Doing More With Less
A small humanities journal survives deep budget cuts. Scott McLemee finds out how its editor manages to maintain the publication -- and his own optimism.
Every so often while visiting a university library, I will go through the periodical room and gather up an armful of journals, often fairly impulsively. This seems like a good way to get a quick glimpse of what is going on outside the rut of my normal preoccupations. It is, so to speak, the higher eavesdropping.
And so it was that some years ago I came across a publication called Weber Studies. Grabbing issues from the shelf, I figured, given the title, that it would be full of articles on Protestantism, bureaucracy, and social-science methodology. In fact, no -- though that probably happened a lot. It was named, not after Max Weber, but rather its sponsoring institution, Weber State University, in Ogden, Utah. In fact Studies was a general-interest publication of literature and the humanities with a focus on the culture and history of the region. A couple of years ago, it changed its name to Weber: The Contemporary West. (Which still sounds kind of Teutonic, somehow, but so it goes.)
Making the rounds last week, I caught up with the Fall 2009 issue and saw that it opened with a long editorial notice to readers. It announced that, for the time being, the journal would be doing more with less. (The phrase "doing more with less" was not actually used, but such was the upshot.) "Weber State University," the note explained, "was hit with a double-digit retrospective budget adjustment for the 2008-09 academic year and is projected to face similar downward corrections in the years to come." And so the journal would be appearing twice a year, instead of three times. Weber had to suspend the modest honorarium it paid to contributors, and so on. And yet (here was the surprising part) it would keep on publishing. You cannot take that for granted -- certainly not in this economy.
Just before getting in touch with Weber's editor, Michael Wutz, I visited its website, which showed no activity beyond the end of 2009. This was not as bad a sign as it seemed. Wutz, who is a professor of English, explained that he had been busy putting together the new issue, just back from the printer. He sent a copy. It is handsome, with a portfolio of color reproductions of paintings by contemporary Western artists, as well as the annual section of essays on international film (local angle: the Sundance festival is held in Utah), and much else besides.
Wutz is author, most recently, of Enduring Words: Literary Narrative in a Changing Media Ecology, published last year by the University of Alabama Press. We followed up our phone conversation with an interview by e-mail. A transcript follows.
Q: Your journal, Weber, has avoided the two most probable effects of a budget cut -- either shifting to online-only publication, or just shutting it down altogether. Did either possibility come up?
A: The possibility of shutting the journal down altogether was not, fortunately, openly on the table, but it was a distinct possibility in the background, especially in light of the severe budget cuts Weber State University, along with the College of Arts & Humanities, was facing. Given that we are facing another budget cut for the coming fiscal year, and perhaps for the year after that, we may end up feeling some of those effects as well.
Fortunately, we have farsighted administrators -- from my department chair and the dean for arts and humanities to the provost -- who see/saw value, aesthetic appeal, and perhaps promotional potential for the University in a tangible print version, even if that print version is published only twice a year instead of only three times.
Q: While reading the editorial note in your fall issue, I assumed that the journal's survival could only mean that people with administrative clout regard it as creating some kind of value for the institution as a whole. At the same time, it is definitely not a "service" publication like, say, an alumni magazine. How do you understand its role vis-à-vis Weber State?
A: Even though we have a number of national and international subscribers, the home base of our readership is the Intermountain West. As part of the journal's original vision (that is, as de facto in-house publication), the new Weber is coming back to its roots by serving, when appropriate, as a vehicle for faculty to publish their work. The work -- typically an essay -- is of course subject to the same review criteria as any outside submission. But by publishing the work of WSU faculty, the journal closes a kind of feedback loop between faculty research and the immediate dissemination of that work within our predominant readership within and outside of Utah.
Most generally, perhaps, Weber also does (genuinely, I feel) help promote the discourse within the arts, broadly conceived -- painting, literature, film, topics of relevance to the West, interviews. Our administrators appreciate the contribution the journal makes on that level. Given the emphasis most public universities seem to be mandated to place on the sciences by state legislatures, a journal such as ours can help re-validate the humanities and, in addition, seeks an active, interdisciplinary dialogue between the sciences and the arts.
Q: You said that submissions from WSU faculty are "subject to the same review criteria as any outside submission." Just to clarify -- the journal is peer-reviewed?
A: Yes, the journal is peer-reviewed, in the traditional sense, as you can also see, in part, from the editorial review board on the inside front cover. Typically, our submissions are reviewed by two members of our board, though if a submission comes back with a strong "yes" or "no" from one of our reviewers (that involves an explanation on our evaluation sheet), we tend to let the other reviewer know so that he/she can conserve their energy for the other work to be judged.
Given that faculty across the country, not just from WSU, publish work in their journal that becomes part of their tenure/promotion file or is important to their (annual) "productivity record," in today's administrative parlance, the competitive review process ensures a level of professionalism so that Weber can legitimately be listed as a "peer-reviewed" journal.
Q: The journal can no longer pay an honorarium to contributors. You've also had to ask for people to hold off on making submissions for a while. No doubt you'd want to get back to the old way of doing things just as soon as possible. But do you have a gut sense that perhaps some corner has been turned -- that you're stuck with this situation for the indefinite future? (Short of a new federal stimulus package for rebuilding intellectual infrastructure....)
A: Much of that depends on the support we receive from the Utah Arts Council, which in turn is partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. For this coming fiscal year, for the first time in many years, they have chosen not to support (or have not been able to support) Weber with funds that used to be restricted to honoraria for our contributors. Should any monies from that source materialize again, and come with said restrictions, we'd be able to make token payments to our authors and artists once again.
That being said, we are doing more with less. We've had to let go of a salaried managing editor (three-quarter time) and have had to replace that position with a non-salaried person who works about 20 hours per week for currently $12 per hour. That person is no less qualified than the formerly salaried position.
The dean of the college of arts and humanities, who is very supportive and understanding, had to cut my reassigned time from 9 hours per semester to 6 hours per semester as part of a comprehensive savings initiative in our college. This is on the assumption that one issue is the equivalent of one class (3 issues yearly = 3 classes per semester) and that we are now down to two. In terms of actual time commitment, it doesn't quite work out that way. Which, in essence means that if you combine my teaching load and work on the journal, I now work more and longer than I previously did.
Q: You have written a book on how literary narrative has responded to changes in the media environment. Any thoughts on what role the general-interest journal of literature and the humanities can or should play in the second decade of the new millennium?
A: My, this is a tough one. Generally, my "approach" is to think of print or any other media in terms of a larger media ecology. Various cultural forces enable the development of new/other (typically post-print) media, while pushing older media into a new niche if they don't want to get exterminated altogether.
If general-interest journals of literature and the humanities in the second decade of the new millennium and beyond want to survive, they will in effect have to reinvent themselves -- or at least make themselves responsive to the cultural pressures that post-print media put on it.
Specifically, I'd hazard the observation that precisely because digitization seems to become the new lingua franca of delivery, print media might be able to draw attention to their own material heft, to the feel one gets from holding a journal in one's hands. Both aesthetically pleasing (in terms of visual appeal/design) as well as materially specific (because of paper's haptic properties), literary print journals might get a new lease on life, perhaps paradoxically, because of the digital mediaverse surrounding them.
Maybe I am just naive and don't want to see the digital writing on the wall, but for the time being, I am guardedly hopeful that small literary and humanities magazines, just like the novel more generally, will continue to be viable (though not lucrative, of course) vehicles for enlightened public discourse.
For more information on Weber: The Contemporary West, including material from previous issues, see the journal's website.
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