President’s Message: Walking Together, Working Together
To view ACCUTE’s 2021 Conference Program, click here. All times are Mountain Daylight Time.
The Latin root of Congress means to walk (gradi) together (con). In a typical year, around this time, the ACCUTE Board and membership would be wrapping up the winter term and gearing up for that mutual hike at our annual conference. ACCUTE was formed in 1957 and had its first conference in 1958 in Edmonton at the University of Alberta, the host of this year’s event. Membership fees were $1 and there were no concurrent sessions in the one-day event. Despite those modest beginnings, it is worth remembering that our association was formed specifically in order for English faculty and students to participate in the Learned Societies, now called the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Beyond presenting original research, ACCUTE was established to fulfill what Heather Murray describes as “its most important task, that of networking teachers and students of English (however we might define that term) across our many research fields and institutional affiliations” (1). We come together as an association in the midst of many overlapping associations to meet, talk, discuss, learn, and, indeed in a normal year, dance.
We are gearing up for that annual walking together again, virtually, of course, but certain recent events have caused us (me, the ACCUTE Executive, Board, and likely you) to wonder about the limits of inclusion of our gathering. In particular, the Black Canadian Studies Association has withdrawn from Congress this year, citing the ongoing pandemic (disproportionately affecting Black and Indigenous communities), the technological burdens of the moment, and a dispute with the Federation about conference fees and the overarching theme of future conferences. The Federation responded by waiving fees for Black and Indigenous students and committing to a Black Studies theme for Congress in the near future, as the BCSA requested in their 9 February 2021 statement. The BCSA had already withdrawn by that point, however, and their subsequent statements invited other associations “to discuss the issues we have raised and positions we have taken, and to make decisions for themselves” (20 February 2021). Many associations, including ACCUTE, have interpreted this invitation to be a call for a referendum on their membership inside the Federation, and have committed to such a discussion either inside or outside Congress. Some associations (12 of 70 Federation members) have withdrawn from Congress in the hopes that it will provoke concrete action by the Federation.
ACCUTE has opted to stay in Congress and walk together, work together with the Federation in the hopes of guiding them (who are not separate from us) towards the new policy and governance that this moment requires. As one of the largest associations in the Federation, with one of the smallest Executives and Boards, we do not have the physical or financial capacity to move such a large event to a different venue in such a short timeframe. Furthermore, I feel a burden of responsibility to the 200+ presentations that were submitted back in Fall 2019 and accepted for last year’s Congress that have already been ported forward to this year’s event. As stated in our own Statement in Support of the BCSA on 18 February, our participation in Congress does not, however, imply that we are satisfied with the Federation’s response to combatting anti-Black racism, nor does it preclude our own desire to assess and evaluate our membership in the Federation.
The situation has raised an important structural observation about ACCUTE and how it (we) conducts its (our) business. Beyond our journal, ESC: English Studies in Canada, which is a largely independent operation, the association is almost entirely built around delivering the annual conference for which it was formed. Communication with members is almost entirely confined to our Annual General Meeting, held at Congress each year. Vice President Ronald Cummings and I have been working hard to develop the quarterly newsletter, now called The Angle (edited by Erin Knight and Eric Schmaltz), into a viable hub for member engagement and dialogue. We have also created the pandemic webinar series as a forum for engagement and exchange around special topics. These forums have been remarkably successful, if I am permitted to say as much, but yet still do not permit the kind of all-member discussion that this moment invites. Consequently, the ACCUTE Board has agreed to host an all-member virtual retreat to take up the call issued by the BCSA. The retreat will be largely focused around three central questions: 1) What is our relationship to the Federation? 2) Is it good? i.e. does it still reflect the values that we, the members of ACCUTE, hold and share?, and 3) Where do we go from here? Where we go might include changes to ACCUTE, and how we conduct and define our normal association business, as well. Further details of the retreat will be shared as they become available.
In the meantime, the ACCUTE Board is proposing two and possibly three structural changes to ACCUTE this year. The first is the adoption of an Equity Statement, included in the Spring issue of The Angle. Please have a look and email your thoughts and comments to email@example.com. We will be discussing, amending, and voting on the adoption of the Statement at our AGM. The second structural change is the creation of a Creative Writing Caucus to reflect the rapid growth of that constituency in English Departments across Canada. That, too, will be presented and discussed in a devoted forum at our annual conference, and (depending on the outcome of those discussions) presented at the AGM. The third change is more speculative at this point, but Ronald and I have started discussions with community members about the possibility of developing a BIPOC forum and possibly establishing a new caucus. Ronald will be hosting a closed meeting for BIPOC faculty and students on Tuesday 27 April at 2pm. We invite all BIPOC members to register here.
All narratives begin with a disruption of the normal state of affairs, including the story of ACCUTE and our relationship with the Federation. Whether the current inciting incident be the withdrawal of the BCSA, the global pandemic, or the wider context of the Indigenous renaissance, many of the conversations I have been having over the past month all suggest that a major plot shift is long overdue. I have been meeting and conversing with the Federation and the leadership of other associations almost daily to discuss deep structural changes to the organization to make it more transparent and accountable to the entire membership. After an incident of racial profiling at the 2019 Congress at UBC, the Federation established an arms-length EDID committee that has produced an extensive, forensic assessment of the organization, including many recommended actions. When that report is released (this month), the Federation will articulate how they intend to respond to each of those recommended changes. It remains to be seen if their response will be sufficient to meet the needs of the moment. ACCUTE will gather as a community to make our own assessment at our retreat.
There is much work that needs to be done, but work of a particular kind that must be handled carefully and collectively. Back in 2008, Smaro Kamboureli responded to Heather Murray by writing that “ACCUTE has evolved, and continues to do so, out of the very tensions that characterize the different perspectives of what constitutes English literature and the critical act but also out of the need to address how to profess being academics in a continuously changing political and academic environment” (14). The world has, again, impinged upon the work we do in this field, also creating the opportunity for a significant re-evaluation of our work. I believe that the questions we now face, that are crucial to the very legitimacy of literary studies in English, highlight the importance of having a robust forum for that conversation. Kamboureli concluded her essay with words that speak to this point and still resonate today:
“ACCUTE’s raison d’etre is not simply to work together with the CFHSS, remain vigilant to what happens at SSHRC, or create a forum for its members to disseminate their research but also to maintain, and when necessary to re-envision, the sense of community it has created. This is something ACCUTE has always performed well, and it is not a role it should ever consider relinquishing.” (17)
With that in mind, I invite you to come work together, to come walk together, and to relinquish nothing, even as we re-envision the very ground of the path forward.
Black Canadian Studies Association. “Statement regarding 2021 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences” 9 February 2021.
Black Canadian Studies Association. Statement. 20 February 2021
Kamboureli, Smaro. “Whither ACCUTE?” English Studies in Canada. 34.3 (Dec 2008): 14-17.
Murray, Heather. “Then, Now, Next.” English Studies in Canada. 34.3 (Dec 2008): 1-3.
For more information about Congress 2021, please visit congress2021.ca
For REGISTRATION, click here.