until the government re-opens

The email pasted below announces cancellation — due to the current, ridiculous US government shutdown — of a meeting that would have provided excellent professional development, project development, and academic networking opportunities for scholars awarded highly-competitive grants for digital projects by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Staff of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities could not even send this message themselves, as farcical political brinkmanship has locked them out of their offices and email accounts.

I have attended and benefited from NEH ODH Project Directors’ Meetings in the past, and one of my staff members was set to represent the Scholars’ Lab’s current “Speaking in Code” grant at the event this Friday. These meetings help to create a more thoughtful and better-connected community of American scholar-practitioners of the digital humanities. They’re smart, these meetings. They are good business. Through an investment in building up the people who do the scholarly work, these meetings help the NEH to maximize (already too-small) investments American taxpayers have made in the Endowment itself — which is to say, they maximize the NEH’s contribution to education and research in fields like history, literature, anthropology, and foreign languages, and in the public humanities, in opening up the richness of our increasingly digital/digitized cultural heritage to broad and diverse audiences. This email, canceling Friday’s meeting, represents a wasted opportunity for NEH-funded scholars and ultimately for the publics their grant-supported projects serve.

But it also represents just one tiny example of government waste created by one faction of one political party unable to accept that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land.

How much NEH staff time went into the preparation for this meeting? How much faculty and staff time at publicly-supported American colleges and universities went into travel planning and preparation for presentations to be made at the meeting, whether on panels, in plenaries, or in lightning rounds? How much staff time at both the NEH and at project directors’ home institutions will go into canceling travel arrangements, attempting to prevent publicly-funded projects and private individuals from being charged for non-refundable tickets, and dealing with the subsequent red tape of good grants management? How much more time will our faithful civil servants spend, when they return from enforced, unpaid leave, dealing with questions in the aftermath?  Anybody who has even glancingly touched these spheres (the organization of events, the management of budgets, the practice of teaching, research, and learning in higher education) can give you an answer.  Hint: lots.

Now multiply this across the agencies of the federal government — at a scale far beyond the relative peanuts we throw at humanities and the arts — that have been affected by the shutdown. How do we calculate and talk about wasted effort and the subsequent demoralizing of staff? About opportunity costs for the country that benefits from their good energies? About the costs we, the taxpayers, will incur in cleaning-up unnecessary messes, undoubtedly far, far worse than this one? How do we talk about the cavalier taking of risks?  About the price of anxiety, discomfort, and sorrow?  About the price of actual, ever-loving danger?

The cancellation of a one-day meeting of recipients of piddling federal humanities dollars becomes a nothing in this calculus. And that’s probably what they want.

Dear Colleagues:

Due to the government shutdown, we must cancel the NEH ODH Project Directors Meeting that was scheduled for Friday, October 4th.

Please take action to cancel your flights and/or hotel reservations so that you do not incur any unnecessary charges or cancelation fees. If you are traveling to the DC region for other grant-related activities, you can continue with your other plans.

We do not currently have plans to reschedule the ODH Project Directors meeting. Once the government resumes operation, your program officer will discuss with you options for using any remaining travel funds for other grant-related dissemination activities.

Some project directors have raised concerns that they will not be reimbursed by their institution for a canceled flight. Please discuss this issue with your local grant administrators as soon as possible, and let us know if we can provide any further information or assistance so that you do not suffer any personal financial loss. For documentation purposes, this email represents a formal cancelation due to unforeseen circumstances, and your inability to travel to this meeting is due to a cause outside of your control. NEH grant funds, which were intended to pay for this travel, should be used to reimburse the travelers for actual costs incurred up to the allowed budget amount.

Due to the shutdown, ODH staff will not be available to respond to emails or phone calls until the government reopens. At that point, we will work to respond to your concerns as quickly as we can. Thank you for your patience, and our apologies for the inconvenience.

ODH Staff

[NB: the digital humanities community keeps on ticking. Our colleagues at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities are taking good advantage of their DC-area location to host a DH open house with an especial invitation to NEH project directors whose travel plans may leave them at loose ends in Washington. I hope people who attend use their social media platforms to send a message, loud and clear:  this is characteristic of the generosity of the DH community, but is no substitute for the NEH event that was so carefully planned, and that there can be no substitute for a robust and well-supported National Endowment for the Humanities. Friends, you might also find a picket line.]