HARA: Jake Purcell on the Council for European Studies

Jake Purcell discusses his experiences with the Council for European Studies as a programs and editorial fellow.

The Council for European Studies is an organization created as a coalition of universities to support the study of Europe. From its mostly North American beginning, it now has member institutions in Europe, Australia, and Asia. To fulfill its mission, CES hosts a large, annual conference; publishes journals; and doles out a variety of grants and prizes for research. By many measures, CES looks like a fairly sleepy place. It’s been around since 1970, its events and programs are well established and run fairly systematically, it has a core group of supporters who ensure that the organization maintains a certain intellectual relevance every year. When I applied to do a HARA with CES in the spring of 2016, questions about the future of a unified European political and economic project appeared a little esoteric, except to comparativist political scientists, who make up most of CES’ activities.

Things look different from inside an institution, it turns out. When I arrived at CES in September, they were about to launch EuropeNow, an exciting online journal of research, literature, art, and commentary. The employees, with backgrounds in the humanities and publishing, were working hard to reach out to humanities scholars and artists beyond the political science core. CES had churned through multiple directors in the last few years, leaving a lot of room to invent, but also an occasional dearth of institutional memory. Finally, the Brexit vote gave some unexpected urgency to the questions about the “European project” that lay at the heart of CES’ mission.

As a programs and editorial fellow, I stay a little bit above the fray. The goal isn’t necessarily to integrate me into the day-to- day operations of CES and its programming. Instead, I’m there to work on discrete projects that advance the other endeavors the CES is undertaking while also giving me experience in another institutional setting and helping me to develop new skills. (The downside is that it can be hard to learn the ropes at an organization when you’re not involved in its normal business.) One result of this is that I’ve worn a lot of different hats since arriving at CES, which is where a little bit of intellectual confidence comes in. Interview with a film festival director with an emphasis on the Balkans? Sure, I can brush up on current Balkan cinema. Find some scholarly organizations that might be willing to advertise CES conferences? Let me build a database. In spite of my best efforts to avoid falling down the Brexit rabbit hole, I have now attended so many events on that topic that I can recite regional and demographic voting patterns, not just for 2016, but also for historical votes on Britain’s relationship to the European project. I’ve solicited and produced content for EuropeNow and Critical Commentary, including reports on talks, interviews with scholars and artists, and film festival and product announcements.

With just six hours per week at CES (fewer, often, with holidays), most of my time is actually spent trying to find the most efficient way to carry out a task or to automate my recurring activities. Some examples from my latest project, which is to design and launch EuropeNow Campus, the pedagogy-focused corner of EuropeNow. One element involves finding teachers to participate in a Q & A about an interesting classroom project or assignment, a task made substantially easier by the discovery that most universities have an equivalent of Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning to support innovative pedagogy. I write form emails that appear deeply personal and make spreadsheets of people I’ve been in touch with. I send updates to the relevant team members for EuropeNow and the CES annual conference. The result is an odd mix of high-level project planning and the mundane work of carrying that project out that demonstrates the extent to which the skills of communication, collaboration, intellectual curiosity, and digital skills are intertwined.

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