2019 Annual Meeting

The 2019 ACLS Annual Meeting was held on April 26 at the New York Marriott Downtown. 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 25. (Those in attendance are pictured at right.) For current board membership, see Board and Committees.

President Pauline Yu’s address to the Council began with a report on the $25 million in fellowships that ACLS awarded this year.  Included in these totals were the new programs supporting Community College faculty (which had applications from 117 different institutions).  She spoke about the Scholars and Society program that enables faculty who teach and advise PhD students to conduct research projects while in residence at cultural, media, government, policy, or community organizations of their choice. Other topics included her expression of gratitude  to the Carnegie Corporation for a $5 million Centennial grant in  support of the African Humanities Program; a review of the collective discussions of the executive directors of the societies over the past year (including a day-long discussion of sexual harassment policies); a discussion of the work of the Luce Foundation program that brings together scholars of religion and journalists; a revision of the Mellon-funded post-doc fellows program that is supporting institutions that seek to use post-docs as a way of diversifying the faculty in particular departments.  Finally, President Yu discussed the reasons for and progress of the newly announced Centennial Campaign.  She thanked the Council for close collaboration over her 16 years as ACLS’s president. (See video.)

Pauline introduced president-elect Joy Connolly, who will assume the ACLS presidency on July 1, 2019. They discussed Joy’s path to ACLS.  Joy began with a perspective on the power of the humanities quote from Second Century AD poet, Dionysius Periegetes, who wrote:

   I could easily describe this sea to you,
   though I have not seen its channels far 
   away, nor have I crossed it in a ship.  
   For my life has not been spent on upon dark ships,
   Instead the mind of the Muses conveys me.

Joy and Pauline spoke about Joy’s work at two different universities in New York – NYU and the CUNY graduate Center, about her participation in a convening held at ACLS that led to the new Scholars and Society program, and her involvement in the Society for Classical Studies.  Questions from the floor concerned the ways in which scholars engage with civic life, diverse career paths for PhDs, and the role of societies in the challenge of undergraduate enrollments. (See video.)

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:

  • Alex Beecroft, executive director, American Comparative Literature Association
  • Amy Ferrer, executive director, American Philosophical Association
  • Jay Malone, executive director, History of Science Society
  • Alyson Reed, executive director, Linguistic Society of America, and
  • Carla Zecher, executive director, Renaissance Society of America .

Meeting of the Council

ACLS Board of Directors chair William C. Kirby presided over the Council meeting.

Michele Moody-Adams, ACLS Board Treasurer and Chair of the Nominating Committee, announced the following nominations to the board:

  • Nicola Courtright, Art History, Amherst College, elected to a three-year term as vice chair,
  • James Averill, Wellington Management, Radnor, PA (retired), elected to a four-year term as member, and
  • Melani McAlister, American Studies and International Affairs, The George Washington University, elected to a four-year term as member

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:

  • Alexandra Lord, National Council on Public History, Smithsonian Institute,
  • J. Todd Moye, Oral History Association, University of North Texas

The nominees were elected by the Delegates.

Michele Moody-Adams, 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 2020.

Matthew Goldfeder, director of fellowship programs, reported on the 2018-19 competition year. ACLS will award $25M to nearly 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 Terry Castle, professor of English, Stanford University and member, ACLS Board of Directors.

  • Héctor Beltrán, a 2017 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship and UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine and incoming assistant professor at MIT, was first to present on his project, “Disenchanted Hacking: Technology, Startups, and Alternative Capitalisms from Mexico.” In his research, Beltrán uses ethnographic methods to study the complex relationship between hackers and the societal and economic conditions under which the hacking itself is being done. Beltran relied on what he called “full stack ethnography” to ascertain how members of hacker communities perceive the aims of their coding projects and the relationship of their work to the state.
  • K.J. Rawson, a 2017 Digital Extension Grantee and associate professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross, spoke next about his project, the Digital Transgender Archive, an online resource of “digitized historical materials, born-digital materials, and information on archival holdings throughout the world.” Rawson began his project in 2007, in response to the difficulties he encountered in his own research in locating and accessing archival materials and collections related to transgender history. The DTA seeks to broaden access to digital materials and archival holdings for researchers by providing a front-end interface that is as accessible as possible, and by collaborating with over 50 institutions across the country and around the world to continually populate and expand its database.
  • Caroline Wigginton, a 2017 ACLS/Carl and Betty Pforzheimer Fellow and assistant professor of English at The University of Mississippi, concluded the panel with her presentation on her project, “Indigenuity: Native Craftwork and the Material of Early American Books,” which focuses on the concept of native craftwork as a means of communication and expression, and positions native peoples not as subjects, but as creators of literature that exists outside of colonial norms and standard definitions. Wigginton used the example of gamuts, created in the 18th century by Joseph Johnson, which repurposed the form of the tunebook, and circulated extensively among native communities. Though no physical copies of the gamuts survive, accounts make clear that the sharing and tactile experience of these objects of craft was, itself, a means of communication, engagement, and fellowship; in his way, the native book occupies a space that is at once physical and experiential.

While these three projects cover vastly different topics, regions, and time periods, they are united by

The presentations were followed by comments and questions from the audience. (Videos of the presentations are forthcoming.)

Luncheon Speaker

John Parrish Peede, the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, addressed ACLS meeting attendees over lunch. His address, a meditation on C. P. Snow's famous 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures," explored how the humanities today might productively engage with the sciences and highlighted exemplary NEH-supported projects that successfully bridged these fields of inquiry. Chairman Peede also offered his personal congratulations to President Pauline Yu on her successful 16-year tenure at ACLS, and wished the Council a successful start to its next century of stewarding and advancing the humanities.

Breakout Sessions

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

  • The Learned Societies and #MeToo. Constance Backhouse, delegate for the American Society for Legal History and member of the Executive Committee of the Delegates, facilitated this breakout. She framed the conversation by pointing to a series of peaks and valleys over the past 50 years in social movements that have called attention to and reacted against sexual harassment. This began at Cornell in the 1970s, flared up again with Anita Hill’s allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in the 1990s, and has peaked again with the #MeToo movement. The challenge is to figure out how to sustain the momentum of the current movement to effect lasting change. The conversation then turned to whether these problems can be solved through effective policy, and how colleges, universities, and learned societies are addressing these issues. There was a long discussion about how to handle sexual harassment at learned society annual meetings, and whether to address bad behavior punitively (by expelling the offender from the meeting and banning the individual from future meetings, for example) or through education. Some brought up the role of the victim in determining the punishment and the importance of making sure the victim felt safe and welcome at future meetings. Session participants shared policies, tactics, and resources to address sexual harassment at annual meetings. Some societies now have volunteer ombudsmen at their meetings. One society lists emergency phone numbers and other resources on the back of each conference attendee’s name badge. Another society, in order to draw a large audience to a session about diversity and inclusion, called it a “presidential session,” with four white men listed as the panelists, and then opened up a conversation about the importance of diversity and inclusion for the future of their discipline. A Norwegian website—http://kifinfo.no/en—offers practical counsel for dealing with these issues. The session closed with a reminder that harassment of any kind is directly connected to academic freedom and affects scholars’ ability to conduct their research.
  • The Civic Role of Learned Societies in the Age of Alternative Facts. Facilitators Stephen J. Hartnett and Trevor Parry-Giles of the National Communication Association asked participants to consider how learned societies might offer a robust defense of integrity and honesty at a time when the value of expertise, higher education, and key institutions of civil society is being questioned. They spoke extensively about initiatives undertaken at NCA's recent conferences, in particular the association's effort to engage the communities where the NCA's annual meetings are held. Hartnett, Parry-Giles, and other participants then discussed the challenges to effective engagement, including marketing, encouraging attendance at events held in austere convention centers or downtown hotels, and managing expectations of the volunteer leadership of learned societies. Participants described a number of promising initiatives underway at their institutions, such as partnerships with arts organizations that have track records of engagement, public relations boot camps for scholars on the verge of publishing research findings, and engagement with local media outlets as opposed to legacy national media. There was broad consensus that encouraging scholars to attend to public communication, and to speaking to multiple audiences, would result in better scholarship overall.
  • The Challenges and Consequences of Higher Education in the Context of Globalization.
  • Foundational Literacies and the Opportunities and Consequences of Interdisciplinarity. Elaine Sisman, chair of the Executive Committee of the Delegates, and Elaine Higginbotham, member of the Executive Committee of the Delegates, facilitated the session. The session was attended by roughly ten participants, with incoming ACLS President Joy Connolly joining the group for the final part of the discussion. Sisman began the conversation by listing types of debates that tend to arise when discussing foundational literacy—such as, “do music studies majors need to know music?”—and offered two guiding questions: what role do foundational literacies play in defining, maintaining, and challenging disciplinary boundaries, particularly as undergraduate majors evolve? And what role can/do learned societies play in fostering foundational literacies in an ever-changing higher education ecosystem? Participants were keen to discuss the various forces that drive conversations and assumptions about which foundational literacies should be kept or discarded, including student interest, accessibility and inequality, faculty career stage, departmental politics, and labor pressures within institutions. As one participant put it: “what are you going to give up if there are hard choices to be made on campus?” The conversation took on a pedagogical focus at a number of points, particularly around the subject of literacy. Given that people are losing the basic capacity to read, how can university educators teach undergrads and graduate students how to be thinkers and producers of scholarship when some enter college without fundamental reading skills? Related questions included: how do students manage a text? how do they gain access to and experience texts? Some representatives from learned societies that were founded as fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavors—such as the German Studies Association and the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study—were especially interested in discussing language training as a form of foundational literacy for their various fields. In a field such as Scandinavian studies, for instance, how much can language training matter when the field encompasses so many different tongues, like Finnish, Danish, and Icelandic? They also wondered how assumptions about foundational literacy can affect the trajectory of young scholars’ specializations. Participants observed that the humanities fields which require students to begin specialization early—whether due to language requirements, training in research methods, or other skills—may discourage or prevent certain groups of students from pursuing those fields, and can even discourage young, curious faculty members from doing compelling work across disciplines.
  • Research Analytics and the Humanities. ACLS Vice President James Shulman facilitated this breakout session, which looked at the impact that Academic Analytics has on academic institutions and humanistic work. The session began with Shulman giving a brief overview of what Academic Analytics is and the ways in which it is being used. Academic Analytics is a paid subscription service that provides administrators with a bottom-up database of scholars in their institution and a breakdown of their research output, which involves data visualization and department ranking. The data supporting this service is mined from academic journals and is supplemented with information on recent grant, fellowship, and scholarly prize recipients. Following this overview, the conversation centered on the myriad problems with Academic Analytics as a tool of assessment, particularly for scholars in the humanities. The overemphasis on journal publications, particularly publications within the last five years, discredits humanistic monographs, which often have much longer scholarly traction and shelf life than work done in the biomedical and physical sciences. Session participants emphasized Academic Analytics’ uneven assessment of publication records, including the equal weight given to books and journal articles, the use of Google Scholar to track publications, the exclusion of many journals from record, and the recent inclusion of data on chapters in edited volumes. The session then pivoted to how colleges and universities are using information gleaned from Academic Analytics, and the resource allocation this service potentially drives. One participant detailed the struggle at their university, where faculty members expressed concern over the use of Academic Analytics in deliberations over tenure promotion. Another participant shared the story of a colleague who was denied a distinguished professorship due, in part, to that individual’s absence from Academic Analytics’ database. The session ended with a discussion on the difficulty of accurately assessing scholarly output and quality in humanistic fields and potential alternatives to Academic Analytics, including rotating department assessments. Participants generally observed that the overarching problem with databases like Academic Analytics is their creation of a feedback loop, whereby faculty make choices about their intellectual expenditure that result in a favorable profile on Academic Analytics in exchange for an impoverished approach to their research. In other words, these faculty members have incentive to “teach to the test.”

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Fifty Years of Scholarly Communication

On Friday afternoon, Deanna Marcum, senior advisor at Ithaka S+R, introduced the following speakers to reflect on fifty years of scholarly communication funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
  • Sylvester A. Johnson, Professor and Director of the Center for Humanities, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, spoke about the history of technology in the humanities at Virginia Tech, an institution that has undergone tremendous change since its founding as a military school in 1872. Johnson referred to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as a partner in the positive change on campus, particularly in the growth of digitization in the humanities. Virtual Jamestown was the first project funded by the Mellon Foundation. As Johnson said, the project helped to re-shape the way that scholars thought of scholarship and drew on Virginia Tech’s excellence as a leader in technology. More than twenty years later, their campus has been enhanced by technology such as a virtual environment studio, media design studio, the athenaeum, data visualization and fusion studio and a space known as “the cube,” where students can experience sound spatially. Johnson credits the Mellon Foundation with this evolution, resulting from their support of scholarly communications.
  • Michael A. Keller, Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning, Ida M. Green University Librarian, Director of Academic Information Resources, Stanford University, reflected on the innovations and risks of scholarly communications funded by the Mellon Foundation. He spoke about the impact on the humanities of digitization of materials, making it possible for people to see materials without traveling, and materials are protected from the wear and tear of use in a library. Access to research has not only been preserved, but in many cases, it can be accessed at no charge. Keller applauded the ability of Mellon to incorporate feedback from scholars, and he highlighted many important endeavors funded by the Mellon Foundation such as the Matthew Parker Project, Shared Canvas Project, the Wellcome Player, Whither University Press, Free Rider, Editoria, Zotero and Artstor, which has brought so much to the world at a low cost. Keller predicts that the coming twenty years will bring more changes, particularly involving Cloud storage and storage of larger volumes of text.
  • Tara McPherson, Professor and Chair of Cinema and Media Studies, Director of the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study, University of Southern California, spoke about the scholarly information institutes of which she has been a part. She referred to Digital Paxton as a “rich example of humanities in the digital age,” indirectly funded by Mellon because of its use of the Mellon-funded open source digital platform Scaler. Scaler is used by students and institutions such as the Newberry Library and university presses. McPherson said that the field is constantly in need of new tools, new infrastructure and new publication formats, and each new development powerfully shifts our imaginations. Some outcomes are Sahara, developed by SAH and Mellon in collaboration with ArtStor, and Archipedia, the encyclopedia of more than 20,000 structures in the United States. McPherson suggested that broader themes might be drawn from the work, such as the the need for stability in academic work and the need for academics to move beyond their silos. She credits The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with preparing an entire generation of academic leaders.

The presentations were followed by comments and questions from the audience.

2019 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture

The annual meeting concluded with  Lynn Hunt, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, delivering the 2019 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture on Friday evening.

The Conference of Executive Officers (CEO) held its spring meeting on the following day, Saturday, April 27.