University of Toronto Press Blog

  • How to Build Community

    In today’s contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), our Awards and Events Coordinator, Vannessa Barnier, talks about her role at UTP and in the Toronto poetry community – and why participating in community building is both rewarding and beneficial.


    By Vannessa Barnier

    Writing is a singular activity, which allows for isolation. This is especially true for those working and writing within academic institutions: outside of seminars, there are not many opportunities to engage with peers or other academics. Lectures – though everyone shares space – are often spent alone, attended alone, dismissed alone, to go off to work… alone. The nature of this work – writing, researching, reading – involves primarily isolated activities.

    Being an events coordinator, both at University of Toronto Press and within the Toronto poetry community, I think a lot about how to facilitate growth and comradery, and the situations and physical spaces necessary for these things to transpire. In my experience, building community is easiest when folks are exposed to and understand how they can benefit from participating. Whether you’re dealing with professors or poets, these benefits include both inspiration and output.

    Communities make competition possible, which can, in turn, inspire output. When you’re aware of what others in your field are doing, you are inspired to keep up to date, to challenge ideas, and to improve your own work. In addition, being part of a community includes shared deadlines, which help to encourage output. Publishing and conference deadlines force writers to work towards a goal and to produce material they otherwise would not be so driven to complete. When considering what it means to be part of a community, deadlines in this case are a perceived benefit.

    In my role at UTP, I coordinate all of the events that the press attends, including exhibiting at conferences. Academic conferences are meeting places of shared, specific interests. They allow for people with hyper-specific interests to come together to discuss, disagree, and grow. These connections and conversations are integral to knowledge sharing and allow for ideas to be workshopped, new perspectives to be added, and arguments to be challenged. It is only through this process that disciplines can be strengthened. Things do not exist in silos, and when they do, they are not productive, current, or valuable.

    These ideas extend to all communities, including creative writing communities. In Toronto especially, there is a lively poetry community, with regular events and outings. It is through community that there is such productive growth, both collectively and individually. With submission deadlines to journals, poetry readings, and writing groups, folks are held accountable to their writing, motivated to produce new material, and inspired to explore new ideas. There is both praise and confidence, in the form of verbal affirmations and monetary encouragement. Through book or chapbook purchases, awards and grants, or GoFundMe campaigns, writers are supported and encouraged in ways that isolation does not allow for.

    All this is to say that participating in community building is nothing but beneficial. Joining and contributing to communities – academic or otherwise – is a very powerful, exciting decision. To build community is to be open and desiring of more, from yourself and your work. To be open to community requires presence, passion, and the desire to share ideas and to provide platforms for others to grow.

    ***

    To continue on Day Four of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

    Columbia University Press
    Blog: https://www.cupblog.org/
    Twitter: @ColumbiaUP

    Temple University Press
    Blog: https://templepress.wordpress.com/
    Twitter: @TempleUnivPress

    University of Michigan Press
    Blog: https://blog.press.umich.edu/
    Twitter: @UofMPress

    Syracuse University Press
    Blog: https://syracusepress.wordpress.com/
    Twitter: @SUPress

    GeorgetownUniversity Press
    Twitter: @GUPress

    University Press of Kansas
    Blog: http://universitypressblog.dept.ku.edu/
    Twitter: @Kansas_press

    University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books
    Blog: https://unpblog.com/category/potomac-books/
    Twitter: @UnivNebPress; @PotomacBooks

    Athabasca University Press
    Blog: http://www.aupressblog.ca/
    Twitter: @au_press

    John Hopkins University Press
    Blog: https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog
    Twitter: @jhupress

    PrincetonUniversity Press
    Blog: https://press.princeton.edu/ideas
    Twitter: @PrincetonUPress

    MIT University Press
    Blog: https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog
    Twitter: @mitpress

    University of Toronto Press Journals
    Blog: http://blog.utpjournals.com
    Twitter: @utpjournals

    Vanderbelt University Press
    Blog: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/universitypress/
    Twitter: @vanderbiltup

    University of North Carolina Press
    Blog: https://uncpressblog.com/
    Twitter: @uncpressblog

  • How to Be an Environmental Steward

    In today’s contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), our Publisher’s Representative, Alex Keys, shares some advice on how to be an environmental steward – drawing from what he has learned in his role at UTP and in particular from the new edition of Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice by Peter J. Stoett.

    By Alex Keys

    There have been some interesting shifts in the public conversation about environmental issues over the past few years, especially about climate change. Worldwide climate marches have seen staggering attendance this past year, Greta Thunberg has appeared as an unflinching champion of climate action, and the UN IPCC report has given the international community a firm (if daunting) ten year deadline to completely re-organize the global economy around clean energy. Canada’s recent federal election saw every major party propose a plan to address climate change, and although the Conservative plan was rightly chided for having no teeth, even that party couldn’t ignore the issue altogether. All of this is encouraging.

    At the same time, I think climate change has become a slightly taboo water-cooler conversation even among those of us who believe it is a real, man-made threat. When I was growing up, my liberal family and friends talked about global warming a lot, with a righteousness fueled by the complete denialism coming from the other side. The news seemed to give both science and propaganda an equal hearing, and it felt like our big challenge was convincing everybody that the problem was real. Lately, even Republicans in the U.S. Senate don’t go smugly waving snowballs to prove that global warming is a hoax – instead, they just put all the blame on China and change the subject. They don’t want to think about it, but then again neither do most of us. The scale of the problem is so vast, the possible outcomes so depressing, and our current collective efforts so unequal to the task at hand, that it just isn’t a very pleasant thing to talk or think about. This is a big part of our problem.

    Peter J. Stoett, in his second edition of Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice (2019), notes in his foreword that anxious uncertainty is a major theme he seeks to address. We know, he says, that “we are slowly, by a billion cuts, diminishing the future opportunities of the next generation. We realize that some of the more pressing environmental problems, on a local and global scale, are literally out of our control.” We are losing faith in the model of eternal economic growth and the promise of technology to solve all our problems. Yet our governments seem to have little to show in the way of a plan.

    I think that, on an individual level, we find other release valves for this mounting mental pressure. We just can’t go about our daily lives thinking about the melting ice-caps all the time. If we really believed we were in an emergency, at a deep, personal level, we would stop going to work and stock up on food and bottled water instead. In my role as a publisher’s rep, I recently spoke to a professor who teaches about the environment, and I asked her if her students are too anxious to face the material. She told me they aren’t – they mostly believe technology will solve all the problems.

    This is not how to be an environmental steward. Sitting on your hands and hoping for a problem to be fixed isn’t much better than denying a problem exists at all. But I’m no pessimist, and neither is Peter J. Stoett. He takes comfort in the “tremendous amount of work being done by diplomats, scientists, activists, and bureaucrats” to put together a global response. They are educated on the problem, they have ideas for solutions, and they are motivated to overcome political divisions to realize them. Stoett’s book focuses on ecopolitics, “at the intersection of ecology and politics at various levels,” and on global governance, specifically multilateral agreements between states. Climate change is only one of his case studies: he also discusses biodiversity reduction, deforestation, the ocean crisis, freshwater scarcity, and other alarming topics. He agrees with many observers that these dire circumstances require big societal changes, though he emphasizes that “whatever forms of governance follow the recognition of crisis, justice must be a primal animating factor in our collective response if we expect adaptive institutions to carry a legitimacy and prove sustainable.” It’s a great point, and the animating idea behind proposals like the American “Green New Deal,” which would package emissions-reductions with a jobs guarantee and other progressive measures. We seem to be in the middle of a global backslide into authoritarianism, and liberal democracies will need to deal with the environment and severe social inequality at the same time if they want to preserve themselves.

    Multilateral agreements between states tend to feel very abstract and far from our control. What, then, should we do as individuals? Can’t we each focus on doing our part to reduce our own individual footprint?

    I just don’t think that’s the right thing for us to focus on. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with driving less and riding your bike more, or cutting down your consumption of meat (the most dramatic change you can make to reduce your personal footprint). But ever since I was a kid, we’ve had an Earth Day every year and turned off the lights for a few hours. We’ve replaced most incandescent bulbs, we’ve recycled and composted, and gosh-darn it we’ve even gotten rid of plastic straws. Lo and behold, the oceans are still full of plastic and the planet is still steadily warming. Trees are still being cut down and burned at a greater rate than we are planting them. These individual lifestyle adjustments are like planning five minutes of work a day on a 500 page manuscript due next week. At a certain point, you have to realize you won’t make your deadline.

    A good environmental steward takes care to reduce her own waste, protect local ecologies, and raise awareness of bad practices. All of that is good, and we should all do our individual part. But at our point in history, in the early stages of our climate emergency and our mass extinction event, individual action is insufficient. Reorganizing the economy is a collective task; indeed, a global one. I suspect that our focus on individual lifestyle changes for the past few decades has acted as a relief valve for our fear and anger, forces that could have powered the engine of a popular movement to confront these problems in a meaningful way. But it isn’t too late.

    Peter J. Stoett makes a case for “restrained optimism” about the potential of global governance – political coordination of various forms at the global level – to address our ecological crises. The great and terrible thing about politics is that it is made out of people; scared, lazy, sometimes courageous, sometimes unrelenting. If any of us want to do our individual part, it must be to help push society in the right direction. Environmental stewardship means:

    1. Voting. Make climate change and plastic pollution ballot box issues, and write your MP when the election is over to make sure they know you care about them.

    2. Giving your time, your money, your energy, or anything you can to an activist group. Go to marches, get mad, and stay mad.

    3. Being courageous in the face of change.

    We have ten years to organize a global response. This is not a technological problem or a problem of limited resources – we live in the wealthiest and most advanced societies in human history. This problem is political, and we must take it seriously as such. We should feel no little burst of self-satisfaction from putting a clean clamshell in a blue bin until all the ecological alarms stop blaring.

    ***

    To continue on Day Three of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

    University of Pittsburgh Press
    Blog: https://upittpress.org/university-press-week-2019-four-ways-to-be-a-better-environmental-steward/
    Twitter: @UPittPress

    Duke University Press
    Blog: https://dukeupress.wordpress.com/2019/11/06/university-press-week-how-to-be-an-environmental-steward
    Twitter: @DukePress

    Columbia University Press
    Blog: https://www.cupblog.org/
    Twitter: @ColumbiaUP

    University of California Press
    Blog: https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/
    Twitter: @ucpress

    Yale University Press
    Blog: http://blog.yalebooks.com/
    Twitter: @yalepress

    University of South Carolina Press
    Blog: facebook.com/USC.Press
    Twitter: @uscpress

    Bucknell University Press
    Blog: upress.blogs.bucknell.edu
    Twitter: @BucknellUPress

    Oregon State University Press
    Blog: http://osupress.oregonstate.edu/blog

    University Press of Mississippi
    Blog: https://www.upress.state.ms.us/News
    Twitter: @upmiss

    University of Minnesota Press
    Blog: uminnpressblog.com
    Twitter: @UMinnPress

    Harvard University Press
    Blog: https://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/
    Twitter: @harvard_Press

  • Thinking about Thinking: Kenneth S. Stern and How to Be a Better (Global) Citizen

    In this lead-off contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), Anna Maria Del Col, Marketing Manager, Humanities, shares an excerpt from The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate by Kenneth S. Stern. When considering today's theme of "How to Be a Better (Global) Citizen," Stern's book offers valuable advice.

    By Anna Maria Del Col

    There are a lot of great things about working in publishing – and in particular, academic publishing. Every day, we get to shape and share ideas, work closely with language, learn new things from leading experts in a wide range of disciplines, and hopefully contribute to making the world a slightly smarter and better place. But once in a while, in the normal course of our work, we come across a particular author or book project that can entirely change the way we see the world, and how we try to behave in the world.

    For me, the most recent author to have this kind of impact is Kenneth S. Stern, whose book project, The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, is set to launch our New Jewish Press imprint in Spring 2020. Stern, who has dedicated his life to fighting antisemitism and defending human rights, and who currently works as the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, should inspire us all to become better global citizens.

    I think everyone must go through phases where the media cycle becomes unbearable – the conflicts around the world seem unsolvable, the hatred seems endless, and rational thought seems to have completely disappeared. I was entering one of those phases when we signed Kenneth S. Stern and starting planning for the publication of The Conflict over the Conflict. To learn more about the project I began to read the prologue – and I would like to share an excerpt from that prologue here. Even though his project is focused on the Israel/Palestine debate, and how it plays out on North American college and university campuses, there is a real wisdom to everything that Stern says. He offers a model for how to think rationally about any kind of conflict. His lifetime of dealing with the topic of hatred is inspiring, and makes it clear that disengaging is not a solution.

    I cannot think of a better book project to share with the world to help kick off University Press Week 2019. The theme this year is “Read. Think. Act.” Reading The Conflict over the Conflict will make you think about how you think, and it will force you to act for good and to act rationally. It is exactly the book the world needs right now.

    Note: This excerpt is taken from the unedited manuscript. It has not been copy edited, typeset, or proofed and footnotes have been removed. Advance page proofs will be available soon. You can contact our publicist, Chris Reed, for more information about advance proofs for media purposes.

    ***

    Excerpt from The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate

    By Kenneth S. Stern

    PROLOGUE

    From the 1970s until a lawsuit shut it down in 2001, the Aryan Nations – perhaps America’s most significant neo-Nazi group at the time – had a compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, not far from Spokane, Washington. It was a Hitler-worshipping, Holocaust-denying, racist and violent enterprise, and some of its members were bent on using guns and bombs to promote white supremacy.

    The group “The Order” was founded by Aryan Nations members. It robbed banks to support a white supremacist revolution. In 1984 it assassinated one particularly hated Jew, Denver talk radio host Alan Berg, who had enjoyed needling white supremacists on his program.

    Randy Weaver, who lived in nearby Ruby Ridge, Idaho, socialized with other white supremacists at the Aryan Nations compound. In 1992 federal agents tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant, and during an armed standoff U.S. Marshal Bill Degan was killed, along with Weaver’s wife and son.

    Buford Furrow was another Aryan Nations member. He walked into a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999, firing at least 70 rounds from a semi-automatic weapon. He wounded five people, including three children. Then he shot and killed a Filipino-American postal worker.

    To the human rights and Jewish communities in the Inland Northwest, the Aryan Nations and the hatred it inspired in others was a direct and constant danger. A Jewish woman bought Chanukah giftwrap and discovered razor blades inside. When Temple Beth Shalom (Spokane’s main synagogue) remodeled, its classrooms were placed in an inner courtyard, protected with bullet-proof windows. Some members of the congregation came to services armed. Black law students at Gonzaga University received threatening racist letters, and some left. Bombs were planted at a Planned Parenthood office and the Spokesman Review newspaper. A pipe bomb went off in the home of Coeur D’Alene Idaho parish priest Bill Wassmuth (with him in it). Luckily, he wasn’t injured.

    Activists in the region organized and pushed back. In 2001 the compound was closed, after Aryan Nations guards shot up a car passing by their property, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with local attorney Norm Gissel, filed suit. The area is now vacant. But the leaders in the community remain concerned about the potential for racist violence to disrupt their lives. Ten years after the compound closed, a white supremacist put a radio-controlled bomb in a backpack along the route of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Day march. Many children were among the marchers, and no doubt some would have been maimed or killed if the bomb had exploded. It was filled with small fishing weights, covered in an anticoagulant found in rat poison. Fortunately, the device was discovered and deactivated.

    These days the potential for new recruits is obvious. Confederate flag stickers or license plate holders are on the occasional vehicle. White supremacist posters have been found on lampposts in downtown Spokane.

    The region is small enough that most of the veterans of the struggle against the Aryan Nations and its legacy know each other. Many come from the Jewish community, and from the local peace and justice groups, particularly the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS). They know that they need to work together to be effective. But for eight years, they didn’t speak to one another. In fact, they frequently refused to be part of coalitions with the other, or even in the same room.

    What would cause them to be at each other’s throats, despite the threats from virulent racists who frequently were armed or had plans for murder, were endangering their children and might be living across the street?

    The problem – some might say an abstract problem – was over 6,700 miles away.

    Israel.

    ***

    What is it about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that makes people nuts? In 2018 pro-Palestinian students disrupted a UCLA program on “indigeneity.” A protestor stormed on stage and ripped down the Armenian flag, apparently not willing to have it displayed near an Israeli one. Instead of listening to the panelists, or waiting to ask hard questions, the disrupters shouted “We don’t want two states; we want ’48” and “One, two, three, four, open up that prison door, five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a terrorist state.” Also in 2018, Israel passed its “Nation-State” law, making it easier to discriminate against non-Jews while downgrading the status of Arabic. A Palestinian student at Stanford University reacted with threats against his classmates, promising to “physically fight” Zionists; four hours later he amended his post to say he’d “intellectually” fight them.

    Within the Jewish community, while Israel can be a uniting issue, it is also a great divider. As Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a co-founder of Open Hillel, has observed, Jewish students from all types and levels of observance can come together easily at a college Hillel (the mainstream Jewish organization on many campuses) for a meal after different services. Breaking bread with people who disagree about Israel, she says, is much more difficult, if not impossible. Jews who are pro-Palestinian sometimes say supporters of Israel are racists; pro-Israel Jews sometimes call Jewish pro-Palestinian activists traitors.

    I observed a similar phenomenon to the one Sandalow-Ash described during my nearly 25 years on staff at the American Jewish Committee (one of the two large Jewish “defense agencies”). I had Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and secular colleagues, as well as others like me who were atheist. No one felt less part of the AJC family because of how, or if, they observed the Jewish religion. I was never asked if I was going to High Holiday services.

    But there was tremendous pressure on all staff (including non-Jewish staff) to attend the annual Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. There were multiple memos, the tone and content of which suggested it would hurt one’s career not to show up, even though the parade was on Sunday, a day off.

    The organized Jewish community is particularly concerned about how Israel is portrayed on campus, for two reasons. First, tomorrow’s leaders are today’s undergraduates, and if being pro-Israel is part of your faith, you don’t want future professors, journalists, and lawmakers to view Israel poorly. Second, you worry that Jewish students who care about Israel deeply and hear vile things about it will feel as disturbed as if someone had said something hateful about Jews. While, as we will see, there have been deeply disquieting incidents, pro-Israel activists claim that the college campus is a hotbed of antisemitism, which it is not.

    Meanwhile pro-Palestinian campus activists say these Jewish groups are using legislative and other means to suppress their First Amendment right to express pro-Palestinian political views. These claims and counterclaims, about who is trying to silence whom over Israel on campus, are taking place in an environment where many would sacrifice free speech to “protect” students from ideas they might find disagreeable.

    This book is not a catalogue of every bad act by either side in the campus wars over Israel and Palestine. Rather, it is a call to action. The complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should make it an ideal subject to teach critical thinking and how to have difficult discussions. Instead, it is being used as a toxin that threatens the entire academic enterprise. How did we get here? What can be done?

    ***

    To continue on Day One of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

    University of Virginia Press
    Blog: https://www.upress.virginia.edu/blog
    Twitter: @uvapress

    University of Wisconsin Press
    Blog: https://uwpress.wisc.edu/blog/
    Twitter: @UWiscPress

    University Press of Florida
    Blog: https://floridapress.blog/
    Twitter: @floridapress

    University of Minnesota Press
    Blog: https://uminnpressblog.com/
    Twitter: @UMinnPress

    University of Nebraska Press
    Blog: http://unpblog.com
    Twitter: @UnivNebPress

    Vanderbilt University Press
    Blog: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/universitypress
    Twitter: @vanderbiltup

    University of North Carolina Press
    Blog: https://uncpressblog.com/
    Twitter: @uncpressblog

    Georgetown University Press
    Twitter: @GUpress

    Purdue University Press
    Twitter: @purduepress

  • My Odd Case of Writer’s Block, Or, How I Spent Six Months Writing One Paragraph

    Sharing the Past is an unprecedentedly detailed account of the intertwining discourses of Canadian history and creative literature. In this post, author of the book J.A. Weingarten discusses his own personal experience with writer's block, and why it took him the best part of six months to complete his book.


    By J.A Weingarten

    By Fall 2016, I had finished nearly all of the writing for my recently released book, Sharing the Past. One thing remained: I had to complete a paragraph that I’d been agonizing over for nearly six months. It was a deceptively simple statement: I needed only to admit to my reader that I didn’t know everything. Let me explain.

    The primary point of Sharing the Past is to show that creative writers – freer and typically more willing than academics to write experimental and deeply personal histories – have found the means to write histories that are (as I say in the book) both “intellectual” (based on factual events and sources) and “felt” (made emotionally powerful by the sharing of intimate, often familial, connections to those events). David Zieroth writes about his grandfather’s experience in Canadian internment camps, Louise Halfe writes about the devastation wrought by residential schools on her family, and Andrew Suknaski writes about the struggle his family faced as it joined the massive waves of Eastern European immigrants during the early twentieth century. The stories are big and small: focused on large historical events, but seen through the affective lens of a familial experience. Many readers have connected to these “big and small” histories in ways that they have not connected to the scholarship of conventional historians focused on “big picture” stories (e.g. tales of the political elite, memorable policy, large-scale events). I make that distinction with greater care and context in my book, but, for now, let that basic contrast suffice.

    One thing many of the writers in my book have in common is that their personal approach to history compels them to acknowledge, in one way or another, that their histories are, by virtue of their subjectivity, open to corrections and/or expansions. “My family’s story,” these writers often seem to say, “is just one of many possible perspectives on history.” In other words, no one can really claim to know everything about the past. It is brave to write as passionately as creative writers do about history and then to acknowledge, simultaneously, one’s limited ability to write the past fully and accurately. There are, I say throughout the book, so many ways to tell a story, and each author I discuss acknowledges that plurality of approaches.

    So here was my conundrum in Fall 2016. I was writing a scholarly history of history infused with my own feelings and beliefs, and so it became clear that I was trapping myself in a corner: I was praising authors in my study for their candid admissions that their knowledge about history has limits, but I was not sharing with my reader that same humility. The issue became more complicated as I began to write about experiences far removed from my own: I was writing about leading Canadian authors of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s like Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier and about Indigenous authors publishing since the 1980s like Louise Halfe and Joan Crate. The broader the reach of my book (eras, cultures, figures, et cetera), the more I felt it was necessary to say something about my own limits as a scholar. I began to feel hypocritical because of my omission. Every one of my authors happily celebrated that they could not know everything about the past … why was it so hard for me to write a paragraph that said something so obviously true of my own historical writing? Of course I don’t know everything! Of course my book is open to correction! Of course more could be said than I say! So why couldn’t I just say that?

    The cover of Peter Steven's Family Feelings & Other Poems makes an implied connection between photography and family.

    It took me six months to find the words. And during those six months, I thought incessantly about my odd case of writer’s block. I gradually found some clarity … partly by rereading the poetry on which my study focuses and partly by reading eye-opening scholarship that unpacks questions about different systems of knowledge in and outside of Canada (I was especially influenced, for instance, by Deanna Reder and Linda Morra’s Learn, Teach, Challenge).

    Here is what I realized by Fall 2016: as a young scholar I felt I needed, at all times, to wear a veil of certainty. Whether I put that pressure on myself or whether it was put on me by others (or both) I do not know. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist (flashback: my first day of kindergarten, trying desperately to cut a perfect circle, and looking angrily, crying and disappointed, at the splintery oval I’d cut out of construction paper). Having the answers – as many of them as possible – seemed important during my time as a student, both before and during grad school. It was my own failing that I came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that having answers was the key to earning respect for my writing. Perhaps that was something deep-seated that had grown unchecked over the years, fed by the uncertainty, stress, and confusion of pursuing a grad degree.

    The end result was, in my early 30s and finishing my first book, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of claiming expertise and then admitting, in the same breath, that I was fully capable of being wrong. That admission became something over which I obsessed. The time I shared with that one paragraph was no longer just about finishing my book; it was about taking a step forward as a writer, professor, friend, son, husband – now a father – and all-around human being.

    Those six months spent writing one paragraph changed my relationship to my book. They changed my relationship to my knowledge and self. I look back at the process of writing Sharing the Past and, as proud as I am of the book, I think of it now as a learning process for me. Not a crowning achievement, but the process through which I learned (with the help of poets, novelists, and scholars) to speak more honestly about my writing and learning. That paragraph entered the text without anyone ever realizing (minus those reading this blog) how much time went into it or how significant it was for me to write it. It surreptitiously snuck in line, joining the row of paragraphs ahead and behind it, the way I used to bud into the movie theatre line as a kid. It blends in unnoticed. Just another example of many things I wrote and will write.

    The paragraph, for those interested, has been reproduced below:

    “When I began this book about ten years ago, it had not occurred to me – at least not with the same force it now does – that every scholar, including myself, has limits to and gaps in their knowledge. I draw attention to this point because Indigenous scholars have often outlined the danger of holding firmly onto knowledge without questioning or recognizing one’s own position. While writing this book, a colleague had advised me to emphasize my expertise over my openness to correction, but I felt then – as I do now – that such an addition would be disingenuous in a study so concerned with the value and limits of individual knowledge. Intelligence, like compassion, is not achieved through assertions, but rather by making a genuine effort to reach a deeper understanding of a time, place, or perspective. While it may be necessary in a scholarly study to assert expertise, it seems equally important to acknowledge that a persistent problem in settler-authored studies is the deployment of uncontested, imperialistic interpretations. It would be irresponsible to pretend that I, as a third-generation Canadian and as a scholar entrenched in settler traditions of language and literature, could fully step back from those personal and academic positions. Hence, my discussion here – informed by years of research, interviews, and thought – will still surely invite expansion and possibly correction. Those outcomes seem to me ideal, because my critical efforts in this chapter, and in this book, are determined encouragements of further conversations, not assertions of rigid conclusions.” (Sharing the Past, page 205)


    J.A. Weingarten is a professor in the School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College.

  • Interrogating the Concept of Categories - an Interview with Lochlann Jain

    Stanford University anthropologist and artist, Lochlann Jain, speaks with Anne Brackenbury (former editor at University of Toronto Press who launched the ethnoGRAPHIC Series) to talk about Jain’s new book, Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity.

    This debut work of graphic non-fiction offers an opportunity to interrogate the concept of categories using text and image. Jain, a biracial, non-binary, interdisciplinary academic, is used to transgressing boundaries and this book offers a highly original way in which to understand the limits of categories while making visible the things that often get lost between. With over 50 works of original art, each based on fictional categories, and four interpretative essays, the book doesn’t just tell, it shows, in witty and sometimes profound ways, how we make sense of the world around us.


    AB: Thanks for sitting down to talk with me. I have been excited about your artwork since you first showed it to me a number of years ago. And I’m thrilled that it will now be available in book form for more people to discover.

    One of the book’s greatest strengths is that it is both a conceptual/philosophical exploration, but also seems to have real relevance for the world around us and the times we are currently living through. Who do you think will be drawn (sorry for the pun) to this book and how does it arm them for challenging (or dealing with) the world around them?

    LJ: Speaking of goofy puns, the funny thing about this book is that it started as just a joke, really. I was in a faculty meeting doodling; the doodle became my colleague’s nose, and then a bunch of different kinds of noses emerged from my pen, which I put under a heading, “kinds of noses.” Right away with that first collection (my sister’s nose, the nose of wine, a porcine nose, etc.) an implicit set of questions arose: what noses know what, how do we distinguish and recognize noses, who gets to do the recognizing, and so on. It was nearly accidental that I drew the nose – and yet noses turn out to be so rich with meaning. Who knew noses were so political? At the time, drawing offered some solace during an unhappy period. I continued with that series among my other drawings, and over the years I drew over 100 of the Things That collection.

    Things That Art both locates and creates frictions in the elements of the drawings: word, illustration, and collection. The goal is to undermine some of the expectations set up by the familiar forms that it builds on – that is, primarily the form of flashcard (word and illustration) and then the museum or zoo (curated collection of similar/related things). Many of the drawings use these elements to create little paradoxes and gaps where not everything matches up. The conceit of the project is that these gaps can shine a light on, and thus get an audience to think with me, about how categories work, and our assumptions about what belongs together and why/how. For example, how is money as a form of the representation of value (and state power) similar to lipstick as a form of representation and value (and gendered relations)? What kind of world/imagination makes these similar?

    I found the form of the word/image/collection generative in that it could push a fundamentally poetic project (making connections and leaps among meaning, sound, and the shapes of letters and words) into a visual mode. Things That Art investigates the registers and grammars of naming and abstracting in relation to each other, sometimes in arbitrary ways. The conceptual leaps thus make intuitive before rational sense and can create possibilities for knowing otherwise, disturbing fixed identities, and lateral thinking. At least that’s the aspiration.

    AB: I think this is what I found particularly exciting about this work. It doesn’t really ask: Which of these things don’t belong? Instead, it seems to ask: How are these things similar? That is a shift in the way we think, and therefore act, in the world. It suggests we are not individuals at the centre of life, but relational beings who make sense of the world in the way we relate to other beings/things. And as far as I can tell, that is hugely important for understanding how we might approach contemporary problems from climate change to artificial intelligence.

    LJ: Wow yes, that’s a really great point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. And in truth, I can’t stand those children’s menu games of which doesn’t belong. This game is much more fun: how can we challenge and provoke new kinds of communities?

    AB: So to take an example from the book – you created a collection of images under the label "Sounds like hairspray” which includes things like heresay, heresy, Hemingway, highway, fairway, harpsichord, aerosol, aperol. What prompted you to develop this particular category and how did you come up with these various “things” under this label?

    LJ: I found that sets of categories allowed me to look at things slightly askance, and so I informally cast about between drawings to see if I could access a range of those ways of looking. Sounds like hairspray just popped into my mind one day, as did the populating images and terms as something totally random and yet fully belonging to the collection. (For virtually all the cards I just used the first things that popped to mind, though for a few I asked friends and family for suggestions.) With that category, my curiousity was piqued to think about the reliance of category headings in determining our thinking. Consider for example the ways that gender-crossing has been described in different ways since the 1950s, in part influenced by contemporary and shifting notions of “headings” such as gender, biology, and binaries.

    Thinking through the work of categories, I also played with vectors, such as negatives or playing with the notion, letters, and sound of “thing.” Another line of investigation considers information that is slightly creepy when listed together (things used to test car safety, or historical techniques of treating drowning victims). Another vector ends up presenting pseudo-information, such as, say, things with epi, which plays with linguistic groupings. And so on!

    AB: The drawings in your book are very childlike. They exude a kind of innocence but also that uncensored honesty that children are known for. Was this intended or did it sort of emerge along the way as you started drawing?

    LJ: I have a couple of different ways of thinking about this question. First, there is a way in which abstracted knowledge forms are often presented as “elementary” – zoos and flashcards are for children and animals and illustrations are often presented in this naïve or cartoon style. Graphic charts will often simplify information as if the complexities were just noise. So I mimic this style on purpose. Perhaps an analogy to what I’m trying to do could be seen when “wild” things happen at the zoo that make frenzied parents cover their children’s eyes: the snake eats a live chicken whole, or the giraffe drinks the pee of the other giraffe.

    Second, I drew this over the course of 8-10 years, and so the style of images progressed with it. I redrew most of the early images that I include in the book, but the curious reader will still be able to divine the timeline of the drawings both conceptually and graphically, and I purposely made that part of the project. The idea is definitely, as you say, to present a straight-forward illustrative framing – even misleadingly simplistic. I think that works for what I am aiming toward with the project in terms of using simplified drawings and words to push the conceptual elements of word and image in various representational economies (art, economics, gender, marketing, grammar, charting, etc.). I’m hoping that in this way the reader will be surprised when they experience the darker and more conceptual elements of the project. Still, if I had continued the series I would have been interested in pushing in different ways on the illustrative dimension to see how to challenge that form. This was perhaps a good indication that this project had reached a natural conclusion.

    AB: The use of some more grotesque images and cuss words seems deliberate. Were you wanting to shock the reader or make them laugh or get at something more authentic?

    LJ: I have always been interested in how at base, so many insults are simply meaningless – as a person of half-Indian descent, even though my father disavowed everything Indian except the sweets (which I still love), my sisters and I were occasionally called “Paki.” This could be painful even though (a) not strictly true, and (b) not in fact an insult. When we were kids my best friend used to whisper that “bastard” was the absolute worst thing someone could say. Another virtually meaningless word. And once when a kid named Craig was teasing me about my name, my mother suggested I call him “craggy mountain,” which I did. It infuriated him. These swears and insults indicate how language is both meaningless at one level, and extraordinarily active and effective on another. The collection “Things generally used as insults” aims to open this gap between the innocence of the thing that suddenly finds itself exploited as an insult, the word with its different textures and meanings, and the thing we already know or imagine, which is the person to whom the insult is addressed. The purpose then is not really to shock or to make someone laugh, but to crowbar the gap between word, thing, and meaning in a context where there is already only a tenuous relationship.  These words are so often used as linguistic pellets of exclusion, so I wanted to literally draw the odd-balls back into the equation.

    I was kind of amazed and intrigued to see how this form I’d developed for the initial nose drawing became so useful as an interpretive and experimental device: I sort of loved seeing what would happen as I kept slotting different ideas through the keyhole.

    AB: If you were taking a transatlantic flight, what would you bring with you to read/look at/watch? (Or would you just watch an inflight movie?) 

    LJ: My flights are so boring! Once I get over the initial disappointment of no free upgrade, I use the time to catch up on email, write reviews and reference letters, and catch up on other work. I do like watching in-flight movies though because they tend to be better at altitude. I’ve always thought that and someone recently told me that it’s a real thing.

    AB: Really? What is it about altitude that makes a movie better??

    LJ: Something about being packed in the space with others, the stress, and so on. Maybe the movies aren’t as good in business class because there is more space and fewer people; we’d need to gather some data on that.

    AB: Will you ever write a purely textual book again? Or are you hooked on the image/text relationship for good?

    LJ: I’m currently working on several projects, and I think the projects tell me what genre they are meant to be, in a way. The history of hepatitis B I’m working on would make a great graphic novel. But there are many fascinating details and a complex argument that lends itself to text. I’m also working on a graphic novel (for lack of better word) called My Failed Transition, about the weird and wonderful aspects of a gender non-binary existence. Finally, I’ve been working on a series of drawings related to the history of technology and discovery of air.

    AB: Some people think you can make complex theoretical arguments in the context of a graphic novel but I get that text is sometimes the most appropriate format to work out a theory or argument. Once it is worked out though, a graphic novel of hepatitis B would be wonderful! Don’t rule it out. And a graphic novel on your transition would be more than welcome as well. I assume the graphic novel is a natural fit because of the growing interest in graphic memoir and its ability to capture memory and experience more viscerally?

    LJ: Note the book is on my Failed Transition, that’s a crucial point but I’m not sure why yet. It’s still in process as an idea, but the goal will be to experiment with text and images in new ways and work out the ideas that way. I don’t think graphic memoir is any more visceral than words per se, it’s more about the fit among ideas and author. I will always be a huge proponent and admirer of words and text. In my view it’s tragic that in general people don’t read as much. Many of the social and even academic conversations I used to have about books are now about Netflix.

    AB: So do you think scholarly communication is changing with the growth of the digital humanities, comics, podcasts, games, and other multimodal formats?

    LJ: It’s an exciting time to be an academic in the sense that there are spaces and opportunities to do more innovative and experimental work. When I first started in the academy about 25 years ago, the questions (and answers) were more staid and uninteresting; this wasn’t because  they had to be textual, but because of the self-generated ideas for evaluation which were based less on originality and rigor than on disciplinary canons. Stanford asked me to resign three or four years after I was hired because my colleagues didn’t consider my first book to be anthropological enough, though they had hired me, technically, as an STS scholar and supposedly read the dissertation on which the book was based. Since I was in the middle of cancer treatment and had two small children, I realized in a very deep way how excruciatingly vulnerable scholars are to the judgements and tastes of senior academics and so how beholden we are to try to second-guess what they might want. For those institutional reasons it has been tremendously difficult to open the academy up to new questions and forms of investigation. But I see a change with the current generation of now senior professors more open to seeing and appreciating new kinds of work. Or maybe that’s just the small academic world in which I travel.

    AB:  I think it’s more than just the world in which you travel. I believe the academy is making changes (albeit small changes) as the world around it changes. Things That Art is a book about categories that is not easy to categorize. If you were a bookseller and had to file this away in a particular section, which would you choose?

    LJ: I’d probably file it with art books or graphic novels. I think it would appeal to folks who like to look at, and think with, pictures and I’m super excited to see where the popularity of this genre will go – I think there is so much untapped potential to work with word-concept-image that is just now being explored, and I envision that we will come up with a series of new terms that expand the graphic novel category: graphic biography, philosophy, memoir, etc.

    AB: Yes there are many different genres emerging with forms like graphic medicine, graphic journalism, and of course, graphic memoir, but I like the way Things That Art charts its own space in that growing field as a graphic philosophy of sorts that uses the medium in a highly original way to show and tell how we sort information, thoughts, and concepts.  

    So who do you see as the audience for this book? Scholars? Artists? Students? The general public?

    LJ: Which categories of people will like the book? I sense a new card to be drawn!!

    But seriously, one of the things I appreciate about the project now that it has been put together as a collection, is that I keep finding new ways into it, and it keeps surprising me. I’ve been thinking for example about how the range of representation works across the collection: charts, maps, graphics, dollar bills, diagrams, etc. … how do things that are already representations of things operate as things? I discuss some of that in my essay, but there is more there to mine. So I guess the point is that I can still entertain myself with my little paper mates, and the ability to self-entertain is a crucial part of living a happy life.

    AB: Thanks for speaking with me. I’m excited to see how people respond to Things That Art. And I’m excited to see where your interest in art/visual formats and your scholarly research go in the future.

    LJ: It has been great!! Thank you for all you have done to spearhead new work thinking across genres.


    Lochlann Jain is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University and a professor in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London.

    Want to learn more from Things That Art?

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    • Read an exclusive excerpt from the book.

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