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President's Introduction to ASECS Town Hall

“I recommend it to the Charity of all good People to look back, and reflect duly upon the Terrors of the Time…” Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year, 1722.

As we approach our Society’s Town Hall next week, I have been reflecting on the importance of coming together at this time. We gather on the threshold of the 2021-22 academic year and the 53rd year of ASECS to envision new possibilities for the Society. Yet, I believe it is as important to recognize in our discussions about the future of ASECS the ways in which members of our community have been touched in the last year by a sense of loss, stress, and grief.

Data sets, statistical analyses, graphs, and maps have proliferated to illustrate the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic. A few numbers suffice to capture its macro devastation. As of my writing, 4.27 million deaths have been recorded globally, and 615,000 deaths in the United States, which saw a 20% increase in mortality in 2020 and a significant decline in life expectancy. People of color, older adults, and people with low incomes have paid the highest price, reflected in the most basic terms of mortality and life expectancy, with nearly double the decline for Black and Brown populations compared to white. Yet, when statistical significance is the aim, everyone is represented, and no one. It is the lived experiences of individuals that reveal the true impact of Covid.

In our 1700-member ASECS community, some have lost their lives and their loved ones to the virus. Many have experienced a loss of physical and mental well-being. Colleagues have lost jobs, professional opportunities, financial security, and material support for their research. Some have lost a sense of safety and belonging because of xenophobic scapegoating and bigotry. Members have struggled to care for children, aging parents, and other vulnerable family members. Most of us have felt the loss of human connection, access, and time. Clearsighted that the injury has been disparately meted and many have suffered far more, members of my family and I, too, have experienced loss. Collectively for ASECS members, of course, the pandemic forced the cancellation of our St. Louis conference and required that we gather remotely (albeit successfully) at our recent meeting this year.

In this 53rd year of ASECS, the elongating Covid pandemic is thus the inescapable context as we work to become a more intentionally inclusive, equitable, anti-racist, accessible Society, responsive to the needs and expectations of our interdisciplinary scholarly community.

Our virtual engagement at the upcoming Town Hall on August 18 (4-5:30pm ET) will lay some of the essential groundwork for a year-long examination of who we are as an academic society and who we aim to become. I am profoundly grateful to the members of the Task Force, led by Vice President Meredith Martin, for their devotion of countless hours this summer to the organization of this gathering. The agenda is posted here:

The Town Hall builds upon actions taken in recent years to promote a more inclusive, equitable, and accessible environment necessary for the Society’s fulfillment of its mission:

to advance the study and teaching of the eighteenth century and encourage scholarly work that crosses the boundaries between academic disciplines.

Over the last three years, we have seen the establishment of the advisory committee on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (2019), the formation of a Committee on Harassment as part of the enactment of a robust Policy on Harassment (2020), the engagement of an external Ombuds, Nyree Gray (2020), and the sponsorship at our recent annual conference of two listening sessions (2021) for members to voice their concerns about the current state and future of ASECS.

The Town Hall will also lead into a member survey, a goal set by leadership in recent years that has gone unfulfilled. A survey will help clarify who makes up our diverse membership, why scholars join ASECS, what motivates them to stay, how the Society contributes to members’ scholarly development and professional needs, and the ways in which ASECS succeeds or fails in addressing members’ priorities and expectations. The Executive Board has engaged Gladiator Consulting to conduct the survey. Gladiator does extensive work with non-profit and academic organizations and has a demonstrated commitment to the values of social justice and racial equity, community, and organizational growth. A Gladiator representative will attend the Town Hall to learn more about the Society, and the consultancy will survey the membership, conduct interviews, and assess the Society’s by-laws, key organizational documents, and plans. Gladiator will produce a summary report and recommendations for a scope of work going forward aimed at strengthening the future of the Society, especially its ability to provide an environment where all members may flourish.

We hope that you will join us at the Town Hall and in the critical work ahead.

Please remember to RSVP for the Town Hall, if you haven't already done so, by adding your name to this google form; that will help us keep track of numbers. And if you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to write to this address:


Rebecca Messbarger

ASECS President 2021–2022