Joel Jonientz and the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

I’ve been thinking a good bit about by late friend Joel Jonientz this week. He died three years ago yesterday. One of the projects we were working on when he died was Punk Archaeology and it was to be the first book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

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It was fitting then that I spent part of the evening at a book release event promoting and celebrating the appearance of the seventh book from The Digital Press: Haunted by Waters: the Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 edited by David Haeselin and students from his writing, editing, and publishing class in the Department of English. The event featured a filmed roundtable hosted by the City of Grand Forks including a little Facebook Live segment which received over 1000 views since last night! We also received some nice local media coverage on the event.

This stuff got me thinking of Joel’s work with the Working Group in Digital and New Media, and, in particular, his efforts to develop a video game called Rhythm Planet in collaboration with students. He eventually launched a (unsuccessful) Kickstarter campaign for the project, and in an effort to promote that, we discussed the game and his method in a two part interview in 2013. Read it here and here (and even if you don’t feel like reading it, do go and check out the art or, better still, check out the video here). I paid pretty close attention to what he was doing in this class and how he motivated students to go beyond a contractual understanding of education and to put their heart and mind into the project. Some of it was probably his infectious enthusiasm and his own willingness to put in time and energy into a project. Some of it was probably his willingness to give students access to the tools to succeed or fail and then the space to allow them to do it. Some of it was probably that he attracted motivated and ambitious students. I muse about his collaborative spirit in a post here and was pretty proud to help keep some of it alive last night.

The biggest thing with Joel is that he embraced an expansive vision of what was possible. In fact, his encouragement and conversations helped me realize that The Digital Press was possible. So last night, I tried to communicate that spirit to the students who worked hard to make Haunted by Waters happen. I pointed out that Joel and I didn’t really have any experience as publishers, but we figured out how the make The Digital Press happen. And if we could do it, they could, and they should embrace the potential of digital media and do their own thing!

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