ACLS Community Message for May 2023
This month’s Community Message was adapted from Joy Connolly’s Report to the Council on Friday, April 28, 2023, in Philadelphia
Greetings from ACLS!
I used to assign an exercise on the first day my classes met: I would ask the students to choose an artwork that embodied the ideal class. Some chose a symphony; others, improv theater or a jazz performance. I often suggested a sculpture by Anthony Caro. A British artist who was active through the second half of the twentieth century and a bit beyond, Caro connects straight or curved steel extensions or tubes to I-bars or steel cut-outs. The whole arrangement is often brightly colored bold red, yellow, purple, or blue, and balanced directly on the ground: no pedestal. Caro was my artistic instantiation of a good class because his works draw attention to the phenomena of dynamic tension and balance, and to the relation of one element to another. Attending to these things, it seems to me, is the essence of a good class.
When I think of what form ACLS might take if it were an artwork, I find myself thinking once again of Anthony Caro. As a federation of societies and a host of networks, we comprise many different elements and initiatives, both bold and grounded, and we seek to find the right balance among them.
A Caro sculpture also captures the dynamic tensions that characterize higher education today—and that we feel at ACLS as we go about our work. A more prosaic way of putting it is that we walk a number of different tightropes.
On the one hand, we avoid talking about the decline of the humanities or the liberal arts, first, because we don’t want to reinforce a misleading and worn-out narrative of crisis, and second, because there are so many great things underway. I will name just six:
- Research into historically understudied areas and the growing visibility of fields like disability studies and Indigenous studies, to name just two
- Growth of and greater value given to multimodal, transcultural, collaborative, and applied humanities and social sciences
- Interdisciplinary and applied programs that are successfully drawing undergraduates, like the applied humanities program at the University of Arizona, to name just one
- Majors combining the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, like those gathered in the report Branches from the Same Tree, published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
- Exciting growth in general education programs like the Cornerstone Project at Purdue, funded by the Teagle Foundation
- The growing reach and ambition of public humanities programs, many funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities.
At the same time, we can’t ignore the migration of undergraduates to STEM and business-related fields and the decreasing numbers of tenure track faculty jobs. While we celebrate the success stories, then, we also inject a sense of urgency into our efforts to recognize scholarship that shows promise of finding broad readership, teaching that attracts more students and majors, and administration that advocates for our fields.
As a federation of societies and a host of networks, we comprise many different elements and initiatives, both bold and grounded, and we seek to find the right balance among them.
The plurality of scholarship raises another dynamic tension. At ACLS we deeply value curiosity-driven and highly specialized scholarship. The free play of human curiosity and the revelations made possibly by hard-won expertise are crucial drivers of understanding and for us are a sine qua non, “without which, nothing.” We also see how rare and difficult it is to think critically about what counts as a good research question. As Peter Miller of the Bard Graduate Center points out in the introduction to his thoughtful compendium of conversations, What is Research?, we need to make our topics and methods themselves objects of study, not to encourage navel-gazing but to improve our work. For whom are we doing our scholarship? Who is our audience? Might we ask better questions? How do we define “better”? Who is the “we” here, anyway? Generosity is required on all sides. Those asking critical questions need to do so in constructive ways. Advocates for traditional modes need to avoid reacting defensively, as though asking questions is equivalent to an attack. Again, I think of Anthony Caro: those tense arcs connecting I-bars and slabs.
One more example. At ACLS, we don’t want to be or be seen as partisan. We believe in dialogue across difference. But we also see the attempt to censor entire fields of study in Florida; the beginning of the end of tenure in Texas, North Dakota, Louisiana, Florida, and Iowa; and the bans on studying so-called ‘divisive concepts’ in Georgia and Tennessee. The growing challenges to academic freedom across the country demand that organizations like ACLS avoid party politics but boldly advocate on behalf of dialogue and the free exchange of ideas and against censorship. I hope you all stay tuned for a new statement of principles on this topic, to appear on the ACLS website this summer.
One thing we are absolutely certain of at ACLS: the value of scholarship, broadly defined. At the 2023 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, we had the opportunity to hear from a wide range of scholars and supporters of scholarship, including Chair Shelly Lowe of the NEH and Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., winner of our Charles Homer Haskins Prize. I warmly thank both of them for speaking with candor, wit, and insight about their experiences and values.
Many thanks to the Council Delegates, the Executive Officers of our learned societies, our ACLS Board members, our Consortium and Associate representatives, and other friends of ACLS who joined us in Philadelphia – and thank you for reading, and for your support of our work.
Best wishes for successful final weeks of the academic year and for a lovely spring,
The Way I Used to Be
By Jenny Liou
The tree line is sudden as an argument
tracing some invisible divide
between enough and not enough. Here, a
hundred feet of brazen green,
and there, bare earth, granite, alpine grasses, pretending
they can set root unnourished. But they do need
unapparent moisture, bright light of the refracted sun,
thin air, the wind, rivulets of snowmelt
stippling the trail. I prefer the gentle woods
before this. Slow climbs and the fragrant duff,
the hair-pinned river which, compelled to move
onwards, retraces as closely as possible
its old self – that cut-bank, point-bar river
refusing departure. Give me the thin line, the sliver.