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My New Book!
My New Book!

Saturday, April 8, 2023

April 8-9, 2023: The Limits and Potential of Scholarly Organizations

[A couple weekends back I was in Niagara Falls for the 54th annual Northeast Modern Language Association Convention. Longtime readers will know well how much I love NeMLA, the organization and the convention alike, and this year was no exception. So this week I’ve shared a handful of reflections on a great NeMLA convention, leading up to this post on scholarly organizations more broadly.]

On what scholarly organizations can’t really do, what they definitely shouldn’t do, and two related things they absolutely should.

As the post hyperlinked above under “I love NeMLA” reflects, I served on the NeMLA Board for nearly a decade, including a stint as the organization’s President (itself a five-year process that includes a couple levels of VP and a year as Past President). Throughout that time, and most especially for my Presidential year and its 2016 Convention in Hartford, I had very clear and high hopes for how the organization could make a difference in a number of ways: advocating for adjunct and contingent faculty and challenging attacks on higher ed; connecting with secondary and primary schools and educators for cross-network alliances and efforts; expressing an organizational perspective on relevant national and world issues in an attempt to help shape our conversations around them. At the end of the day, what I can say is that we definitely talked about all these things as a community, including in a number of great panels and sessions at that 2016 convention. But beyond talking, we took just one tangible action: bringing some Convention attendees to a Hartford public high school to connect with educators and students. That was very nice, but it was also very specific compared to my lofty goals.

So maybe scholarly organizations can’t really intervene in our public conversations (although more on that question below). But I’ll tell you what they definitely shouldn’t do, as recent events have illustrated all too potently: attack fellow scholars for trying to make their own such interventions. I’m thinking specifically about the August 2022 American Historical Association (AHA) president’s letter in which that organization’s current leader James Sweet expressly criticized historians who seek to produce public-facing scholarship, to be part of public conversations, calling out their “presentism” as a problem in the profession. It’s not just that I believe Sweet was deeply wrong, although I most definitely do (and I’m far from alone in feeling that way). It’s also and especially that Sweet was using his position and public pulpit—during, I believe, the one year in which he had access to them—to criticize fellow scholars, to participate in the kind of circular firing squad about which I griped in my non-favorites series back in February. To level such attacks at all, much less to do so in our current moment (he said present-ly), seems to me a genuine dereliction of duty for a scholarly organization’s president.

To quote Will Hunting when he takes that pretentious Hahvahd grad student down a few pegs: “Don’t do that.” And reading Sweet’s letter and all the thoughtful responses to it did make me recommit (now that I’m no longer an organizational president, of course; but I’m certainly still part of these communities) to a couple things that scholarly organizations should still be trying to do. One, directly contra Sweet’s arguments, is to be part of our present—whether individual scholars choose to do that in their work (which again I support but is an individual choice), it seems to me a crucial role for organizations like these is to try to help make all relevant collective conversations more informed and more meaningful. And the other, directly contra Sweet’s tone and even more important than the first, is to show genuine solidarity with all those in the profession, to genuinely advocate for all scholars and educators (and most especially those being attacked by outside forces, which is the vast majority of us here in 2023). How we do those things remains a complex question and one we need to keep figuring out together—but whether it’s the AHA, NeMLA, or any other scholarly organization, we most definitely need to keep trying to do them.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Ways we can make scholarly organizations more relevant and meaningful in our current moment?

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