More on Branding the Humanities

I keep thinking about a post that I wrote a couple of weeks ago on branding in the humanities. Go read it here if you wonder what I’m talking about. Since then I’ve given it a bit more thought and had a few interesting and productive (and, frankly, depressing) conversations.

1. Open Ended Branding. We continue to work to save a century-old literary journal, North Dakota Quarterly, that last lost its funding in the most recent round of budget cuts across the University of North Dakota campus. As part of our efforts, we’ve been reduced to reminding people that the NDQ remains viable and enduring brand. Some of this is as simple as saying that we have a small, but dedicated group of individual subscribers and we continue to have institutional subscriptions ensuring the NDQ appears in major research libraries. The tradition of the journal also allows us to continue to attract contributors, editors, and supporters.

At the same time, the NDQ brand carries baggage. There remains confusion over whether it’s a journal about North Dakota, for North Dakotans, or just from North Dakota. Its tradition as a little magazine or a literary magazine or as a more traditional publication have limited how we can promote NDQ. More than that, I sometimes feel “trapped” by the responsibility of sustaining NDQ as a project. The goal is not the preserve NDQ for the sake of NDQ, but to promote the public humanities. How do we create an open-ended brand that ensures that our efforts do more to advance the cause of the humanities (both on campus and in the larger public sphere) than the limited goals of associated with the specific project of North Dakota Quarterly? In other words, how do we separate the value (to use the branding language) of NDQ from the value of the public humanities and make good decisions responsible to the larger good?

2. Open and Free. I’ve been turning around in my head the value of ensuring that public humanities projects are open and free. Anyone who reads this blog or follows my various projects (brands?) knows that I’m increasingly committed to making what I do available in free and open formats. At the same time, open and free doesn’t mean that these projects don’t require time and investment and attracting time and investment relies upon some assurance that a project will meet expectations. In other words, free for the end-user, reader, or listener is not the same as free to produce. An established brand goes a long way to attract the resources necessary to distribute something for free and distributing something for free goes a long way to promote a brand.

This cycle has struck me as difficult because the “brand” (whether personal or corporate) becomes the vessel through which the energy required to produce and circulate creative works and scholarship in an open and free way can be monetized to create more works.      

3. Subverting from Growth. One thing that a brand does for our energies is allow us to carry over surplus energy from one work to the next. In practical terms, every book that my little digital press publishes makes it easier to get the resources to publish the next. This momentum is great from my perspective, but I have a visions for what the press can become.

At the same time, I’m not naive. Every time I get resources to move my project forward, I know that another project with another voice, another perspective, and another set of skills, ideas, and people, do not get resources. So success helps attract resources and resources breeds growth and growth – even of the best projects – runs the risk of stifling diversity and innovation. This bothers me. How do we go about making sure that our efforts to promote our ideas do not become an exercise in empire building, branding, and hegemony?

One idea that I’ve turned over in my head is to limit the term of any project. In other words, to avoid the development of brand like NDQ with its baggage and genuine prestige, is to set projects to expire after a certain length of time. This ensures that any built up energies and resources are released back into the larger public humanities ecosystem. This prevents any one institution, idea, or body of work of overwhelming others, promotes diversity and plurality, and disrupt or subvert a system that sees funding as a way to promote growth in “market share,” influence, or “significance.” It would also force us to reinvent ourselves and our vision for what is meaningful in the public humanities.

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