Legal and political obstacles facing international scholars and the effects of the Internet revolution on scholarly communication topped the agenda at the 2008 conference of the American Council of Learned Societies here. The two-day gathering, which ended on Saturday, brought together delegates and chief administrative officers from the association's constituent societies.
Case Studies in Frustration
At one panel, on "Barriers to International Scholarship," conference-goers considered the plight of scholars denied entry to the United States since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Among the high-profile cases discussed were those of Adam Habib, a South African political scientist and human-rights activist who has been repeatedly barred from entering the country; Cuban scholars denied permission to attend conferences of the Latin American Studies Association in 2003, 2004, and 2006; and Nalini Ghuman, a British musicologist employed by Mills College in Oakland, Calif., who for more than a year was barred from re-entering the United States after a trip abroad in 2006 (The Chronicle, June 15, 2007). She finally returned to the campus in February.
Speakers on the panel and questioners expressed deep frustration with the lack of explanation given by government officials in such cases. "That's the crux of the matterâ"we can't know," said one panelist, Robert Judd, executive director of the American Musicological Society, in describing Ms. Ghuman's experience. "They won't say why."
Another panelist, Thomas Ragland, a senior lawyer at the firm of Maggio & Kattar in Washington, D.C., described governmental secrecy as "an endemic problem" in immigration cases, which are his specialty. What makes the lack of opacity even worse, he said, is the "unfettered discretion" that U.S. officials have over deciding who gets in. The post-September 11 climate has not made federal officials more tolerant, he observed. "Everybody's afraid to be the person who lets the wrong person in."
During the question-and-answer period, participants discussed just how far the chilling effects of the current climate had spread. Several said that the high-profile cases were a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon and that many foreign scholars now refuse to go through the hassle of applying for a U.S. visa at all.
"The effects are colossal," said Amy W. Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. But when her group tried to survey its members on the subject, it found they were afraid of sharing too much information, she said. "We don't actually know how vast this problem is."
Arnita A. Jones, the executive director of the American Historical Association, raised the possibility that the Council of Learned Societies could serve as "a clearinghouse of reliable information" about such cases.
Participants debated what role scholarly associations, with limited budgets, staffs, and political clout, should play when scholars find borders closed to them. Public statements can be useful, Ms. Jones said, "but only if there's a strategy for using them."
One speaker on the panel, Marysa Navarro, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, recalled the incident involving Cuban scholars in 2004. The Latin American Studies Association mobilized a protest. "We had wonderful support," she said. "Nothing happened."
Other participants urged a broader focus on "the global rights of scholars," as one put it, saying it was a mistake to think of only the U.S. government as the problem when scholars around the world face governmental crackdowns.
The idea of crossing boundariesâ"national, disciplinary, perceptual, and digitalâ"kept resurfacing throughout the two-day meeting. In an address on Friday, Pauline Yu, president of the Council of Learned Societies, talked about the need for humanists to market themselves more adroitly in a world that undervalues their skills. One heard echoes of the theme of last year's Modern Language Association meeting, "The Humanities at Work in the World."
Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, got a more skeptical reception during a lunchtime talk when he called on humanists to "use simple, clear language" in a quest to "make complex ideas accessible to our citizens." Above all, he said, the humanities must avoid the trap of "self-marginalization"â"a suggestion that humanists have heard before.
Mr. Cole cited recent essays in The Washington Post and The New York Timesâ"the latter an apparent reference to barn-burning blog columns by Stanley Fishâ"that made the humanities out to be "at best a highfalutin version of Sudoku."
"I believe this is a dangerous position for humanists to take," the chairman told the assembly. "As scholars and teachers, we have an obligation to showâ"not merely to claim, but to showâ"that the humanities are not merely the playground of nihilism."
Passions ran highest at a session on "Learned Societies and the Future of Publishing: When Will the Internet Revolution Arrive?"
The panel's moderator, James J. O'Donnell, who is provost of Georgetown University and secretary of the association, promised that the discussion would go deeper than the "tastes-great-less-filling" arguments that often hamper debate about open access and digital publishing. The three-hour session touched on just about every aspect of scholarly communication in the digital environment, including how to balance scholarly societies' need for journal revenue with scholars' desire to obtain material freelyâ"in every sense.
Nobody had quick or easy answers, though exhortations abounded. No nihilism was on display here. Tara McPherson, a panelist who is an associate professor of gender and critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, called on humanists to think of themselves as more than just content providers for new technologies. They must learn to "shape the contours of technology," she said.
James Chandler, director of the Center for Disciplinary Innovation at the University of Chicago, kept returning to the idea that part of the solution lies in rethinking disciplinary boundaries.
And Mr. O'Donnell raised the specter of what happens when seed money from the humanities' "good witch Glinda"â"the Andrew W. Mellon Foundationâ"dries up. The foundation has been perhaps the largest single source of financial support for humanities projects in recent years, but it expects them to become self-sustaining at some point. No existing e-scholarship project, Mr. O'Donnell observed, has been around long enough to prove that it is sustainable on its own.
Lynne Withey, director of the University of California Press, stood up and pointed out that people rarely talk about what new means of disseminating information really cost. "I don't have any problem in principle with the Robin Hood model of publishing," she said, but she emphasized that "there is a whole set of costs to the university"â"meaning technical support, professors' and editors' salaries, and so onâ"that people don't factor in.
Peter K. Bol, a professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at Harvard University, shared the news that Harvard has recently canceled a thousand journal subscriptions, many of them humanities journals from Europe. Harvard's faculty voted to adopt an open-access policy, he said, in part "to break the monopoly of journals."
But as one audience member afterward said, to applause, "These associations could be very seriously injured by making these journals freely available."
Michael A. Keller, a panelist and the university librarian at Stanford University, sparred with a philosopher who blamed libraries for playing along with commercial publishers' overpricing of journals in the science, technical, and medical fields, a practice that has cut into library budgets.
"Libraries blew it," Mr. Keller agreed, "when they started shelling out for all the crap journals" distributed by the commercial-publishing giants. But he put the blame on scholars' shoulders, too. "If you guys don't stand up and start screaming about that," he told the philosopher, "there's nothing I can do about it from my little perch at Stanford."
"I don't subscribe to bottom-feeder journals," he added.