The outside of the Balkanski Academic Center at the American University in Bulgaria surrounded by bright green trees and faded blue mountains in the distance
American University in Bulgaria campus

Dear members of the ACLS community,

I write from Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, where I’m honored and excited to join the inaugural session of our new Summer Institute for the Study of East Central and Southeastern Europe (SISESCE), a joint project of ACLS and the Centre for Advanced Study Sofia, which is gathering this summer at the American University in Bulgaria. Participating scholars devote their days to their research; over lunch, they are discussing their projects and joining in several curated conversations on the topic of “scholarship in a digital age.” This two-week program is made possible by generous support from ACLS Board member Carl Pforzheimer and Betty Pforzheimer.

This week guest speaker Professor Jessie Labov (Corvinus University of Budapest) led discussion about the consequences of the public accessibility of our scholarship that is made possible by the internet. We hope to explore in future conversations how the digital revolution has permanently changed the way we circulate humanistic knowledge by allowing scholars to employ techniques from creative writing and memoir, embed graphics and sounds, use new tools in textual editing and data collection, and more.

My undergraduate years coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Operation Desert Storm, and an uptick in calls for flexibility and creativity in the way scholars write. Initially, I was skeptical about changing the rules of traditional long form writing that I was just beginning to learn. It struck me only when I was well into my senior thesis on modernist translation that strict rules constraining style and vocabulary were functioning as gatekeepers for scholars just as they have for translators of poetry. I couldn’t argue for the value of English versions of Greek and Latin poetry that buck formal conventions while also sticking uncritically to traditional rules of academic writing – especially when those rules erase the human voice from argument and obscure instead of illuminate. (With apologies to fans of Robert Browning, I recall one reader’s comment on his Agamemnon: “At almost every page I had to turn to the Greek to see what the English meant.”)  

Thinking critically about conventions, artistic or academic, doesn’t mean throwing them all out the window. I hope there will always be literal translations of the Roman poet Propertius available for those seeking a close English approximation to his Latin. I trust we will also keep reading Ezra Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius” and Kathy Acker’s punk feminist Blood and Guts in High School—and keep producing new translations that energize the original and make it fresh for new readers. These diverse engagements increase the depth and breadth of our understanding of the original texts.

ACLS proudly supports a broad range of scholarship across fields, disciplines, and modes of production. We say “yes” to collaborative research and individual scholarship, publications that are digital and made of paper, textual commentaries and podcasts.

It is one of our Strategic Priorities that ACLS help cultivate and reward a wide variety of writing styles and approaches to scholarly argument. Common sense dictates applicability: I’m guessing some expositions in logic or computational linguistics may not lend themselves to the same flexibility that literary criticism or history do. For ACLS, the principle of rewarding variety goes beyond the different forms and styles of the production of scholarship. We also seek to support topics, methods, and investigative time frames that don’t fit traditional expectations or measures.

We made this a priority because we hear so frequently that outstanding scholars abandon valuable projects because they worry that they will fail to produce the “right” kind of writing in the allotted time frame. Creating a digital archive that kindles interest in literature and archaeology in high schools; translating major texts, particularly from languages allotted little or no space in most American universities; co-creating a community history with residents unaccustomed to viewing the local college as an ally: these and hundreds of like projects are badly delayed or never completed thanks to the shape of the current reward system.

In late May, ACLS Vice President James Shulman and I attended a meeting of the Transforming Evidence Funders Network hosted by the Pew Charitable Trust in Washington. It brought together a group of people from universities and nonprofits who are encouraging the reshaping of institutional culture to support creative, intellectually expansive inquiry—including new modes of circulating knowledge. It was heartening to meet so many people, including in the sciences, whose work addresses these concerns. We shared our experiences at ACLS working with our NEH SHARP grantees, the Luce Design Workshop for a New Academy, the Intention Foundry, the Leadership Institute for a New Academy, our Digital Justice Grants, and our new Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowships. Members of the group were eager to hear how Leading Edge Fellows (and in the past, Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows) translate humanistic expertise into the non-profit world. We were glad to see Heather Washington from the American Sociological Association, and to hear many participants praise the ASA and other ACLS member societies that are active on expanding what counts as a legitimate scholarly endeavor.

ACLS proudly supports a broad range of scholarship across fields, disciplines, and modes of production. We say “yes” to collaborative research and individual scholarship, publications that are digital and made of paper, textual commentaries and podcasts. We do all we can to stoke discussion of what counts in departments, divisions, and institutions, through our work with our member institutions and societies, and the programs I mentioned above. We see this as practical advocacy that rewards what scholars are doing and seek to do.

None of this would be possible without the hard work of my colleagues. At this point in the year, they are preparing next year’s fellowship competitions, organizing the in-person meetings of the Intention Foundry and the new Leadership Institute for a New Academy, consulting on future grantmaking ideas, wrapping up our fiscal year, thinking ahead to next year’s meetings and reports, and carrying out the countless tasks and activities that compose our work. I thank them sincerely — and I also wish them happy vacations a bit later in the year! If you are able, please support them and help them extend their efforts to reward more scholars with a gift to ACLS. We honestly appreciate it.

I thank you for your ongoing interest and support, and I wish you a wonderful start of summer!

Joy Connolly


My Mother Reads Poetry
By Georgi Gospodinov 
Translated from Bulgarian by Maria Vassileva

2 packs thin ready-rolled pastry sheets 
2 coffee cups butter melted 
a kilogram of apples 
1 cup biscuit crumbs 
1 cup ground walnuts 
2 coffee cups sugar 
1 packet cinnamon powder 

Wash the apples, peel 
and remove the seeds, grate 
in large strips, mix 
with the sugar, the ground walnuts 
and the cinnamon. 
Take a pastry sheet, 
grease it 
and cover it with another sheet. 
Spread some of the apple mix 
over them and roll 
them together. Repeat 
with the other pastry sheets. 
Grease them and bake 
over medium heat, until 
the top crust is red, 
and the bottom pink. 

When you bake it, it’s a strudel, 
but for now it’s still a poem.