Quick Call for Comment – NEH Summer Seminars

UPDATE – 10/07/2014: I am still collecting comments focused on how being abroad in an NEH seminar or institute made a difference to your teaching and scholarship. I am now waiting on FOIA requests to be delivered and am sticking on this story as long as I can. If the comment page doesn’t work for you, email me at lollardfish@gmail.com

COMMENT MODERATION IS ON. I will publish your remarks ASAP.


The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) sponsors summer seminars that bring groups of scholars from all stages of their careers together. They meet in an appropriate setting, engage in discussions, hear lectures, work on their own projects, and engage in what we call “experiential learning” of various sorts. For medievalists and early modernists, the people I know best, there’s also usually plenty of time in the archives.

In the past, they have been hosted around the world. But here’s a surprise in the current call for proposals [my emphasis].

Prospective applicants to direct a Summer Seminar or Institute in the summer of 2016 (application deadline, February 24, 2015) are now encouraged to submit to program staff an optional preliminary sketch of their proposals (deadline, December 15, 2014). You can find the form for the preliminary sketch (in MS Word) under “Program Resources” in the sidebar on the right. NEH staff will also continue to provide feedback on partial or full application drafts (deadline, January 24, 2015). Both opportunities for receiving feedback are optional.

Please note also that projects outside the U.S. and its territories are no longer supported.

I am writing a piece about the consequences of closing off the world. I think it reinforces prestige culture and is based on this criticism from Senator Sessions, a man who is not fond of the humanities in any context.

If you have a comment on why the programs are important to you, please leave it here, on Facebook, on twitter, or via email. Email me at lollardfish@gmail.com if you want anonymity or have trouble with the comment system. Please let me know who you are as I may choose to quote you directly in my piece [Still writing!].

UPDATE – Here’s the letter sent out to some past program directors last week.


29 Replies to “Quick Call for Comment – NEH Summer Seminars”

  1. Jen Ebbeler says:

    I'm deeply saddened to hear this news. One of the most important academic experiences of my life was a summer seminar in Tunisia in 2010, under the direction of Tom Heffernan. We were able to travel all over the country and learn so much about Roman Africa. As well, it was an outstanding group of scholars; the dinner conversations were spectacular and I made lasting friendships with many of the participants.

  2. kateantiquity says:

    I took part in an NEH Summer Seminar for scholars of ancient and medieval North Africa in Tunis in the summer of 2010. I can't imagine a more life-changing scholarly opportunity. Not only did the American scholars who attended engage with the history of the Maghreb far more deeply than would have taken place in the US, but scholarly exchange with Tunisian colleagues was strengthened, and this contributed to at least one Tunisian scholar coming to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship. Given that all this took place only months before Tunisia's jasmine revolution, the opportunity to strengthen scholarly exchange between the two countries was priceless. – Kate Cooper, Professor of Ancient History, University of Manchester (UK)

  3. Stephanie Cobb says:

    I echo the sentiments of my colleagues Jen Ebbeler and Kate Cooper. The NEH summer seminar gave me opportunity to experience part of the Roman Empire I would never otherwise have seen, with an unparalleled group of scholars, all of whom added to my understanding of texts, issues, and spaces. The NEH seminar's work has _directly_ influenced my current work, much of which I cannot imagine having even conceived in their current iterations apart from the on-the-ground experience. It's a sad day for humanities scholars.

  4. Liz Lehfeldt says:

    this is a bit peripheral to the issue that you've raised–which troubles me greatly–but as the words of the comments you've already gotten suggest, we need to tell our stories. Especially in the humanities. We need to help hostile politicians and others understand the link between our research and our teaching. Our professional development and our scholarly growth. Etc.

  5. Nicola Denzey Lewis says:

    I participated in a summer seminar in Rome in 2002 under the guidance of Karl Galinsky. As Kate Cooper said of Tunisia, the experience was life-changing. It forged ties with like-minded scholars that we still cherish over a decade later and which has produced large and significant projects, from the formation of a new academic society to spin-off conferences to massive encyclopedia projects. It built a relationship between our research and Italian scholars and scholarship that remains crucial to our work. The damage to scholarship to come from cutting all seminars outside the US will be inestimable.

  6. Liz Lehfeldt says:

    It took every ounce of my being not to scream out loud as I read his letter. But I do think we're not always our own best publicists and we need to get better. We need to tell students, administrators, faculty colleagues, anyone who will listen, and even those who won't (!) why these experiences and the other work we do is important and significant.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Every once in a while the government does something right, and the NEH summer seminars abroad are something I'd gladly support with my tax dollars for the rest of my life. I participated in the 2010 seminar in Tunisia on early Christian autobiography, led by Thomas Heffernan of the University of Tennessee, who later won an MLA top award for his translation of "The Passion of Perpetua," which was partly shaped by our comments and observations at the seminar. Everything else about the seminar was fantastic: a wonderful group of scholars drawn from a range of academic disciplines; the opportunity to see and experience Roman culture in North Africa, one of the great (and often-neglected) centers of the ancient Roman world; and also the opportunity to observe contemporary Islamic culture, which gave me, for one, a valuable perspective on the current unrest in the Mideast. To this day I still feel lucky to have been chosen to participate in that seminar, an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world. –Charlotte Allen, Ph.D., Medieval and Byzantine Studies, Catholic University of America

  8. David Perry says:

    From Karla Mallette:

    I have participated in NEH Summer Institutes in Barcelona twice, once as participant and once as lecturer. Both experiences were transformative for me as scholar and as teacher. The hands-on experience and training I got in the archives could not be duplicated in the US. I met like-minded scholars – both among the participants and the lecturers – with whom I still collaborate. American universities, with very good reason, value their faculty's international profile. Overseas NEH seminars and institutes are the best-designed, most efficient programs I know of that provide this kind of experience for advanced grad students, junior faculty and senior faculty alike. It is money well invested and benefits students across the US. I am shocked to hear that short-sighted decision makers have eliminated this crucial programming.

  9. Dr. Fitz says:

    I participated in an NEH Summer *Institute* (a category which Sessions doesn't single out, but which also seems to now to be limited to the US) on Anglo-Saxon England at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2004. It was directed by Paul Szarmach, then of Western Michigan University, with the collaboration of the faculty of the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic program at Cambridge, as well as other local scholars. There is pretty much nowhere else in the world to study all of the inter-disciplinary fields of Anglo-Saxon England (history, art history, the various languages and literatures, archaeology, etc.) *except* in the ASNaC program at Cambridge. But even if you could gather all those scholars in the US, you still wouldn't be able to work with the material culture that you can only access in England: the manuscripts, the art objects, the archaeological sites, etc.

    But that access didn't just benefit me. The NEH Institutes are focused on teaching, and teaching is exactly why I applied to and attended that particular one, straight out of my first year as a professor. As a late medievalist who'd only done superficial work on Old English literature in graduate school, but who, as the sole medievalist in my department, has to teach the entire English/British Middle Ages, I *needed* that Institute to bolster my knowledge of early medieval England and Britain.

    And I use what I learned and experienced nearly every semester, and certainly each academic year. I have hundreds of photos of all of the sites we visited, and I use them in my classes all the time. For example, let me mention two places I'd never visited before (nor have been back to), both of which are difficult to get to without a car, and both of which I use photos of almost every year I teach: first, the Sutton Hoo burial mounds, where we were given a private, scholarly tour and lecture by Sam Newton (http://wuffings.co.uk); second the site of the Battle of Maldon, where we got to cross the causeway that the Earl Byrhtnoth (foolishly? nobly?) lets the Vikings cross in the "Battle of Maldon" poem. I can't give my students the same experience of being in these places, but my photos and videos — and most important, my first-hand accounts of my experiences — give them some sense of the places and material culture of the literature we read.

    And let me add that I now teach a course on Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic literature that I would never have felt qualified to teach without six *intense* weeks of *study* in that NEH Institute. (Sessions' characterization of it as a vacation really makes me angry.)

    Meanwhile, the stipend that I was paid covered at best a quarter of my expenses. The rest came out of my pocket or from my university. And the payout has been well beyond the meager amount I was paid. For $3000 (I think that was the amount then), students every semester have gained from my greater knowledge and experience. Your tax dollars at work!

    I'm going to write my own letter to the NEH, and maybe also to Sessions, but if you want to use any of these, that's fine. Let me know if you need further details.

    Christina Fitzgerald, Professor of English, The University of Toledo

  10. David Perry says:

    Candida Moss:

    I was a participant in the NEH Summer Seminar in Tunisia and I echo the comments of my colleagues (Jen Ebbeler, Stephanie Cobb, and Kate Cooper). The opportunity to read early Christian literature in its material context with world class scholars cannot be replicated in a generic library. The conversations were among the richest and most thought provoking of my life. I think that the calibre of scholarly work produced by the seminar as well as the profound intellectual relationships formed there speak to the importance of the experience. This is a sad development for US scholarship and the academy is worse off for it.

  11. David Perry says:

    Elizabeth Dachowski (Tennessee State, an HBCU) [Perry: I'm emphasizing the democratizing effect of these programs in my current article]

    In my own experience I have participated in two Summer Seminars abroad. These gave me opportunities that I could not have had any other way. I am a medieval historian at a teaching-oriented historically black institution. I have a heavy teaching load and am given limited funds for research (our institutional policy, in fact, provides virtually no support for unfunded research and only limited funds for travel to conferences) and no provision for unfunded leave (i.e. no sabbaticals). I believe that my situation is similar to that of many faculty in the humanities around the country. Meanwhile, many of my students come from underfunded public school systems and often come from less than affluent backgrounds. Although some will participate in study abroad programs while in college, most will not, and even those who do study abroad might not think to do so without faculty encouragement early in their careers. As such, I regard my experience abroad as an opportunity to open the world to them vicariously. When I tell my students that I have seen something myself, I can sense a greater level of interest and attentativeness than when I simply describe something that I know about only through books.

    The specific experiences I had in my two Summer Seminars could not have happened in the United States or at the very least would have been significantly attenuated experiences. My first seminar, in 2001, was the seminar on Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts and Texts in London. The seminar organizers arranged for us to meet the staff of the British Library, ushered us through the process of acquiring reading room privileges, and made access to the manuscripts themselves central to the work of the seminar. Seeing the Beowulf manuscript in person and discussing questions of composition, manuscript construction, and preservation with American colleagues and British manuscript experts changed my view of medieval manuscripts forever. I still bring this up in class. My second seminar, just this past year, was on Art, Architecture, and Devotional Interaction, 1200-1600, in York, England. Being able to experience the spaces and artwork we were discussing in person made this a life-changing experience. Participants in the seminar experienced the accoustics of the York Minster chapter house, climbed the stairs to see the “attic” of Beverley Minster, held in our hands devotional objects from the British Museum and the Yorkshire Museum, and combed York Minster for medieval graffiti. In addition to seeing well-known sites we visited several parish churches and other sites that are not as well documented in published photographs.

    Seminars with similar themes held in the United States could not have provided the depth of experience. Private, self-funded, and self-organized research trips could not have provided the same level of access to manuscripts, historical sites, and foreign scholars as I experienced in these two seminars.

  12. Dr. Fitz says:

    Let me second what Elizabeth Dachowski said about students showing "a greater level of interest and attentativeness than when I simply describe something that I know about only through books." I've seen this again and again when I've shown my pictures and shared my experiences from the Anglo-Saxon England NEH Institute.

    And if you're interested in the democratizing effect, I'm at a regional public university with many first generation students at the undergraduate level. What's more, some of my MA students have gone on to PhD programs, including in early medieval studies, at other public universities, where they're teaching (as TAs and graduate instructors) more students of diverse backgrounds and means. I'm not sure that I could have gotten them there without the training I got in that Institute.

    In other words, it paid *dividends*.

  13. Nancy McLoughlin says:

    Nancy McLoughlin:

    I took part in an NEH Summer Seminar in 2006 hosted at Cambridge University. The seminar on the Seven Deadly Sins, led by Richard Newhauser, has been the most influential factor in the development of my scholarly and teaching career since the completion of my Ph.D. As with all seminars, we had extensive meetings, readings, and research to do while we were together in Cambridge. The seminar participants came from all over the U.S. and from different disciplines. I did not know any of the participants prior to the seminar and engaging with them in seminar and with their publications afterwards has expanded my horizons significantly. Our seminar also resulted in two conference panels and an edited collection. It has shaped my current book and the book I plan to write next. I also teach a class on the deadly sins that has one of the highest enrollments of non majors across campus. Students find this class to be meaningful to them as a means of understanding themselves and the world. Had we held this seminar in the U.S., we would not have been able to consult relevant manuscripts held in the Cambridge libraries or the church wall paintings on the sins that exist throughout England. I consistently use these wall paintings in my teaching. In other words, the new policy threatens to undermine teaching and research in a significant way that will effect both students and faculty.

  14. David Perry says:

    Thank you all. Please keep the comments coming here to collect them. Someone could start a petition, but I feel this is a qualitative discussion rather than quant. I could be wrong though.

  15. Katie Hodges-Kluck says:

    I would like to comment as someone who has not officially been part of an NEH summer seminar, but has nevertheless benefited from one. In the summer of 2012, I went to London for a month to do preliminary research for my dissertation on twelfth-century English identity. A friend alerted me that the ACMRS was searching for a few people to fill dorm rooms that they had booked for an NEH summer seminar on "Health and Disease in the Middle Ages" (several participants had decided to travel with their families, and therefore could not stay in the UCL dorm). I therefore spent my month in London sharing a dorm floor and kitchen with the members of the NEH seminar. This experience was incredibly helpful and memorable for me. This was the longest time I had traveled abroad on my own, and the NEH scholars took me under their wing. They provided me with much-needed companionship, and I also learned a great deal from them during discussions over tea and dinner. Alan Cooper (Colgate), whose research interests overlap with mine, met with me to discuss my dissertation ideas. I have remained in contact with him, as well as several other of the seminar's participants, including Jen Edwards (Manhattan College) and Theresa Earenfight (Seattle Univ.). When I was again in London this past summer (2014), Theresa and I saw each other in the British Library, and were able to meet for dinner to catch up. Alan and I will both be presenting work on the Angevins and the Third Crusade at the up-coming Haskins Society Conference.
    As a young scholar, the opportunity to make personal and academic connections with these scholars has meant a great deal to me. This would not have been possible if it were not for the NEH summer seminar that brought us all together in London for a month.

  16. Sharon M. says:

    I attended the NEH summer institute on Venice, the Jews, and Italian Culture in 2008. My project was on rethinking study abroad summer short courses for undergraduates. However, the most valuable part of the experience was to enrich the way I taught about Venice, which would not have happened if the institute had been held in the U.S. Our classroom was in the ghetto and the array of scholars participating was impressive. Bringing all those scholars to the U.S. would have been impossible. We also had the chance to meet Venetians, which would certainly have not been possible anywhere else.

    The stipend covered only some of my expenses but without it I would not have been able to attend since my only other source of funding was my savings account. Since that trip, I have lectured and taught about Venice at our Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, bringing my experiences and research to an audience of students who are 50+ and eager to continue their education. I was able to take a group of them to Venice and Istanbul to see the connections between Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, and Venice that they could not have experienced just by seeing films and slides.

    The idea that these opportunities will not be available in the future saddens me. The enrichment that we are able to provide for students of all ages will cease, making our classes less exciting and the encouragement we provide to "see it for yourself" will not be as immediate and convincing.

    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

    ― Mark Twain, Mark Twain: The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

  17. Dot Porter says:

    I'm an academic librarian/curator with an emphasis on digital technologies and medieval manuscripts. I haven't attended an NEH Summer Seminar (or Institute), but from where I sit I can say with some authority that there are not sufficient resources available in the USA for the kind of intensive study traditionally provided through the NEH Summer Seminars, not in the area of medieval studies and without a doubt for many other areas of study as well. I hope we can take it as a given that it is vital that scholars have access to the primary resources of their study – does this argument have to be made? – and no amount of digitization will replace the experience of being in a place, experiencing the environment and interacting with objects there. I can't imagine trying to do intensive study of Anglo-Saxon England or medieval North Africa (just taking two examples from this thread) in any American city.

    Although nothing in the letter from Mr. Rice implies that the reasoning behind this decision includes something along the lines of "well, everything is online now," I can't help but feel that it might have come up in the conversation. That attitude is completely misguided, and I say this as someone who wholeheartedly supports digitization and open access to digitized materials. Those things have their place, but they can never take the place of physical objects and environments. Do you think I'm off base?

  18. David Perry says:

    Dot – I've been thinking about that too. I've been pondering a FOIA, but I don't really have the resources. I could get them and call for donations to cover copying costs probably.

  19. David Perry says:

    I have a piece into the Chronicle. Assuming they like it (I think they will), it'll get published, and then we can try to raise the profile of the issue. Perhaps a newspaper with more resources will get involved. Otherwise .. crowdfunding it is.

  20. Unknown says:

    I have not been fortunate enough to get into the NEH seminars I've applied for, but I know that when I go to the UK, I take a substantial financial hit to do so. I walk a lot of places that are not accessible by train, I do not go to any tourist haunts, and I eat basically the equivalent of ramen and PBJ to stretch my time there. Senator Sessions' implication that these sorts of things are paid vacations is patently false. They are every bit as important (and generally imminently more justifiable) than any number of congressional fact-finding junkets.I take the financial hit and travel because actually being there tells me things about medieval English literature that I cannot get out of anthologies or the haphazard way that cultural heritage items have made their way to the US from the UK (which is not a slam on any library or institution — it's just that nobody is going to move a whole cathedral over, for example). In fact, just today I was talking in class about the Shield of the Trinity as a way that people conceptually thought about the triune nature of the Christian god, and how it might relate to a particular staging direction in the N-Town Conception Play (specifically, the one where Mary is made pregnant at 292 s.d.). For those who are unaware, the Shield of the Trinity isthis.A student asked me if regular folks would have been "thinking that way" and I was able to point to the stained glass at Holy Trinity, Long Melford, as an example because I have pictures taken of the Shield while I was there. If I had not had those, I would have had to hedge my bets. Because I did, I was able to speak definitively that yes, common people who went to parish churches — even if they did not know Latin — would have had the concept of the connection between the three parts of the Trinity visually represented to them.Since I have not taken any NEH seminars I cannot speak to the scholarly connections there but I have had the good fortune to take courses through Rare Book School and the Folger that have fostered strong collegial relationships and friendships that I really value. I can only imagine that actually doing the work in the UK (or Tunisia, or anywhere else for that matter) with a group of like-minded scholars would only increase the amount of incidental discoveries and contextual connections made.

  21. MS1964 says:

    I attended the NEH Summer Institute in Barcelona in 2008. The title was "The Medieval Mediterranean and the Emergence of the West." This was a life-changing experience. My entire education as a hispanist and medievalist, except for a brief research trip to Madrid in 1991, had been founded in a strictly American context: graduate school, libraries, conferences: I was mainly an autodidact. The Institute in Madrid provided: access to archives and libraries in Barcelona; introduction to European scholars/expects; connections with other hispanists IN CONTEXT — visiting Girona was one thing; visiting it with my American colleagues, expert in Medieval Jewish history was another; visiting the convent of Pedralbes was a privilege, but to visit it with American colleagues expert in Iberian Art History was another — and with access only made available by the Summer Institute. EVERY SINGLE TIME I teach about Medieval Spain, or about Medieval Women, or Western Civilization (in other words, every year at my public university), I draw on my experiences at the Barcelona Institute. There is absolutely no way I could interpret texts or images extracted from publications to replicate the value of what I drew from the NEH trip abroad. When I say it changed my life, I know that sounds a bit melodramatic. But ultimately, the experience confirmed me as a real scholar and teacher of the Mediterranean, the Medieval West, and Iberia generally. It provided me with crucial professional contacts, both at home and abroad. It enabled a professionalizing experience in archives and museums than cannot be duplicated at home. The ability of the NEH to support international study for faculty must not be eviscerated. It must continue.

  22. Caterina Pierre says:

    I participated in an NEH Summer Seminar in 2013 in Rome on the Risorgimento, lead by two of the most wonderful professors I've ever had, John Davis and David Kertzer. We walked the actual battlefields of many of the Roman conflicts, visited important museums in Rome and, most importantly, learned how to do research in Italy. I developed a project there that has absolutely changed the direction of my work. Had I not been accepted to the seminar, I never would have developed the project, and I would not have had access to the materials I needed to develop it. It was in no way a "vacation"! We had to prepare to discuss readings every day that the class met, and we had to present an idea for a project based on our work in Rome. It was an amazing experience with wonderful colleagues that could never have been done in the United States and still have had any of the impact that it had. We stood over the grave of Anita Garibaldi; we touched the cannon balls that are still embedded in the rocks in the Roman hills; and we were there, amongst the people who inherited the effects of the Risorgimento. I am shocked that this type of experience is being taken away from future scholars. -Caterina Y. Pierre, Professor of Art History, City University of New York at Kingsborough

  23. Kat Tracy says:

    This is a deeply troubling development in the ongoing attack on the humanities. As our academic programs and research resources dwindle under the scrupulous eye of STEM-minded administrators and politicians who apparently have no grasp of what the Humanities actually contribute to humanity, the NEH has remained one source of consistent support. These programs are vital to our research and our teaching. I took part part in two NEH summer programs: a research institute on Old French Fabliaux and Medieval Comedy at Yale, directed by R. Howard Bloch; and a teaching institute on The Culture of Inquisition in Early Modern Spain and the Americas, directed by Adele Seeff at the University of Maryland. Each of these institutes connected me with scholars in a wider range of fields than my own, opened doors for academic collaboration, provided venues for publications and developing new teaching material. I made invaluable contacts and learned a great deal that has enhanced my own research and teaching. I have been waiting for the opportunity to apply to an overseas program that would give me the opportunity to learn from specialists in the field in situ–to visit archaeological sites, museums, and libraries with resources unavailable here. For people who work in cross-cultural disciplines, especially medievalists like me, cutting off access to international sites for NEH institutes severely limits our ability to do our work and expand our fields for teaching. This is not a vacation scheme as Senator Sessions seems to suggest. These institutes are rigorous and are conducted with integrity. They do not allow people to simply hop, year-to-year from one institute to another. There are waiting periods, and waiting lists. Cutting this funding and disallowing international institutes further severs us from the world and makes our jobs in the humanities that much harder.– Dr. Larissa Tracy, Associate Professor of Medieval Literature, Longwood University (Farmville, VA)

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