U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Professional Societies in an Age of Academic Transformation

The following post is Society for U.S. Intellectual History President Paul Murphy’s “President’s Column” for the Fall 2012 issue of the S-USIH Notes, the Society’s newsletter.  In addition to being President of S-USIH, Paul is Professor of History at Grand Valley State University and is the author of The Rebuke of History: the Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (University of North Carolina, 2001) and The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).  He was also a founding member of this blog.
We have been in a national conversation about the future of education at all levels for a number of years now.  For those in higher education, this has meant wrenching debates about the professoriate, the future of public education, and the nature of a university education itself.  We who are professors may have reached a peak of discomfort with the latest round of high-tech start-ups in online university education, garbed as they are with the democratic promise of universally available quality education although bearing, too, the promise that the key to efficiencies and cost savings in higher education may finally be in the grasp of knowledge industry executives.  We begin to feel like E. P. Thompson’s weavers, confronted with the grim logic of technological innovation and needful again of the advice of the Assistant Commissioner for the West Riding, delivered in 1840:  “…warn them to flee from the trade, and to beware of leading their children into it, as they would beware the commission of the most atrocious of crimes.”[1]  Computerization and the internet revolution drive this conversation in part, but the roots of the debate are deeper, relating to globalization, the eclipse of public commitments to education, and, ultimately, what amounts to a new stage in the industrialization of education.  If we can replace the hardcover book with an interactive, multimedia digital data file, why not do the same with the professor?
This conversation ought to be of intense interest to the Society for U.S. Intellectual History because the transformation of the modes and manners of academic life is of necessity the transformation of American intellectual life as well, given the extent to which intellectuals are ensconced in academia.  Are we contemplating the digitization of intellectuals, as well?  More directly, as the university potentially becomes transformed into something new and quite different, becoming less and less a center for social scientific and humanistic inquiry (a theme of the concluding plenary session at the Third Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference in 2010, entitled “Intellectual History for What?”), what is the fate of the ancillary features of academic life, such as professional societies?[2]  What is the role for a new Society such as our own at a time of such convulsive change?
            In one sense, S-USIH is a product of this transformation, born out of a listserv discussion, defined by an award-winning blog, present on social media (Facebook, Twitter), and existing organizationally, in many ways, because of the internet as a mode of communication.  S-USIH embodies the new-fangled means of connectivity.  One of our major efforts has been creating a new web portal for the Society ( http://s-usih.org/), a project that Secretary Ray Haberski has been shepherding to completion.  The new site will incorporate the existing U.S. Intellectual History blog and allow for a new range of connections and opportunities.  Our conferences have been organized and publicized via electronic forms of communication and publication.  This reflects one of the Society’s founding principles:  “Using all forms of media to reach broad audiences and engender vital debate and exchange of ideas.”
            At the same time, one of the key questions confronting our membership today (which should be over 100 members by the time you read this column) is the degree to which S-USIH should be defined by an academic “industry” in the midst of internal transition and at a historical moment when “academic” work (or “knowledge production,” scientific and otherwise) is shifting to new and proliferating venues—including the laboratories and campuses of technology companies, free-standing centers and think tanks of all sorts, and various online sites.  Is academia breaking down, and will (and ought) professional societies do the same?  The question is particularly acute as we consider another big agenda item:  Ought the Society to create a new academic journal devoted to U.S. intellectual history, and should it appear in print and be produced by an academic press along the lines of previous such journals?
            The answer may be entwined with another question:  Will S-USIH breathe new life into an old form, or ought it to be something else entirely?  In seeking to “advance the historical study of American thought among academic and non-academic scholars,” we need to think seriously about the degree to which twenty-first-century internet and digital communications, the further industrialization of higher education, and the de-funding of public education might actually be disintegrating the academy as we know it.  The fact that many of those who have created S-USIH have been unable to find stable academic jobs adds poignancy and urgency to the inquiry.  Are organizations like S-USIH going to become the places where intellectual life takes root?
            As a reflexive and obdurate traditionalist in many ways (who has spent part of my academic career studying even more cranky versions of this type), I find it puzzling to be in the position of advocating a move away from the red-brick, ivy-covered college of my imagination.  I can see, however, that I neither work in such a setting nor do I imagine that it exists in many places anymore.  Though I will clutter my home with cloth- and paperbound books to my dying day, we need to think of how we preserve the essential goals of academic professional societies of the past for the future:  Creating communities of scholars that are real and durable and fostering scholarship based on respectful but rigorous standards of self-criticism.  We think we are doing this by leveraging the internet in a way that brings us together as scholars in conferences, by fostering a widely read blog that reaches beyond academia, and, now, too, by creating such things at the Annual Book Award (the first of which will be awarded next year) that allow us to celebrate accomplished scholarship.  We have further goals, to embrace the full diversity of intellectual life in our past and broaden and make more inclusive the dialogue about that past in the present.  In this, we try to do what professional societies of the past have done.  However, professional societies have also served as adjuncts to the universities, helping in the credentialing process, designing and erecting barriers to entry into the field, laying out norms, channeling discussions into academic forums, and patrolling the borders of what is legitimate (and, in this way, achieving legitimacy for a specific field).  Are these latter tasks fruitful any longer?
            We continue as an organization devoted to revitalizing the subfield of U.S. intellectual history in the broader field of American history and in the discipline as whole.  We are, however, a nimble and creative newcomer to this task, arriving at a moment when internet portals, such as we are creating, may become the more democratic, more accessible, and dynamic sites for scholarship about the American past.  It may well be that our first task will be to salvage the discipline and its attendant community and traditions from the increasingly crisis-ridden and compromised academic system in which they have heretofore been nurtured. 

[1]E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York:  Vintage, 1966), 301.
[2]See Sarah Leonard, “Intellectual History for What?” The New Inquiry, Nov. 9, 2010 http://thenewinquiry.com/features/intellectual-history-for-what/.