In the wake of the images we saw on January 6, of violent people utterly contemptuous of civic unity and deluded by misguided beliefs in their own supremacy, I want to reflect on the importance of maintaining ties that bind.

“…to lead a life in common, to find outside their own homes a distraction for their weariness and troubles, to create a less restricted form of intimacy than within the family, yet one less diffuse than that of the city, thus making life easier and more agreeable.”

According to the historian Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston Boissier, these desires are why Romans two thousand years ago created collegia, societies organized around work. Today we call them professional societies. In The Division of Labor in Society, Emile Durkheim built on Boissier’s research to make the case that these societies are humanity’s creative response to “deep and lasting needs.”

Needs for standards for professional ethics, as well as diversity and equity. The need to highlight emerging methods or areas like queer history or digital humanities in order to remain relevant to the greater needs of our world.  The need for PhD career diversity initiatives, activism on behalf of adjuncts, advocacy for humanistic knowledge, and statements that reinforce values in the wake of on events like the January 6 violence on Capitol Hill.  These and many other needs are deep and lasting.  Responses to them don’t emerge fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. They require societies: horizontal networks that connect people across academic specialties, institutions, and geography.

The ACLS learned societies — communities defined by the pursuit of knowledge — aim to serve the needs of and connect scholars of all kinds: contingent faculty, tenured faculty, scholars working outside the university, students in college and graduate school, and a diverse range of people who value and support research and teaching.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the needs of all these communities. No individual graduate student, independent scholar, faculty member, department, or self-gathered group is in a position to cope effectively with its ongoing effects like the pauses on doctoral admissions or the elimination of entire departments and programs in the humanities and social sciences in institutions around the country. Nor can they respond to larger cultural crises like the decline of public trust in colleges and universities. The competitive, hierarchical culture between (and sometimes within) academic departments, divisions, faculties, and institutions hinders broad collective action.

Professional societies have their own histories of divisiveness, inequity, and exclusion. Recognizing their tendency to degenerate, Durkheim nonetheless insisted that if and when a society fails its members, this is grounds for reforming it, “not for declaring it useless for all time, and seeking to destroy it.” He believed, as I do, that the advantages of reform outweigh the difficulties of starting from scratch.

For example, society boards and directors have long sought to keep membership dues affordable as a means of making their benefits accessible to more people. At the same time, we know additional interventions are needed to ensure that societies are truly inclusive in form and feel, that governance structures evolve appropriately, that the activities of the society respond to the needs of members and potential members, especially emerging scholars. We are doing that work – through our new Institutes at ACLS, led by new program officer Jovonne Bickerstaff, and through the dozens of panels and committees organized by executive directors and staff and members across our 75 societies.

Trying to go it alone isn’t an option right now.  We need communities that can support and connect scholars in all situations of life and employment. Societies serve this role — imperfectly, but with a will to improvement.

Societies speak the loudest and do the most when they can point to a large, inclusive, active membership. As we look forward with hope to a year of recovery and healing, I hope we remember the needs societies seek to fulfill and that we commit to improving them so that they welcome and buoy up all potential members – especially emergent scholars and other groups most in need of support.

Best wishes for a healthy and hopeful New Year,

Joy Connolly