ACLS: Not just about America

People might hear “American Council of Learned Societies” and think that ACLS is focused mainly on America, but the ACLS leaders realized the importance of bringing things into a global context decades ago. Since the early days of the organization, ACLS has been focusing on expanding knowledge about and communication with numerous areas outside of the United States. Indeed, the founding purpose of ACLS in 1919 was to represent U.S. scholarship in the International Union of Academies, a role that continues to this day. You can read more about this on the ACLS History page.

One reason I’ve chosen to focus on this global context is that I’ve been processing a large chunk of the records of Jason H. Parker, who was an Executive Associate with ACLS from the late ’70s until the turn of the millennium. While with the organization, Parker focused primarily on Chinese and Eastern European studies – he oversaw the Joint Committee on Chinese Studies (JCCS) and Joint Committee on Eastern Europe (JCEE). These two committees were part of a larger effort to promote area and international studies carried out jointly by ACLS and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). There is a wealth of information about these two areas of the world included in his files. It’s been wonderful processing these records and finding evidence of innovative projects spearheaded by Parker.

To expand on this, I’d like to bring up two examples that I’ve found in the records, both focusing on Eastern Europe. The first project, called Undergraduate Campuses in Eastern Europe, was created to open more opportunities for undergraduates to study abroad in the area. The second, called Program to Create New Teaching Positions in East European Studies, was brought about in order to open up new teaching positions in the field. With both projects, there was an emphasis on two things: giving opportunities to individual students and scholars who were interested in Eastern Europe, and expanding the field of Eastern European studies in general.

One part of an archivist’s job is to provide researchers with context. The Undergraduate Campuses in Eastern Europe project was proposed for 1988, and ACLS requested renewed support for the Program to Create New Teaching Positions in East European Studies in 1990. This was an enormously important time for Eastern Europe. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, communism in the area collapsed — this affected not only Europe, but the entire world. The ACLS leadership rightly noted that this was an important time to think about programs involving relations between the U.S. and Eastern Europe.

As someone who studied abroad four times (yes, four!) during the course of my adventures in undergraduate and graduate school, I found the Undergraduate Campuses in Eastern Europe project particularly interesting. I love the focus on nurturing young minds and bringing new people into the field. The request for the program brought up a number of main points:

  • The JCEE believed that this project could “serve both a broad national interest of increasing understanding of Eastern Europe and a narrower scholarly interest of increasing the number of entrants into the serious study of Eastern Europe.”
  • Many scholars become interested in a particular place when they visit it as undergraduates (this was certainly true for me – studying abroad broadened my interest in specific countries). The request mentioned that the entire field of Eastern European studies could be strengthened if more study abroad opportunities were available in the area.
  • Including Eastern European cities and countries on study abroad lists alongside Western European ones had the potential to change the perception of Eastern Europe in general: “To see Budapest, Cracow, and Zagreb included in a list of possibilities for foreign study that includes Freiburg, Vienna, London, Paris, and Florence is to understand that the former cities are European just as much as the latter.”

The Program to Create New Teaching Positions in East European Studies had similar goals. By creating new teaching positions in the field at universities around the country, the JCEE wanted to open up more opportunities in Eastern European scholarship and also encourage students to take courses related to the area, which would be more plentiful with the positioning of additional professors devoted to the field. The committee hoped that many of these professors would end up on the tenure track, which would give Eastern European studies an expanded role in universities for decades to come. The application for renewed support in 1990 brought the project into a larger context, drawing on the 1989 events mentioned above as historical justification:

As a result of the revolutions of 1989-90 in Eastern Europe and of the relaxation of tensions between East and West, there has been a dramatic expansion of interest in the region throughout the US. This has been shown not only in the desire to know more about what has happened and why, but also in the determination to do more to assist the remarkable people who have brought about these changes and to guarantee that their aspirations are fulfilled. The question of the proper role and focus of scholarship on Eastern Europe and of support for it in relation to other priorities in the next decade is of particular interest to universities, private foundations, and government agencies, who support teaching and research, and to scholars, both those who specialize on the area and generalists in the social sciences and humanities fascinated by recent developments there.

The application goes on to say later that “remembering the past is the beginning of understanding the present and the future.” Indeed it is! What a remarkable tie-in to the importance of ACLS as an organization as well as the importance of keeping archival records such as these.

As you can see on the 2013-14 ACLS Fellowship Competitions announced recently, the organization is still interested in providing a broad global context by offering fellowships related to various areas of the world, including Eastern Europe. ACLS still sponsors East European Politics and Societies and Cultures (EEPS – formerly known as Eastern European Politics and Societies), which is now more than a quarter century old and has long been self-sustaining. ACLS worked on forming the journal back in 1985 in order to provide a solid outlet for Eastern European scholarship, and it was very well received after first being published in 1987. It is still going strong (there’s even a Facebook page for the journal), as is ACLS’s dedication to global issues.

5 thoughts on “ACLS: Not just about America

  1. Great post! ACLS has a strong history of working in Eastern Europe and this post illustrates so well how and why it happened. Thanks Morgan!

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