yu’s "Report to the Council." She spoke of the relation of the humanities, education, and democracy and argued against the “velvet rope economy,” in which goods and services are increasingly offered in distinct tranches, with a more expensive premium product reserved for the more affluent. “The humanities do not belong behind the velvet rope,” she asserted, for they are integral to a holistic education, to social and cultural progress.” She went on to describe ACLS programs aimed at supporting a broad range of humanistic inquiry and strengthening scholarship’s public presence. 

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:

  • Suzanne Moyer Baazet, executive director, African Studies Association;
  • Timothy Lloyd, executive director, American Folklore Society;
  • Andrew Vaughn, executive director, American Schools of Oriental Research;
  • Amy Newhall, executive director, Middle East Studies Association; and
  • Pamela Robertson Wojcik, Executive Committee of the Delegates, University of Notre Dame, Society for Cinema and Media Studies

Meeting of the Council

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

Nicola Courtright, vice chair of the ACLS Board of Directors and chair of the Nominating Committee, announced the following elections to the board:

  • Ann Fabian, History, Rutgers University-New Brunswick (emeritus), elected to a three-year term as secretary, expiring in 2020;
  • William C. Kirby, History, Harvard University, elected to a three-year term as treasurer, expiring in 2020;
  • Jimena Canales, History of Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, elected to a four-year term as member;
  • Karl W. Eikenberry, Stanford University, elected to a four-year term as member; and
  • Marwan Kraidy, Communications, University of Pennsylvania, elected to a four-year term as member.

Scott Casper, delegate from the American Antiquarian Society and chair of the Executive Committee of the Delegates, reported on the election of two new members to that committee: Constance Backhouse, American Society for Legal History, University of Ottawa, and Theodore C. Bestor, Association for Asian Studies, Harvard University

Nancy Kidd, executive director of the National Communication Association and chair of the Executive Committee of the CAO, reported briefly on CAO activities, including two recent publications: Learned Societies by the Numbers and Learned Societies Beyond the Numbers. These publications are the result of the CAO’s data gathering efforts and provide a snapshot of the current state of ACLS’s member societies.

Nicola Courtright, vice chair of the ACLS Board of Directors, reported on ACLS finances and investments. Voting members (delegates and board members) approved the ACLS budget for FY 2018.

Also by vote of the Council, the Austrian Studies Association (ASA) was admitted as ACLS's 75th member society. The ASA, founded in 1961 as the Modern Austrian Literature and Culture Association, is an interdisciplinary organization that welcomes all eras and disciplines of Austrian studies at its conferences and in its journal, including scholarship on the cultures of Austria's earlier political forms (the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and Austria-Hungary) and scholarship that acknowledges this region's historical multiethnic, multilingual, and transcultural identities and their legacies in the present. For more information, visit the ASA website.

Matthew Goldfeder, director of fellowship programs, reported on the 2016-17 competition year. ACLS will award over $20 million to more than 300 scholars who have applied to more than a dozen distinct programs. Information on the array of fellowship programs can be found online under ACLS Competitions and Deadlines

Emerging Themes and Methods of Humanities Research

This annual session features presentations by and discussion with recent ACLS fellows. This year’s session was moderated by Peter Baldwin, professor of history, University of California, Los Angeles and member, ACLS Board of Directors. Noting that fellowships are at the core of what ACLS does, Baldwin suggested that the three fellows presenting their work were not merely representative of what ACLS funds, but also a broad sampling of trends in future humanities scholarship.

  • Ellen Muehlberger, a 2013 Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellow and associate professor of Near Eastern studies and history at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, presented her project, The Moment of Reckoning: Death and Violence in Late Ancient Christian Culture, which focuses on early Christianity and ancient funerary processes after the start of the fourth century CE. How does the culture about death affect the person who will die? Muehlberger noted that preachers’ talk of death in gruesome terms was aimed at getting a person to evaluate his/her current behavior and to see death as a moment of reckoning. She noted that this approach was in conflict with earlier Christian teaching that death was a liberation.
  • Lina Verchery is a 2015 Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellow in Buddhist Studies. Research for her dissertation on The Fajie Fojiao Zonghui: Rethinking Monasticism, Moral Selfhood, and Modernity took her to China, where her fellowship funded 10 months of fieldwork living in a Buddhist monastery as she examined contemporary Buddhist monastic life. Verchery spoke about the importance of communicating across disciplinary boundaries (making Buddhism speak beyond Buddhist studies); emphasized that the humanities are not just for the academy; and drew attention to the distinction between researchers and their objects of study, noting that one should learn from Buddhism, not just learn about it.
  • Candacy A. Taylor, a 2016 ACLS Fellow, is an independent scholar, photographer, and cultural documentarian who stumbled into her current project, "Sites of Sanctuary: The Negro Motorist Green Book," while researching Route 66, using sources written entirely by white males. Where were the African Americans, she wondered. Victor H. Green, an African American postal worker from Harlem, modeled his Negro Motorist Green Book on similar travel guides for Jews, listing restaurants, hotels, hair salons, barbershops, taverns, and service stations that were willing to serve African-American travelers. Taylor has done extensive archival and digital fieldwork, researching and documenting Green Book properties both still in existence and long gone, with the goal of producing not just a book, but also an exhibit, a board game, and a mobile app with an augmented reality feature.

The presentations were followed by comments and questions from the audience. Baldwin wrapped up the conversation by pointing out that all three fellows talked about the process of discovering something different and understanding realities we didn’t know existed. 

Luncheon Speaker

Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), was the luncheon speaker. He touched on UMBC's focus on diversity in the academy, as well as the history of the institution as it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary.

Pauline Yu in Conversation with Earl Lewis, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Pauline Yu and Earl Lewis had a wide-ranging conversation about Lewis’s background, the meaning and future direction of the public humanities, and the role of the Mellon Foundation and philanthropy more generally in the humanities and higher education. Overall, Lewis’s outlook was hopeful, but perhaps not optimistic about the future of the humanities on college and university campuses and in the public sphere. He highlighted the importance of partnerships among different kinds of institutions (community colleges and four-year institutions, for example, and universities and prisons) as well as collaborative approaches to tackling grand challenges with diverse teams made up of individuals with varied backgrounds, including humanists. The term “public humanities,” Lewis noted, has multiple definitions. It could include taking academic knowledge and using visual tools or other forms of dissemination to communicate research to a broader audience; it could also include using theater, museum exhibitions, art, or other media to share larger themes and topics with a public audience.

Lewis closed the conversation by stressing the importance of public support for the humanities. It is a dangerous proposition, he argued, that only private funding should go toward the arts and humanities because it suggests that these are not public goods. Moreover, private philanthropies do not have the ability or the mandate to engage with communities that public agencies do. In order to sustain public support for the humanities, he urged audience members to think about how they explain the importance of their own work and the greater humanistic endeavor to their next door neighbors. “How do you make the argument to your neighbors, to folks not in your world? What resonates in your own communities,” he asked. From there, the larger defense of public support for the humanities can begin to be constructed. 

Breakout Sessions

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

  • The Digital Dark Age: What Is Happening to All That Work? Nancy Partner, professor of history at McGill University, addressed a key issue facing humanities scholars and teachers who use digital information in our work, namely the ephemeral and constantly deteriorating state of that information. Partner introduced some of the ways in which online resources for learning and digital research projects depended on a robust digital infrastructure that was in a state of constant change. In order to remain in use, the data and ways in which it is coded need to be maintained, the projects must be migrated to new software or file conventions as the underlying technology changes, etc. The discussion touched on issues of forethought—that it is imperative for those of us thinking of creating digital projects to consider the long-term implications of initial design choices and have plans for managing, maintaining, and preserving data. It was noted that partnerships with libraries at many institutions was a productive avenue, as colleagues there were actively involved in thinking through such issues. The very issue of preservation—of whether everything can be saved or even if it should—spurred some interesting debate, connecting contemporary issues of digital data with a longer history of cultural preservation and loss. On a more technical note, several participants raised issues about the impact of transient digital projects on such topics as tenure and promotion.
  • Evaluating Public Scholarship. Robert Newman, president and director of the National Humanities Center, facilitated the breakout session “Evaluating Public Scholarship.” In this hour-long conversation, the participants discussed how to evaluate public scholarship and how to promote institutional recognition of scholars’ efforts to communicate their research to a broader public. One of the key challenges that the group identified was that public scholarship usually does not undergo peer review, which is the primary mechanism used by the academy to judge the quality, seriousness, and impact of humanities research. Although wide-ranging, the discussion focused on a few key themes:
  1. Problematizing the definition of “public.” Participants agreed that there are multiple definitions. One suggestion was that public scholarship must have an audience beyond the academy in mind from the project’s inception, along with specific goals for audience engagement. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a project is only considered to fall within the rubric of public humanities if it consists of a partnership between the scholar(s) and a public organization or institution beyond the UMBC campus.
  2. Problematizing the word “community.” Just as there are multiple publics, when scholars talk about engaging the “community,” there are, in fact, multiple communities. Some examples are “communities of location” and “communities of interest.”
  3. Defining “public scholarship.” Can anyone do public scholarship? Do practitioners need to be trained as public humanists?
  4. Revising institutional accountability and reward structures to incentivize and reward faculty for engaging in public scholarship. One suggestion was to include diversity as part of the evaluation process for faculty tenure and promotion. This would include diversity as a factor in how institutions evaluate teaching, research, and service. Another suggestion was to add public engagement as a fourth dimension to the reward structure.
  5. Incentivizing public engagement beginning in graduate training. Departments should invite public scholars to their campuses to share their scholarship and talk to faculty and graduate students. This would help bring public humanities work that takes place outside of the academy back into the university to help train faculty and graduate students.
  6. Establishing criteria and systems for peer review of public scholarship. There was a lengthy discussion about who would be “peers” in the case of public scholarship and how agreement could be reached about creating a process that is perceived as rigorous yet true to the methods and spirit of public scholarship.
  7. Compiling data. Participants asked for each society to compile a brief list of the best examples of public scholarship within their membership. They also asked for a similar list of best practices from colleges and universities.
  • Contingent Faculty in the Academic Workforce. Jack Fitzmier, Executive Director of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), lead a discussion of the growth of “contingent” faculty in the academy, beginning with sharing some startling statistics: Seventy-five percent of faculty are non-tenure track or part-time; 62 percent of contingent faculty are women; 60 percent have no access to benefits. He went on to discuss some of the ways the AAR has addressed the needs of contingent faculty, including: posting and publishing best practices; establishing a travel grants program; including programming for contingent faculty at annual meetings; eliminating fees for services to job hunters; establishing a contingent faculty task force; adding one seat on the board for contingent faculty; and generally providing advocacy for this group.

    During the general discussion that followed, one attendee noted that AAUP statistics may be skewed, as many professional schools (business schools, medical schools, etc.) have moved away from tenure systems. Also discussed was the question of economics: if the rise in the use of part-time faculty is economic, what caused this budget problem? Suggested answers included the fact that full-time tenure-track faculty and staff salaries have outpaced inflation and that universities have experienced an explosion of the administrative apparatus.
  • Innovations in Humanities Curriculum. This lively discussion, facilitated by Scott Casper, professor of history, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Delegate, American Antiquarian Society, began with participants reviewing different forms of interdisciplinary team teaching. It was observed that the “team” dimension needed to be a genuine faculty collaboration if student were to find the course coherent; simply alternating instructors at the front of the classroom would not suffice. Indeed, faculty need to stretch to be part of a “de-centered” classroom, that being the point of offering integrated perspectives on the course’s subject. There was considerable discussion of the practicalities of recruiting and matching faculty for this innovative teaching.

    Discussion of the general topic of interdisciplinary curricula led to a specific focus on experiences with “Computer Science + X (humanities, history, English). Successful examples of this approach relied upon faculty who had rapport with both domains. Participants warned against having such a course serve as both an introduction to computer science and an exploration of its application to humanistic questions. Another problem was the inability of many engineering students and computer science majors to take part in such courses as they were limited but the rigid requirements of their own departments. Referring to the meeting’s opening session, participant offered examples of courses that included public and community participation.

    The group also considered alternatives to the standard course. One credit courses, it was noted, were a useful form for treating some topics that should not be stretched to fill an entire semester. Research and innovation grants can match students with faculty who earn course release for one-on-one mentoring.
  • The Annual Conference and the Community. Hunter O’Hanian, executive director of the College Art Association, focused on best practices for connecting learned society conference attendees to the cities in which they are held, and even to broader issues in society. O’Hanian began the breakout session by asking the participants, many of whom were directors or volunteer leaders of learned societies, what types of outreach their associations typically conducted. Some noted their societies’ interest in highlighting, often in advance of the conference, stories or issues in the local community or region that speak to their disciplines. Others develop opportunities for conference attendees to connect with community-based organizations during the conference itself, including trips to cultural venues or historical sites, performances local artists or movie screenings hosted at the conference site, or even optional “service trips” that allow conference attendees to participate in structured volunteer work, such as an environmental clean-up or pro-bono archival work at an under-resourced museum or cultural organization. Many societies see their conferences as opportunities to bring new research and innovations in their disciplines to K-12 education. A number of attendees noted that their societies offer content-based or professional development sessions at a deeply reduced rate to K-12 educators.

    There were a number of questions about the most productive ways to work with local arrangement committees, which largely consist of representatives from local colleges and universities. While they can offer conference goers valuable information about the attractions and resources in the area surrounding the conference venue, they sometimes draw attention (or even participants) from the conference by hosting competing events during on conference dates. Some society representatives noted that they have taken to offering arrangement committees a number of panels on the conference program, which are waived from the society’s program committee review, in the interest of promoting greater integration of local faculty and interest groups into the meeting. The discussion turned to strategies for engaging the local community more broadly. A number of societies open select workshops and sessions to local attendees at no cost, or have experimented with pay-as-you-wish day passes for local scholars who might otherwise not attend the conference. Finally, as the discussion moved from the local to the national context, several attendees stressed the value of inviting representatives from the National Humanities Alliance to conduct a workshop about advocating for the humanities with their congressional representatives.

2016 Charles Homer Haskins Lecture

The annual meeting concluded with Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, delivering the 2017 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture on Friday evening. 

The Conference of Executive Officers (CEO) held its spring meeting on the following day, Saturday, May 13.