#UPWeek blog tour: The Heart of Our Future

The UP Week blog tour comes to our press today with a post by IUP director Gary Dunham on the future of scholarly publishing.

This is the story of how a young Lakota woman led me to the heart of what we do.

About twenty years ago, a greenhorn, wonderfully optimistic acquisition editor at the University of Nebraska Press received a dirt-stained book manuscript from a young woman who grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Newly minted from graduate school and afire with scholarly discourse and purpose, I remember well the surprise, fascination, and frustration as I turned the pages—the writing wasn’t at all good, the grammar was challenged, but the story refused to be diminished. The Lakota woman told in graphic detail of her life as a teenager on that beautiful but impoverished reservation. She shared stories of her high school friends struggling with lackluster futures and some succumbing to alcoholism, an ever stretching string of dead classmates who left her behind to deal with her own terrors of temptation and hopelessness.

I couldn’t stop reading.

And I didn’t know what the hell to do with it.

What in the world is this? It wasn’t a monograph, my bread-and-butter in graduate school and at the press during that first year. There was no…scholarship; yet, how could one ignore that life so unflinchingly lived? The writing was only serviceable in places; yet, my goodness, it was impossible not to hear a very real voice in every ragged paragraph.

That manuscript troubled me. It definitely resonated with the press’s list in American Indian Studies, but it needed work, the type of editing not addressed by the usual scholarly peer review process. I needed to go through it carefully and offer substantive editorial advice and edits. I had to engage with the author on a deeper, personal level about the nuances of her life and how to best tell that story. And I had to be ready to wrestle with my own emotions editing it as some parts of the raw story hit close to home in my own life. I just couldn’t do it. That manuscript demanded something that I, fresh out of the academy and frantically building my first list, wasn’t prepared, trained, or even had the time to do.

And so, after a week of staring at the manuscript and sporadically riffling through its pages, I let it go. Let the author figure it out. Dropping a templated revise-and-resubmit reply in the mail, I tossed the manuscript onto my R&R shelf and moved on to other projects.

Except that I didn’t.

About a year later, after a numbing afternoon of reading and sending out for peer review a heap of monographs-in-the-making—let’s face it, we have all endured such days—I picked up that now dusty manuscript, and soon became lost in the Lakota woman’s story again. Damn. Seeing clearly where edits could have brought out the strengths of that telling, I realized that I hadn’t done my job. I hadn’t met the author half way so that we could collaboratively edit and revise her manuscript. I had been afraid of that midpoint because it required discussion, connection, and editorial engagement on a far more personal, intimate level necessary than the usual back-and-forths about footnotes and theoretical apparatus. And the emotionally vulnerability required of me to work with the author had been just too much to ask.

Sitting in that office that afternoon as the shadows began stretching long, I realized that a voice that should have been heard, remained silent. I made notes into the evening. With no phone number available, I sent another letter to that rural reservation address, this time full of substantive editorial advice.

A year later, and no reply. Now confidently grasping my editorial responsibilities and capabilities in a more nuanced way, I began taking professional and emotional risks, acquiring and editing manuscripts replete with some remarkable voices within and outside of the academy—memoirs; biographies; collaborative life stories. More and more, I personalized my engagements with monographs by connecting with scholarly authors about their lives, their passion for what they do. And my authors learned about me—my background, my love for editing, my abiding respect for the privileged position of helping others tell their stories and share their research. Such immensely satisfying and, yes, sometimes draining emotional journeys I took with authors then, the best time of my professional life. And all that time, the yellowing manuscript from Pine Ridge Reservation waited on my shelf, reminding me of what mattered and needed to be done. Nearly two decades later, and still no reply. But, in a way, she did. What that Lakota woman taught me is that publishing at its best is not just a mechanized process of content dissemination born in the grist mill of the academy. It’s a profoundly human experience of emotional connection, mutual trust, and collaborative creation; a joining on several levels that yields tellings that will outlive us all. That is our heart, the enduring value added of what we do.

In this era of accelerated list-building demands, fast-paced digitized workflows, ever-churning tenure machines, and dazzling technological innovations in how we share and access information, I fear that we risk losing sight of and appreciation for ourselves and our authors, the human beings behind the monograph, the stories, the designs, the editing, and marketing. As our content opens up through technology, how much are we shutting down? Looking at a new legion of three-piece-suited acquisition editors scurrying across yet another academic conference, I wonder how many really know—or have time to know—the life journeys that bring their authors to them. And how much of themselves are they comfortable sharing? Do they understand that emotional vulnerability and risk-taking are essential to good publishing? Honoring the heart of what we do presents opportunities for recognizing and encouraging content not couched in standard scholarly discourse. It prompts us to listen closely to voices both within and beyond the academy. And it reminds us to take time to savor the uniquely rewarding experience of collaborative creation with our authors, with fellow human beings.

The blog tour continues today at Oxford University Press, George Mason University Press, University Press of Colorado, University Press of Kansas, University of North Carolina Press, West Virginia University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Fordham University Press, and University of Georgia Press

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