David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

Save the Overseas Seminars

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Image: Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by Maerten van Heemskrerck

For 20 years now, Richard Golsan has been taking groups of high-school teachers to Paris and Normandy to study history and memory of World War II, as part of a summer program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The teachers take that experience back to their high-school classrooms.

Then last April, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) mocked the NEH foreign Summer Seminar and Institutes Program for sending “randomly selected” teachers on a "free vacation ... with little or no requirements.” He said it had had no "comprehensive, systematic impact."

None of his criticisms are true. And yet, in what the NEH asserts is just a coincidence, the agency quietly eliminated the foreign trips. From now on, the agency will only award grants for summer programs operated domestically.

We should be outraged, not just because of the baseless anti-intellectual ranting of Senator Sessions, but because the NEH has eliminated a terrific and efficient program based on no data that it is willing to share. It’s cut a program that was available to everyone from elementary school teachers to graduate students to faculty members (including adjuncts). These programs opened up unpublished sources, historical sites, and unique artifacts to educators who otherwise would never have had access to them, and in the process transformed their pedagogy, sparked scholarly careers, and otherwise served the NEH’s core mission. Now without comment or conversation, the overseas option is gone.

The Summer Seminars and Institutes for College and University Teachers gather groups of faculty and graduate students from all types of institutions in order to learn more about a theme related to some aspect of the humanities. The participants, guided by the seminar and institute directors, work on individual projects and explore collective questions for one to five weeks.

Last year, 7 of the 30 seminars and institutes were held abroad: art and religion in medieval England (York); Jewish Buenos Aires; reform in medieval Rome; Tudor Books (London and Antwerp); Florence’s impact on Dante; Death in Ancient Greece (Athens); and the pictoral histories of Mixtecs and Aztecs (Mexico City and Oaxaca). Notice how grounded all of those seminars are in place, space, and material culture. That’s a result of the high standards set by the NEH and its directors.

The press materials from the NEH proudly trumpet the program’s legacy of more than 30 years, noting that “NEH Summer Programs have taken place in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 25 countries.” Abruptly, this long tradition has changed. Letters from William Rice, the director of the agency’s education division, cite budgetary constraints. Judy Havemann, director of communications for the NEH, told me the seminars were cut due to a desire to “use limited resources to provide programs with the greatest possible reach and impact.”

However, Havemann also admitted that the NEH has not “attempted to conduct a formal impact analysis per dollar spent.” Moreover, when I asked her whether she had an actual dollar amount difference between foreign and domestic seminars, she replied, “I am afraid that we don't have this calculation available.” She added, “we are not diminishing our commitment to seminars, institutes, and landmark programs for educators, and … we have a number of other programs that allow people to study and conduct research internationally.”

It’s true the NEH does have other international programs. But those high-profile fellowships are generally available only to academics at elite research universities, and are certainly not accessible to adjuncts, community college professors, or high-school teachers like the summer overseas institutes were.

Why the new guidelines? Havemann maintained that NEH did not made the change in response to Senator Sessions. Both Havemann and Rice explained that the agency cut the foreign programs for budget reasons, was still committed to seminars in general, but offered no data on costs or impact.

The math doesn’t seem to add up. Stipends and salaries are the same for Paris, Paraguay, or Palo Alto. Attendees cover their own transportation and housing costs. The “impact” analysis doesn’t add up, either. The impact of the foreign seminars on academic careers has been immense, especially for people who otherwise can’t access special archives, artifacts, and sites, lacking travel budgets or letterhead from famous institutions.

Here are some examples, gathered from phone interviews, emails, on social media, and collected on my blog.

  • Last summer, William North, a historian at Carleton College in Minnesota, co-directed the program on reform in medieval Rome. From the applicants, he selected academics who work with art, archival documents, or urban topography -- in other words, people for whom being physically on site was irreplaceable. Many of them came from teaching-oriented colleges with little to no budget for research. The collaborations in the seminar have had a greater impact than if the scholars had each gone to Rome on their own. The group has organized five sessions for the 2015 International Medieval Congress in Leeds.
  • Nicola Denzey Lewis, in religious studies at Brown University, says that the 2002 seminar in Rome which she attended, “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 U.S. will be inestimable.”
  • Kathleen Kennedy, in English at Penn State University at Brandywine, emphasizes that these NEH summer programs overseas are “even more career-making” for adjuncts, graduate students, and non-tenure-track faculty. Some adjuncts don’t even have a university email address,” she wrote, “much less full access to the research library and archives necessary to produce the quality research that will be required if they are to attract potential tenure-track employment. Graduate students face the grim necessity of producing publishable work even before they graduate, and a dissertation as close to publishable as possible in order to get the best chances of jumpstarting a career. Archival research is the jewel in their crowns, and the NEH Summer Seminars located in foreign countries provide that opportunity to these students.”
  • A 2010 seminar on the Roman Empire took place in Tunisia just months before the Jasmine Revolution, paying rich dividends. For those scholars, the history of the Roman Empire in the Maghreb has changed the way that they include the Southern Mediterranean in the broader historical narrative. Moreover, they now work with Tunisian scholars, even bringing one to America on a Fulbright.

These programs were the best of the humanities – career-changing, inspiring transformative teaching, and truly accessible to all types of academics.

My interest in this is not personal. Because of my family situation, I could never have gone overseas to one of these programs anyway. My interest is for the profession, for the humanities, and really for the NEH itself. If it so easily cuts these amazing programs, what will it cut next? If it claims budget savings but offers no data, anything could be on the chopping block based on political pressure or gut feelings.

As educators, our literature on teaching is justly flooded with exhortations to provide greater opportunities for rich experiential learning. Traveling overseas to see historical sites, work with artifacts and archival sources, and collaborate with foreign scholars of diverse perspectives creates opportunities for faculty development that simply cannot be replicated. And then those scholars bring what they’ve learned home, so that everyone benefits.

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