In our second blog post for University Press Week (running November 6-11), our Executive Editor, Anne Brackenbury, discusses how academic publishing needs to go beyond just the facts in order to truly engage a wider public. She uses as her example our soon-to-be-published graphic ethnography, Lissa, and how decisions around the publication of this book will hopefully help capture both hearts and minds. This year’s theme for UP Week is #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters.
Objective. Rigorous. Evidence-based. Peer reviewed. This is what university presses do best, right? We appeal to reason over passion, evidence over opinion, intellect over emotion. Or do we? While I have published many books that would fall under this description, I have published others that actually critique this assumption of pure reason and scientific objectivity. These works criticize scientific approaches for their hubris, their lack of attention to the human lives that are impacted by this work, and the messy, often uneven, contexts in which this research is produced.
And yet we find ourselves in a moment where critique—once the norm in the humanities and social sciences—has suddenly gone out of fashion. The response to the new normal where “alternative facts” often carry more weight than peer-reviewed research is to consider ourselves the protectors of the scientific process, and as the channel in which the “truth” needs to be made available as facts. Even some high profile critics are now joining the mission to save science from the unbelievers. Others have decried the death of expertise at the hands of postmodernism, which they believe has emptied all authority of value, encouraging a rampant anti-intellectualism that privileges personal opinion over evidence, and passion over reason.
And yet, as Alex Golub suggests, the growth of populism and its associated anti-intellectual tendencies isn’t going to be solved by facts alone. The people we want so desperately to convince are not going to hear facts that they don’t want to hear unless we can somehow tap into the culture they are part of. Because that’s the thing. People (including those of us who consider ourselves liberal) understand facts in the context of a broader belief system, a culture if you will. And if we don’t somehow account for that culture, relying solely on a discussion of the facts means we will only ever be talking to ourselves.
So what does that mean for scholarly publishing? There’s no question the work has to start with solid, rigorous, peer-reviewed research. After that, however, opportunities abound. Research can be cast in many different ways that win not only minds, but hearts as well. For belief is located as much in the heart as it is in the mind.
Case in point: the launch of a new series, ethnoGRAPHIC, and the publication of our first graphic ethnography. Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution is a project that emerged out of a collaboration between two academics who have done related but very different medical anthropology research. One dealt with kidney transplants in Egypt, the other with genetic pre-testing for breast cancer in the US. When put into conversation with one another, the authors were able to ask larger questions about not just the limitations of science and medical technology, but the ways in which we understand this technology vis-à-vis our own bodies. These very different ways of understanding health, and bodies, and risk, and the future end up offering an opportunity to make connections where they are often not easily made.
Two important decisions were made that I think move this book from being a traditional academic venture with a relatively limited audience to potentially exploding across age, culture, national, and disciplinary boundaries. The first was to develop a fictional story with two fully relatable and human main characters from very different cultures. Layla and Anna are not just instruments developed to further a message—they are living, breathing, human beings with complex emotions and even more complex motivations. This is what moves readers to feel empathy for them. Even when set in far-away Egypt, in a context that feels foreign, the characters and the relationship that develops between them makes it possible to explore beliefs and cultures in a fresh, non-threatening way.
The second choice was to render this in graphic novel form, using the unique power of this format—a sequential narrative realized in image form that can make visible the invisible, bend and twist time, and create places and spaces that become characters in their own right. Comics aren’t what they used to be (or maybe we’re only now discovering how powerful they are in their simplicity). Both sophisticated and accessible, engaging and subversive, comics combine the best of text (linear narrative) with the strength of images (quick, affective, and holistic interpretation) to speak to both young and old, skeptic and believer, and hearts and minds.
As a comic Lissa stands on its own. But it was clear from the beginning of this project that we wanted to make sure the real world context and the research that supported the story wasn’t erased, but made visible in the form of supplementary material (both in the book and on a companion website). Timelines of real world events, a teaching guide with probing discussion questions, links to further resources—on breast cancer and genetic testing, on kidney disease and organ transplants, and on the Egyptian revolution—as well as a documentary film that explores how the authors and artists transformed their research into a comic, create a supportive scaffolding for the book.
It has been a massive collaborative experiment on a number of levels, and while a more commercial press could easily have published the comic, I’m not sure they would have shown as much interest in the intellectual contribution that constitute the supplementary materials surrounding the comic. The mandate of a trade press is to engage readers in a good story. Ours, as a university press, is to engage readers in a good story that might also lead to a change in public discourse and public policy, and to ongoing scholarly discussions.
We can’t control how people use the book. Some might only read the graphic novel and ignore the rest (unless smart instructors assign it as required reading!). And that’s okay. They will still learn a lot in the process. But for those who become curious, or those who want to use the story as a way to probe more deeply into issues of modern technology and its limits, bioethics, religion, gender, health and political inequality, and the comic medium itself, we hope they will find this scaffolding useful. In the process, who knows? Maybe reading, discussing, and teaching this book can build a tentative bridge across a cultural divide, and in the process a new neural pathway will be reinforced that allows us to talk about these issues differently.
In my experience, that isn’t just publishing that provides evidence for the mind, it’s publishing that matters for both hearts and minds.
Executive Editor, Higher Education
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This post is part of the University Press Week Blog Tour. Please visit our colleagues’ blogs:
WLU Press: A post from Indigenous scholar and fiction writer Daniel Heath Justice on the importance of Indigenous literatures and scholarship.
Temple University Press: A post about books and authors that focus on racism and whiteness.
University Press of Colorado: A feature on the press’s Post-Truth-focused titles.
Princeton University Press: Al Bertrand on the importance of non-partisan peer reviewed social science in today’s climate.
Cambridge University Press: A post about Marie Curie and her struggle for recognition within a French scientific community dominated by male scientists.