Institutions, particularly academic institutions, are slow to change. In most cases, this is a good thing. After all, universities and colleges are responsible for both their existing programs and students, and the degrees conferred to past students, the often long careers of faculty and staff, and the gifts of donors, loyalty of alumni, and responsibilities to communities. Professional organizations like the ASOR, or the American Schools of Oriental Research, are also prone to incremental changes rather than quick pivots and abrupt reorientations and tend to see the historical legacy of their organization on equal footing with its current relevance. Generally speaking, the organization of these institutions makes change difficult as well with complex bylaws, multiple committees, and various checks that prevent decision-making without general consensus.
While in many ways the reluctance to change quickly is a good thing. For example, many academic organizations rely on a diverse portfolio of stakeholders for funding and lack a robust financial safety net. A misstep could lead not simply to a dilution of their historic mission, but to real financial and existential problems.
There were two big decisions that took center stage at the ASOR annual meeting. First, we continue to discuss the long-term relationship with the Society of Biblical Literature meeting which generally overlaps with ASOR and occurs in the same city. Since the American Academy of Religion annual meeting now also coincides with SBL and ASOR, it has become difficult for ASOR to find suitable accommodations in the same city. As a result, ASOR has to decide whether it needs to change when and where it holds its meetings. There are real practical implications to this since about a fifth of ASOR members also are SBL members and participate in both meetings.
This also has opened a conversation about how to make the meetings more accommodating to graduate students, contingent faculty, avocational scholars, and recent Ph.Ds who often have fewer resources and time to attend meetings. The cost of airfare, for example, was a concern especially if ASOR moved to a “second tier” city. At the same time, the cost and quality of accommodations were a concern in cities that tend to be airport hubs. Some fretted also about having to pick between ASOR and SBL and about the impact on the range and quality of papers at both conferences if they were to go their separate ways.
While this might appear to be a largely practical matter of cost and convenience, it also has an intellectual component. Over the past 20 years, ASOR has changed and come to embrace more than the archaeology of the Levant and “Biblical” concerns, periods, and problems. A divorce from SBL would likely continue, if not accelerate, this trend and contribute to the ongoing transformation of ASOR members, its conference, and publications.
The other major conversation at the conference was about ASOR’s name: the American Schools of Oriental Research. They hosted a workshop on this topic at their annual meeting, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend. Fortunately, the issue was a constant topic of conversation throughout the meeting. The context for this name change is that the term “Oriental” is closely associated with colonialist practice as scholars like Edward Said has taught us. The concept of the “Orient” from which the name of organization (and countless others) derives carries with it a dense network of racial, cultural, political, and even economic associations that developed from the various branches of continental “Oriental studies” that defined and supported colonial practices.
The persistence of the term “Oriental” in the ASOR name is a historical artifact laden with baggage that directly impacts the intellectual mission of our organization. We simply cannot be both “oriental” and post-colonial, for example. We can’t preach that we respect and value our colleagues and communities in Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt or anywhere else that ASOR affiliated scholars work, while also officially recognizing Orientalism in our name. It’s intellectually inconsistent and politically incongruous.
The name has to change and there appears to be broad consensus on this point. A new name for ASOR, however, will certainly be the greater challenge. On the one hand, renaming ASOR will not eliminate the Orientalist past (and, frankly, present) of the organization, but it will de-emphasize its impact on our future. On the other hand, so much of our discipline of archaeology (and history) is grounded in the same intellectual and political moments that produced Orientalism (for example, the Enlightenment), if we can even consider Orientalism and archaeology to be genuinely separate things. Rebranding ASOR will show intent to challenge basic assumptions about archaeological ways of thinking, traditions, methods, and practices, but the job itself is far from over. If incremental changes within the disciplines that make up ASOR have led us to this point, then we have to hope that they’re part of a longer trajectory that bends toward practices that are more inclusive, dynamic, and liberating.