Nathan Brown, George Washington University

(appeared in IMES, April 2014, Vol. 36 Issue 1)

Rethinking MESA

I attended my first MESA meeting in 1983 in Philadelphia; I attended the most recent one in New Orleans and felt very much at home.  Some things have changed over my thirty years attending MESA annual meetings: I know more people; I can calmly listen to others rather than nervously sit wondering if I should say anything; and I no longer feel the pressing need (or have the credibility) to describe my own work as “cutting edge.”  But the main reason I feel more comfortable is far simpler: MESA’s annual meetings have grown very familiar. I feel the same comfort when I pick up an issue of IJMES—yes, the cover has recently changed—but only recently, and that seems sometimes to be the largest change I have had to cope with.

A nagging voice tells me that my cozy comfort could be a problem—not for me but for how MESA will serve its members in the future.

The scholarly world has changed—and continues to change—in some fundamental ways. Is MESA too familiar?  Is it too rooted in the scholarly conventions of the past century? Would it be better if it were a less comfortable place for me?

There are those involved in MESA who might quickly retort: “Speak for yourself, Nathan. You may be stodgy but MESA is not.  Look at how increasingly international MESA has become. Look at the new fields of scholarship, some of which would have been beyond the imagination of MESA’s founders (and may have scandalized them had they dared to imagine them).  MESA’s publications are edgier and more varied; MESA’s membership is more diverse; MESA used to operate in a political straightjacket but now serves as a venue for all kinds of discussions of sensitive issues (even while MESA as an organization eschews political stances); and MESA now speaks up quite vocally on behalf of academic freedom.”

Yes, this is all true.  MESA has adjusted very well to serve its members’ needs and interests.  But the ground beneath the feet of modern scholarship is shifting perhaps even more quickly now than in the past.  We will have to figure out how to distinguish ephemeral from essential change.  In two areas I think we may not be adjusting fast enough to some developments that may be very profound in their implications for the academy.

First, the nature of the professoriate is changing.  It is frequently observed that we have moved toward a two-tiered faculty (a research-oriented, tenured side and an adjunct side), though I suspect that gradations and other forms of teaching and scholarship are also emerging. MESA’s activities continue to be oriented primarily for research-oriented, tenure-track faculty.  That may always make the most sense for an association that defines its interests in scholarly terms, but I worry that we may sometimes forget the needs of students, researchers, and teachers who do not have the time, resources, and interests to take full advantage of what MESA offers and need other things from a scholarly association.

Second, academic publishing is changing.  In some fields, the changes have reached the extent that the publication of academic papers and books is no longer the primary venue for scholarly production.  Much of the change in our field has been bottom-up in nature, with MESA members able to turn to a variety of ways to explore their interests, publicize their work, and access the work of others in a variety of newer media.  MESA’s publications have also made some noteworthy adjustments, switching to electronic formats, developing new ways of exploring subjects outside the bounds of a traditional scholarly article, and tinkering (and sometimes more) with formats. Perhaps MESA can provide a venue for its members to think in a more conscious and structured way about how to take fullest advantage of the changes in the production and dissemination of scholarship with the academy more broadly.

Our annual meetings might be seen as a place where MESA’s incremental approach to change is most on display: we meet each year around the same time and with the same basic structure.  But we have  also supplemented the traditional academic panel with a variety of other formats and continue to adjust and innovate each year.  Is a more comprehensive thinking of our structure appropriate? Might we look to other scholarly fields for models of how to build channels of interaction and communication?  I do not think any of us wishes to have MESA convert to an association where members speak to each other only messages of 140 characters.  But we might use the annual meeting itself as a place to hold discussions about how to adjust.  If I am right—that the ground beneath us is shifting—then much more than MESA is at stake.  And we should start talking about how to respond.

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