Letter from President Heather James, February 2017
The SAA is historically cautious about issuing email to our members and has never done so on political matters. But these are extraordinary times. The Executive Order on immigration targeted seven majority Muslim countries and served notice to larger numbers of Muslims that they might not be safe or welcome in the US. No sooner was the order delayed by the US courts than word began to circulate that federal agents are conducting immigration enforcement raids in at least six states and are concentrating their attention on sanctuary cities, including my own city of Los Angeles. The immigration bans and raids put our members and our students at risk from violent attacks and slurs based on faith and race that have cropped up on many US campuses. This is our business. We are teachers.
It is my conviction that the SAA can resist the political agendas that threaten intellectual and scholarly freedom, the integrity of the classroom, and the security of our members and students. I believe it will take time, patience, and ingenuity with our best resources: activism, teaching, scholarship, and performance. This letter aims to describe what the SAA Trustees have done; present findings from communication with members; and prepare for a productive and exciting convention in Atlanta.
What we have done
In response to the Executive Order of 27 January, the SAA posted a message on our website condemning this action and anticipating future actions that may harm our members:
The SAA was founded on principles of inclusion, open exchange, and mutual respect. Its pioneering seminar system welcomes scholars from all locations and of all professional standings to meet around its seminar tables. We value the international diversity of our membership and condemn any policy or directive that impedes the movement of scholars into and out of the United States. 31 January 2017.
Of grave concern for all of our members are the divisive and increasingly hostile political climate in the US, the targeting of minorities, and the swift efforts of the current administration to undermine human rights, education, democracy, and institutions — such as the NEH — that we all hold dear. The Trustees share these concerns and are committed to doing whatever is in our power to resist these forces and to support our members.
Believing that a posted statement is less effective than in-person and open discussion, and in keeping with the SAA spirit of collaborative engagement, the Trustees invited our membership to come together at our upcoming convention to discuss the effects of US policy actions on our membership and share ideas for countering them. The email invitation provided a link to a petition against the EO on immigration that is widely perceived as a Muslim ban. Our solution, to set aside the General Business Meeting on Wednesday, 5 April, at 5 pm, is imperfect: not everyone has plans to be at the SAA on the first day of our convention. But I invite you to send your suggestions to Lena Orlin, me, or any of the Trustees.
The SAA works with and through the National Humanities Alliance and the ACLS. The NHA sent us a list of critical states, and Lena Orlin has already reached out to some SAA members in those key states who were willing to have their names forwarded. All SAA members are invited to take part in Humanities Advocacy Day on March 13-14.
The Trustees are also working broadly to build institutional mechanisms for addressing governance issues that will allow us to innovate within the organization and to include more voices in its running. Key to this process is a three-year initiative on “Shakespearean Futures,” which opens with a panel on “The Color of Membership.” As I announced in my letter in the January Bulletin, the Trustees decided to hold two plenary sessions this year, with “The Color of Membership” immediately following “Queer Natures.”
The “Shakespearean Futures” initiative is more than a set of paper panels over the next three years: it is also meant to serve as an ongoing forum for gathering feedback from SAA members on the material and institutional conditions affecting our intellectual lives and profession. We wish to thank the members of the Program Committee who developed this initiative: Natasha Korda (chair), Barbara Fuchs, Erika Lin, Steve Mentz, and Lucy Munro. We look forward to reviewing proposals for next year’s session, which may be submitted through the SAA website:
The SAA Trustees proposed a constitutional amendment to Article III.3:
To pursue inclusive and diverse policies of membership that recognize the importance of categories such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, and ability, as well as the variety of professional conditions that obtain for tenured and tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty, and graduate students.
We are grateful to the members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Strategic and Long-Term Planning, who drafted the amendment: Jean Howard (chair), Ambereen Dadabhoy, Rebecca Fall, Kim Hall, Laurie Maguire, James R. Siemon, and Henry S. Turner. If you have not yet voted, please note the 15 February deadline.
Communication with members
Following the announcement of the Executive Order, Lena Orlin and I entered into extensive email conversations with SAA members who have expressed concerns about the freedom and ease of communicating with the Trustees. I posted public invitations on Facebook to write to me about the SAA, diversity, the world, and the Executive Order. Gina Bloom and I also created a Google form to allow members to write in informally and, if desired, anonymously, by using the following link: https://goo.gl/forms/Y4uIL6WgzoiZVf2U2
I have learned a great deal from the thoughtful and specific feedback that SAA members have given me. Many SAA members have written to express fears for themselves and others and anger about the actions of the Trump administration, which seems bent on dividing groups with common cause. There is widespread concern from and for our members who are Muslim, LGBT, people of color, and women.
I have also heard from a large number of our members who teach in small liberal arts colleges and state universities that serve primarily minority students. These members have expressed a compelling need for the SAA to feature more workshops and seminars that engage the teaching of Shakespeare in a time of political tumult that deeply affects their own students. One of the most appealing ideas suggested is to put together “a digital repository for lesson plans, discussion questions, projects, etc., that have our students addressing treatment of refugees, feminism, tyranny and resistance, environmentalism, and more, through Shakespeare.”
Many people wrote to ask about live-streaming the plenary sessions and virtual attendance at the seminars. Live-streaming is an especially popular idea, and one we are actively investigating. The SAA is still bargaining on our behalves to determine whether it is technologically and financially possible. We will report to members on the outcome and invite discussion of future policy at the General Business Meeting.
General Business Meeting
The SAA has no plans to take up where the MLA left off in terms of turning the organization into a forum for direct political action. What the SAA can provide, however, is a space in which to think about how the current political climate affects our scholarship, performance, and above all teaching. In my view, the integrity and autonomy of the classroom is at issue and needs vigorous defense. We also need to emphasize preparation, inclusiveness, and coordination.
One SAA member asked if the trustees might, in advance of the meeting, “learn as much as they can in hard and specific detail about what their institutions are doing to fight these terrible developments? Learned societies like SAA are somewhat less affected by, and certainly far less equipped to deal with, all the legal ramifications. The problem as I see it isn’t that the SAA isn’t doing enough but that by themselves so many entities are having to scramble in relative isolation from each other. Coordination among universities, employers, local governments, learned societies, and religious congregations would probably be most effective.” These questions go beyond the Trustees: we all may have some homework to do on how our home institutions are responding to the immigration bans and raids.
In closing, I wish to affirm that robust discussions of Shakespeare and related literary, theatrical, and media-related matters are our business. Please reach out to me or any Trustee, or to Lena Orlin as Executive Director, about your concerns and ideas.
President of the SAA
Post-script: To give the last word to Shakespeare, I provide a link to Sir Ian McKellan’s performance of Sir Thomas More on strangers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFJaqVG_nMY
- Letter from President Heather James, December 2016
Letter from President Heather James, December 2016
Last spring we commemorated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in New Orleans, a city that knows how to remember the dead through the living arts of theater and music. We joined in the Jazz Funeral for Shakespeare and then headed out to the Howlin’ Wolf’s Den, the Maple Leaf Bar, or the Candlelight Lounge for more. We listened as Wendell Pierce talked about the vital role of the theater in NOLA after Katrina, and then told us of his dream of returning to Shakespeare to perform Richard III, Macbeth, and — the most daunting —Falstaff. We enthusiastically celebrated our second Scholars of Color Social. We went home with caught beads from Mardis Gras throws, thanks to Catherine Loomis, and personal copies of the first collection of essays, Shakespeare in Our Time, edited by Dympna Callaghan and Suzanne Gossett.
This spring we will meet to exchange and engage in ideas about scholarship, teaching, and arts that touch on Shakespeare in a changed political climate. The controversial and divisive presidential election in the United States and the vote for Brexit in the UK are destined to have long-reaching effects on the public and personal lives of many of our members and students. Diversity, intellectual openness, and academic rigor are hallmarks of our institution that we cannot take for granted. We must work hard to protect them and think harder about our own resources. How do we as scholars, teachers, and performers best prepare for an ideological environment in which power is strong on tactics and tweets but weak on reason and empathy? The question is not whether we intervene, but how. To my mind, as I write to you in December 2016, we start with the integrity of the classroom and the audacity of the theater. Shakespeare is a part of this. There is no part of Shakespeare studies without a role.
It seems fitting and even serendipitous that such urgent questions come to us as we prepare to meet in Atlanta, a city steeped in the histories of the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement. We will not find, as we did in New Orleans, that we may easily flow out of the hotels and into the streets where the arts and festivity await us. New Orleans was to us a living version of Henry IV, Part 1, and it is up to us to honor the history of Atlanta with the hopes, dreams, pragmatism, and wit it deserves. Henry IV, Part 2 was always my favorite, anyway. I don’t mean among the Henriad. I mean the whole enterprise: what would bring a playwright and poet to write a greater but more melancholy work to speak against its charismatic and money-generating forebear?
Our upcoming meeting marks a change of focus from William Shakespeare: the major anniversary of his death has passed, after all, and the commemorative anniversary of the First Folio is still to come. In recent years, presidents of the SAA have focused on our current membership and history. This year, however, our eyes are on the prize of the future. The first step is the fulfillment of the major revision of the SAA’s Constitution that we undertook last year. We reviewed and clarified procedures of governance, and they were endorsed by the SAA membership. In this Bulletin, we propose a revision to the SAA’s Constitution to include a diversity statement as an expression of the SAA’s core values and mission. Please vote. In Atlanta, our upcoming convention features three plenary sessions dedicated to the possible futures of the SAA. We continue with the NextGenPlen, which features newer and emerging voices in our profession. Saturday morning begins with a plenary session on “Queer Natures” before continuing to a second plenary on “The Color of Membership,” the first of three paper sessions on “Shakespearean Futures” to be held over the next three years. My great hope is that we will fill the halls, coffee shops, bars, and streets with conversation, much of it flowing over from the remarkably diverse range of papers and seminars organized by the Program Committee for SAA 2017.
- Letter from President Heather James, November 2016
Letter from President Heather James, November 2016
Dear SAA members,
I write to you at a time of challenge and change in the Americas and larger global communities to ask that you consider making a gift to support the Shakespeare Association of America’s Annual Fund. In the wake of the presidential election in the United States, a growing number of causes in our lives and world hang in the balance and demand our attention, action, and resources. In such a year, no Shakespearean scholar would question the reasons to give to causes other than our own scholarly organization, particularly since many of them affect our own diverse membership. The controversies of the U.S. presidential election seem destined to generate yet more controversies of a public and deeply personal nature for our members and students. This a time to ask how our own organization may play a role in the changing futures of scholarship, teaching, theater and the arts, and public life.
The SAA has long stood for innovation, collaboration, and rigor in the broad areas of scholarship, pedagogy, and the arts that engage the study of Shakespeare. Our organization also stands up for the diversity upon which excellence depends. Recent initiatives of the SAA include the Scholars of Color Social, the NextGenPlen, and a three-year commitment to holding a paper session on “Shakespearean Futures,” the first of which is dedicated to “The Color of Membership.” The Plenary Session of the upcoming convention in Atlanta focuses on “Queer Natures.” In the January Bulletin, moreover, we propose a revision to the SAA’s Constitution to include a diversity statement as an expression of the SAA’s core values and mission. In addition, the SAA has made strong financial commitments to our Digital Strategies initiative, which is heading into a third year of exciting developments. At the same time, many of us in the SAA have found ourselves inspired and galvanized by our organization’s creativity and drive in traditional areas of scholarship, teaching, and performance. A hallmark value of the SAA is commitment to inclusiveness, dialogue, and change over time in ways that forge links between our academic goals and our pedagogy.
The financial support of members is crucial to the continuing success of the organization. The membership and registration fees cover only a portion of the SAA’s administrative expenses and the costs of an annual meeting. Donating to SAA is easy to do: right now you can click to donate. This can be done in a matter of moments with a credit card, should you decide that the contribution of the SAA to education and scholarship is one of the many needs to address at this time.