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Blog Post

University Presses as Partners for Public Engagement

By Catherine Cocks, Elizabeth Demers, Jon Miller, Tony Sanfilippo
 | 
April 20, 2021
University Presses as Partners for Public Engagement

Cover images of a selection of university press publications.

As nonprofit educational institutions whose shared mission is making the fruits of the human imagination widely available, university presses are natural partners for public humanities organizations. For as long as there have been university presses, we’ve published works that document, extend, and preserve museum exhibits, oral histories, and community arts projects, as well as academic research and journalistic investigations on topics critical to civic and political well-being.

We are also your neighbors. In contrast to the highly centralized “Big Five” (soon to be four) trade publishers and the small number of independent houses, nearly every state has at least one university press; our professional association, the Association of University Presses, counts members in 42 US states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. We publish regional histories and celebrate local cultures and community leaders. Our authors do readings and signings at local bookstores, public libraries, and museums and give lectures for state humanities councils. University presses attend to the successes and struggles of our communities in ways that big commercial publishers simply cannot.

Here are a few compelling examples, first shared during the 2020 Virtual National Humanities Conference, of the ways that five midwestern university presses have served diverse local communities by publishing publicly engaged humanities work and how they look forward to continuing to do so in the future.

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Ohio State University Press

Ohio State University Press has partnered with a wide range of community organizations to create exhibits, public events, and book projects:

  • The Dublin Arts Council, Qorsho Hassan, and Ruth Smith taught young Somali American girls how to photograph and do oral histories of leaders in Columbus’s Somali American community. The press published a book about the related exhibit.
  • The press published the first complete history of the Huron-Wyandot people by the tribe’s historian, Lloyd E. Divine Jr. (dárahǫk), and provided a copy of the book to every household in the Wyandotte Nation at cost. The author also toured the state to talk about the tribe’s history.
  • The press collaborated with the university’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library and the Columbus Museum of Art to produce the first book about James Thurber as an artist and groundbreaking cartoonist and to spark a whole “Year of Thurber” celebrating Columbus’s favorite son.
  • The press partnered with the Ohio Humanities Council when the authors of Not Far from Me: Stories of Opioids and Ohio received council funding for a speaking tour and website. The tour created some profound moments, underscoring the power of the humanities in public life, as the families of those affected by Ohio’s opioid epidemic shared their stories and formed new networks of support and comfort. This project won the 2019 Schwartz Prize for outstanding work in the public humanities from the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

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Michigan State University Press

Michigan State University Press upholds a longstanding commitment to publishing scholarship and creative work by and about the Native peoples of the Great Lakes region. Its Makwa Enewed imprint was created specifically to serve the needs of Indigenous communities as they define and represent those needs. This imprint includes two volumes of the Sovereign Traces series—graphic works featuring literary and visual art by Native creators—and Bkejwanong Dbaajmowinan/Stories of Where the Waters Divide, by Monty McGahey II, a facing-page translation of Anishinaabe stories. Even more important than making these stories available in English, this book’s Anishinaabemowin contributes to the revitalization of this endangered language. MSU Press is also distributing an Anishinaabemowin translation of The Little Prince and publishes the Papers of the Algonquian Conference.

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University of Michigan Press

University of Michigan Press fostered informed conversations around the 2020 presidential election, beginning with the launch of “Dialogues in Democracy” as a free-to-read collection on its Fulcrum platform in August 2020, in partnership with the university’s Presidential Debate Library Committee and Presidential Debate Academic Advisory Committee.

The collection included 26 recent titles in political science and American studies that were directly relevant to the electoral process. The press promoted engagement with the collection by:

  • Assembling a reading list booklet, with help from Angela Dillard and Catherine Carver of the Presidential Debate Academic Advisory Committee.
  • Producing a limited series podcast, “Dialogues in Democracy,” that featured pairs of the collection’s authors in dialogue about race, national security, social policy, and leadership.
  • Creating a stand-alone podcast about how parties choose nominees from candidate pools.

The “Debate and Democracy” project allowed the press to deliver scholarly content to a much broader public audience than some of these scholarly works may have originally reached. Nearly 10,000 individual readers accessed the collection during the 16 weeks that that it was freely available, and a survey revealed that these readers were students, retirees, academics, and ordinary citizens looking for unbiased information about American democracy. The three most-requested titles were #Identity: Hashtagging Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Nation, edited by Abigail De Kosnik and Keith P. Feldman; Warped Narratives: Distortion in the Framing of Gun Policy, by Melissa K. Merry; and The Politics of American Jews, by Herb Weisberg.

The press has since launched a new free-to-read feature, “Advancing Asian Studies,” sponsored by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is also building an anti-racism and social justice collection of action-oriented books titled, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” sponsored by the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The free-to-read strategy provides the press with an opportunity to share big ideas and individual experiences in the humanities and social science with a curious, insightful public as well as to build long-term community relationships.

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University of Iowa Press

University of Iowa Press’s Humanities and Public Life series, edited by Teresa Mangum and Anne Valk, showcases publicly engaged work by humanities scholars, demonstrating how to build partnerships between community organizations and scholars and the benefits of doing so. The centrality of the humanities to living a full and civically engaged life appears in works such as:

  • The Penelope Project, which chronicles the work of Anne Basting and her colleagues to stage a play based on the story of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, the one who waits, with the residents of a Milwaukee assisted living facility. Later life, they show, need not be a period of simply waiting for death, but a time of individual and communal creativity.
  • Ruth Sergel’s See You in the Streets offers a model for building large coalitions to commemorate a tragedy, in this case the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 workers died, and to promote social change in the present.

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University of Akron Press

University of Akron Press is directed by Jon Miller, an English professor who has labored for years to re-imagine courses with assignments that end in the publication of student work. The idea of publishing student work is not new; many universities publish undergraduate research journals. But the time is ripe for publishing a greater diversity of students on much shorter publication schedules.

In his courses, Miller has edited books of student work in literary history, including “Sketches at Home and Abroad: A Critical Edition of Selections from the Writings of Nathaniel Parker Willis” and “Nineteenth-Century Ohio Literature.” He is also working with faculty at the university’s EX[L] Center for Experiential Learning to stimulate the collection and publication of student work conducted in the community as part of their courses.

A university press can be a natural partner to community engagement initiatives that involve teaching faculty at its university. Students are invigorating and come to campus as content creators. What’s more, publications documenting their work with a community organization would be helpful to their career advancement after graduation. Wherever a humanities organization is partnering with a university to involve students in for-credit community engagement, there is an opportunity, with the help of the university press, to imagine course requirements so that they culminate in work that can be collected in books and individually published across social media platforms.

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Catherine Cocks is the assistant director and editor-in-chief of Michigan State University Press, and former editorial director at the University of Iowa Press. She organized the NHC 2020 panel, “University Presses as Partners for Public Engagement,” from which this article is drawn.

Elizabeth Demers is the editorial director of the University of Michigan Press. Jon Miller is an English professor at the University of Akron and the director of the University of Akron Press. Tony Sanfilippo is the director and an acquisitions editor of the Ohio State University Press.

Humanities for All: Over 1,800 Projects Nationwide

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