Editing and Publishing: Trust, Shared Authority, and the General Public

There was a bit of a dust up last week on Twitter in which an editor and an author had it out, in public, over a rejected book review. I won’t go into detail about the reasons for the dust up or its aftermath, but it prompted me to think a bit more critically about being an editor (and publisher). This is particularly useful because next semester, I’m teaching a class on editing and publishing, and I need to begin to pull together the things that I’ve learned over the last half-decade into something like a coherent student experience.

The Twitter dust up reinforced three things in my head about being an editor. Just to be clear, I’m not writing this to tell either party that they did something wrong or to deliberately ignore the substance of their dispute (which I wasn’t able to grasp entirely via the narrow window that social media provided). Instead, I appreciate the public character of the conversation which, albeit in dramatic fashion, opened a window into “how the sausage is made” behind the scenes in publications seeking to bridge the gap between academia and the wider public public.

First, various critics often preach that academics should write for a broader audience or “the general public.” I’ve written about this critique a good many times on this blog. I’ve noted that this is hard, considered our responsibilities in this area, and even suggested that it is important. That said, despite being an editor of little magazine and publisher of a press hoping to capture a broad audience, I hadn’t thought much about how editing work intended for a general audience is different from editing work intended for our fellow academics. In my experiences (other than a brief, traumatic, and entirely necessary experience early in my professional career at the hand of a very patient journal editor), editors have exerted a remarkably light hand on my work, and as readers of this blog know, this is not because my work is well written. I suspect it is because academic style is often regarded as secondary to argument and unadorned or even clunky academic prose might even represent a kind of efficient expression. After all, the goal of most academic writing is not to entice, entertain, or even instigate a reader, but to contribute to established and usually well-known conversations. 

Writing for a non-academic audience means understanding that most people won’t be familiar with the conversations to which we want to contribute. Moreover, many people in the general public won’t care about these conversations per se even if they care about the implications that these conversations might have on the broader state of knowledge. This also means that writing for the general public is less likely to have a ready-made audience of individuals already invested in a particular debate. Thus, as an editor I have to do more to get writers to make the significance of their contributions understood in the name of creating an audience for their work. This often means urging them to de-emphasize parochial, technical, and specialist debates (which often suffice to attract narrower academic audiences) and encouraging them to prioritize the bigger picture. This can be tricky business because academics often have deep attachment to our specialist knowledge (indeed, this is often where we hang our professional hats as experts) and communities in which various forms of specialized knowledge develop. Asking academic writers to step away from these commitments often means asking them to shed their credentials and community in the name of broader cause.

Second, one of my favorite editorial comments in a modernist magazine appears on the cover of the short-lived Dadaist journal The Blindman edited by Marcel Duchamp, Beatrice Wood, and Henri-Pierre Roché, which reminds their readers: “The Second Number of The Blindman will appear as soon as YOU have sent sufficient material for it.” In other words, editors of little magazines or other public facing publications recognize that our contributors are often our readers. Or at very least our contributors dictate the subject matter, tone, and direction of our publications as much as our editors do. Ideally, our contributors and readers overlap sufficiently to ensure a constant flow of relevant material, but not so tightly that we can’t expand our audiences. In fact, it seems to me that the best editors recruit contributors not only to expand their readership but also to expand the character of contributions. This involves walking a tightrope between shaping the publication from the top down and creating conditions for the publication to develop from the bottom up. 

It also means accepting the unexpected, the less than ideal, and the complicated in the name of expanding the reach of the publication and diversifying its content. As the editor of a little magazine that occasionally publishes content that doesn’t feel particularly compelling to me or lands a bit wide of the mark, I’ve come to accept this as part of the long game of allowing contributors to “share authority” in producing the publication that I edit.

One of my most regular critiques of academic journals that celebrate the presence of or bemoan the lack of particular kinds of contributors (e.g. women, POC, early career writers, or whatever) is what percentage of one’s submissions come from the groups that you’re trying to attract. If the number of submissions from a particular group is high, but the number of published contributions remains low, then the problem seems to be with the editorial process. If the number of submissions is low, however, then the problem might well be the audience for the publication. Finding ways to get a journal in front of people who you would like to contribute means targeted marketing, soliciting submissions, and, perhaps most importantly, sharing authority with the groups who you’d like to see as readers and contributors.

As an editor and publisher, I’m still working on this in part because I’m very personally invested in my editing and publish projects, but I also know that they’re almost always better when I lead from behind my contributors. 

Third, one of the hardest things that I’ve had to learn is the value of trust between the editorial team, my copy editors, and my contributors even when (and maybe especially when) they make me feel uncomfortable. In the Twitter dust up, without getting mired in specifics, it would appear that trust between the writer and the editorial team broke down. 

In my experiences, I recognize that the editing and publishing process can be intense especially with the stress of deadlines, the need to maintain workflows and processes, and the desire to produce a final product that advances larger goals. Moreover, COVID has added a layer of stress to every thing we do and the confluence of semester schedules and press deadlines often creates delays and complications that reverberate throughout the publication processes. Maintaining transparency and trust during these times feels as important as it can be potentially fraught. Again, I’m not suggesting anything about the specific case that occupied Twitter, but as for my process, I’m trying to think more carefully about what I need to do to ensure that people who contribute their work, time, and effort to my publications feel like they can trust my editing. More than that, I’m trying to remember that I need to also trust their critical boundaries and recognize how their voice and vision are part of what makes the publications that I produce unique and important.

Music Monday: Sun Ra Sundays

Over the weekend, I started the final push on a long simmering project over at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This project is called Sun Ra Sundays and it involves the converting a well-known blog by musician and music collector Rodger Coleman into a book. Sun Ra Sundays was a long running blog which explored Sun Ra’s musical output during the 1960s and 1970s.

Sam Byrd, a librarian and musician, took on the considerable task of editing and organizing Rodger’s posts and we ran the entire gaggle of them through the editorial wringer to create a more cohesive volume that nevertheless preserved some of the spontaneity of the original posts. 

This book is going to be good. 

First, it’s going to be timely. People are interested in Sun Ra these days not only as part of a new appreciation of his music and improvised music more broadly, his role in the development of Afrofuturism, his poetry and philosophies, and his connection with the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. A few months ago, I published a review of recent work on Sun Ra and it only scratched the surface. You can read it here.

Second, despite this recent outpouring of interest, there has been remarkably little accessible engagement with his musical legacy. While any number of scholars recognize the significance of his dense and often obscure music, it remains incredibly difficult to untangle his music from its convoluted discography. In fact, Ra’s discography is so complicated that it requires a massive scholarly book by Robert L. Campbell and Chris Trent called The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (1998) that runs to nearly 500 pages. This book for all its erudition does little, however, to help the average listener appreciate, understand, or even identify key recordings from this singular musician.

Sun Ra Sundays does just that. In an accessible and conversational style, it offers a guide to Sun Ra’s music from the 1960s and 1970s with enough context to give a reader the foundation to explore more widely on their own. 

This weekend, I produced a draft of a cover for the book. It’s not a great cover right now, but I think it captures some of the informality of Sun Ra’s discography and makes a certain graphic impact. I think I want to add a kind of hieroglyphic element to the cover before we go to press probably down the right side of the page.

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The interior book design is pretty convention visually, but incredibly challenging. Not only are there over 130 individual chapters, but they vary in length considerably.  

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This through a spanner into my efforts to always start chapter on the recto, for example, and pushed me occasionally start a one-page chapter on the verso. Notice the slight misalignment of the line separating the chapters title from the text. I’ll have to fix this before we go to press.

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For the record, I love Tisa OT as the font in these chapters. It not only produces an incredibly readable text block but also gives it just a bit of contemporary swagger appropriate for one of the founders of Afrofuturism.

Keep an eye out for this title later in the summer!

Three Things Thursday: Dissertations, Epoiesen, and Some Poetry

It’s almost mid-term season here and I’m eagerly awaiting the semester to enter its second half and start its long, springtime slide to completion. To help things along, I’m starting to make summer plans and, more importantly, try to wrap up a few wintertime projects before taking my usual early summer break for fieldwork, recovery, and new data. 

This week’s Three Things Thursday will focus on some simmering projects that are just about to reach a boil.

Thing the First

A number of readers asked me for more complete citations for my piece yesterday on Indian residential and boarding schools. I promise that is coming in the future (ideally by next week!), but for now I’d like to highlight a pair of dissertations and a master’s thesis that are really outstanding work and that have influenced my thinking about how archaeology (broadly construed) contributes to making visible thing at sites designed to promote the appearance of order and suppress evidence for resistance.

I found Davina Ruth Two Bears’s 2020 Berkeley dissertation “Shimásání dóó shicheii bi’ólta’ – My Grandmother’s and Grandfather’s School: The Old Leupp Boarding School, A Historic Archaeological Site on the Navajo Reservation” not only helpful, but also inspiring. Katherine Lyndsay Nichols’ University of Manitoba master’s thesis: “Investigation of Unmarked Graves and Burial Grounds at the Brandon Indian Residential School,” is remarkable work for a student at the MA level and shows the potential of collaboration between First Nation tribes and researchers on a very basic and grassroots level.

Finally, while this dissertation does involve Indian schools, Kaniqua L. Robinson’s 2018 dissertation at the University of South Florida, “The Performance of Memorialization: Politics of Memory and Memory-Making at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.” She builds on the work of the USF led team who documented the unrecorded burials of Black children at the Dozier School for Boys in South Florida. Her dissertation not only summarizes much of that work, but also considers past and future memorial practices at his site.

Thing the Second

We’re slowly getting together Epoiesen volume 5. For those who don’t know about Epoiesen (and you really should!), it is a relatively new journal edited by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa and it has really gained momentum in its fifth year. I’m especially honored to have TWO pieces in the most recent gaggle of contributions. The first is “Hearing Corwin Hall: The Archaeology of Anxiety on an American University Campus” with Michael Wittgraf and Wyatt Atchley and the second is a response to a pair of poems on Pompeii that I developed over the last few weeks on my blog while struggling with COVID recovery. 

Each year, I typeset the digital journal to give it pagination and ideally to expand its reach to people who just really prefer paper. One of the most interesting aspects of this is working with our cover template where we include a single panel visual essay. Here’s the cover for Epoiesen volume 5:

Cover Epoiesen5 DigitalFinal6x9

Thing the Third

North Dakota Quarterly 89.1/2 is almost ready for production and I’m chasing down the last few permissions and manuscripts these days. It should be a pretty cool collection with not only the usual poetry, essays, and fiction, but also a special section dedicated to translation. As we live in a world where groups and individuals often struggle to recognize one another’s shared humanity, translation offers a window into the communicative process where it becomes possible to build bridges. 

Over the last few months, I’ve been posting some content from the last issue of the Quarterly (88.3/4), but I really look forward to sharing material from the next issue soon! 

Graeber and Wengrow or I Like Big Books

My holiday reading consisted of wading my way (almost!) through David Graeber and David Wengrow’s massive book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). I like the book and I like their argument and I’m hoping that it spurs a wide ranging discussion of how our views of the past shape how we imagine the present and the future.

I’m not going to review this book in part because people much wiser and more engaged than I am have already started to think about its arguments. In short, Graeber and Wengrow argue against the idea that early societies developed from small, egalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers into larger, hierarchical societies organized around settled agriculture and settled in towns and cities. The demonstrated that evidence exists, often from indigenous sources and archaeology, that reveals a far wider range of social, political, and economic organization than the linear narrative of development would suggest. In fact, they argue that the linear narrative which situated egalitarian societies as precursors to more rigidly organized hierarchies derived from Enlightenment encounters with indigenous peoples who Europeans deemed inferior. As a result, European thinkers located absolutist monarchies and other forms of authoritarian governments as superior and more developed than the more egalitarian forms they encountered in the Americas. And, making a long story rather shorter (and more on this later), Graeber and Wengrow argued that this initial conceit effectively suppressed evidence for the wide variation in forms of political organization in the past. More egalitarian forms of social organization often appeared side-by-side with more autocratic forms either seasonally within the same society or amid different groups who occupied the same region.  

It is clear that a book of this size and scope, written by authors of such significant standing, will generate debate. In fact, my social media feed is already simmering with comments from people engaging with this book at present. One of the more intriguing questions centers on the intended audience for a book like this. I suspect that readers like me are the intended audience. While I have some experience as a field archaeologist, I’m hardly a specialist in the periods and regions that Graeber and Wengrow discuss. As a result, I understand how archaeology works as a discipline both on the ground and in terms of the discourse, and this understanding reinforces the plausibility of their arguments and emphasizes the subversive character of their approach.

More than that, the book is long. While the writing style is accessible, it requires both time and patience to wade through their arguments and explore their citations. This is not a casual book or one that lends itself to recreational reading necessarily. In fact, I’d argue that its length is both a strength and weakness. 

As a weakness, it is clear that the book was not necessarily well edited. I don’t mean that it wasn’t edited well at the level of copy editing. It feels as polished in this department as one might expect from a trade book. Instead, I mean that the book proceeded casually and without any clear impulse for efficiency in argument. It was not quite discursive, although at times you could almost feel the authors pulling back from a thread that they would have liked to pursue, perhaps to the detriment of their larger argument. But it wasn’t an efficient book and in that way resembles the inefficiency of books like Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome (2019)

In this reflects a choice by the authors and publishers. Part of this is likely a choice on the part of the authors to publish the book when it was done rather than when it was finished (and as someone going through revisions right now, I understand that). It was also probably the product of David Graeber’s untimely death and the desire to preserve a sense of the moment in the book (which emerged from conversations between the authors over the course of decades). There is no doubt that a lightly edited book is more economical to produce than one that requires a series of significant interventions. This is true both for authors and publishers.

On the other hand, it might be that long books also have other values as well. They do impart a kind of seriousness to an argument through their scale alone. A book the purports to write a new history of humanity should be big as humans have been around for quite a while and existing histories of humanities would fill an entire library. For a non-specialist reader (like myself) the size of the book reinforces the scale and scope of the authors’ argument and for a casual reader it serves to communicate the utmost seriousness and weightiness of this topic.

Big books, however discursive and loosely bound they may be, remain an appropriate outlet for weighty ideas produced by major and serious scholars. Thus, they not only offer a model of efficient scholarly production, but they also present an icon of serious, substantial, and important scholarship (which unsurprisingly come from two major, male, senior scholars).  

Free Books for Cyber Monday!

I can think of no better way to spend the digital hellscape that is Cyber Monday, than downloading and reading free stuff from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

To make this easier and a bit more fun, we’ve put together some download bundles full of good books that you can download absolutely free:

First, you can grab all of our archaeology titles with one click here including Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Siegfried’s latest book, Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean. Download it here.

Then, you can grab all our titles that have to deal with North Dakota with one click here including Kyle Conway’s innovated volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. Download it here.

Then, you can check download all of our books that deal with critical issues including Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s historical and savory edited volume Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook! Download it here.

Finally, if you want to think more broadly and creatively about our world, check out this packet of books from The Digital Press and our creative partners at Epoiesen and North Dakota QuarterlyDownload it here.

Oh, and if you just want all the books that we’ve published ever. Click here for a 1.6 GB megapack.

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If the very idea of cyber anything gives you hives, you can always get books from The Digital Press at Amazon.com and most of our titles are available from Bookshop.org as well.

Bookshop.org allows you to support local bookstores when you buy a copy of Deserted Villages, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust, and One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920.  

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Finally, if you want something really cool to make you cyber Monday less obnoxiously consumer, check out this preview of Rebecca Romsdahl’s Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist.

Mindful Wandering is an inspiring blend of memoir, travelogue, and environmental manifesto. As a translational ecologist, Rebecca Romsdahl is trained to ask critical questions about how we can improve our human relationships with the natural world for a sustainable, resilient future. As a farmgirl, she learned how to observe nature and life through the changing seasons. In this collection of essays spanning two decades, Romsdahl weaves these ideas together as she travels our changing world. From a Minnesota farm to the mountains of Peru and the edge of the Sahara Desert, she explores strategies for sustainability and resilience, and advocates that we (especially those of us privileged enough to travel) must expand our mindful considerations to include all the other inhabitants of this beautiful Earth. Romsdahl practices, and preaches, mindful wandering to reduce her impacts on the natural environment, and to encourage us all to be better global citizens. She implores us, through the eyes of a farmgirl scientist, to ask soul-searching questions: How do we reconnect with the local, seasonal rhythms of life, while learning how to care about the whole Earth as our home?

Get it here.

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What Do We Mean By “Digital” and “Publishing” When We Say “Digital Publishing”

This week is the annual meeting of the American Schools of Overseas Research in Chicago and unfortunately for the second year in a row, I won’t be able to attend in person because of the dumb COVID pandemic. If you wonder why I’m not going to Chicago, this article appeared as if on cueYou can check out the full program here.

Fortunately, the workshop  in which I’m scheduled to participate, “Best Practices for Digital Scholarship” has an impressive line up and the organizers of the panel have been particularly accommodating and I have some hope that I will be able to participate in the panel in some way.

That said, my take on the issue of best practices for digital scholarship is probably not really what they had in mind, but I hope it nevertheless contributes in some way to the conversation. In sum, I try to suggest that digital practices in archaeology and the  

This very brief paper offers a two casual observations on digital publishing based on my position as a sometime archaeologist and sometime publisher. For the last six years, I’ve directed a small (perhaps better ”nano”) scholar-led press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, which has published over 20 books on a range of topics from the history of the Northern Plains to Mediterranean and world archaeology. The books are open access and available as digital downloads or as print-on-demand paperbacks.

My experience working as both an archaeologist and a publisher informs my first observation which I developed more fully in my contribution to a volume edited by Kevin Garstki that is currently in page proofs! (Here’s the conference paper on which this contribution is based.) In this chapter, I argue that digital practices in archaeology have increasingly blurred the line between field work, analysis, interpretation, and publishing. We now use databases that can seamlessly publish our data to the web. Most GIS software integrates with web-based interfaces or allows us to produce publication quality maps if not literally in the field, then at our laptop. Illustration software is at home in the lab as it is in the publisher’s office. And it seems to me, at least, that document preparation software such as LaTeX, which is increasingly standard in scientific publishing, is even blurring the distinction between word processing and typesetting in some contexts. The way in which these digital tools have shaped our archaeological workflow anticipates a time when such classic scholarly conceits as the “final report” become indistinguishable points along a continuum of digitally mediated knowledge making.

The second observation is more polemical (and I’m willing to make some of these claims because I’m not attending this panel in person!) and derives from the first. If the line between research, writing, and publishing is becoming more and more blurry, what is the ”value add” that comes from traditional academic publishing? Of course, publishers often ensure that our publications look elegant, professional, and attractive, but surely this is not enough to justify their role in academic life.

We might point out that publishers manage the peer review process, but most scholars would agree that contemporary peer review standards and practices are neither unproblematic nor entirely fair and probably do less to guarantee the quality and “truth” of a publication than we would hope.

We might note that many academic institution require academic publications for tenure, promotion, or merit raises, and this requires academic publishers. But as tenure, promotion, and raises become increasingly less common in academia it seems like this will not justify their existence.

We might point out that academic publishers facilitate the distribution of scholarly knowledge. But as institutional budgets dwindle and library funding declines, it is hard not to see this role as at least partly parasitic as it draws resources away from the very institutions committed to producing new knowledge. As institutional funding does not appear to be trending toward more equality either in the US or globally, it is difficult to imagine how the existing system will pivot so as not to continue to exacerbate the divide between a very small number of ”haves” and a growing number ”have nots.” Moreover, the recent impact of the COVID pandemic has shown that current system used to disseminate academic knowledge could be fairly easily subverted (or even replaced) by peer-to-peer networks of file sharing.

These observations may appear to be peripheral to the issues that this panel wants to discuss, but I would argue they’re not. On the one hand, digital tools, technologies, and methods are changing our ideas of fieldwork, analysis, and publishing in fundamental ways. On the other hand, the structure of archaeology as an academic (and professional) discipline and the role that publishing plays in institutional and professional standards and practices is (or at least should be) changing as well. In other words, when we ask questions such as: “what can individuals, institutions, and professional societies do to better support data publishing?” we might want to attend to the larger question of how individuals, institutions, and professional societies imagine the role of both digital and traditional publishing in our changing institutional and professional world.

Three Things Thursday: Epoiesen, Teaching, and NDQ

It’s Veterans’ Day today and it would appear that we’re going to get a the first snow of the season (so check back later for my traditional “first snow” post!) As per usual this time of year, a day off from teaching isn’t so much a break as a chance to catch up on other work that has been moved to the back burner as the semester reaches a fevered pitch. 

In light of this chaotic time of the year, it feels like a decent time for a short three things Thursday.

Thing the First

I’m genuinely torn about the ever increasing role that crowd funding plays in higher education. In its ongoing effort to develop new revenue streams to cover everything from student scholarships to innovative research, crowd funding has become a common fixture in the higher education landscape. 

On the one hand, I’m interested in the way in which crowd funding can serve to build new relationships between projects and “stakeholders.” At its best, crowd funding platforms like Patreon have allowed “independent creators” to create communities and the work of groups like The Sportula have backfilled the decline in public (and private) support for working class and disadvantaged college students. It is hard to argue that crowd funding isn’t a useful response to the current funding situation in higher education. 

This is all a long prologue to my shout out to the a new crowdfunding project designed to support the journal Epoiesen. For those of you who don’t know, Epoiesen, is what it says on the box: “a journal for creative engagement in history and archaeology” founded by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Epoiesen as both a contributor and a the publisher of the paper version of the journal through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

Their crowdfunding project is here and its goal is to support ongoing efforts to professionalize the journal, improve its web interface, and increase its reach. Even a casual visit to Epoiesen will make clear that the journal is not some pie-in-the-sky dream but is already a substantial publication that is making a contribution to the academic conversation. Adding polish will only increase its impact.

This is as good a cause as any and offers a way to close the gap between revenue generated traditionally through subscriptions and expenses associated with production. And, whether we like it or not, crowdfunding is now a key way to help innovative ideas succeed.  

Thing the Second

As the semester winds down, I’ve been thinking more and more about the model that I use in my introductory level history courses. In these classes, students work together to write a series of 2000-2500 word essays on various topics. They draw on the textbook and various primary source collections for evidence and submit outlines and multiple drafts over the course of a four week module. The results are generally pretty decent and almost always better than the traditional essays or papers that I used to require in such a class.

This got me wondering whether the traditional reliance on single authored papers and tests has only limited utility in the college classroom. After all, lab sciences have long relied on group work and applied sciences and professional program often encourage students to work as teams to solve problems. While writing is usually a solitary task, I’d contend that most academic papers are co-authored even if this remains less common in the humanities than in other fields. In other words, there is a strong tradition of collaborative work not only teaching across the university, but also in our research lives. 

The emphasis on sole authorship, then, feels a bit old fashioned and might, in fact, reflect attitudes toward education that emphasized its role to rank and sort students rather than to ensure that students develop the diverse skills necessary for them to thrive. Creating projects where students to work together on writing and research encourages students to work together and contributes to an environment where students who have better writing, reading, and research skills work with and support students who might not be as advanced. This isn’t a pious fantasy, but something I see every night as groups wrestle with the complex task for thinking though, researching, organizing, and writing their essays. This kind of environment has the added bonus of creating spaces where students who might feel isolated have opportunities to work together with their peers and form practical (and perhaps even social bonds). 

I don’t think the collaborative writing will even supplant the single author essay or paper (and there are always some students who think that they can do better on their own), but I’m starting to think that collaborative writing might actually be a way to develop writing intensive classes at scale without the massive burden of individual grading and comments. In other words, this system might be both better for students and better for faculty work loads.   

Thing the Third  

In about 15 minutes, I’ll have to turn my attention to the final steps in preparing North Dakota Quarterly for publication. At this point of the process most of the heavy lifting has been done by our publishing partners at the University of Nebraska Press, but my contributors have eagerly completed their proofing the typeset pages and I simply need to pull together their edits. It’s a testimony to the work at the University of Nebraska Press and my diligent authors that we tend to have very few errors at the proof stage. 

One of the most exciting stages of the publication process is the issue cover. This issue’s cover features art by Reinaldo Gil Zambrano, a Venezuelan print maker who now works from Spokane, Washington. In an era where compliance has increasingly taken on an ominous meaning, it seems almost redundant to title a work “malicious compliance,” but Zambrano’s cover nevertheless stands a provocative reminder of how compliance culture can so easily devolve into violence and pain.

NDQ 88 3 4 cover pdf 2021 11 11 06 46 03

Three Things Thursday: Peer Review, Being Busy, and Fiction from the Archive

It feels like it’s about the time of the semester for a Three Things Thursday. So here are some thoughts on peer review, being busy, and a little fiction from the NDQ archive!

Thing the First

This week, I was vaguely annoyed by a well-meaning twitter thread about peer review. The author of this thread argues that journals are being overwhelmed by low quality submissions that are unpublishable and many of these, she argues, come from graduate students. She quite reasonably suggests that graduate programs and advisors take more time to mentor graduate students on the publishing process. This is all commendable, but I take a bit of issue with the premise that the problem with low quality submissions is that graduate students are being told to send manuscripts to journals before these manuscripts are ready.  

To my mind, the problem isn’t the submission of low quality manuscripts, but peer review itself. I’d argued that in the contemporary humanities peer review has become so capricious that it has undermined any common standard for what constitutes a publishable manuscript. I have published consistently over the last decade and worked with a wide range of experienced colleagues, and I know that we still feel a bit unprepared for how reviewers will react to our manuscripts. Some of my weaker articles sail through with minimal calls for revisions while some of my more carefully reasoned and vetted pieces have received rather unfavorable responses for reviewers. When I was a less seasoned scholar, these vagaries frustrated me, but now, I realize that this is just part of the unpredictability of the academic publishing process. As a reviewer I’ve also had the experience of providing careful feedback to articles and then seeing these works published with hardly any changes. And I’ve favorable reviewed articles for one journal only to see the appear in a different journal. I’ve also been struck by the different levels of anonymity in the review process, the different levels of editorial guidance, the different deadlines expected for reviewers, and the sometimes overwhelming number of asks from a small number of publications followed by radio silence. As a reviewer, I constantly find myself second guessing my reviews, the journal’s expectations, and the attitudes of journal editors.   

The rise of the infamous “Reviewer #2” is just a symptom of the randomness associated with the review process. Some of this invariably has to do wide range of epistemologies, methods, and approaches that currently contribute to knowledge making in the humanities. The plurality of understandings of what constitutes meaningful knowledge makes consistent critique of articles challenging and determining which article crosses a bar .

Some of this also has to do with the growing pressure on academics to publish across all stages of their careers. This not only means that scholars have a greater diversity of experiences with the publishing process (and mentoring could help alleviate this diversity of experience, if that is thought desirable), but more importantly a range of access to libraries and resources vital to the task of thinking, reading, and writing. A contingent faculty member teaching at four institutions, a PhD student juggling between teaching and research, a tenure track or tenured faculty member at a lower tier state institution, and a faculty member at a SLAC or R1 will all have different resources at their disposal. More than that, they’ll also have different kinds of academic communities with different expectations and different approaches to critique. To me, this diversity is a good thing in academia. 

Peer review, however, struggles to accommodate epistemological diversity and the kind of institutional and social diversity which has only been exaggerated further by the COVID pandemic and ever more incisive cuts to library funding. In fact, I’d argue that peer review was a fine too for managing a largely homogeneous academia, but has perhaps struggled to adapt to the growing heterogeneity in our ranks.

In this context, it is not so much that manuscripts are “unpublishable,” but that our sense for what constitutes a publishable manuscript has become so helplessly muddled that suggesting graduate programs somehow clarify to students what constitutes publishable seems almost an example of “punching down” and pushing graduate directors and advisors to resolve a situation that is fundamentally outside their control.

Thing the Second

I would like to propose a moratorium on people declaring themselves busy in academic setting. This isn’t meant to diminish the anxiety that people feel about their workloads or the current situation. Nor I am trying to deny that people are actually very busy. And I’m certainly not trying to discourage people from making known that current workloads, in addition to the challenges associated with the seemingly endless pandemic, are not sustainable. People are busier than ever, it creates genuine anxiety, and we need to reinforce that this is not a sustainable situation.

At the same time, faculty have to recognize their audience, pick the opportunities, and channel their anxiety into collective solutions. In at least a few recent occasions, I’ve felt that faculty have directed their sense of busyness onto their colleagues and this feels like a deeply counter productive approach and one that is more likely to produce a kind of defensiveness than a sense of solidarity. I know I have increasingly come to feel that declarations of busyness are often ways for certain individuals to say that they are a busier than other individuals (even if that is not their intention). 

I have a modest proposal: instead of repeating mantra-like statements of how busy we are to all and sundry (including fellow travelers!), perhaps it would be more useful to direct these anxious statements in more collective and unified ways toward those who can actually impact our workloads. At the same time, assume that everyone is busy at the table might create a space where it is easier to find temporary solutions to our collective sense of being overwhelmed.  

Thing the Third

If all this is too structural and academic, do check out this week’s post over at NDQ! It’s a short story from the archives that involves dancing and joy.

As the author of the story, Bábara Mújica, has one of her characters say: “Celebrate when you can. Be happy when you can. Rejoice in the moment, and look for reasons to be glad.”

Making a Book: Mindful Wandering

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on typesetting a new book: Rebecca J. Romsdahl’s Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist. The book is scheduled to appear in time for the holidays and is really great. It will be available as a free download and a print-on-demand paperback from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

The author describes the book this way (and I like this back of the cover blurb!):

Mindful Wandering is an inspiring blend of memoir, travelogue, and environmental manifesto. As a translational ecologist, Rebecca Romsdahl is trained to ask critical questions about how we can improve our human relationships with the natural world for a sustainable, resilient future. As a farmgirl, she learned how to observe nature and life through the changing seasons. In this collection of essays spanning two decades, Romsdahl weaves these ideas together as she travels our changing world. From a Minnesota farm to the mountains of Peru and the edge of the Sahara Desert, she explores strategies for sustainability and resilience, and advocates that we (especially those of us privileged enough to travel) must expand our mindful considerations to include all the other inhabitants of this beautiful Earth. Romsdahl practices, and preaches, mindful wandering to reduce her impacts on the natural environment, and to encourage us all to be better global citizens. She implores us, through the eyes of a farmgirl scientist, to ask soul-searching questions: How do we reconnect with the local, seasonal rhythms of life, while learning how to care about the whole Earth as our home?

The book is typeset and I’m pretty happy with the results. The text is set in Janson with the chapter title in Baskerville. The fonts are pretty conservative, but this is kind of the look that I was going for. The author and I decided to use a grey background for the image on the facing page of the chapter breaks to make these a bit more visible. I then shaded the chapter number (and season, which coincides with a theme in the book) to link the two facing pages together a bit. 

Mindful DRAFT FULL 2 pdf 2021 11 02 05 47 58

I tried to also keep the spacing between lines very comfortable and combined the spacing with a pretty large font (12 pt!) to make the book a comfortable read.

Mindful DRAFT FULL 2 pdf 2021 11 02 05 54 04

I also used little ears of wheat as a section divider. They’re just a bit oversized, which I found endearing!

The book’s cover has been a bit more of a challenge. I wanted the cover to be pretty conservative, The author provided some great images, all of which showed the author in the context of her landscape. I picked one that had a nice vertical aspect to it and space for the title. 

At first, I tried to use a blue filter to create a kind of ethereal landscape, but my expert panel of reviewers said that it made the cover look a bit uninviting. 

Mindful CoverDraft 1 SCREEN

At first, I wasn’t so sure, but I think that they’re probably right. They also suggested that I increase the size of the title and maybe use a warmer filter that would both make the book feel more welcoming and bring out the author’s blue jacket more. 

Trim View 2021 10 30 13 12 29

I’m not sure that this will be the final version of the cover, but I think it’s getting close. I love how the filter which is warm and brown brings out the gradient in the sky.

More on this book as it wends its way through the final stages of production soon!

Three Things Thursday: Making Life Harder, Publishing, and Lineal Champions

It’s almost mid-semester and that always puts me in a bit of a reflective mood. The lovely fall weather and some thoughtful colleagues doesn’t hurt either. So this week, I’m offering a little trio of three things Thursday meditation.

Thing the First

One of the things that I tell my students consistently is not to make their lives any harder than they need to be. Many of my students are carrying heavy course loads, working jobs, and have other family and personal responsibilities on top of the every day pressures of taking classes during a pandemic. In response to this, I’ve really focused on managing student workloads, particularly in lower division classes, and encouraging students to consider how best to use their time to get out of a class what they want to get out of it. In other words, do not do things the hard way because they seems like the best way.

Of course, in my professional life, I consistently do things the hard way. In fact, I seem to consistently and knowingly make my life harder than it needs to be by filling up my time with projects that reflect my interests rather than my priorities. More than that, I seem to get some kind of weird pleasure or at least excitement about navigating the hardest path and pushing myself to endure the frustrations and challenges that come not from the work itself but the arrangement of the work. This has me wondering whether my advice to students to stay on the easy path is good. Maybe more of my students are like me than I know?

Thing the Second

I’ve been working on a little Op-Ed piece for Near Eastern Archaeology with my fellow ASOR book series editor Jennie Ebeling. It’s still a work in progress, but we basically advocate for an increased emphasis on digital publishing in ASOR while acknowledging that there are certain challenges to this. 

This got me thinking about how the publishing ecosystem is a bit perverse. On the one hand, there seems to be consistent pressure on faculty to publish. Over the past few years this pressure might even be increasing at least among my colleagues in Europe. As a result, there seems to be a constant stream of publications in a growing number of journals and book series. These, in turn, require universities to constantly increase their library budgets to capture a productive share of the academic output. At the same time, there appears to be persistent barriers to supporting open access publishing at scale. These aren’t just economic barriers (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but also professional ones which discourage scholars from publishing in open access journals and book series. Anther colleague pointed out that in many fields in the humanities, there are even biases against finding subventions for publication to make them open access or more widely available. The result is that universities have created a system where they are scrambling to provide support for the publications that they push their faculty to produce. A significant slice of the revenue that this cycle creates is siphoned off to private investors further depleting public resources that could go for research, teaching, and in-house publishing.

Thing the Third

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that this weekend is the Wilder-Fury III. This is the third heavyweight fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. The ramp up to the fight has been pretty heated and, like any major heavy-weight fight, the world feels like it stops when these two massive men step into the ring. 

In the fragmented world of heavyweight boxing, only one belt is on the line: the WBC belt. The fight will also be for The Ring heavyweight championship. More importantly (for me at least) is that the belt will be for the Lineal Heavyweight championship. I think the lineal championship, in particular, is what makes boxing – particularly in the so-called standard divisions – so appealing to me. The idea of the lineal championship is that only ONE guy is champion and the only way to be champion is the beat the guy who was the previous champion. If a champion retires, then the championship goes to the highest ranked contender ideally after the 2 and 3 ranked contenders fight. At times, then, the lineal championship can lay open or be contested. Obviously, in this era with multiple ranking systems, sanctioning bodies, and championships, it is often hard to confirm the real lineal champion but with heavyweights there’s a sense that Tyson Fury, after his victory over Wladimir Klitschko (who, in turn, won the lineal championship with his victory over Ruslan Chagaev, who was the third ranked heavyweight in the world at a time when Klitschko was ranked second; there was no lineal champion at that moment because Lennox Lewis had retired).

In any event, I like the concept of a lineal champion. It reminds me of Papal Succession and other formal lineages. I also like that in boxing – at least in theory – requires a fighter to defeat the champion in order to be the champion. In other sports, every season starts with a level playing field and while I get that this generates some excitement, in the world of free agency, there’s a lack of continuity that boxing at least seeks to rectify with its somewhat arcane system of succession.