ACLS Community Message for September 2021
As the fall 2021 semester gets underway, here at ACLS we are hearing that students, faculty, and staff are excited but weighed down by Zoom exhaustion, confusion regarding policies on vaccines and masks, and other challenges resulting from the pandemic. This burden of extra worry is likely to impede practical thinking about how to deal with COVID’s longer-term consequences. For this reason, my mind turns to everyday tactics.
Particularly after a year of scarce job opportunities in the humanities and interpretive social sciences, faculty and graduate students may be at a loss. Budget cuts and hiring freezes or slowdowns can feel like lightning strikes from above – unpredictable and unstoppable. Department meetings, crammed with daily business, don’t necessarily offer reliable opportunities for discussion, still less agreement on action. The perception that major decisions affecting the future are being made elsewhere based on unknown or contested criteria can be paralyzing. What can be done?
Good communication is key. From where the dean or provost sits, it’s impossible to see inside each department. One simple practical action the department chair can take (but which chairs often overlook) is to make an appointment early in the fall to talk with the dean or other relevant administrative decision-makers, the goal of which is to help the administration understand the work of the department or program: what you’re most proud of, what your hopes are for the future. It’s a chance to explain how you are connecting with diverse students, mentoring colleagues, updating your doctoral curriculum to meet current needs.
Especially for small departments, the fall term is a good time to collect testimonials from majors about their experience, why they value it, and what they think could be improved. For the students who graduated last spring, it’s a moment to reach out and establish connections, or to find out how the school is staying in touch with its newest alums. As post-graduate employment becomes more broadly accepted as a measure of the success of a college education, making sure this information is being collected and organized department-by-department is important. And sustaining relationships with departmental alums will pay off in the long run. Over time, they are likely to value their undergraduate educations more and more – and to become eloquent witnesses to how humanistic education positively influences individual lives and society more broadly. Posted on the departmental website, these testimonials tell a story about career and life trajectories that can serve as a model for potential majors.
Departments with doctoral students: it has never been more urgently clear that a strong, ethical doctoral curriculum in the humanities and interpretive social sciences must face the reality that only half the graduating students will secure full-time academic jobs. To prepare students for this reality requires more than afternoon workshops, occasional visiting speakers, and a sympathetic ear. Agreeing on clear timelines for review and systemic change is crucial. Happily, many resources are available to spark your thinking. This is a tiny sample:
- The Modern Language Association’s Connected Academics and the University of Virginia’s PhD Plus for career diversity
- The HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) forum on innovative dissertation formats
- Individual development plans for doctoral students at Missouri, Cornell, and Berkeley
- Mentoring support models form Duke, Michigan, Brown, Case Western, and the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity
- Thoughtful and provocative articles like this working group-produced piece in the LA Review of Books by Rachel Arteaga, Brian DeGrazia, Jimmy Hamill, Stacy M. Hartman, Stephanie Malak, Ashley Cheyemi McNeil, Katina Rogers, and Beth Seltzer
As chairs plan budget requests for the coming academic year, it’s worth developing a request for funds that will help the department or program to renew and strengthen itself through public engagement, curricular review, and other methods, even if it is not explicitly asked for by the administration: for example, visiting local high schools, summer pipeline scholarships, or training in languages or archival research.
These are small steps on the path of shared governance – ingrained in the everyday lives of many departments, well known to most of you. Nonetheless they seem worth calling to mind at the start of another unusually busy and distracting year.
This is also the time of year I reread Gilgamesh, partly in memory of the many fall semesters I’ve taught the text, partly because it is a great and mysterious poem about courage, friendship, the pursuit of understanding, and renewal.
On behalf of all of us at ACLS, I wish you all a rewarding and healthy fall.