2014 Annual Meeting

The 2014 ACLS Annual Meeting took place at the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel in Philadelphia, PA on May 8-10. In attendance were members of the ACLS Board of Directors, delegates of the constituent societies, members of the Conference of Administrative Officers, presidents of the constituent societies, representatives of affiliate organizations, representatives of college and university associate institutions, ACLS fellowship recipients, committee members, foundation representatives, and other invited participants..

The ACLS Board of Directors met on May 10.  (Those in attendance are pictured at right.) For current membership, see Board and Committees.

There was an informal session on Thursday evening focused on the efforts of ACLS and a special committee of society executive directors to launch a comprehensive census on the health of learned societies. Jack Fitzmier, executive director of the American Academy of Religion and chair of the executive committee of ACLS’s Conference of Administrative Officers (CAO), introduced the session and its panelists: Alyson Reed, executive director of the Linguistic Society of America; Ed Liebow, executive director of the Anthropological Association of America; Beverley Diamond, president of the Society of Ethnomusicology; and Thomas Dubois, president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies. Fitzmier turned the floor over first to Reed, who had led the census initiative as chair of the census committee of the CAO. 

Reed provided a brief history of previous attempts to gather data from its member societies, and noted that the census committee elected to streamline the new survey by basing almost entirely on questions that would appear on IRS form 990. With 80% of societies responding so far, general trends in membership, conference attendance, and revenue appeared to be positive. Moreover, Reed reviewed select responses to questions about new initiatives and programs among member societies. The diversity of answers indicated that societies have a great deal to learn from each other and further validated the census effort, according to Alyson Reed. In his remarks, Ed Liebow echoed Reed’s positive portrayal of the health of societies, noting that growth in attendance at society meetings was particularly pronounced among small and medium-sized learned societies. Nevertheless, he added that the combination of increasing concern about carbon footprints, tightening travel budgets, and new connective technologies may change attitudes about annual meetings. Tom Dubois underscored the value of the census data, especially for small societies such as SASS that want their conferences to attract wide audiences. He said that access to comparative information across societies of similar size helps individual societies recognize and capitalize on their own strengths. Finally, Beverly Diamond noted in her remarks that open access remains a thorny issue among societies when it comes to journal revenue, but that it presents an enormous opportunity for outreach to new and especially non-academic audiences. Closing a lively question and answer period following the panelists’ remarks, Alyson Reed stated that the census committee would continue to work with ACLS staff to consider how best to analyze and disseminate the information gathered by the yearly survey. 

The annual meeting proper opened Friday morning with a presentation by current ACLS fellows in a session entitled “Emerging Themes and Methods of Humanities Research.” The three speakers are currently conducting research under the auspices of three of ACLS’s fellowship programs: Stephen Berry, professor of history at the University of Georgia and a 2013 ACLS Digital Innovation Fellow; Laura Turner Igoe, doctoral candidate in art history at Temple University and a 2013 Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellow in American Art; and Lori Khatchadourian, assistant professor of archaeology at Cornell University and a 2013 ACLS Fellow. The panel was moderated by Elaine Sisman, chair of the Executive Committee of the Delegates and a member of the ACLS Board of Directors. 

Berry discussed his research project, “CSI Dixie: Race, the Body Politic, and the View from the South's County Coroners' Offices, 1840-1880,” which explores coroner’s reports in fourth South Carolina counties to document the medical and health histories of its population. He displayed several of the hand-written reports, as well as charts and tables aggregating data drawn from them, all of which will be made available and searchable on the web, in what he called his “slightly disaggregated monograph.” The narrative itself will be as long as any included in a physical book, but remain indefinitely a work in progress as it responds to and grows as a result of others people’s commentary and discovery within the documents online. There’s a social levelling in death, Berry said, and combing through these reports opens a window to the wider social relationships of the time, providing evidence of master-slave violence, abortion, and spousal abuse. The coroner’s role in the nineteenth century was less clinical and more about healing a social rift, that after a death “what was true yesterday was still true today.”

Igoe talked about how the environment impacted nineteenth-century American art long before the development of ecology as a scientific discipline in the U.S., as she showed sculptures and paintings she analyzes in her project “The Opulent City and the Sylvan State: Art and Environmental Embodiment in Early National Philadelphia.” As global warming is an important topic today, so were the effects of rapid environmental change at that time, with the spread of diseases such as yellow fever through the newly urbanized landscape. This research allows us to see, she said, that while humans are agents of environmental change so also is the environment an agent of human changes. One art object she showed, a column painted white to look like marble, was also a smoke-eater made to suck dirty air from the room and expel it outside and resembled a human body mirroring bodily mechanisms of excretion, even more so in that it was topped with a bust of Cicero as its head.

Khatchadourian similarly focused attention on the vibrancy of matter, as part of her research into the different ways that human subjects and material objects participated in reproducing political relations in ancient Persia, particularly through digs in present day Armenia. As part of her project, “The Satrapal Condition: Archaeology and the Matter of Empire,” she rehabilitates the sophisticated view of sovereignty under satrapy as opposed to the caricature of Persia held up as a foil to democratic Greece. There are lessons here, she argued, for recent Western political theory which takes a posthuman bent and rightly sees the role that matter plays in creating subjects. And, much like Berry, Khatchadourian is in the midst of revamping a database of objects from her archaeological digs such that other scholars and the public are able to access these treasures and further the conversation about them.

President Yu’s "Report to the Council" commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Report of the Commission on the Humanities sponsored by ACLS, the Council of Graduate Schools, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. She noted that many of the arguments of the Commission’s report, which helped convince Congress to establish the National Endowment for the Humanities, still frame the agenda for ACLS. Ms. Yu concluded her review of the Council’s current programs by announcing that the board had approved increasing the number of endowment-funded fellowships to be awarded in 2015 to 70 and rising the level of stipends awarded to full professors to $70,000. 

ACLS Board of Directors Chair James J. O’Donnell presided over the Council meeting following President Yu’s report. Nancy J. Vickers, treasurer of the ACLS board, reported on ACLS finances and investments. Voting members (delegates and board members) approved the ACLS budget for FY 2015 and the following elections to the board:

  • Nancy Vickers, comparative literature, Bryn Mawr College, was re-elected to a three-year term as treasurer.
  • Jonathan Culler, comparative literature, Cornell University, was re-elected to a three-year term as secretary
  • Lisa Disch, US history, Rutgers University, was elected to a four-year term as member.

Also by vote of the Council, the Oral History Association (OHA) was admitted as ACLS's 72nd member society. The OHA represents over 600 members interested in oral history as a way of collecting and interpreting memories to foster knowledge and dignity. For more information, visit www.oralhistory.org/.

Matthew Goldfeder, director of fellowship programs, reported on the 2013-14 competition year, and looked at the changes and the continuity from ACLS’s programs 50 years ago to today. He noted that ACLS programs support humanities scholarship with a focus on international and area studies research now as it did then. He also cited ACLS’s growth, in terms of the diversity of fellowship programs of which there are now 12, in the volume of applications received, and in the number of fellows supported. In the 2013-14 competition, ACLS awarded over $15 million to nearly 300 scholars, a four-and-a-half-fold increase from the inflation-adjusted value of ACLS fellowships in 1964.

Earl Lewis, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, spoke at luncheon on balancing continuity and change. The foundation, he noted, is approaching its 50th anniversary in 2019 and is currently undergoing a reassessment of its program work. While the foundation will continue to support the humanities and the arts and to encourage diversity, they will also broaden their international programs to include other world areas. Another question under consideration is the transformation in the way students learn and how graduate programs prepare PhDs for teaching in this changing environment.

In the Friday afternoon session, Kwame Anthony Appiah, ACLS Board of Directors and professor of philosophy and law at New York University, moderated a panel discussion on the “Public Face of the Humanities.” On the panel were, Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University; Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History and chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard University; and Alexander Nemerov, Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University. Appiah opened the discussion of how humanists address their public by defining the difference between two kinds of “address": public speaking versus location, both of which he described as ephemeral. Where does an address go? What happens to addresses that no longer exist? Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History and Chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard University, provided a history of how humanists defend what they do and noted that the birth of the research universities changed the humanities relationship with government funding. Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, went on to discuss the decline in humanities as measured by student enrollment. He noted that the decline began with the culture of “critical theory” and discussed the difficulty of convincing the public that there is new knowledge to be gained in the humanities. He stressed the importance of defending research in the humanities, rather than merely defending the humanities in the abstract.

Following the panelists’ presentations, attendees were invited to ask questions, either by asking them directly from the floor of the ballroom or by submitting them via email to the moderator. The discussion that followed ranged from the changing nature of the “public” (“Students are our most important public,” said Lepore.) to the impatience about what you are doing with what you learn. How can you get people interested in “slow research” and big questions? One questioner said we don’t have to convince the public as much as we need to convince our own universities and societies; we need a charismatic word. Nemerov concluded the discussion by stating that the charismatic word is “story.” Humanists can tell a story.

Bruno Nettl, professor emeritus of music and anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, delivered the 2014 Haskins Prize Lecture on Friday evening.

The Conference of Administrative Officers (CAO) held its spring meeting on the following day, Saturday, May 10.

The 2015 ACLS Annual Meeting will be held in Philadelphia on May 7-9. Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, will deliver the Haskins Prize Lecture on Friday evening, May 8.