A Space of Play: The Past and Future of the Contributing Editors Program

What follows is the transcript of a conversation that took place at the 2016 spring meeting of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) between Cultural Anthropology managing editor Marcel LaFlamme, former managing editor Ali Kenner, SCA student board member Darren Byler, and former student board member Jonah Rubin. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Marcel LaFlamme: We are here in a clearing on the campus of Cornell University, under some evergreens, and this seems like a nice chance to reflect on the history of the Cultural Anthropology Editorial Intern Program, which became the Contributing Editors Program. Ali, it really started with you. You were the first editorial intern. How did that come about?

Ali Kenner: As incoming editors of Cultural Anthropology, Kim and Mike Fortun realized the potential of having a website that went beyond just providing information about the journal (see Kenner 2014; Fortun and Fortun 2015 for extended accounts of this period). They really saw the potential that Internet platforms had for academic publishing and for Cultural Anthropology in particular. They wanted to create a website that would serve as a space where we could play with different kinds of content and presentation, if you will. And, as editors, Kim and Mike were really committed to getting graduate students involved with the journal and with scholarly publishing more generally.

The Cultural Anthropology website was launched in January 2007 with the first issue that the Fortuns edited and, at first, the idea behind the website was very much related to the model in the sciences where you can include supplemental material. Our idea was: let’s see if CA authors would be interested in making supplemental material through the website. And many were. Some more than others. Some people got really into it! So one of the very first things that I worked on [as Kim and Mike’s editorial assistant] was supplemental pages for, I think it was the August 2007 issue. Danny Hoffman’s piece “The City as Barracks” and Lochlann Jain’s “Cancer Butch,” those essays were my introduction to Cultural Anthropology. They had a huge impact on me, as a student at the time. So I would contact the authors and ask them for images or data, like news stories for example, or other primary documents that they might have referred to in their article. Eventually, a few years later, we got more elaborate. We started doing interviews with the authors, which developed alongside other online features.

ML: If you were the first editorial intern, then who was the second?

AK: I think it was in 2007 that a call went out to anthropology departments announcing the founding of the Editorial Intern Program. And at the 2007 AAA meeting, Mike and Kim held the very first meeting of the program. Michelle Stewart, Chris Kortright, and Vivian Choi were there. I can’t remember who else was part of that first cohort—it’s been almost ten years and close to a hundred interns over that time—but that was when the program was established. It grew very quickly; there was probably ten more people who joined within the next six months, PhD students who were creating theme and area lists and helping to build article supplemental pages. But the idea of the program was to train graduate students in scholarly publishing and digital scholarship. There was a pedagogical edge to it, always.

ML: At the beginning, it sounds like it was Kim and Mike who were the pedagogues. They were academics who were well along in their careers, they wanted that mentoring to happen, and they were going to do it.

AK: Yep, totally. In the first year or two, I was assisting Kim as she ran the Editorial Intern Program. We would run meetings together, for example. That was how I got trained to facilitate the program [once I became managing editor in 2009].

ML: To me, that’s part of what’s so cool about the program. It sounds like Kim and Mike had a vision for what it would look like, but then along the way, the interns themselves really shaped what it meant to be an intern, what sort of things the website would contain. It’s easy to say: we empower students. But my sense is that the Editorial Intern Program really has been an example of that. Ideas genuinely have bubbled up from the rank and file and have become things that, today, the SCA is known for.

AK: Absolutely. I mean, I think the supplemental pages were just this little seed, and then we got the Teaching Tools and we got the podcasts and even the name contributing editor came from one of our Editorial Intern Program meetings where we had twenty people sitting around and, I can’t remember who it was, but someone said, we want a better name than intern. We want something with a little more teeth to put on our CVs.

When we were redesigning the website, too, there was a lot of thinking and design that was driven by contributing editors as well. So yeah, contributing editors definitely drove many of the innovations in digital content and publishing on the website.

ML [to Darren Byler and Jonah Rubin]: Do you guys want to speak to that? Did you see that along the way?

JR [to AK]: Do you remember exactly how the social media team started?

AK: The social media team, yes! I’m trying to remember. I feel like the social media team did not get off the ground until after Anne [Allison] and Charlie [Piot] started publishing issues. 2011, maybe? It was probably around that time. But yeah, I often use the CA social media team as an example of what collaboration looks like. Student-driven collaboration, using digital platforms in a collective way. There was a collectivity there that was really awesome, and it was a project where I felt that there was this authentic, distributed ownership. For me, personally, it really helped shape my development as a scholar and as an academic to see what shared, supportive leadership could look like.

JR: I remember that there was about six months of planning before we actually seriously started doing the social media, and it was very interesting for me as a prefield student because we were kind of doing a digital ethnography in preparation. We were trying to figure out who was successful on Twitter, what the different strategies were. I remember we talked a lot about the Wenner-Gren account, which we always really liked. We talked about how we were going to have a certain consistent voice. How do we do a voice that is integrated into the type of identity that gets expressed in Cultural Anthropology? Figuring out how to theorize and how to work practically in these digital spaces, it was a kind of on-the-ground methods training for doing online research, which ironically enough, worked its way back into my dissertation research later on.

AK: I feel like a broken record, because I said this on the infrastructure panel this morning, but I believe in making really intentional, thoughtful planning the foundation of any kind of collaborative endeavor. And I think the social media team’s work—the planning, the research, the multiple conversations about what our vision for the social media accounts were, what kind of role we would play and the politics of that—what a great example of what collaboration can look like and probably should look like, too.

JR: I think it speaks to this tradition of openness, of the SCA and the journal editors allowing some of their reputation to be put in the hands of graduate students. We had these conversations very early on with the social media team: if we screwed up, it was Cultural Anthropology that was going to get tagged with it. Not any of us individually.

Same thing with the podcasts. We came to the AAAs one time and Charlie said: we want to get the ideas expressed in the journal into more people’s hands, how do we do that? And a few of us had taken long flights in and listened to a bunch of podcasts on the way. You know, at the time we had no idea what a podcast was. We didn’t how to produce one, how to record one, how to distribute one. Lord knows, we didn’t know how to edit one, because if we did, we probably would have never launched it in the first place! But Anne and Charlie said, all right, have at it. We got a bunch of us together and it was a very similar process of having, what was it, six or nine months of discussion about how to do this? Really stumbling over ourselves and figuring out how to actually make it happen before we could launch and represent these very complex and sophisticated ideas that are in the journal, in a more easily digestible podcast.

ML: Thinking back, what kind of graduate students do you think were best served by the program and what kind of graduate students do you think maybe were not served as well by the program, the way that it was set up?

AK: You know, I think about this a lot now as an assistant professor who teaches in a graduate program: how are we serving our graduate students? I have seen Kim Fortun use the term career readiness in a proposal. So, we might ask, how does the contributing editor program facilitate career readiness for doctoral students in anthropology or in other social science disciplines? How are we providing experiences and tools and mentorship that really help folks succeed in their career path?

For me, I think a successful run in the Contributing Editors Program might come from having support from the student’s home department or program and from the advisor or other professors who the student is working with. So that there can be a pairing between the home academic unit where the degree is being earned, creating more synergy between the professional association and its programs and these academic departments in universities across the world. The students who feel supported in their own degree program to do work in the Contributing Editors Program, I think they are going to be successful. And, of course, that support can take a range of forms.

As students, there is so much we try to do. For example, I have students who were preparing for qualifying exams and they did a Curated Collection around some of the themes from their qualifying exam. Or the literature review for their dissertation. Or they really loved this author’s work, they wanted to use this theory or this piece in their own dissertation project and so they did a supplemental author interview with this person who they wanted to network with. We had students working in the anthropology of education spearhead the Teaching Tools section because they wanted to work very explicitly on pedagogy. I think those are good examples of where there can be synergy between the doctoral program work, the dissertation and, the preparation to go on the job market. I think those are the successful examples.

ML [to JR and DB]: What about you guys? Both of you have served as coordinators for the Contributing Editors Program. Based on your experience, who has been successful and what sort of students have been less successful?

DB: Well, I have done several of the things that Ali mentioned. I did a Curated Collection for my qualifying exams and I recently finished another one for my dissertation literature review. It really does work well to do that and, since there were interviews involved, it helps you to network with all of those scholars and brings you into conversations with them. So then, when you want to put together your AAA gang of people who want to put a panel on or find a discussant, you have already made those introductions through other work that you have done. It’s easy to track down people that way. The Contributing Editors Program, in general, is great for networking across institutions. Meeting other graduate students who you wouldn’t otherwise, learning about other people’s research, which can inspire your own research in different ways. It’s been a wonderful process for me to be involved with.

JR: One of the reasons I joined was to kind of break out of my institution. I was at Chicago and Chicago has a wonderful way of doing anthropology, it was wonderful to have that intensive Chicago school of training that we all received during our first years in the program. But from the start, I knew that it wasn’t the only way of approaching anthropology. So even as I was being trained into that way of doing anthropology, I wanted to peek my head above the wall and establish other ways of approaching the discipline. Other ways of approaching ethnography, other ways of approaching theory. And it was really through the Editorial Intern Program that I had that opportunity to see different ways of doing anthropology, and to think about how to combine them with the forms of anthropology that I was being trained in. I think that it made me a lot more diverse of a scholar than I would have been otherwise.

The type of person who I see really succeeding in the program are the types who have something additional that they want to get accomplished beyond what they are getting at their home institution. For some of them, they really want to explore the nature of pedagogy. And it’s something that they are not getting a lot of as a doctoral student, frankly. So they get really involved in Teaching Tools and all of a sudden they have to produce something that advises other people on how to teach something. Or there is a literature base that they want to gather, or they want to start thinking very seriously about communications and publicity or about photos and ethnographic films. So there is this opportunity to use Cultural Anthropology to round out the training that you get in other spaces. I think that over the kind of course of the years that you can do this and with the various sections that you can collaborate with, you can really choose your own adventure in terms of what you want to learn. That is one of the things that was really attractive to me.

ML: Jonah, what you’re saying takes me back to the conversation among the interns about, what should we be called? Perhaps we deserve this other title. Because on some level, yes, to be in the program is to get a CV line and there’s nothing wrong with that. But my sense is that if collecting another CV line is really what you are after, OK, fine, you’ve accomplished that. Maybe that will help you. But to my mind, if you have something that the Cultural Anthropology website allows you to accomplish, if it’s a platform that allows you to put forward an intellectual project of your own and have this pretty cool mouthpiece and pretty cool way of making that project visible, that’s when you’re getting the most out of the program. That’s what’s valuable, beyond the CV line.

JR: I think that goes back to the very start of the program. I remember when I joined the program, right after the AAAs, I contacted Ali and said: okay, so what do I do? Ali said, well, here, go do a supplemental page. You kind of have to jump right into the deep end right away and start doing projects.

AK: At that point in time and to this day, I have been a huge advocate of project-based learning. Organizing work very tangibly around project design, how to execute a project and get it done. From planning to actually developing the tools to do something, that is something that I bring into every class that I teach and it all started with teaching interns how to engage CA authors, work on the website, and think about supplemental pages. We developed these cheat sheets for doing all of that work.

I also wanted to talk about intellectual community, though, and one thing I would love to do—this is on my academic nerdy bucket list—would be to go back to every single person that has gone through the Contributing Editors Program and ask, where are they now? What are they doing? Kind of like an exit interview in retrospect: how did the Editorial Intern Program shape your career? I would love to see where people are. Because it was very much about developing intellectual community and networking, not just with faculty and scholars in the field, but also amongst ourselves. I mean, there are people from my own cohort who I still meet up with and exchange papers with and develop panels with. So it’s very much about building your scholarly community and not just for professional development, but also for intellectual engagement.

ML: In closing, then, what would you say your hopes and aspirations are for the Contributing Editors Program, going forward? What would be your wish for it, if that’s not too cheesy?

JR: I think that it should be a place for graduate students to get certain concrete skills and certain opportunities to work through very difficult, maybe not even fully formed ideas that they can put out there as graduate students and be part of a conversation. We have other AAA sections now that are starting up similar programs and that’s great, but I’m not sure that they always give students the opportunity to have that public voice or that really strong emphasis on the development of particular skills. Ultimately, those are the two things that I would like to see really emphasized in the program and I think that the program is in good hands as far as doing them.

ML: Ali, what about you? There’s probably a part of you that feels like this program is your baby. There are many others who have been involved, but my sense is that you really shepherded it into being. So I’m curious, now that you’re a bit removed from it: what sort of wish would you have? What would you not want it to lose sight of, given where it started almost a decade ago?

AK: I think there are probably three things that I wish for the Contributing Editors program. First, that the program remains a place for students to learn about scholarly communication and its politics in the current publishing economy. Second, I would wish for the program to be a place where students and the SCA community at large foster and develop scholarly relationships and professional networks. So, how to collaborate. I think the Contributing Editors Program is a fabulous place to learn what collaborative relationships look like, what we want them to look like. It’s kind of like an experimental system where we learn how to build and innovate scholarly community. Third and finally, I would wish for the program to be a place where students and faculty in the SCA learn and create new modes of scholarship. This is a space of play where we produce new forms of scholarly communication. When I think about these three things, we have already been doing them. I just want to see them continue and proliferate.

References

Fortun, Kim, and Mike Fortun. 2015. “An Infrastructural Moment in the Human Sciences.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3: 359–67.

Kenner, Ali. 2014. “Designing Digital Infrastructure: Four Considerations for Scholarly Publishing Projects.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2: 264–87.