Of Guilds and Get-Togethers

Elesha Coffman

Once again, a conversation animating the AAR causes me to ponder issues related to the academic society I serve as a council member, the ASCH. Late last year, Kate Daley-Bailey wrote an open letter to the AAR, titled "For the Good or the 'Guild,'" urging greater consideration of the concerns of contingent faculty. One line of this piece's abstract reads, "I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild." A nonprofit, in Daley-Bailey's analysis, would uphold the needs of the downtrodden--a category to which too many contingent faculty and unemployed academics belong--while a guild protects the interests of those privileged enough to pay for access. A number of other scholars have responded to the piece here.

I've mused about the aptness of considering the ASCH a guild elsewhere. Basically, I don't think ASCH has enough leverage on the profession to function that way. Like AAR, though, ASCH controls its conferences, which are key sites for c.v.-building, networking, and job-seeking. (ASCH does not facilitate interviews directly, but it has long held its winter meeting in conjunction with the American Historical Association, which does.) With both the ASCH winter and spring meetings under re-evaluation by the council--Can ASCH afford to maintain ties with the AHA? Would it be possible to meet separately from AHA but in the same city at the same time? How often should we have spring meetings? What about other sorts of meetings?--I wanted to do a bit of thinking in public, as well as seek input from readers of this blog.

One of the key issues for Daley-Bailey is the cost of conferences. Because last year's surveys showed an overwhelming percentage of ASCH members desiring to continue meeting with the AHA every January, ASCH leaders are negotiating with AHA leaders to get ASCH members as many of the benefits of joint meetings as possible without significantly raising conference fees. The fact is, though, that conferences are expensive, and many of the people who might like to attend ASCH conferences do not have institutional funding to do so. What might ASCH leaders be able to do about this--and what might the society's "wealthier" members be willing to subsidize?

Daley-Bailey advocates a more detailed sliding scale of fees, with a category for the unemployed, and easier access to travel grants. Are these good steps for ASCH to consider? Do they go far enough? Another concern, if ASCH were to pursue the parallel conference strategy, this would likely mean a cheaper hotel at some distance from the AHA hotels, as well as separate meeting spaces. This cost-cutting measure might appeal to graduate students and contingent faculty while driving fully funded professors to switch affiliation to the AHA. Returning to Daley-Bailey's initial question, whose interests should ASCH seek to serve, if those interests seem to be in conflict?

Cost is a factor for ASCH spring meetings as well. AHA is not involved in these conferences, so it's entirely up to ASCH to choose sites, reserve rooms, and so forth. Next month's meeting in Edmonton, Alberta, has a $150 registration fee for all attendees, but the site is not near any concentration of ASCH members, so it will involve major travel time and costs for nearly everyone. Should spring meetings--or, potentially, meetings held at other times of the year--be cheaper than winter meetings? More convenient? Smaller and more collegial? Topically focused? Hosted by another institution, as are the meetings of the Conference on Faith and History? What constituency's interests should they serve? I'm on a sub-committee to discuss the future of spring meetings, so I'd really love to hear what anyone thinks about these questions.

Daley-Bailey also tackles the question of membership dues. Here, too, she recommends more gradations on the sliding scale, both to make membership more affordable and to acknowledge the existence of scholars who earn very little. (The MLA membership dues schedule she posts for reference starts at "under $15,000.") I don't know how well AAR or MLA do at actually collecting their dues, but this is a huge problem for ASCH. Of the folks on the ASCH membership rolls, only about 10% are paid up at any given time.

ASCH is making moves to address this situation. It's now easier to pay online, to automatically renew payments, and to check your membership status. Members will have to pay more attention to their status, because, starting this year, you will not be able to present at an ASCH conference if your membership is not current. (This has always been the policy, but it was difficult to enforce under the old membership system.) Membership status will also matter for consideration of awards.

ASCH leaders are actively considering other "carrots" and "sticks" to boost the ranks of dues-paying members, and this question circles back to Daley-Bailey's contention that a scholarly society needs to figure out what it is and whom it serves. Putting content and/or services behind a paywall, as AAR does with job ads, might raise the rate of dues-paying while constricting the sphere of people ASCH reaches. (What would ASCH put behind a paywall, anyway?) Conversely, making ASCH content and/or services more available to the public could encourage even more freeloading--which might still be a way of advancing the society's mission, only somebody has to pay for it.

This is the sort of thing that happens when non-ASCH members attend ASCH sessions at the winter meeting, which is great for the exchange of ideas, but is a problem in that ASCH members pay extra fees for the "privilege" of putting on those sessions that no other conference attendees pay. Should we check badges at our sessions, the way AHA used to do at the book display? Pass a collection plate? Subsidize annual meetings with money from foundations? Ask our wealthiest members to cover the costs through higher dues? Is it possible to be both a nonprofit, fostering the common good, and a guild, supporting a unique membership?

I've rambled too long. Please do let me know what you think about any of this, in comments below or via email (ecoffman at dbq.edu).


Barton Price at: March 21, 2016 at 10:19 AM said...

[I engaged in a robust discussion with Elesha on this subject Friday evening after she posted this blog. It played out on Facebook, but she has asked me to reproduce it here for a wider audience. Please excuse the length.]

Any academic "guild" should reconsider what constitutes a "member" and advocate for alternative career pathways. I have said on a number of occasions (fb only, because I don't blog enough) that many of the academic associations need to press for professional development opportunities that lead to alternative academic careers. Case in point, my full-time day job is administrative at a university, but I still teach and (once in a blue moon) publish. If more of an association's members were gainfully employed in some capacity of higher education or related industry, dues would not be as cost prohibitive. IMHO, what makes ASCH, AAR, AHA, etc. guilds is its semi-closed doors to people who are not in any faculty role (except for the senior scholars who are now in academic administrative roles). Remember, historically, guilds were created to keep some laborers out by setting up professional standards and by having an "inner circle" of people doing similar quality work (this remains to be the argument of labor unions, descendants of guilds).

I renew membership only when it is advantageous for attending conferences (i.e. reduced registration fees). I would rejoin an association IF it engaged in an open discussion about alt-acs and welcomed them.

[Elesha then asked me what such an "open discussion" would look like. To which I responded:]

A good start would be some sort of special conference session or ad-hoc committee to explore the issue. Then a presentation at the association's business meeting of an agenda to lobby for more inclusion of these wandering scholars or alt-acs. Finally, reaching out to professional organizations that represent professions where alt-acs can find gainful employment (academic advising, tutoring centers, religious services offices, journalism, etc.). And, if you are wondering, I would rejoin an association if it adopted these steps. And I would seek to be an active participant in that endeavor.

I too am currently a member of two associations. One is for people who work in Student Affairs (just attended their annual meeting). The other is for people who manage tutoring centers (attend their meeting in October). They have somewhat similar missions, provide avenues for professional development, and have participants with earned doctorates and some faculty appointments. In the National College Learning Center Association, I am advocating for outreach to academic guilds to bridge divides and recruit alt-acs into the ranks. This is especially crucial because tutoring centers serve both faculty and students (hence why they are half and half in student or academic affairs).

Plus, we need to explore viable employment opportunities for academicians that maintain the academic prestige of an institution, distribute the teaching and administrative workload among faculty-administrators, and reduce the erroneous claims of "administrative bloat."

esclark at: March 25, 2016 at 9:14 AM said...

Elesha, I'm grateful that you share with us what's going on in the ASCH. I twice attended and presented at the meeting as a graduate student and really enjoyed it. As the lead senior journal assistant, I got to sit in on some of the additional committee meetings, which was a great experience. The small feel of the conference was one of my favorite elements. Pairing with the AHA and ACHA opened up the possibilities for seeing different kinds of presentations, which was also nice. But it was that small feel that I really enjoyed. I have no solutions and I think Barton's comments are helpful. I just wanted to express my appreciation for your posts about the ASCH. I really want to attend another meeting.

And this post was the final kick I needed to pay my dues and get my membership current. I hadn't renewed since graduate school. Mea culpa.

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