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Many voices: Building a consortium of small scholarly societies

In a political and economic climate where the value of academic scholarship continues to be questioned, one professor is leading the charge for its sustainability. 

This uncertainty is particularly seen in the humanities, where most scholars collaborate in small, lesser known societies. 

Cheryl Ball

West Virginia University English professor Cheryl Ball aspires to unite these small societies into a larger humanities consortium as a way to ensure the discipline’s fortitude and improve efficiency through shared services.

“Even the non-federal funding agencies are feeling pinches these days. The humanities is always given short shrift,” Ball said. “If we can conceive ways that will help these societies not have to struggle to make ends meet and also function well so that they can spend time on ‘the life of the mind,’ then they are adding new knowledge to the field which is producing more social justice-oriented work, more ethically-based work, all of which could have a public component, particularly if it’s open research.”

Small scholarly societies, defined as organizations with fewer than 1,000 individual members, are places where humanistic inquiry occurs through community-building and research on enduring questions of interest to the subdisciplines the societies represent, such as literature, history or sociology.

“What makes a small society unique is its tight focus on common issues, disciplinary values and shared goals designed to create and sustain a community of inquiry and practice,” Ball said.

The single biggest obstacle to the vitality of small societies is their size—their small membership counts and resulting revenue challenges from minimal dues.

“Small societies are small. By themselves, they cannot afford the kind of legal, financial and technological expert services to which larger societies have access,” Ball said. “Their smallness can make it difficult to successfully, consistently and sustainably deliver member benefits—benefits that members typically pay for and have come to expect from any society of which they are members.”

Small societies are also often impeded by their reliance on volunteers rather than paid staff, as seen in larger organizations, such as the Modern Language Association.

“Beyond the financial realities they face, what is even more worrying for small societies is that their reliance on faculty volunteers can create a precarious and sometimes unstable organization,” Ball said. “When members step down, suddenly real crises of succession can occur, bringing basic administrative functions to a halt.” 

Through brainstorming sessions with other society executives, an upcoming survey and a cost-benefit analysis, the multi-institutional research team is exploring the desirability and benefits of the consortial approach and whether shared services can eliminate the bureaucracy small societies face. The project is funded by a $59,500 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that runs through May 2018, when the project team will present a final report with recommendations for next steps.

“We hypothesize that a consortium of small societies, through their collective power, could make each society individually more sustainable,” Ball said. “To test this theory, we need to answer many fundamental questions, such as how many societies at what price point would be needed for the consortium to be feasible? What might be the maximum level of contribution that any given society would be willing to pay? What non-monetary costs might be involved, and what are their implications for the feasibility of the consortium?”

Ball and co-principal investigators Eric Bain-Selbo and Meredith Goldsmith all share the experience of managing and directing small societies and their publishing programs. Bain-Selbo is the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indiana University-Kokomo and provides expertise from the Society for Values in Higher Education. Goldsmith is an English professor and assistant to the president for strategic initiatives at Ursinus College, and has extensive experience as editor of the Edith Wharton Society’s Edith Wharton Review. 

Supporting team members Patrick Alexander (Pennsylvania State University Press director), Rebecca Kennison (K|N Consultants executive director and principal), John McLeod (University of North Carolina Press Office of Scholarly Publishing Services director) and Helen Szigeti (Society for Scholarly Publishing program director) also have considerable experience supporting society publishing needs at the intersection of traditional scholarly publishing, open access initiatives and academic librarianship.

Ball’s recent experience in creating an institutional home for the Council of Editors of Learned Journals at WVU’s Digital Publishing Institute provides her with insight into the specific administrative tasks needed for consideration when providing small scholarly societies with an institutional or consortial home. 

“We’re seeing more and more that Ph.D.s in English and other humanistic areas are being asked to do what might have been called ‘alt ac’ work, but it’s not alternative academic work; it’s the new reality of the interdisciplinary kinds of work that Ph.D.s have to do,” Ball said. “A lot of that work that is called ‘alt ac’ is actually professional writing. It’s merging—it’s thinking about English studies broadly. It’s not just writing studies or just literary studies. It’s these things working together to help professionalize the next generation of faculty and researchers.”