Rethinking Learned Societies
If not now, when?
Thank you to everyone who has subscribed, shared, or otherwise supported this newsletter! And yes, you can totally forward it to your friends; even better, invite them to sign up so it lands straight in their in-box.
If you are not a U.S. historian, you might have missed the spectacle of one of the discipline’s major learned societies making an ass of itself last Friday. People who know the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) better than I do can comment more authoritatively on what exactly went wrong, but basically: SHEAR live-streamed an all-white plenary session starring a senior historian who defended Andrew Jackson, punched down at nontenure track scholars who were not offered an opportunity to respond, and repeatedly uttered a racial slur. The response from both SHEAR members and the broader community of historians was swift and damning.
I’m sure it seemed more nuanced than that to the organizers, but impact outweighs intent. In 2018, another organization that I am a member of, the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations, gave former General David Petraeus the platform for the lunchtime keynote. It didn’t go over well with the broader membership. The future of another organization to which I belong, the National Book Critics Circle, is in doubt after a series of board member resignations and counter-resignations related to a Black Lives Matter statement.
The specific things said at the SHEAR plenary matter, both in terms of the harms created and the response it generated. Even so, there’s a pattern here in how learned societies and professional organizations end up airing reactionary views without fully anticipating the public reaction:
1) Organizations and institutions are experimenting with new virtual platforms and public-facing statements, even as leadership continues to be dominated by small, homogenous groups largely isolated from public opinion and comfortable in their careers (usually with tenure, often with endowed chairs )
2) Social media allows pushback in real time, providing a second level of critique (that is, people who read and engage with the tweets about the thing that is happening, but not the thing itself)
3) The collapse of academic employment, and precarity in general, means that individual scholars (or critics, in the case of the NBCC) are less invested in protecting the reputations of those who have pulled the drawbridges up behind them
Put another way: Livestreams and tweets allow people who have dedicated years of their lives to fields that no longer have a place for them to once again participate in professional events. And when they do so, only to see bad behavior, they have very little motivation to keep quiet about that.
SHEAR’s flameout was particularly dramatic, but it most likely won’t be the last one we see in 2020. The easy accessibility and wide distribution of virtual events sits uneasily next to the primary function of most learned societies, which is to propagate and enforce disciplinary standards in spaces accessible only to those with the proper credentials. They’re called “disciplines” for a reason. Even as scholars associate them with “community,” the vast majority of these organizations fill two main functions: They publish paywalled, peer-reviewed journals and host private gatherings in expensive locales where members can earn a line on their CV.
As an independent scholar, I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with my “home” professional societies. I enjoy catching up with colleagues in person, and I’ve done what I thought I could, through committee work and a term on a society’s governing council, to make these organizations better. But earlier drafts of this newsletter also contained a long list of the ways that these organizations have, over time, lost my trust. Therapeutic to write, boring to read. Suffice it to say that the interests of independent scholars and non-tenure-track faculty are not well represented or even understood by most learned societies. It’s also blindingly obvious that whatever slights I’ve experienced as an independent scholar pale in comparison to the hostility these spaces present to Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx scholars.
I fear that the response to the SHEAR fiasco will be for learned societies to clam up, to pull up the drawbridge a notch higher. No more livestreams, more aggressive anti-tweeting policies, fewer attempts at “inclusion” and “engagement.” But I hope not (and, for the record, this has not been the response from the voting members of SHEAR’s Advisory Council or its Nominating Committee). This moment—so unprecedented in so many ways—could be an opportunity to rethink how associations of people who research, teach, or write in a given field (a category much broader than “academics”) could support one another beyond publishing peer-reviewed journals and hosting conferences.
For instance, what if the American Historical Association were more like a union, perhaps something like the National Writers’ Union, but for historians? Or what if more learned societies reimagined their publications in the mold of the African American Intellectual History Society’s phenomenal Black Perspectives blog, a thoughtful intellectual space that always assumes a readership beyond the academy? What if more scholarly societies created constructive, sympathetic spaces for scholars to workshop larger projects, as SHEAR itself has done for several years in its lauded Second Book Writers’ Workshop?
What if the AHA’s magnificent book fair—by far the best history book fair in the United States—existed as a public event instead of a chaser to an anxiety cocktail of talks and receptions? BookExpo, but for history? What if the British Global Digital History of Science Festival, which combined online performances, thoughtful dialogue, a coffee house, and a “pub,” were the model of a scholarly conference instead of a pandemic fallback plan?
What would it mean for learned and professional societies to nurture spaces, online and off, that foster community instead of competition? What would it mean for communities of experts to cultivate a kind of generosity about what expertise itself looks like?
I sincerely do not know what the future of the learned society looks like. I do know that the current model, which increasingly feels like it exists to funnel additional resources to those who already have them, is not working. Time is short, the world is on fire, and fewer and fewer scholars work from the comfort and safety of tenure track lines. Lately, I find myself more inclined to give my time and money to communities closer to home, and causes closer to my heart, than to organizations engaged in credentialing and gatekeeping. And yet, despite it all, I’m still a historian who, every now and then, craves an opportunity to nerd out with other historians. What would it take to make these spaces welcoming and supportive for everyone who wants to be there?
Getting it Right: The American Council on Learned Societies, which is the umbrella organization for learned societies in the United States, is modeling good scholarly behavior by shifting the focus of its Fellowship Program exclusively to early career, non-tenured scholars. To learn more and apply, click here. <Note: This post has been updated; the original version of this newsletter misstated that the ACLS was limiting its fellowship program to non-tenure-track scholars. My apologies.>
Centering Indigenous History: Shekon Neechie is an Indigenous history website that both serves as a community for Indigenous historians and showcases their work. In contrast to most professional organizations of historians, the community welcomes both formally trained and self-taught historians. The site includes a fantastic bibliography.
Speaking of Gatekeeping: If you think historians have a messed-up mindset when it comes to credentialing, wait until you hear how agents do it! As a publishing professional, I’m reading and loving Clayton Childress’s Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel.
Please note no newsletter next week. See you in August!