This post is the second discussion of H-Net's new description of H-Net editors, and stems from my earlier post on Academic Content where the complete new editor description can be found.
The editor description recently approved by H-Net Council refers to editors as “stewards of H-Net's most valuable assets,” a line new to this iteration of the editor description. “Stewardship” is a term not used that commonly in academia, but the concept is part of what we more often call “service,” with which we are all too familiar. A steward makes arrangements, manages, tends to, looks after, and protects the well-being of the thing or people they steward. I'd argue that's what academic service is, motivated by a belief in the intellectual endeavor our stewardship supports.
Academics do “service,” whether we think of it as professional volunteerism, unpaid work, altruism, or borderline exploitation. Academics do service because it’s part of a job, might look good on a CV, and hopefully we are aware of and support the benefit our service provides to whoever we are in service to. When we manage a conference, the association sponsoring it and the academic field we are in are the beneficiaries and we are happy to boost them. We know we need other people to do it at other times and are glad when they do. We take our turn. Those who step in to edit journals likely feel the same way. Sometimes we do “service” for the institutions for which we work, attached to some sort of contractual obligation which muddies the term. But in any case, service has a clear beneficiary and ideally we are happy about their benefit and we benefit from it, too. And sometimes it looks good on our precious CV’s. Those journal editors and conference planners are stewards of those journals and conferences.
Taking on service to an organization hopefully entails believing in that organization's mission and wanting to support what they do. As one VP of an organization for which academics do volunteer service, H-Net, I really only want volunteer editors who buy into our mission and potential. I'm happy we can be a source of CV lines and very, very minor fame, sure, but part of the expectation of service is sharing the same goal. This does not mean agreeing with every decision the organization ever makes, and in a volunteer run org like H-Net it actually means speaking up when you think leadership starys from the organization's overall goal. But being generally on board with the organization you're volunteering for is a must; I’m not sure why anyone would volunteer for an organization they don’t agree with. In academia, I think that means when we do service we should support the underlying intellectual work of the organization, even if the volunteer work we are doing is as mundane as setting up chairs in a conference room.
I co-chaired an academic conference and had, as most do, a variety of reasons for doing so. First among them was my belief in the intellectual value of the conference. We were working in a field that is still new and still has a lot of growing to do, and I was on board with the cause of growing the field. I believed in the actual work of building my field, and I believed in the field itself as a valuable source of new knowledge. I saw my service as part of a broader intellectual endeavor; I believed I was facilitating the production of new knowledge. It's a reason that doesn't pay or earn promotions, but it needs to be the reason we do the service we do. I like to think most academic service gets done for the same reason: editing a journal, serving on a committee, peer reviewing a manuscript, servincg as discussant at a conference, are all things we do because we believe in the intellectual endeavor underlying the work. Like or not, much of the intellectual side of academia happens because many of us do volunteer work.
The “steward” wording in the H-Net editor description hopefully reminds folks that editing an H-Net network is part of an intellectual endeavor. This service is knowledge production writ large, on an expansive scale. Hopefully, our service work at H-Net (and elsewhere) is motivated by a desire to produce new knowledge and contribute to the conversation in our various fields, as that is the work we are here to do.
Further, this is work not just in but on academia itself. The digital age has brought many wonders, but it has not broken down barriers to information per early claims. Instead, it has also brought into starker relief than ever the grip traditional publication models have had on academic knowledge. Some of them tighten that grip now by claiming to make research “open access” online but restricting the other end of the publishing chain by charging authors large fees to publish. H-Net embraces true open access—publishing here is subject to editorial review, not profitability—and works against traditional publishing models that lock our research behind firewalls. While SAGE and others charge authors to make their work “open access,"charge libraries to make their publications available to researchers, and build profits on volunteer authors, peer-reviewers, and editors, H-Net puts academic service in service to academia and not in service to publishers’ profits. This is part of the mission of H-Net Networks of which editors are the stewards.
As stewards, academics tend to and protect the institutions we work on: an association’s conference, a department’s committee, or one of H-Net’s networks. Perhaps more importantly, we look after and protect the intellectual endeavor for which it exists. H-Net editors arrange and manage H-Net’s networks and shepherd them through treacherous waters, protecting them from everything that would jeopardize their integrity as sites of knowledge production, from bias and favoritism to outside associations who would assert control over H-Net’s assets. As volunteers at a non-profit, we protect the academic enterprise from financial interests. We protect academia against politicians who would exploit a general lack of understanding about what academia does, in part by spreading awareness of what we do. More than protect, we tend to, support, and build rich resources for our fields, places for discussion, publication venues. Well beyond announcement lists, our work adds to and grows our fields.