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Why University Presses Matter

By Daniel Heath Justice Date: November 06, 2017 Tags: Blog

With all the recent and necessary discussion about Indigenous voice in the public sphere here in Canada, and the continuing debates about settler-colonial misrepresentation, appropriation, and stereotype-ridden narratives about Indigenous peoples that continue to dominate in the mainstream media, it’s easy to overlook the important work being done to engage the broader public in more accurate, respectful, and honourable understandings of Indigenous peoples. University presses are a vital if often underappreciated participant in this intervention, especially those that have taken seriously the call for institutional change in dealing with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous-focused scholarship.

Historically, university presses were a major part of the problem as disseminators of academic work that was often distant from Indigenous communities and often hostile to or dismissive of Indigenous social and familial complexities, cultural continuity, and political commitments. With non-Indigenous scholars the vast majority of those being published—and with non-Indigenous scholars constituting the overwhelming majority represented in relevant academic disciplines—peer review was conducted largely by white male scholars commenting on the work of other white male scholars, and whiteness, intentionally or not, was consistently reinforced as the expected and presumed location of authority. Indigenous scholars—community-trained as well as academy-based—might be cited, but primarily as research sources, not as legitimate peer interpreters of research findings. Until the 1970s Indigenous scholars had a self-defined presence largely in anthropology and literary studies, and rarely even in those disciplines.

While individual Indigenous people have always pursued university education in North America, numbers remained small until the increased activism in the 1960s created more favourable conditions for a sustained and visible Indigenous presence in higher education. Within two decades some of those 1960s- and 70s-era students became faculty and pushed to change the colonial contexts of education from within as well as without, and things—slowly—began to shift. (This is not to say the numbers are large even today: Indigenous people remain woefully under-represented in the academy as students, academic staff, and faculty.) As those Indigenous scholars and their non-Indigenous allies found relatively stable if not always secure spaces from which to push for more responsible scholarship, as right-wing civil rights retrenchments of the 1980s and early 90s created a deeper imperative for scholarly critique of white supremacy and institutionalized violence, as consideration of research ethics became more prominent at universities and funding bodies alike, as legal challenges shifted the presumed inviolability of settler-colonial claims to Indigenous lands, and as more academic editors were trained to consider the historical, ethical, and political contexts in which knowledge and research findings were communicated, another consciousness about scholarship and scholarly publishing began to take shape.

I came of age in the US as an Indigenous scholar in the late 1990s, when Indigenous critics were finally being centred in academic conversations about Indigenous literature. It was a time of no small tension, as the field had been led for decades by the interests of non-Indigenous scholars, and there were some very public arguments about the field’s future and the role of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous critics in determining its guiding concerns, as well as the field’s responsibilities to the peoples and communities from which these writings emerged. But it was also a time of great excitement, energy, and creativity, of important engagements of histories, lands, and relations within literature and criticism alike, of alliance and relationship-building and connections within and beyond the academy. And it continues to be a field where we grapple with vital questions of representation, accountability, power, aesthetics, and diversity of voice. It is far from the musty study of dusty books—it is entirely about the living vitality of Indigenous expression made manifest in the world.

And university presses have been an important part of that movement. Not all, certainly; a few remain locked in an antiquated vision of white supremacy masquerading as scholarly objectivity, but they are increasingly marginal and diminished in scholarly and public discussions by their narrow vision. Most, I am pleased to say, understand that Indigenous peoples are important participants in the world and in this country, and that our contributions to all fields of study and all areas of lived concern deserve the same thoughtful and robust attention given to others who call this land home. I have been honoured to serve on the publication boards of two academic presses and have seen first-hand the ethical integrity, intellectual rigour, fierce commitment, and incredibly hard work that academic editors, designers, marketers, and other colleagues put into every book they deliver into the world. As a publishing academic, I have been on the other end of the process and have, far more often than not, been very well cared for by the editorial staff who bring professionalism and profound generosity into every part of the process. I am an enthusiastic advocate of academic presses and their contribution to the work we do in society; I know first-hand how much their work makes a difference.

This is why, when I was asked to serve on the advisory board for the Indigenous Studies series at Wilfrid Laurier University Press, I did not hesitate to accept. The Press had a strong reputation for impressive research, ethical relations, and exquisite design; its editors and staff were creative and intellectually adventurous but also highly committed to the very best and most responsible scholarship; it had a vision for collaboration with Indigenous scholars and writers that was exciting and impressive. And, later, when I was thinking of a home for my own book, WLUP was the natural choice. Not once have I doubted that decision. Every book that emerges from their Indigenous Studies list is more impressive than the last; every communication I have had with my editor, with the designer, with marketing staff has been great. I have had such helpful guidance through the ups and downs of writing the book and finding my voice in a project that sometimes seemed too overwhelming and too big, and now, in the copyediting and proofing stages, can look back to see just how much care, time, and attention they have given to me and my soon-to-be book. I know from others who work with them that the same level of commitment is given to every other author in the WLUP family, from first-time academic author to senior scholars.

These are the kinds of relations that change things for the better, that make space for voices too long ignored and too long at the margins. These are the people who undertake such important work, every day, so often with little recognition or appreciation, but who do it because they know it matters. I am proud as hell to be a university press cheerleader and, in some small way, to be part of a community of accountable thinkers who are working, one book at a time, to transform the ways we think about the world and our place within it.

Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee Nation) is Professor of First Nations and Indigenous Studies/English and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture at the University of British Columbia. His book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, is forthcoming from Wilfrid Laurier University Press in February 2018.

This post is part of University Press Week 2017. Please visit our colleagues' blogs

Temple University Press: a post about books and authors that focus on racism and whiteness

Wayne State University Press: a post about a forthcoming book on slavery in 21st century America

University Press of Colorado: a feature of the press's post-truth-focused titles

Princeton University Press: Al Bertrand on the importance of non-partisan peer-reviewed social science in today's climate

George Mason University Press: a post on the path to discovery onf an overlooked and misunderstood yet influential historical figure

Cambridge: University Press: a post about Marie Curie and her struggle for recognition within the French scientific community dominated by male scientists.

University of Toronto Press: a post on the importance of making scholarship accessible to students and the role of publishers in helping to build better citizens; a post on how academic publishing can go beyond just facts to attempt to win over hearts and minds