Talking about Humanities Publishing in Transition at the AIAs

On Saturday morning (at 8 am!), I’m on a panel at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America organized by Deb Stewart to discuss humanities publishing in transition. The panel is intimidating to say the least and will also include Bethany Wasik of Cornell University Press, Rebecca Stuhr of the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries, Catherine Goldstead, Johns Hopkins University Press, and David Ratzan from NYU’s ISAW library.  

This panel is workshop so we won’t be giving papers. Instead, Deb has helpfully sent along a few prompts to get us thinking about what we might contribute to what we all hope is a conversation between the panelists and the audience.

I’ve been trying to give a bit of though to how I present myself on this panel. In particular, Deb has asked us to introduce ourself and offer a bit of insight into humanities publishing. This, of course, is terrifying as I’m neither an especially accomplished publisher or scholar. I’m also not a very consistent or observer of publishing trends in the humanities. That all being said, I am on this panel, and I can’t really say “I dunno.” Moreover, it’s sometimes been helpful for me to put some words down on the screen before showing up at 8 am to say something.

As for introductions, I think I’ll likely emphasize three phases of my career in humanities publishing. First, I remember when it was a thing to be an archaeological blogger. Now, it’s different. The most compelling web personalities in our field are more than just bloggers; they maintain robust and consistent social media presences, they appear across a range of popular and professional media, and they are savvy about cultivating audiences, staying on message, and engaging with their readers. While blogging away in my little office in North Dakota offers a window into my academic and professional life as a historian, archaeologist, editor, and publisher, it never had the impact or reach of social media celebrities of the 21st century who have tens of thousands of followers and are legitimately shaping the field. In fact, I think that my group of bloggers almost always saw ourselves as more of a ragged garage band than a well rehearsed indy rock band with a global following.  

This tendency to see what we do as marginal or alternative practices — explicitly and self consciously DIY — rather than as part of our core responsibility as academics and writers, inspired my move into publishing and the founding of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with my friend Joel Jonientz. Our first book, Punk Archaeology, embodied this casual, garage band approach to writing and publishing. 

Over time, however, our approach to publishing changed. On the one hand, we became more formal in our work, our work flows, and our books have become somewhat more conventional. Maybe this happened because of the relative success of Punk Archaeology, the advice of colleagues in publishing, or the experience of being responsible for other people’s words and ideas (rather than just our own).  I’d like to think that my little press remains open to alternative works on a range of topics, but some of our most popular and successful books are pretty conventional. If my blog remains a bit obscure and more likely to contain any number of typographical and grammatical errors than any particular insight, my press at least looks more like a solid indy band than a scrappy punk outfit. 

The other thing that changed my perspective on publishing the humanities was working on a literary journal, North Dakota Quarterly. Working on NDQ has opened my eyes to the really wide range of passionate, dynamic, and vibrant publishing centered around creative and critical writers. Not only is there tremendous diversity in how publications are organized – NDQ is published by the University of Nebraska Press after over a century of being published in-house – but there are publishers who work as collectives, whose editors are accomplished writers, who have diverse and expansive editorial boards, who are driven by a single creative vision, who specialize in regional literature, particular voices, or – like NDQ – have a national and global audience and contributors.

My experience with NDQ occurred at the same time that I started to pay more attention to the rise in open access publishers, the proliferation of scholarly and non-scholarly digital humanities projects, and the maturing of technological and social frameworks support a wide range of publishing from archival quality repositories to global print-on-demand services, ubiquitous user-friendly design software, and a social media networks primed for the efficient circulation of new works. My work with NDQ has also helped me to understand the economic aspects of publishing. While I remain a staunch advocate for open access, I’ve come to recognize the need for a diverse ecosystem of publishers some of whom have the scale, resources, or workflow to make open access happen and others, for various reasons ranging from ideological to the practical, do not. I’d love NDQ to be open access, but I want to to exist more and right now, for NDQ to continue to attract submissions (without a reading fee), contributions from a wide range of writers (without article processing fees), and subscriptions, we have to charge.    

Deb also primed me to respond to a question about which publishing venues an early career scholars should prioritize. While my introduction almost begs for a kind of polite self-mythologizing, this question more difficult, if for no other reason that early career scholars might be listening to me and it requires a kind of realistic answer.

My gut feeling is that high value, high profile, and traditional academic publishing remains the gold standard for early career scholars. They also offer — in most cases — a model experience in terms of review, editing, and production for early career scholars. 

At the same time, if the individual is interested in understanding how publishing works or can work, I’d urge them to publish in as wide a range of venues as possible. Consider more than just the top tier journals. Publish with regional journals and publishers, journals that have creative or distinctive mandates – like Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen or Internet Archaeology, open access publishers, and in outfits that prioritize outreach like Eidolon or Near Eastern Archaeology. I’m also intrigued about the future of peer review in academic publishing. While I understand the theoretical value of peer review, I’ve also started to question whether its practical application aligns with its potential. All this is to say: consider submitting to new publications and working in new forms, whenever possible support innovation, find outlets where you’re comfortable, and, if the spirit moves you, look to create new platforms to promote the work of others.

As importantly, read and cite widely. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where metrics matter and citing outside the typical canon of academic publications is an effective way of supporting innovative, creative, and open access work. 

Finally, Deb asked me to talk a bit about how scholars can use online media to build a profile, receive feedback on works-in-progress, and share their scholarly work.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I feel like the scholarly landscape is shifting so quickly anything that I’m likely to say may well be obsolete or irrelevant in a matter of months. The shifting algorithms behind Facebook and Google, for example, have the potential to radically change how online sharing works and the visibility and constitution of online communities and work. 

At the same time, it seems like finding your tribe on Twitter remains a solid option for any scholar looking to develop a community and audience for their work. The Digital Press, for example, relies heavily on Twitter to promote the work of our authors and I now make this explicit in marketing plans with authors. The growing prominence of Twitter threads allows for somewhat longer form writing on the platform and, for now, the Twitter timeline remains relatively free from algorithmic manipulation. The biggest downside of Twitter is probably pretty well known. There are trolls and bots (and it’s become difficult to tell the difference between them). There are politics and posturing and it remains a challenge to develop a following in a medium saturated with smart, insightful, and witty folks. Fortunately, there are people willing to help with that especially if you bring a fresh, significant, and consistent content to the platform. 

I still like the idea that blogging has a place in scholarly communication, but as any number of bloggers have discussed over the past few years, the number of page views and visitors on blogs seems generally to be in decline. My blog has probably only ever been read by a pretty small and specialized audience and to some extent this has protected by blog from a drop in readership, but it does seem like readers engage less frequently with my posts. This is fine with me, but it means that I rarely get feedback on ideas or comments on works in progress. 

At present, it seems like podcasts are enjoying their time in the limelight. For scholars, podcasts have certain appeal. Not only do they resist fragmentation, but they also require a kind of attention that online reading does not seem to encourage (and I say this as flip back and forth between this blog post and my other AIA paper!). At the same time, I haven’t seen a podcast cited in scholarship (although I’m sure that it has occurred), and they don’t encourage the kind of conversation with the audience that a blog or social media thread allows. They’re also time consuming to produce and promote.

Once the panel has said their piece, the floor will be open for conversation and I am hopeful that the real value of this workshop will emerge from the dialogue. I’m looking forward to hearing what my fellow panelists think about new directions in scholarly publishing and what the audience wants to know.

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