Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism

A new graduate program aims to train the next generation of architects of the public-intellectual infrastructure. Scott McLemee has a look at some of the blueprints.

February 25, 2015

Whenever young writers have asked for advice over the years, the only thing I could think to tell them was to practice saying, “Where’s my check?” into the telephone, at various degrees of loudness, mixing in suitable expletives if they felt comfortable doing so. “You’ll probably be saying that a lot,” I'd tell them, generalizing from painful experience.

But as accumulated wisdom goes, it’s pretty well out-of-date. Communication by phone has lost much of its immediacy (half the time it involves leaving a message asking, “Did you get my e-mail?”), and besides, much of the work done by a novice writer, if not all of it, now goes unremunerated. Publication is supposed to be its own reward.

Exaggeration? Sure, but it’s how things look to a writer who began publishing at the close of an era when that meant print and nothing but print. Someone starting out today enters a public sphere with a very different composition and structure -- and does so with a tacit understanding that it, too, will be reconfigured over time. We Gutenbergian geezers must adapt to such changes or else forgo reaching much of our potential audience. Writers emerging now, by contrast, face an arguably more difficult problem: establishing a durable public presence (i.e., readership) at all, in an environment where sustained attention is the scarcest of resources.

A recently launched program at the New School for Social Research called Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (henceforth CPCJ) seems designed with that challenge in mind. The course work, leading to a master’s degree, is intended to teach students “to think critically and historically about book publishing and journalism; to learn about the best practices of contemporary reporting and cultural criticism; to appreciate the business aspects of production and distribution; and to acquire an ability to work collaboratively in the writing, editing, design and publication of texts on a variety of platforms, both print and digital.” (The full program launches this coming fall, but three core courses are being taught this semester.)

The head of CPCJ, James Miller, a professor of politics and former chair of the New School’s liberal studies program, calls it “a frankly experimental program” that is off to a quiet if promising start. “The program has only been up and running for a few months, and without much in the way of advertising so far,” he told me in an e-mail. “We already have in hand 12 finished applications, and another 80 or so people that have started apps or expressed interest via e-mail inquiries or visits to our classes this semester.”

The roster of faculty and guest speakers listed on its Web site is clearly the program’s biggest draw for now, and it’s hard to think of anyone more suited to running it than Miller, who has published monographs on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well as pieces in Rolling Stone and The New York Times. At a much earlier stage of his career, Miller was one of a number of professors in government who were denied tenure by the University of Texas at Austin -- in part, it was said by their supporters, because they leaned to the left, but also on the grounds that they were writing for the popular press as well as scholarly journals. Such, at least, was the word going around when I arrived as a freshman in 1981, and it tracks fairly closely with what Texas Monthly reported the following year, in a cover story called "The Trouble With UT."

Miller was very much a felt absence among some of us, and when the last of his circle was denied tenure, we ended the school year by occupying the liberal arts office in protest. (You never forget your first political arrest.) By then Miller had joined Newsweek as a book and music critic, and also went on to write "Democracy Is in the Streets": From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987) and The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993) and to edit the journal Daedalus, published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

A remarkable skill set, then -- assembled mostly in predigital days but supplemented by Miller’s feel for what the would-be public intellectual, magazine editor or literary publisher would need to know in starting out today.  Part of the core curriculum, for example, is a lab where students can expand their multimedia literacy by learning Adobe Suite, WordPress, HTML, EPUB and so on.

You could acquire some of those tools at one of the city's many journalism/publishing degree programs -- or, for that matter, at the Learning Annex, I suppose. But the instructor for the lab is Rachel Rosenfelt,  a founding editor of the cultural journal The New Inquiry and someone with a deep interest in the uses of multimedia for serious commentary and debate. Another instructor is Juliette Cezzar, an assistant professor of communication at the Parsons School of Design and president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts/New York, whose course on the history and theory of publication design also involves studio work. While overlapping somewhat with established programs in writing, publishing and design programs, CPCJ integrates them in a specific and, as far as I know, unique way.

A memo by Miller indicates that the M.A. work culminates in “an individualized capstone project that can take a number of forms: from an edgy short story or long-form book review to a piece of investigative reporting, from a business plan for a new literary quarterly to design work that demonstrates a student’s ability to create an engrossing reading experience and shows an awareness of and empathy for today’s reader of serious writing.”

For a reader of serious writing, it’s good to hear this -- especially the part about students designing “a business plan for a new literary quarterly.” Does that sound crass? Well, someone said that you can tell who the poets are at a party, because they’re the ones in a corner talking about money. (The lack of it, presumably.)

My one major worry is that the program could end up as a conduit supplying still more unpaid labor to the voracious maw of the New York culture industry. At some point CPCJ really ought to offer a course on organizing interns to demand fair pay. It's an experimental program, after all, and that's an experiment worth making. All together now: "Where are our checks?"


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