Report of the Delegate to the ACLS (May 2016)

The meeting of delegates to ACLS followed a different format from previous years: we were told that the Executive Committee wanted to make it more interactive.  It was still not especially interactive.  I suspect that the most valuable part of the whole structure is the meeting of the Conference of Executive Officers.  The people who actually run societies learn a lot from each other.  I met some very interesting people and learned some very interesting things from other delegates, mostly, however, about such matters as how difficult it is to explain to those who support originalist readings of the Constitution that the meanings of words are not obvious. 

For the delegates from the societies, the first evening featured panel about alternative careers for humanities PhDs, with particular attention to the ACLS Public Fellows program, which places recent PhD in two-year positions in government and at non-profits.  This, for me, was the part of the meeting most relevant for the SCS as a whole.  Most interesting was Adela de la Torre from the National Immigration Law Center, who described how their intern had made them realize the power of narrative in convincing a public.  In the morning, there was the report of the president and then the business meeting, unexciting but necessary (ACLS, like other organizations and individuals, has been buffeted by market volatility and needs to reconsider its expectations of yield on investments). 

We heard very quick reports from five societies; Adam described how we managed our succession process, and this report was clearly of potential value to other groups facing transition.  We were addressed by Pauline Yu for the ACLS itself and by William “Bro” Adams, chairman of NEH, and Pauline conducted an interview with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.  (Many will already be aware of the Foundation’s focus on inequality.)

There were presentations by recipients of ACLS fellowships.  All three were digital, although only one was supported by the digital humanities program, and have a public-humanities aspect:  Kim Gallon works on the African-American press, and will generate born-digital monographs; Brooke Lillehaugen has created an online text explorer for Zapotec documents from the colonial period in Mexico (the Zapotec language is endangered) and Michael Penn, who is using computer analysis of handwriting for Syriac documents, presented Syriac evidence for nuanced Christian-Islamic relationships in the seventh century, with a clear aim of countering present-day assumptions about inherent hostility between Christianity and Islam.  All three projects were fascinating and very deserving  ACLS support.  In the afternoon, we had a series of breakout discussion sessions.  I attended one on adjuncts, moderated by Kwame Antony Appiah, but I did not hear any new ideas that seemed immediately useful.  In the evening, Cynthia Enloe’s Haskins Prize Lecture was moving, as these “Life of Learning” lectures often are.

I was a little uneasy with the discussion of alternative careers for PhDs. People talked about reducing the stigma of choosing a non-academic career, I would like to know how serious that stigma is (as opposed to anxiety, since academic job placement can be a significant factor in a program’s evaluation by the administration).  I sympathized with the questioner who asked whether a history PhD is really the best preparation for a career in a non-profit, and I came out of the meeting thinking that the SCS should try to encourage all of us who work in PhD-granting institutions to think about how we can best prepare our students for the job market that exists, and the need to recognize that there will not be enough academic jobs, especially tenure-track academic jobs.

Ruth Scodel

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