Publishing Public Humanities Projects: A Conversation

Catherine Cocks Discussion

In the spring of 2021, the National Humanities Alliance published “Public Humanities and Publication: A Working Paper,” the product of a team of scholars and editors convened by Kath Burton (Taylor and Francis) and Daniel Fisher (National Humanities Alliance and Hebrew Union College). Two members of the team, Barry M. Goldenberg and Dave Tell, wrote a post for the Elephant. And full disclosure—Elephant co-editor Catherine Cocks also participated in the group. Here, Kath and Daniel talk with the Elephant about why they tackled the topic. 


Elephant: Much of the academic conversation around public humanities work has centered on why scholars should do it and the need for tenure and promotion criteria to recognize the value of community-engaged projects. Why focus specifically on the publication of public humanities projects?

Daniel: As the field of public humanities grows, it is critical that it be recognized in tenure and promotion criteria as scholarship in and of itself. While this is increasingly the case, change in this area will take time. In the meantime, one reason that we chose to focus specifically on the publication of public humanities projects is to show how publication can help scholars meet existing criteria at their institutions. More broadly, publication holds the potential to help advance the field in three key ways.

First, publication surfaces and preserves the values, methods, outcomes, and outputs of this work for discussion, outlining how it can fit in across disciplines and areas of interest in the humanities. This enables the growth of public humanities work in different contexts, adapting and reimagining it on the foundation of existing scholarship.

Second, publication can help new practitioners in graduate school and beyond come to understand the breadth and possibilities of public humanities work.

Third, publication, understood broadly to encompass established books and journals and digital outputs like archives, newsletters, and podcasts, can serve as an integral activity in public humanities projects. A co-created journal article or digital archive, for example, can represent one component of an ongoing initiative, offering an intermediary milestone for refining and laying the foundation for future work. 


Elephant: What is different about publishing a public humanities project compared to a regular one, for authors, publishers, and readers?

Kath: This is a great question, but also a tough one to answer succinctly! Many of the facets of publishing public humanities projects will be familiar to authors, publishers, and readers. In their segment of the working paper, Darcy Cullen (UBC Press) and Friederike Sundaram (Stanford University Press) spotlight some of these familiar facets, specifically: format, peer review, access and preservation, and marketing and distribution, and they also illustrate where public humanities publications diverge from tradition. If we look more closely at “format,” as one example, I think we start to see some real differences in how an engaged approach to humanities scholarship differs from a more traditional approach when it comes to publishing the work.

For instance, public and publicly engaged work is often collaborative—working with public partners and community groups whose objectives may differ from those of the scholarly author. How does an author ensure that all the voices involved in the project are included in the work? What parameters do scholars set up for collaborative writing and how do you draw co-created aspects of a project into a single-authored book or journal article? Furthermore, who is your audience and how do they want to engage with what you have created?

There are more questions than answers, perhaps, but increasingly, digital platforms are being utilized for the publication of engaged research in the humanities beyond—or in addition to—books and journals. The paper highlights a number of publications that support the emerging digital outputs from publicly engaged projects, such as RavenSpace from UBC Press, which offers a place for interactive work in Indigenous studies. Not only does the platform provide a pathway for projects’ publication, but it also goes to great lengths to expose some of the processes, methods, ethics, and other considerations of working with Indigenous communities when designing and conducting research projects. As we have started to communicate about the unique challenges of public humanities and publication, one of the key differentiators that we often come back to is the fact that these projects are as much about process as they are about research outputs and outcomes.


Elephant: Can complex, messy public humanities projects fit into the typical scholarly book or journal article? If not, do we need to rethink those forms, or just leave them behind for others?

Daniel: Yes, absolutely. But we need to think broadly both about and beyond the typical scholarly books or journal articles.

Within these established and important formats, we would do well to devote space to discussion of the methods and processes of publicly engaged work. In part due to the public nature of this work, it is particularly open to the complexities and unexpected turns. As Goldenberg and Tell put it, “local knowledges, local fault lines, local politics, and local customs remake the assumptions of scholars at every turn.” Tracking these often messy processes can help contextualize the project’s outcomes. 

This is critical not only for understanding the project itself, but also for laying the groundwork for future public humanities work. Public humanities work is deeply embedded in its contexts, in the people and institutions that make it possible through their partnership. No two partnerships are alike, which impacts projects differently each time. Understanding the process by which the partnership came to be is critical to understanding the work and its outcomes. What worked—and what didn’t? What did each partner bring to the work? How did it evolve over time, iteratively, messily, and, ultimately, leading to the publication? 

Typical books and journal articles can offer this space. Beyond these established and important formats, we need to think about how multiple print and digital platforms might be leveraged, both as integral components of public humanities work and to communicate its values, methods, outcomes, and outputs. Manifold Scholarship (a digital publishing platform) can be particularly useful in this connection, opening books up for ongoing and open engagement. As is the case in other disciplines, typical scholarly books or journal articles can also be published in conjunction with other artifacts. This could include, as is standard in the sciences and social sciences, an archive of data. A podcast featuring a discussion between co-creators could also augment the typical scholarly book or journal article. 


Elephant: Who’s the primary audience for the white paper? What results do you hope to see from its publishing?

Kath: Thinking about our audience was a key consideration as we designed the working group’s activities. Prior to writing, we spoke with a number of stakeholders—scholarly society executives, publishing specialists, deans of faculty, and more—about the development of public humanities as a field. When we began to think about how we might address the broad-ranging and diverse challenges that emerged from those conversations, it became apparent that we needed a focal point. Publishing emerged from those discussions as one way in which we could spotlight how public humanities has that great potential for adapting existing forms and formats of knowledge production and dissemination. Once we had decided to focus on the model publication practices associated with public and publicly engaged humanities work, it was a quick step to identify our primary audience: humanities scholars and publishers. That being said, we’re also extremely grateful to our advisors, whose diverse backgrounds helped us to develop and maintain that focus—tempting as it was to make the appeal of the paper applicable to a wider range of audiences!

We hope that the paper clearly identifies a core set of challenges and opportunities for the publication of more engaged work in the humanities; we know there is more to expand on here and we are encouraging all feedback on the many points raised in the paper. By spotlighting in the paper how scholars and publishers alike are already adapting to create new practices, it’s our aspiration that others will be bold enough to follow suit. One thing we would like to see emerge from this work is deeper engagement with a broader range of stakeholders. We are particularly keen to better engage community partners who have been involved in this work. We think it’s important to gather as diverse a set of viewpoints from those who can help advocate for more engaged work generally and in existing or future publications. 


Elephant: What are the next steps? 

Kath: We want to hear from you! The working paper is available on the Humanities Commons, where we have also set up a group. We would welcome your thoughts and feedback to continue the conversation. We will be posting questions about public humanities and publication over the coming months.

In the meantime, our wonderful working group participants are keeping us on our toes and have been busy sharing their work through blogs, panel discussions and via social media channels. We also convened a panel discussion at the SSP meeting at the end of May 2021, where we introduced the working group to a new audience, bringing in librarian and scholarly society voices to move the conversation forward. As we identify in the paper, the librarian’s role in shaping public humanities publications goes way beyond deposit and preservation. And with scholarly societies, whose vision and mission often aligns with the values and aspirations of public humanities, there is an increasing need to support the work of their members. By bringing our focus to these two key stakeholder groups in the panel, we see great potential to extend the focus of our working paper.

Our most important next step is to use this platform to extend heartfelt gratitude to all of the members of our working group who, despite last year’s upheavals and the disruptions ongoing, have never wavered in their commitment to this project. Here’s to more soon!


The working group members:
Catherine Cocks
Darcy Cullen
Barry M. Goldenberg
Janneken Smucker
Friederike Sundaram
Dave Tell
Anne Valk
Rebecca Wingo 


Kath Burton is co-convener of the Public Humanities and Publication working group and currently specializing in portfolio development within the Humanities division at Routledge journals. Her interests include research and publishing infrastructure, public engagement with research and born-digital humanities workflows and publications.

Daniel Fisher is a research affiliate at the National Humanities Alliance, where he focuses on initiatives relating to publicly engaged scholarship in higher education and publishing. He is an assistant professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and served as project director for Humanities for All from 2017-2020.

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