Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Collaboration and Vast Early America

· June 11th, 2018 · 1 Comment

In the last month or so, your inbox or mailbox has brought you news of April’s issue of the WMQ.  This issue centers on the first half of a forum, “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies,” that we are jointly publishing with Early American Literature. The forum’s second half will appear in late June or early July with the publication of the EAL’s next issue. Taken as a whole, the forum consists of seven articles—four in the WMQ and three in the EAL—plus an introductory essay by the forum’s organizers, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup. The introduction will be published in both journals.

That format should sound familiar because the WMQ published a similarly structured set of articles in October’s joint issue, “Writing To/From the Revolution,” with the Journal of the Early Republic. I’m a fan of this sort of collaborative approach to forum publishing for several reasons.

Part of my interest in collaboration stems from my background, and especially my experiences moving between disciplines and seeking to live within two fields at once. I have always been an early Americanist, but I have not always been a historian; I have always worked on topics that speak (or at least that aim to speak) to central issues in early American history, but I have never written about people or places that were near the center of the historiography. I came to early American history after several years of graduate training in anthropology and five seasons of archaeological field experience in New Mexico, Arizona, and Virginia. Since becoming a historian, my central focus as a researcher and writer has been on finding ways to construct “early” histories that are at once Native and American.  That goal has led me to a position that I never expected to be in as a scholar whose research is grounded in Indian country: finishing my fourth year as the Editor of a journal devoted to “early American history and culture.”

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I am committed to building bridges between disciplines and expanding the reach of our conversations. After all, I’ve walked across those bridges myself, and I have seen how broad scholarly networks can transform fields and open up unforeseen opportunities.

More centrally, though, my interest in collaborative approaches grows out of what I see when I look around me today and think about the vastness of the early America field.

Those of you who have read my earlier blog posts will know that it’s my strong conviction that vastness is baked into early American history, that both the realities of the world we seek to write about and the needs of the world that we’re writing in require an early American history that mixes expansiveness and inclusiveness in equal measure, and that we—individually and as a field—are at our best when we are open to the possibility that our field’s traditional geographic, thematic, chronological, and methodological touchstones are not the final answers to the twin questions of “What is early American history?” and “How should that history be investigated and communicated?” Or put more simply, I’ve been on board the good ship Vast Early America from the get-go.

But it is my equally strong conviction that vastness brings real challenges. I blogged about this a couple of years back:

I worry about what will hold us together, about how we will be able to keep track of our colleagues’ far-flung work, about the time it takes to acquire the ever-more sophisticated methodological and ever-more diverse linguistic competencies that our ever-more expansive topics increasingly require, about the difficulty of synthesis, about how we will explain our sense of the early American world to students and colleagues whose own intellectual worlds are centered in other times and places.

And, if you’ll pardon me for going completely down the self-referential rabbit hole, I argued then that “All of us need to participate in the process of crafting the tools – methodologies and vocabularies, venues and institutions, habits and sensibilities—that will allow our field to be at once vast, inclusive, and coherent.”

Collaboration is one of those tools. To be sure, I’m hardly the first one to notice that. Everywhere you look, it seems, scholars are working together: sponsoring conferences and workshops that seek to bridge old divides, designing projects with people who are either from other disciplines or outside of academia altogether, constructing databases and other ‘digital affordances’ that require the labor of a wide range of specialists, co-authoring articles and books, and so on. And those same scholars are not simply collaborating with each other; they’re also talking about doing so. I’ve been to a half-dozen conferences already this year, and conversations about collaboration—the importance, benefits, and challenges of, as well as the strategies for—were very much in the air at each of them.

I’m well aware, of course, that “collaboration” has another, much less pleasant meaning, one that signals not “working together” but pernicious relationships and unsanctioned conversations between opposing and hostile peoples. That meaning is worth acknowledging in the context of the joint WMQ-EAL forum because of tribal nations’ long experience with outsiders seeking to acquire and deploy Indigenous resources—land, people, objects, techniques, knowledge—in ways that do violence to those nations’ interests, beliefs, and values. I raise this issue not to explore it in detail but simply to underline that collaboration gone wrong can lead to charges of collaboration. The consequences for all involved can endure for generations.

But with the positives that collaboration can bring firmly in mind, I view collaborative initiatives between journals as one of the tools—simultaneously intellectual and institutional—at my disposal as Editor to help the field deal with vastness.

After all, these sorts of joint ventures open up the possibility of including more authors—and thus more perspectives on the topic at hand—than can comfortably be handled by either journal operating on its own. And since we’re not having the journals simply publish the same slate of articles, we’re not wasting an issue of the WMQ, EAL, or JER by reprinting a handful of articles that appear word-for-word elsewhere. Moreover, jointly published forums and issues offer authors the chance to reach the readership of two different journals, while readers of the WMQ get access to a conversation that is at once focused and wide-ranging. Finally, because these sort of joint projects both produce articles in leading journals and have a built-in promise of a broad audience, recruiting participants and asking them to send in their best work is an easier sell than trying to get those same people to publish in edited volumes. Compared with book chapters, journal articles have a longer shelf life, are more easily discoverable, and count for more in job searches and tenure and promotion reviews. And when an article appears in a joint issue or forum, it becomes even more enduring, accessible, and—shall we say—professionally efficacious.

In the end, though, what I like most about this collaborative approach to journal publishing is, in fact, the collaboration itself. I’m eager to promote conversations between fields and disciplines, and I firmly believe that we profit—individually and as a field—when we create contexts in which we encounter new perspectives and have to communicate our conclusions to people who may not share our assumptions.

And so, looking ahead, the WMQ will publish more of these sorts of collaborative projects. If all goes as planned, future joint issues and forums will involve journals from other continents, as well as other disciplines. These collaborative projects will not appear every other issue, as the results of the partnerships with the JER and EAL have. They’re just too labor-intensive to permit that sort of schedule, and I’m very aware that Editor-driven projects can never be allowed to seriously impinge on the space that the WMQ devotes to stand-alone articles. But if we’re going to embrace—in the sense of both “accept” and “get our arms around”—vast early America, then collaboration is essential.  That is true for journals, not just individuals.

One Response

  1. Ken Lockridge says:

    Well said Josh Piker, vastness and collaboration/ unity. Humanity seen this broadly is a virtue in itself, yet we must seek a new sense of the human condition in this broader context. And of the “American” condition.” The dynamics they saw at the time, we must see, and even more broadly. Perhaps graduate school courses are one place to begin?

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