Celebrating ASEEES: Reflections on the 2010s

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of our organization’s founding and the 50th Convention, we take time to reflect on our history through the eyes of four AAASS/ASEEES Past Presidents.

Click here to read "Reflections on the 1980s"
Click here to read "Reflections on the 1990s"
Click here to read "Reflections on the 2000s"

Bruce Grant was ASEEES Board President in 2011. He is a Professor of Anthropology at New York University amd was recently named the Chair of the Department of Anthropology.

Less than ten years might be a slim margin for looking back—I was on the board of ASEEES from 2010 through 2012, and served as President in 2011—but perhaps proximity also gives a chance to take stock of where we are today, with a view to changes that took shape only a few years behind us.

Becoming President of ASEEES in the 2010s felt a bit akin to politicians who take credit for a thriving economy the moment they arrive in office. So much spadework went into the remaking of ASEEES in the years before me that it was not hard to enjoy the luxury of a good infrastructure, and take off from there.

Back in 2005, Katherine Verdery led the association as its first anthropologist, and began the complicated job of opening up our meeting schedules so that we no longer overlapped with colleagues from ACTFL (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), anthropology, religion, science studies, and more. More importantly, she teamed with Ron Suny and later Bill Taubman to undertake the association’s renaming. “AAASS” may have rolled off the tongue easily for all of us who were used to it, but it also was not clear after so many decades that we were the same community we used to be. Did we still want to follow a United Nations-kind of model where every well-off country had their own association (the Americans, the French, the Germans, the Finns)? It was not just that the ASN (the Association for the Study of Nationalities) or CESS (the Central Eurasian Studies Society) were rapidly growing in size, building up robust, sometimes competing memberships, or putting on excellent conferences on shoestring budgets. It was that the association’s conversations were changing because we were changing. By then, almost twenty years of life after socialism across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states meant that our own member rolls, most simply, had shifted. Did we want to be the association for Americans or the association that is based in America and which welcomes all comers, each year after the next?

Beth Holmgren, Bill Taubman, and Mark von Hagen did the heavy lifting of reorganizing us all after a still-remembered vote to promulgate “ASEEES.” It was krugovaia poruka at its best, or maybe simply just generalized reciprocity, with a lot of people pitching in for an organization with which we all grew up. But they also had another organizational challenge—marking the end of our once-affordable host arrangement with Harvard and our office’s eventual move to Pittsburgh. Looking back, it is not hard to miss the leafy comfort of Cambridge, where our programs were so well directed in the years prior by Carol Saivetz and Dmitry Gorenburg. But it was also the end of an era for what a Harvard office meant to our field: the extraordinary surety of government funding over the decades of the Cold War, an age of giants who shaped debate and built canons, and perhaps even the centrality of the Ivy League to area studies knowledges, with so many new knowledge hubs active around the world. 

At Pittsburgh, where we were generously welcomed by faculty and the administration alike, we set up shop with an extraordinary new director, Lynda Park. I suspect that I do not need to convince anyone of what Lynda has managed for the association over just seven years. Getting the boxes unpacked and setting up new staff was one thing. But picking up new steam and taking time to reassess all we were doing proved an advantage.

Slogans were not the order of the day, but looking back, it sometimes seems that way. My notes from seven years ago everywhere say, “digitize,” “internationalize,” and “regroup.”

Do you remember filling out your membership and conference paperwork on cut outs from NewsNet? I do. We did away with them partly to cut costs, but mainly because we wanted to make joining the ranks and coming to conferences easier for our colleagues everywhere, not just those who could rely on finding what they needed in their office mailbox.

More substantively, this meant joining the march of e-journals and getting Slavic Review up online (in a first effort, with JSTOR) so that more people could read what our colleagues were writing. It meant reforming much of our website and creating searchable member directories. It also meant that we took the time to start archiving the work of our field in ways we had not been able to do previously—more widely sharing the great program histories written up by Ralph Fisher, and accounting for every board member who had served since 1948—so that any new members would have a better sense of the path behind us.

“To internationalize,” in the simplest of terms, meant a reckoning of who and where our members were. More and more, the very people about whom many of us started our careers reading and writing, from a distance, were now among our students, working as colleagues in our departments, and sitting in the same plenary sessions with us at conferences. Everywhere, IMHO, our scholarship became sharper for it. Air travel had become vastly cheaper since the 1980s, so our members were moving around in ways previously unaffordable; even many graduate students were increasingly spending time abroad before launching their main dissertation work. Nor was correspondence with colleagues in Australia, Japan, or Switzerland as out of reach as it once was when our analogue association, ICCEES (the International Council for Central and East European Studies) began in 1975. 

How were we to respond? At a minimum, this meant reaching out to old and new members in new places, such as in piloting new summer conferences, together with CESS in Astana in 2014, with MAG (the Mezhdunarodnaia assotsiatsiia gumanitariev, or International Association for the Humanities) in Kyiv in 2016, or with Zagreb, the first to be hosted abroad solely by us, this June of 2019. It also meant creating new funding programs so that we could extend stipends to colleagues from outside the US to attend our annual conferences, or to conduct dissertation research, programs that we have now had up and running for several years. It meant new mentoring programs to work with graduate students from across the US and beyond to learn the ropes of academic systems not always familiar to them (and to work to change them).

“Regrouping” best recalls the language of polite euphemism from my native Canada, where here it signals, “government funding went away and now we’re broke.” The Title VIII Program, founded in 1983, had been offering abundant, centralized support for Soviet and East European area specialists along every step of the career ladder. Things only seemed to improve in the heady days of perestroika when our region of study enjoyed buoyant world attention. I remember colleagues in Latin American Studies grumpily expressing surprise that the State Department should single out our world area for special support. What I did not appreciate at the time is that those same colleagues in Latin American Studies were also decades ahead of us in cultivating stable channels of support from private foundations. Title VIII’s retirement shifted our focus to the Department of Education wh ere we now compete in Fulbright-Hays competitions along with everyone else. The recession of 2008 did not improve things, when the universities where so many of us were trained began competing with the association for new funding dollars. Despite the dunning overhead that most universities charge, many donors tend to warm to the embrace of the well-heeled campus, so our competition has been fierce. This makes me all the more grateful for the members who have been supporting new programs, and for the uncommon colleagues who know a thing or two about fundraising. Regrouping also means that we now spend a lot more time than we used to in the conversation with the ACLS (the American Council for Learned Societies), the AAUP (the American Association of University Professors), and with a new Advocacy Committee that angles to protect the right to free and fair research and writing conditions for our scholarly orbit. 

I joined AAASS during my first year in graduate school and perhaps like many readers, I feel that I have been able to grow up with it. I like to venture that we have a future because of the work that I can see being done by the office staff, subsequent presidents, board members, friends, and colleagues for the general cause. The cause is not a minor one, either. As the Modern Language Association annually reminds us, North America has seen a steady decline in foreign language learning across the past twenty-five years, a fact that often haunts me more than the betterknown closings of programs, departments, and funding lines that mean everything to many. A few years back I remember when the excellent and now much missed Cathy Nepomnyashchy reminded New York colleagues that Columbia once traditionally refused to grant credit to undergraduates spending time abroad in Prague unless they first had four semesters of Czech. You could hear the air getting sucked out of the room as everyone strained to think of what would happen to study abroad numbers if we returned to those bright standards. My own university has a gladly and heavily trafficked global site in Prague but few of those students come back from the Czech Republic with more than survival-level phrases. I am glad that more students than before are launching into former socialist worlds, but the difference in training then and now is just one of many factors that reminds me every day how much we all need ASEEES and what it does, maybe more than ever.