ACLS Community Message for August 2022
August is a month of transition for academics – the month we move to college and graduate school, start our first teaching jobs, or perhaps take up an administrative post. In each of my August transitions, thanks to plenty of support from others, I felt fairly well prepared to cope with academic and cultural expectations, including the “hidden curriculum”: the unspoken rules for how to speak up in class, ask for help, run a meeting, say no to some committees and yes to others, and a thousand other silently legislated elements of academic life. Despite that lucky advantage, I felt that every one of those Augusts put me at the center of a whirlwind – a sense that grew over the years with every new role I took on.
When it comes to students, colleges and universities have come a long way in opening up the hidden curriculum and changing the culture so that it’s easier to ask for advice. Once students finish the PhD and join the faculty, though, there’s typically neither a handbook (at least no readable one) nor an office of faculty administrative support. And the costs of asking for help can feel (and sometimes are) prohibitive – particularly for adjunct and contract faculty.
Faculty members who take on roles of department chair or dean face this challenge tenfold. The psychological burden of assuming responsibilities for the well-being of one’s department or institution – particularly of one’s most vulnerable colleagues and students – is heavy enough. We typically receive little orientation beyond what our predecessors have to offer: we learn as we go, which drains even the most committed and energetic optimist. Worse, finding one’s way with minimal guidance helps confirm the new administrator’s suspicion that the best they can hope to do as they carry out their responsibilities is to maintain the status quo. Everything else can feel too risky or simply takes too much time.
Administrative offices do essential work, and to ensure that strong academic values anchor decision-making, we need them occupied by strong, empowered, well-informed people who care about the flourishing of humanistic knowledge and about the human beings that make that flourishing possible.
But administrative offices do essential work, and to ensure that strong academic values anchor decision-making, we need them occupied by strong, empowered, well-informed people who care about the flourishing of humanistic knowledge and about the human beings that make that flourishing possible. Systems that need to change will not change if the people with ambitious ideas and aspirations resist taking on leadership roles because they are convinced that inertia is a fact of institutional life.
Every reader of this newsletter knows that our mission at ACLS is to sustain humanistic knowledge. One of the ways we carry it out – along with administering fellowship and grant programs, carrying out initiatives to advance digital projects focused on racial and social justice and equity in the academy, and supporting our member learned societies – is sustaining the infrastructure that undergirds the humanities and social sciences, including support for academic administration.
We are thrilled to launch a new project that takes our mission one step further: the Leadership Institute for a New Academy (LINA). This initiative is generously funded by the Mellon Foundation for the academic year 2022-23. Starting this winter, LINA will convene more than sixty scholars in the humanities who occupy offices like associate dean, dean, and vice provost. Our hope is to use this program to define the curriculum for a multi-year project through which LINA would prepare promising but reluctant faculty – should they choose to do so – to take on administrative roles where they can work effectively to move our fields forward.
The Institute is based on the idea that people can carry out change even in the most change-resistant systems. As demanding as work in administration can be, and as different it can be from the daily work of being a scholar and a teacher, people who care about the future of humanistic scholarship and teaching need to answer the call in greater numbers. Generated by nominations from dozens of individuals and groups, participants will share proven opportunities to foster progress and explore new approaches via a series of online meetings this winter, as well as an in person gathering over several days in July 2023.
This year’s Leadership Institute will gather administrators who share the belief that we can’t make sense of our world without humanistic knowledge; who are committed to connecting humanistic fields with every part of the university and college and every walk of life; and who have a record of working collaboratively with faculty and students and staff. We hope our work will ultimately ease the rough Augusts (and beyond) experienced by many new chairs and deans and provosts down the road – not by teaching them to learn the ropes, but to help weave strong new ones.
I thank my colleagues James Shulman, Jovonne Bickerstaff, and Keyanah Nurse for their stellar work on the project so far: I look forward to our work together. We’ll report on our progress. As always, I welcome your questions or comments: please write to me at [email protected].
It’s been a busy summer. But we have tried to keep our calendars a little more flexible, a bit less packed with meetings, so that we could carve out some restorative time away from work. I hope that every reader of this newsletter has been able to take some time for themselves this summer. And I thank Jenny Xie, who gave the Luce China Studies Summer Institute a truly marvelous reading back in June, for the gift of her poetry.
By Jenny Xie
The face of Chinatown returns its color,
plucked from July’s industrial steamer.
Dry the cup!
So we do.
Four noodle shops on East Broadway release their belches collectively.
They breed in me a hankering for family life.
Here, there’s no logic to melons and spring onions exchanging hands.
No rhythm to men’s briefs clothes-pinned to the fire escape.
Retirees beneath the Manhattan Bridge leak hearsay.
The woman in Apartment #18 on Bayard washes her feet in pot of boiled
water each evening before bedtime. But every handful of weeks she lapses.
I lean into the throat of summer.
Perched above these streets with whom I share verbs and adjectives.
Faces knotted, bangs softened with grease.
The East River pulls along a thread of sun.
While Sunday slides in. Again, in those plain trousers.
How the heat is driven off course.
How one can make out the clarified vowels of bridges.
Who’s keeping count of what’s given against what’s stolen?
There’s nothing I can’t trace back to my coarse immigrant blood.
Uncles tipple wine on the streets of Mott and Bayard.
Night shifts meet day shifts in passing.
Sweat seasons the body that labors.
And in each noodle shop, bowls dusted with salt.