By Stephen Davis
University of Kentucky

With generous support from the ASA, I was selected to attend the 2019 National Humanities Alliance Annual Meeting and Humanities Advocacy Day.  As both an Africanist and a humanist, this was an eye-opening experience in a number of ways.  Without getting into too much detail, I’d like to provide this summary of my experience for the benefit of ASA members curious about advocacy and the way the appropriations process impacts funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

On March 10-12, approximately 200 attendees converged on Washington DC for two days of presentations, workshops, and training sessions devoted to making a case for the humanities.  We consisted of concerned scholars from nearly all 50 states.  The organizers split us into delegations for our respective states and we received both a briefing on the state of funding for the humanities in general, the NEH in particular, break-out sessions on how to sustain and promote the humanities at our home institutions, and then training on how to properly conduct advocacy with members of Congress.

The first day consisted of an informal meet and greet followed by two addresses on the continued importance of the humanities in American life and the current state of the humanities within the academy.  Although all speakers made worthwhile comments, Mariët Westermann, Executive Vice President for Programs and Research at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave the most illuminating address.  Westermann argued that while declining student enrollments we have all witnessed signal trouble ahead, from the perspective of donations the picture is not entirely bleak.  Although students (and parents) remain convinced that majoring in the humanities will deliver a poor return on their investment in higher education, donors are becoming more generous in many ways.  She suggested that we need to address this apparent contradiction by embracing a more public-facing approach to our research that emphasizes the common good that the humanities provide to various communities.  Jason de León’s Undocumented Migration Project was held up as a model of what an engaged humanities project could achieve.  De León conducts contemporary archaeological surveys of the items left behind by undocumented immigrants as they pass through the Sonoran Desert.  He then collects this data to discover the hidden stories and pathways taken by undocumented immigrants as they make the perilous journey to a better life within the United States.

As Westermann detailed the benefits of thinking about humanities research as something embedded in the here and now of public life, I wondered how I and other scholars of Africa might better meet this challenge.  We have no shortage of scholars working on projects that intersect with issues faced by communities in Africa in the here and now and no shortage of projects that have a public facing approach.  But generally speaking our public is often an African public.  If one of the goals of public humanities is doing the soft diplomacy of making the humanities relevant in the eyes of the American public, how might our outward facing scholarship better reach popular American audiences when it is often facing communities thousands of miles away?  It is one thing to advocate that scholars working in the United States create projects that embrace local communities, but no suggestion was offered about how scholars working outside the United States might do the same thing, or achieve the same goal.  This is a challenge that I will certainly consider as I conceive of future research projects, and I believe is worthy of consideration by ASA members.

The second part of the program that day was devoted to breakout sessions on making the case for the humanities, interpreted here as communicating the value of the humanities on university campuses.  There were two sets of three breakout sessions held consecutively.  Had they all been held individually and consecutively I surely would have attended all six, but the two I selected were incredibly rich and undoubtedly useful.  The first breakout was led by Nicole Hall, Director of Career Services at UNC-Greensboro.  Hall argued that one of the challenges of improving the image of the humanities among students is directly addressing their anxiety about their post-graduation performance on the job market.  In my own experience, the vast majority of students are most concerned about the first two to three years after graduation as they make the difficult transition from their academic life to their working life.  Nicole suggested that one way to increase the status of humanities, and enrollments in the humanities, was for faculty to develop a close working relationship with a career advisor on their campus and engage with students before they even begin taking classes.  The case for the humanities needs to be made early, before students declare, and with the help of a dedicated career advisor, we need to provide a concrete map of pathways that lead students from a major in the humanities to tangible career paths after graduation.  This holistic approach addresses the two main obstacles to making the case for the humanities; it combats the misconception that the humanities are somehow ‘not practical’ and it engages with students early enough in their college career to shift them toward a major in the humanities.  Many campuses already do this, but I believe it bears emphasis again.

The second breakout session was conducted by a talented team of presenters from Xavier University of Louisiana, led by Associate Dean Kim Vaz-Deville.  Under the leadership of Dean Vas-Deville, various units at Xavier created a very ambitious interdisciplinary digital studies major which delivers practical skills by utilizing digital technologies to explore questions in the humanities that connect data science to social justice.  Topics addressed during this session included how to overcome faculty resistance to embracing the digital humanities, the logistical hurdles that stand in the way of course approval, and more prosaic challenges like ensuring that classrooms are equipped to support tech-heavy instruction.  There was a plug-and-play modularity to the program they described that could be easily adapted into a digital major with an area studies curriculum.  I particularly appreciated the presenters’ discussion of how to attract first generation students who feel enormous pressure to major in STEM to reconsider their plans and see the digital humanities as a viable alternative.

The final session of the day was split into a two part training on how to conduct advocacy on Capitol Hill.  A lot of this training was conducted through scripted performances of how what a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ meeting with Congressional staffers looks like.  This was followed by practical advice and a question and answer session.  On the whole this training was a pretty straightforward exercise in staying on message but allowing yourself to digress into examples drawn from your field and experience.  I initially felt apprehensive about the meetings we would conduct the following day, but after this session I understood the basics and assumed it would just be a matter of practice.  One particularly helpful suggestion was to run queries on the NEH Funded Projects Query which can be organized by state and congressional district.  This function was the project of a multi-year grant that allowed the NEH to mine its own data on awardees and project summaries.  I found this to be an incredibly useful resource during meetings with Congressional staffers, as I could reference dollar amounts of NEH grants received in particular districts over a long timeline.

Over the course of the next day I went to Capitol Hill accompanied by Barbara Teague, the former State Archivist of Kentucky and current President of the Council of State Archivists.  We visited five Congressional offices that day including the offices of both Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Mitch McConnell.  Our primary objective was to encourage our elected representatives to support an increase in funding for the NEH, the Fulbright-Hays program, and Title IV area studies centers.  Having lived in Kentucky for eight years now, and knowing a bit about its politics, I anticipated that there would be pushback against these requests.  Legislative aides are no doubt trained in the fine art of polite but non-committal responses, and we certainly received more than our fair share of those sort of replies.  I made note of when an aide responded to a specific fact or figure presented in our pitch as a register of what they might pass on to their respective Senator or Representative and flag as important.  In regards to the Fulbright Hays program and Title IV, I foregrounded the way that graduates of these programs internationalize university campuses, and create opportunities for students to engage with Africa in direct and indirect ways.  I detected particular interest in the ways I have used experience gained as a former Fulbrighter and graduate of the University of Florida to create opportunities for Kentucky students to acquire knowledge of Africa and even travel there.  I co-direct two internship programs based in Cape Town, South Africa for the University of Kentucky, where students intern for either a semester or summer at one of a dozen non-profits.  Although I must give credit due to my fellow co-director who is an essential part of making these programs work, I also am indebted to the Fulbright Hays program and the Center for African Studies at UF for giving me the opportunity to leverage my knowledge of South Africa to become an effective advocate for international education on the African continent.

More broadly, I noticed that aides took more notes when I spoke about the way the Fulbright-Hays program and Title VI funding facilitates language instruction and expert familiarity with African societies.  The NHA talking points stressed the important role these programs play in diplomacy, trade, and national security of the United States.  While I touched upon each of these benefits I framed them within the importance of engaging with African states as peers rather than liabilities or so-called potential trouble spots.  Given that Africa is historically the most misrepresented region in the world, I stressed that these programs create an essential cadre of American interpreters who can accurately articulate why Africa matters to the United States.  In turn, this cadre can, through their research and advocacy, set the agenda for a mutually beneficial relationship free from the ill-informed notions that foreclose dialogue and understanding.

In the end, who knows how my pitch was translated into their notes?  My sense was that none of these elected officials took White House budget proposals seriously and that no one supported the elimination of these programs.  But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and it remains to be seen if Kentucky’s elected representatives sign on to the ‘Dear Colleague’ letters we urged them to sign which indicate support for funding increases for these essential programs.  In the end, I left Washington satisfied that I had made the best case I could for programs that are absolutely essential to the continuation of African studies in the United States.  Perhaps more to the point, where I expected there to be resistance and perhaps even some hostility, I instead found a willingness to listen and in a few instances some unanticipated enthusiasm.