2014 Report of HSS Delegate to ACLS

History of Science Society
Report of the HSS Delegate to the American Council of Learned Societies
September 2014

 Michael M. Sokal – Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Emeritus)

The American Council of Learned Societies brings together over 70 U.S.-based scholarly organizations and defines its mission as “the advancement of humanistic studies in all fields of learning in the humanities and the social sciences and the maintenance and strengthening of relations among the national societies devoted to such studies.”  It carries out this mission through a variety of programs, including, especially, the awarding of peer-reviewed fellowships.  Other ACLS activities are “convening and supporting scholarly conferences, sponsoring reference works and innovations in scholarly communication, strengthening relations among learned societies, encouraging the establishment of new societies, and representing humanistic scholarship in the U.S. and internationally.”  The Council’s Conference of Administrative Officers provides extensive support for the work of its member societies’ administrators.

I have served as HSS Delegate to the ACLS since 2006 and have just attended the most recent ACLS annual meeting (Philadelphia, 8-10 May 2014). At the end of the meeting I completed my second 4-year term as Delegate. I am honored that the Society’s Executive Committee has chosen to forego any term limits policies and has accepted my offer to serve a third term.

I also sit (as a former grant maker, with an indefinite term) on the ACLS-appointed Management Board for the ACLS-supported Darwin Correspondence Project.  In this capacity, I keep in regular touch with the Project’s staff and participate in every-so-often conference calls, which involve both ACLS and Project staff and other board members in both the U.S. and Britain. The last such meeting took place on 19 November 2013.

Darwin Correspondence Project

In response to my queries, the Project’s Associate Director, Alison Pearn, reports the following:

Volume 21 of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, covering the year 1873, which went to press in May 2013, was published in January 2014.  Volume 22 (1874) was delivered to the indexer in May 2014 and will be delivered to press in August. The volume includes letters relating to the second edition of The Descent of Man, letters detailing Darwin’s collaborative research on insectivorous plants and his exploration of the plant-animal divide, and an acrimonious exchange of letters between Darwin and the biologist St George Jackson Mivart.  In collaboration with Cambridge University Library colleagues, the master files of all 15,000 letters have been converted to XML (Extensible Markup Language) and a new editing environment successfully implemented.  The conversion to XML is an important step in plans for long-term preservation of the digital archive of letter transcripts.   The Project’s website has continued to be developed.  Dr. Charissa Varma joined the Project as an affiliate in June 2013 on a Canadian government funded SSHRC grant and is assisting the Project part-time with development of digital resources for university teaching.

ACLS Fellowships

Most HSS members probably know the American Council of Learned Societies best as the source of high prestige fellowships in the humanities for which they compete, at times with great success.  That said, many seem unaware of the full range of scholarly support ACLS offers through a variety of competitive programs.  These include:

  • ACLS Fellowships (for all scholars)
  • Ryskamp Research Fellowships (for advanced assistant professors)
  • Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured Scholars
  • Digital Innovation Fellowships (for all scholars)
  • Collaborative Research Fellowships (for all scholars)
  • Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships
  • ACLS New Faculty Fellowships
  • ACLS Public Fellowships

Smaller ACLS programs offer Dissertation Fellowships in American Art and a variety of grants and fellowships supporting scholarship in East and Southeast Asian Studies and in East European Studies.

During the 2012-2013 academic year competition for these fellowships attracted over 4,200 applications. These led to the awarding in 2014 of more than 300 fellowships worth over $15.3 million. In 2013 more than 320 fellowships and over $15 million were awarded. Analogous figures for 2012 were 294 and ca. $14.2 million. In 2011, they were 251 and ca. $13.2 million.

In 2014 historians of science and others working in “Science, Technology, & Medicine Studies” were awarded (by my impressionistic count) 12 fellowships, though only 2 or 3 of these recipients identified themselves explicitly with STM studies. For 2013, these figures were 13 and 7; for 2012, they were 12 and 3. In previous years, historians of science and others in STM Studies did better, and one hopes that in future competitions, historians of science will again be more fully represented.

During the 2012-2013 competition at least 2 STM Studies scholars (including HSS President Lynn Nyhart) served on the several fellowship application review panels. I have not located the list of panelists who served during the 2011-2012 competition. But at least 4 STM Studies scholars served in the previous year.

The New Faculty Fellows Program and the Public Fellows Program are both relatively new; the first Public Fellows were just appointed in 2011. Both programs are designed to keep post-dissertation scholars active professionally and, despite some concern that they may simply be enlarging the “contingent faculty” pool, both seem to serve this purpose.

Personally, I remain most impressed by the Public Fellows Program, which this year (as in past years) placed humanities scholars in professional positions with a variety of governmental and non-profit organizations. Each year the list of host organizations continues to grow, and those appointed in 2014 will serve at 20 different institutions, including the Chicago Humanities Festival, in which HSS will participate this Fall as part of our annual meeting. Other host organizations include the Association of Research Libraries, the Council of Independent Colleges, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the New America Foundation, the San Francisco Arts Commissions, the United Negro College Fund, the US Department of Health & Human Services, and Wisconsin Public Radio.


As HSS members may remember, I have long argued that historians of science – and indeed all scholars – should look beyond academia for employment and public service opportunities, and ACLS designed this program to promote such developments. ACLS President Pauline Yu emphasized the success of this program in her Annual Report to the Council. In past years, I sensed that her remarks seem tinged by an unspoken assumption that academia should remain the preferred career path for humanities Ph.D.s. This year, however, I was most pleased that she strongly emphasized that this Program serves importantly as a tool for “career development” for humanities scholars seeking employment and service opportunities beyond academia.


On the other hand, I continue to be personally disappointed with the New Faculty Fellows Program, which places recent Ph.D.s in 2-year grant-funded positions at host universities. That is, Fellows with degrees from a relatively small number of Major Research Universities (notably in the Ivy League, the Big 10, and the University of California system) seem over-represented, and many were placed in the same group of institutions. Again, without denying the academic qualities of these universities, I had hoped that this program would have been more broadly implemented. That said, apparently others at ACLS (and, perhaps, the foundations that supported this program) seem to have come to a similar conclusion, and no new “New Faculty Fellows” were appointed for 2014.



2014 ACLS Annual Meeting


As noted earlier, unlike past years, more than one session deserves real attention in this report.


For example, Pauline Yu’s annual report as ACLS President claimed that “recent perceptions of the decline of humanities are overstated” and re-emphasized traditional arguments for the significance of humanistic study. She also went beyond these to argue that, even as current public policy seems to emphasize STEM education at the expense of the arts and humanities, she cited recent public statements by David Hollinger (an especially active HSS member in the 1990s) and Deborah Fitzgerald (a historian of technology now serving as MIT’s Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) on the importance of our fields for scientists and engineers. “If the humanities have value for some students, they have value for all!” She also emphasized the current and potential impact of new humanistic tools that enable scholars to learn more about other cultures, and argued for the growing significance of the “Public Humanities,” however defined. As an example, she cited the Society for Military History’s participation in the current major NEH Program, “Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War.”


In the Q.-and-A. that followed, HSS Executive Director Jay Malone noted arguments the humanities today have to “partner” more gully with the sciences, which themselves are under attack from many quarters. Ms. Yu then asked, “Are you suggesting a new ACLS Program?” and Mr. Malone responded forcefully, “Yes!” In her further comments, Ms. Yu noted that the Council is beginning to think about its own Strategic Planning exercise to help it prepare for its coming centennial (in 2019), and that such potential partnering would certainly be a topic for consideration.


(Post-meeting e-mail exchanges with ACLS Vice President Steven Wheatley noted that “science is one of the great expressions of human creativity,” and noted that “Since one of [ACLS’s] great achievements over the past century has been the Darwin Correspondence Project, it would be logical to build on that effort in the next hundred years.”)


One session recurring annually — “Emerging Themes and Methods of Humanistic Research: Discussion with [Recent] ACLS Fellows” – this year featured 3 presentations that seemed to reflect what one speaker called the “material turn” in humanistic studies. For example, a Civil War historian discussed his Digital Innovation Fellowship project, “CSI Dixie,” that drew on coroners’ records to reconstruct the physical life of slaves, common folk, and the gentry in the ante-bellum South. Similarly, an art historian reported on her dissertation studies of how 18th– and 19th-century artists in Philadelphia responded to the physical changes in the city’s (and its surroundings’) environment to demonstrate that “the materiality of things challenged contemporaneous artistic theories.” Finally, an archaeologist studying the ancient Persian Empire described how her fellowship-supported field work in central Armenia illuminated the physical basis of the Satrapy established by the conquering imperialists. These examples of the “material turn” reminded me of recent studies by historians of science that focus on the laboratory practices of their subjects. In addition, as the Digital Innovation Fellow commented, some departments’ and universities’ tenure-and-promotion policies have yet to adapt themselves to new ways in which humanities scholars go beyond traditional books and articles to disseminate the results of their research. (This point has emerged in continuing discussion of the current HSS Strategic Planning Committee.)


Another annual meeting feature is the report by Stephen Kidd, Executive Director of the National Humanities Alliance, a 501 (c) (4) lobbying organization that advocates in Washington on behalf of humanistic scholarship and the humanities writ large. Its current priorities include many federal agencies and programs that support historians of science, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Title VI/Fulbright-Hays Program and the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (Jacob K. Javitz Fellowships) Program of the U.S. Department of Education,  the Institute of Museum & Library Services, the Library of Congress, and the Minerva Research Initiative of the Department of Defense, which focuses on areas in the social sciences of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy. NHA also sponsors an annual Humanities Advocacy Day, during which the delegates of its member organizations (including HSS Executive Director Jay Malone) call on Members of Congress and their staffs to seek their support for federal programs that fund our scholarly endeavors.

In past years, NEH chairs have addressed the meeting’s formal luncheon. This year, in a break from tradition, the speaker was Earl Lewis, the relatively-recently appointed President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (and co-author, with our children’s former babysitter, Heidi Ardizzone, of the well-received book, Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White [Norton, 2001]). Mr. Lewis’s comments addressed how the Foundation’s priorities were currently evolving – a matter of interest to all learned societies, including HSS – to further implement Mellon’s traditional goals of supporting “able people at capable institutions.” For example, Mellon has recently ceased to support projects in conservation and the environment: “They have achieved much, but it’s now time to move on.” Emerging concerns include: How should Mellon help deal with “artists at risk,” especially in such centers on cultural creativity as New York City?; How should the Foundation support projects that require collaboration among humanities scholars. cognitive scientists, “data experts,” et al.?; and in the wake of the emergence of MOOCs, “How should we promote a shift in focus from how teachers teach to how students learn?” Finally, in a development that could potentially prove most impactful on many humanities scholars, including historians of science, Mr. Lewis reported his concern about past Mellon priorities with regard to liberal arts colleges “that focused only on the top 100.” As he continued, “that policy no longer makes sense. There are about another 250 in the country. What would happen if they all disappeared?” In particular, he reported that Mellon now hopes to promote connections between liberal arts college and research universities.


The meeting’s opening session, “Money, Members, Mission: Learned Societies by the Numbers,” comprised a report on responses to a 48-item “Census” of ACLS constituent societies carried out by the Conference of Administrative Officers. This report concluded that most societies were “quite vibrant,” with growing memberships and increasingly well-attended annual meetings. To be sure, some smaller societies (with memberships under 1,000) reported heavy membership turnover. But the annual meetings of most smaller mid-sized societies (like HSS, with memberships between 1,000 and 2,500) regularly attract growing numbers of attendees. At least one speaker attributed this growth to the attractions a still-navigable meeting (as opposed to overwhelming conventions of, for example, the AHA and the OAH) that at the same time offers a full range of topical sessions, a variety made possible (in at least some cases) by the efforts of many societies’ active Special Interest Groups.


Other Census results indicate that constituent societies are paying more and more attention to an “infrastructure” to promote their members’ careers, often through “political” advocacy for public and private support for research and training in their fields. In many cases these efforts “get the society’s brand name out” and seem to enhance members’ identification with their societies.


With my involvement in the current HSS Strategic Planning endeavor, I had eagerly anticipated a session announced as “The Public Face of the Humanities,” and Jay’s and Pauline’s to-and-fro further whetted my appetite. Unfortunately, this session proved to be one of the worst I’ve ever had the misfortune to attend at an academic meeting. One participant spoke so meanderingly and meaninglessly that I never could grasp what he was trying to say. Another used his presentation to defend some humanists’ response to the Alan Sokal (no relation) Hoax and the Paul De Man scandal, arguing in effect that, if the public can’t understand post-modern literary theory, tough. “The public readily accepted without understanding the significance of Einstein’s work and of Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Theorem, so we should expect the public to accept our own esoteric work.” A third presentation, by Jill Lepore of Harvard and The New Yorker, also meandered. But it did rehash some traditional arguments for the significance of the humanities. In the Q.-and-A. that followed, she concluded that “Students are our first public and our most important public,” a statement that is probably correct for most humanists and most HSS members, even as the percentage of scholars for which it is accurate is continuingly (and many argue, appropriately) declining daily.


A highlight of all ACLS annual meetings is the Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, presented by an eminent senior scholar who’s asked to review his/her “Life of Learning.”  The brilliant 2010 Haskins Lecturer was HSS member Nancy Siraisi. This year’s Haskins Lecturer, Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl of the University of Illinois, described how his fieldwork in many parts of the globe enabled him to more fully understand the cultural richness both of the peoples he studied and of humankind more generally. He illustrated his lecture with sound recordings made during his research in Tibet and with several North American indigenous groups. I have no ear for the intricacies of musical expression. But even I found myself enchanted by his account of humanities scholarship in a discipline about which I had known almost nothing.