Strength in the humanities: The ACLS 2014 annual meeting

This weekend was a good one for the humanities – the ACLS annual meeting took place in Philadelphia from Thursday to Saturday, bringing together some of the brightest and most influential people in the fields. The ACLS graciously extended an invitation to me, so I took the train out and spent a few great days having inspiring conversations and listening to some truly thought-provoking speeches.

The annual meeting brings people together to discuss the state of the organization, its role in the humanities, and the humanities fields in general. There are panels giving presentations about specific topics or projects, speakers who give lectures or lead conversations, and of course there is the report of the President. Pauline Yu gave an excellent speech this year. She focused largely on the 1964 Report of the Commission on the Humanities (published 50 years ago!), which the ACLS produced alongside the Council of Graduate Schools in America and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa and which eventually led to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Comparing the present to the past is often a powerful tool, and this was no exception: In 1957, the ACLS was on the verge of bankruptcy. After some major changes, it picked itself back up, and today it is financially stable with a healthy treasury. Its robust fellowship programs continue to grow, and one only needs to look at the list of recent fellows to see the great diversity of projects funded by the ACLS, as pointed out by President Yu during her speech. Indeed, she affirmed that the humanities are not, in fact, dying.

And why would anyone think that the humanities are dying? For those of you who are not fully engulfed in the current conversation about the state of the humanities, it’s been a contentious one. For decades, the “crisis in the humanities” has been a hot topic of debate, and there’s no exception to that today – if anything, the conversation has become more heated in the past few years, in part because of the recent recession and its profound effects on society as a whole. If you do a Google search for “humanities crisis” (without the quotation marks), you’ll get more than 19 million results. Click on just a few of these results, and you’ll see a slew of articles and op-eds about how the humanities are crashing and burning: Lee Siegel says in this article that literature should be privately enjoyed, not studied in the classroom;* Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed state here that the humanities crisis is happening in public universities; some point out that the downward-trending role of the humanities might have something to do with gender; and the New York Times has published on the subject in this article (with a quote from Pauline Yu on the second page!). It’s easy to worry about a decline in the humanities, especially when politicians are pushing to defund them, as in Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s most recent budget proposal, which states that the government should not be funding arts, libraries, museums, or the humanities in general. Well-known statistician Nate Silver has written about it on his blog, stating that the crisis is not nearly as bad as everyone is thinking, but also ending the article in the following way: “Perhaps we should at once encourage or require college students to take coursework in English – and tell them to be wary about majoring in it.”

It’s not all bad, though. Several pieces have pointed out that there might not be a problem at all, or at least the problem is not what everyone is saying it is: Anne E. Fernald states in this op-ed that “the crisis is not with the humanities. The crisis is with the failure to value them enough.” Michael Bérubé, one of the presenters at the meeting this weekend, says here that the actual numbers do not show a decline in the humanities at all. Additionally, all this talk of a crisis has encouraged hundreds (if not thousands) of people to blog, tweet, and post their thoughts about the subject all over the internet. One article called “The Unintended Value of the Humanities” gives some food for thought, and there has even been a book recently published called The Value of the Humanities. An infographic titled “The Humanities Matter!” is an excellent resource to pull out anytime someone might ask you, “but why would anyone want to study English/classics/history/religion/(insert humanities subject here)?” In short: people are defending the humanities, which is great!

But I digress – back to the meeting (being there just made me so excited about the humanities; I had to write a bit about this debate)! From reports of fellowship projects to conversations about the public face of the humanities to a panel about the results of a recent census of the ACLS’ constituent societies, there were a lot of interesting thoughts and ideas to take in. One project of particular interest to me was “CSI Dixie: Race, the Body Politic, and the View from the South’s County Coroners’ Offices.” Stephen Berry, the 2013 ACLS Digital Innovation Fellow, has used coroners’ reports to expertly paint a vivid picture of the Antebellum South, and will be launching a website on this subject soon – I look forward to seeing it once it has gone up. I was also particularly interested in the census of constituent societies, the results of which will be publicly available at some point in the (hopefully near) future – for those of you who are interested in the state of learned societies, look forward to this! In general, the societies seem to be growing in a healthy way in terms of membership, conference attendance, and revenue, which goes to show that Pauline Yu was right: the humanities are not dying.

Meeting attendees were also able to hear from Earl Lewis, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. One of the things President Lewis stressed was that the future of humanities research and scholarship will be more teamwork-oriented than ever before. In order to bring the humanities into the digital landscape in a responsible and accessible way, scholars will have to work together with computer scientists, metadata experts, and people in a wide variety of other fields. I do think that sound digital humanities scholarship needs to be rooted in sound humanities scholarship in general, but he has a solid point here. Personally, I believe this foray into extended teamwork is exciting. Everything seems to be merging together and becoming more interdisciplinary, and we can only become stronger by working with each other and trying to understand disciplines outside of our own.

 

* I heartily disagree with this assessment – I understand the literature I studied in school in way that I never would’ve been able to without having an open discussion about it, and university classes made me appreciate and love the likes of Chekhov, Faulkner, and numerous other phenomenal authors that I might otherwise have never read in the first place.

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What have I been reading?

I just moved to Washington, D.C. in May, so the city is still fairly new to me and I’ve been spending a lot of time getting out and enjoying it. This means that I’m reading a bit less than normal, but there are a few (unrelated) things I’ve read lately that I found particularly interesting, both personally and professionally.

1.

Since I’m already talking about D.C., I’ll begin with “Let Me Recount the Ways: Documenting the Poetry Community in Washington, D.C.” by Jennifer King (Archival Issues 33, no. 1: 57-67). This 2011 article documents the efforts of the Special Collections Research Center at the George Washington University to collect the papers of D.C. area poets. The abstract of the article says that the project, called the Washington Writers’ Archive (or WWA, which you can learn more about here), was developed to “discover and explore the ways individual writers’ personal papers and their literary organizations’ records intersect to tell the story of the Washington literary community.”

This article grabbed my attention for a few reasons: 1) as mentioned previously, I’m new to D.C. and trying to drink up as much information as I can about the city; 2) I’m a big fan of poetry and have actually been going to a lot of slam poetry readings here in the District; and 3) it relates to community history, which is of particular interest to me.

There are a few overarching ideas in this article that are great starting points for conversations about the archival field specifically and public history in general. The WWA is a great example of an active collecting policy – the repository is actively seeking out members of the poetry community in order to acquire their work, instead of just taking what comes to them. It goes deeper than that, too: collecting materials is one thing, but the WWA also decided to take a more active role by attending and hosting poetry events and keeping a steady line of communication open with the poetry community in order to develop a sense of trust. This is especially important when trying to document a group that is historically underrepresented in cultural repositories. It takes an enormous amount of effort to keep a project like this going, and usually requires at least one staff member who is passionate about the topic.

Another thing to think about here is the importance of acquiring a variety of formats in order to represent a whole (sometimes very diverse) group. Collecting materials that represent a community, region, topic, or event as fully as possible is a growing trend in cultural repositories (see documentation strategy), and seeking out various types of materials is one way of doing that. This article in particular mentions personal papers, published works, public performances, collaborative works, and sound recordings, to name a few. With electronic records becoming the rule rather than the exception, branching out in terms of format will become increasing important in the coming decades.

These ideas bring up some interesting questions, though: in a time when resources are shrinking (including the number of staff), how do we continue to expand in this way? If we’re unable to continue expanding, which is allowing us to be more inclusive, what will happen to the historic record? How can we go about solving this problem in creative ways that will allow us to continue painting a fuller and more diverse picture of society for future researchers to uncover?

2.

Meredith Hindley: “The Rise of the Machines – NEH and the Digital Humanities: The Early Years.”
Humanities 34, no. 4, 2013

This article talks about the early use of computers in the humanities, which is surprisingly interesting! As an added bonus (for this blog, at least), it details the beginnings of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), in which ACLS played a major part: “In 1963, three organizations – the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa – joined together to establish the National Commission on the Humanities.” Out of these efforts, the NEH was born. I was directed to this article by Steven Wheatley, the current ACLS Vice President. I’ve found some interesting pieces in the collection that relate to the National Commission on the Humanities and the early days of the NEH, so this reading connected very nicely with my processing work. Once you start noticing connections like this, they pop up all over the place.

One of the things I found particularly interesting about this article was the early idea of building a “proto-Wikipedia-JSTOR hybrid” – a single place where people could get encyclopedia entries, scholarly articles, bibliographies, and other similar sources of information. I’ve found a couple pieces of correspondence in the ACLS collection related to the early days of JSTOR (another one of those fun connections!), so it was exciting to read about this idea. It’s amazing that people involved in the humanities – a field that is sometimes seen as a bit old-fashioned – were thinking of such innovative technological ideas years before the internet existed.

The ACLS has a long history of embracing these types of new ideas, and in 2006 they published a report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure in the Humanities and Social Sciences titled Our Cultural Commonwealth. This report was credited by then NEH Chair Bruce Cole as an inspiration to set up the Endowment’s Office of Digital Humanities, one of the major granting agencies offering support to humanities scholars who are embracing technology-driven projects today. Pauline Yu, current ACLS President, makes some great points in the foreword (p. i) of Our Cultural Commonwealth: this is at least the sixth report by the ACLS to focus on technology and scholarship in the humanities (quite impressive!), and the Council started granting funds to scholars using computer technology back in the mid-1960s! Nearly 50 years ago, the statement for that early program said, “of course computers should be used by scholars in the humanities, just as microscopes should be used by scientists.” That sentiment hasn’t changed, and the Executive Summary for Our Cultural Commonwealth (p. 1) spells it out in much more modern terms:

The emergence of the Internet has transformed the practice of the humanities and social sciences—more slowly than some may have hoped, but more profoundly than others may have expected. Digital cultural heritage resources are a fundamental dataset for the humanities: these resources, combined with computer networks and software tools, now shape the way that scholars discover and make sense of the human record, while also shaping the way their findings are communicated to students, colleagues, and the general public.

Like ACLS, the humanities field as a whole is still striving to move forward in this area. There are an incredible number of grant opportunities available for humanities scholars looking to develop projects involving technology, and new ideas are popping up all the time. The previously mentioned Office of Digital Humanities would be a great jumping-off point if you’re interested in learning more about what’s going on in the field today. Additionally, the ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships application is online right now, if you have any great ideas of your own for spearheading a project.

3.

Feeding Our Young – SAA Presidential Address by Jackie Dooley, New Orleans: August 16, 2013

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) had their annual conference just over a month ago. For her speech, outgoing President Jackie Dooley decided to focus on students and emerging professionals in the archives field. She gave a solid reason for this: of SAA’s 6,100 members, a full half of them are either students or new professionals (in the field for five or fewer years). That’s a lot! Being fairly new to the profession myself, I’ve been following some pretty serious discussions regarding these groups. There’s been a lot of controversy about internships (especially those that are unpaid) and what they mean for the individuals partaking in them as well as the profession in general. This isn’t unique to this specific field, but it should be mentioned that having hands-on experience is incredibly useful and important in archives and museums, and most repositories are non-profits that have very small budgets and therefore rely heavily on volunteers and unpaid interns. Internships are important because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find actual entry-level positions in the field, but repositories taking on interns should remember that these positions should focus on the nourishment and education of the intern rather than the benefit of the repository.

This is a really impassioned speech, and it’s great that Ms. Dooley brought these issues into focus, especially since students and emerging professionals are often overlooked in many fields. She mentions in this speech that we must be open to all industries regardless of our major or background. This is very true, especially for younger generations, and I would argue that it’s a good thing. I have found that having this kind of openness inspires me to be better at all of my jobs, because thinking on a variety of different levels can lead to new and innovative ideas that might not have otherwise occurred to me.

If you’re interested in exploring these topics more, I recommend checking out the SAA Students and New Professionals Roundtable (SNAP), which also has a Twitter account.