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.