Celebrating ASEEES: Our Field, Our Future

Beth Holmgren, Duke University

Editor’s note: These remarks were originally delivereed as part of the 2018 ASEEES Coonvention Presidential Plenary, December 8, 2018.

Ten years ago I was serving as president of AAASS, a year of major organizational change, stress, and heavy lifting for staff and elected officers. In 2008 the Board at last voted to change our old name, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, which sounded like a Cold War think tank, to the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. I was proud to have been instrumental in this move towards explicit inclusiveness, though many colleagues still complain to my face that the resulting acronym is not as fun or easy to use. The theme I designated for the 2008 convention was “Gender.” This topic stemmed from my scholarly interests, but I also chose it to incentivize a broader conceptualization of what counted as cultural work, agency, and influence in my own fields of literary and film studies. In my professional youth, I’d grown tired of dutifully attending manels or mixed panels that focused exclusively on male writers and artists, the “greats” who formed a seemingly insurmountable bearded and mustachioed wall. I eventually made my escape by joining roundtables, panels, and dinners put together by colleagues in the Association for Women in Slavic Studies. When I was asked to name my convention topic as presidential perk, I was more than ready with my answer.

After the 2008 convention, Bill Taubman, Mark von Hagen, and I undertook the time-consuming, but ultimately very rewarding, job of relocating ASEEES from Cambridge to Pittsburgh or, more accurately, away from the Harvard administration’s hospitality fatigue to the welcoming Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. The most painful part of relocating for me was losing most of the organization’s excellent staff through the move. Only our convention coordinator, Wendy Walker, could manage a very long commute for a number of years. This Cambridge-based staff made a terrific team and had built up the organization in so many ways. It was no fault of theirs that Harvard was no longer interested in playing host and rents were so high in Harvard Square. In Pittsburgh we were lucky to lay the groundwork for a great new team when Lynda Park accepted our offer to become the new ASEEES Executive Director. We knew that Lynda would be a dynamic and outstanding leader, and she has only exceeded our expectations.

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind every member of ASEEES that it is the staff who truly sustain this organization—building membership, reporting on the state of the field and its members, updating and expanding the website with new tools and information, and providing umpteen different services.

Since 2008, through the efforts of the Cambridgeand then Pittsburgh-based staffs and hardworking officers and board members, ASEEES has made big strides forward on several important fronts. First and foremost, it has recruited well for the future of the field, with graduate students making up almost 20% of membership this year. Graduate student members can compete for travel grants to the convention and dissertation research fellowships. For junior faculty ASEEES sponsors a first book subvention grant as well as roundtables at the convention and webinars on the website that offer expert advice about the job search, how to get articles and first books published, and how to successfully navigate the path to tenure. Since 2008, ASEEES has responded to the tough job market for newly minted Ph.D.’s by offering roundtables and receptions with nonacademic professionals whose work is related to the regions we study. ASEEES also posts resources for those seeking government jobs and a variety of career opportunities outside academia.

ASEEES has grown more international in its membership and meeting venues, an orientation that is not only imperative for the growth and defense of uncensored studies on the region in the region, but also makes our meetings a lot more fun. I was delighted to learn that an estimated 30% of ASEEES members are designated “international” and thrilled to hear that our third biennial summer convention “in the region” will be held in Zagreb this coming summer. I just want to note here that 2021 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, the last major political barrier to our meeting and working together, so I suggest that ASEEES commemorate this milestone by sponsoring a huge parade in Moscow or Budapest or Warsaw—wherever we can make the biggest impression on local authorities as SEEES specialists joined together in support of uncensored university education and academic research. Who knows? We may need to hold this parade—call it a caravan—in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, as I thought about how ASEEES is doing— the question posed to those of us speaking in this session—I also considered what ASEEES should do next. Not so ironically, I recommend that ASEEES furnish a network and committees to help tackle two problems brewing in North American academia right now. I remain very concerned about the academic independence of my colleagues, both junior and senior, in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, and about the job market prospects for junior faculty and graduate students here in North America. But I’m most alarmed about what’s happening in undergraduate education under my very nose. I’ve been teaching for over three decades at four different institutions, both public and private. Over the last few years, the drastic corporatization of American universities and colleges is fast limiting which faculty specializations are “valued” and therefore preserved. Modern Russian history and literature may survive this shortsighted administrative purge, but funding for teaching about Europe between Germany and Russia or about Asia other than China, India, and Japan may well get the chop for intellectually unsubstantiated “budgetary reasons.” Of course, ASEEES cannot be in the business of raising money for professorships, but we might adopt some strategies put forward by the American Historical Association – for example, set up an online teaching and learning community on our regions that would provide resources and exchange for educators in four-year and two-year colleges as well those in K-12. Or we might host strategy workshops within different disciplines where colleagues can compare information about what’s going on in their home institutions and discuss cross-institutional strategies for resisting the deliberate dumbing down of education in North America.

The second urgent problem is what I have dubbed FLUU – foreign languages unplugged and unfunded. Times were that departments like mine – those teaching Slavic languages, literatures, and cultures – served as essential anchors for Title VI Centers because our departments assured Title VI in Washington that students specializing in history, sociology, anthropology, culture, and other disciplines were being trained adequately in the languages that would enable them to conduct serious research. Now highly placed university administrators circle the enrollment figures for less commonly taught language courses like sharks. More and more, foreign language teaching in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Czech, Polish, Romanian, and advanced Russian is either being cut or assigned to visiting lecturers – a new subset of terribly underpaid adjuncts. This is inefficient, unjust, and, ultimately, field-killing. It’s a nationwide crisis. I propose that ASEEES set up a committee to promote and sustain foreign language training in North America which might be linked with similar efforts assayed by the MLA or other region-oriented academic organizations. If nothing else, this committee could come up with several useful action plans for departments to deploy when they face this crisis.

Having sent up these two distress signals, as is my habit as a Slavist, I want to close by saying that I am so grateful that ASEEES exists, that I’ve had the privilege of growing up with it as an academic, and that this organization continues to grow and be innovative in serving its members. I’ve made some of my closest friends and brainstormed some of the most satisfying collaborative projects at these conventions. And I love the fact that ASEEES facilitates interdisciplinary encounters during post-panel coffees and cocktails and long confabs with colleagues I only get to see once a year. I wish ASEEES continued growth, vitality, and many more dance parties over its next seven decades!

Beth Holmgren is Professor of Polish and Russian Studies at Duke University. She currently serves as chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, is listed among the core faculty in Jewish Studies, and holds secondary appointments in Theater Studies and Women’s Studies