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American Historical Association Meeting 2011: End Of Conference Notes

January 9, 2011, 3:01 pm

I’m so glad we had this time together…..

This morning I woke up to a dusting of snow.  I was in a friend’s house in Cambridge, and I toodled out for my regular breakfast at Darwin’s.  At 7:15, it was just me and the old geezers (you know who I mean:  the men whose friendships have been organized for decades around meeting each other for breakfast and the New York Times on Sunday morning.)

I passed the time prior to leaving for South Station reading an article in The New Yorker about a boomlet in the debt collection industry in Buffalo.  Debt collection may, in fact, be the city’s remaining major industry.  It reminded me that while things in higher education are not good right now, they are a whole lot better than they are, say, in construction or heavy industry.

However, this does not make the cutting of funds to the arts and humanities tolerable or right, and we must start to fight back more effectively.  Out at the Other Conference, Inside Higher Ed reports, Teresa Mangum of the University of Iowa brought this up at what sounded like a great panel.   How do we think about the defense of our work in the current environment, one that is effectively articulating us as obsolete by shrinking the number of people who can make a living at it and, as a consequence, reducing what is actually available to maturing citizens?

Mangum said that humanities faculty members may also need to rethink how they talk about the crises of funding not only in higher education but in society. “I don’t want to blame the victim, but again and again I see faculty members in the humanities speak on campus and in public in ways that belittle the larger public and sometimes the sciences and other disciplines,” she said.


Mangum said she understood that these comments are made “in frustration” over cut after cut and a feeling of not being understood or appreciated. But she said that the attitude is problematic. Right now in Iowa, she said, there are families “lining up at food banks.”


“I don’t want to debate the meaning of class relations in a novel without knowing that the food bank in my community is running out of food,” Mangum said. “We need to register more powerfully what our role is in this larger culture, what our values are as people teaching in the humanities.” The knowledge and perspective gained from the humanities, she said, “can be the place where we learn compassion.”

I particularly like what is implied here, which is that compassion is the glue that binds communities together and moves them forward. While it doesn’t preclude such things as ambition and competition, which can be productive for the individual and the collective, compassion would counter what I think is the most destructive dynamic in the current environment, blame.  The need to find fault rather than seek structural solutions that actually contribute to to solving problems seems to dominate our discussions about the academy.  Why shouldn’t graduate students blame tenured faculty for the obstacles to realizing their ambitions, when the real cause — pouring money into tax breaks for the wealthy, deregulating financial industry, and pouring our national treasure into unwinnable and illegal wars — are so impossible to cure?

The only answer to that question, from my perspective, is that it doesn’t change anything.  This is why, probably of all the things I did at the annual meeting this year, meeting with the LGBTQ Historians Task Force Open Forum was perhaps the most engaging.  A group formed to address issues in the organization that combusted last year at the San Diego meeting, it reminded me that the current several generations of out queer scholars, ranging from Jonathan Ned Katz who has been integral to launching OutHistory.org to numerous young people who are just entering the job market, are inveterate organizers.  Many of us who are now tenured scholars, like myself, Marc Stein, and Jim Green came out of organizing backgrounds; most of us are running something.

The Task Force (not to be confused with the NGLTF, which now calls itself The Task Force) has done a ton of work, which I won’t reveal on this blog, since it isn’t ready for prime time.  Stein and Leisa Meyer did an outstanding job of running the meeting, with Susan Stryker contributing via Skype (Susan’s voice was piped through the ceiling, which meant that as she spoke, we all gazed reverently upwards, lending a moment of camp to an otherwise orderly proceeding.)

I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to be in a well-functioning, multi-generational, consultative and well-led group.  Thank you.

One other comment to close (this is for you, incoming prez Tony Grafton, from whom we in the blogosphere expect Great Things)*:  now that the MLA  and AHA are meeting at the same time, would it not be a good idea to have some of these brainstorming sessions from each conference teleconferenced in to the other convention?  I would have loved to have seen that MLA session.  And while this Task Force meeting would not have been the right one, I can imagine sessions in the future where MLA queers might want to brainstorm with us about common professional issues and strategies for moving our intellectual work and teaching forward in this unfriendly educational environment.
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*Go to Historiann for liberal quotation from and commentary on Grafton’s opening presidential salvo in this debate.

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