Happy September!

As we leap into the new academic year, I want to salute the editors of the recent issue of Daedalus, who have gathered a valuable series of essays: “The Humanities in American Life: Transforming the Relationship with the Public.” Together, they advocate for a generous understanding of the humanities and for closing the distance between academics and the public.

Considering the contributors’ wisdom and breadth of experience, I’m glad to see they share many of the interests that shaped the Strategic Priorities for ACLS published in 2020. First on this list is our work to expand the definition of humanistic scholarship.

In terms of direct support for publicly engaged scholars, our biggest successes so far are the $3.5 million Sustaining Public Engagement Grants, made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) initiative, and the Mellon Foundation-funded Digital Justice Grants, both secured in 2021. We view the Leading Edge Fellowship, currently funded by the Mellon Foundation and the successor to our trail-blazing Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program, as another key path by which humanistic work becomes public. I’m grateful to Judith Butler for drawing attention in her essay to these fellowship programs and other efforts of ours to support and help legitimize the valuable contributions to social and cultural life made by humanists outside academia.

While we administer these grants and seek additional funding for public humanities, we worry about the slowness of academic institutional culture, particularly at R-1 schools, to recognize and reward publicly engaged work in doctoral curricula and at the crucial moments of hiring, tenure, and promotion – a concern echoed in Daedalus by Susan Smulyan, George J. Sánchez, and Carin Berkowitz and Matthew Gibson.

As I’ve noted in the past, the good news is that many promising changes (say, to expand criteria for doctoral admissions, faculty hiring, tenure, and merit) are underway within individual institutions. Our task now is to join with others, including many learned society members, the Council for Graduate Schools, the Association of American Universities, Bringing Theory to Practice, and Imagining America, who are connecting people and initiatives so that together we can help increase awareness of these developments and accelerate decisive steps toward systems-level change.

We’ll advance this priority this year by convening people in our ongoing Luce Design Workshop for a New Academy and our new Mellon-funded Leadership Institute for a New Academy. This work will be easier if we do a better job preparing the upcoming generation of scholars to join in faculty governance, starting with learning how universities work and how to navigate them successfully. Our new Emerging Voices Fellowship colloquium will allow our 40 fellows to meet a range of expert speakers, including President Gabrielle Starr of Pomona College, Executive Director Paula Krebs of the Modern Language Association, and our own CFO, Matthew Sapienza, lately of the City University of New York.

Our task now is to join with others…so that together we can help increase awareness of these developments and accelerate decisive steps toward systems-level change.

The sheer intellectual excitement infusing the Daedalus essays about medical humanities (Keith Wailoo), communication and media arts (Roderick Hart), experiential education (Ed Balleisen and Rita Chin), and public history (Denise Meringolo with several colleagues) attest to the vitality of our fields and the exciting possibilities for our collective future. As Sánchez and Fath Davis Ruffins explain, opening up our vision and trying out new practices are key to diversifying the humanistic professoriate. This is a priority we advance through our partnerships with our learned society members in the Mellon Intention Foundry, now entering its third and final year, and our efforts to increase the accessibility and appeal of ACLS fellowship programs. 

Of course, not all humanists and humanistic social scientists pursue work that falls into the categories of “emergent” or “innovative.” How academics in general but especially scholars pursuing traditional projects understand change, and the questions and sensations that arise from change, are taken up in different ways by Butler, Sara Guyer, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Their thoughtful efforts translate the often self-defeating language of “the crisis of the humanities” into new terms and stimulating global and planetary frames.

Everyone interested in ACLS would benefit from familiarizing themselves with the work of Robert Townsend and Norman Bradburn and their colleagues at Humanities Indicators. They review the sobering numbers for humanities majors and faculty hiring – as well as the intriguing statistics showing that the American public’s interest in what humanists study remains strong.

September always brings a huge pile of work and new deadlines, but I found myself energized by these essays, and I hope you do as well. September is also the moment here in New York that everyone talks about the weather, many hoping that summer humidity will yield to autumn breezes. I’ve chosen an excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in recognition of the many humanistic scholars exploring how humans understand the environment and climate change.

On behalf of all my colleagues at ACLS, thanks and best wishes,


A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2 Scene 1
By William Shakespeare

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.