A Case Study in Scholar-Led Open Access Publishing & A Mini-Manifesto for the Minor Humanities

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

NOTE: The text of this blog post was originally presented as a lecture at University of California, Santa Barbara Library on May 8, 2018, under the title “Nubian Studies: A Case Study in Scholar-Led Open Access Publishing.” Follow more of Vincent’s work on Old Nubian via Twitter @ontakragoueke.

I first would like to thank Sherri Barnes, here at UCSB Library, for inviting me to present this lecture on my work for the open-access journal Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies, which is published by punctum books.

Before I talk about Dotawo, perhaps I should first speak briefly about how I entered the field of Nubian studies. I did my MA at Leiden University in General Linguistics, and back then you were supposed to spend a significant part of your credit hours on “weird languages.” We were actively stimulated to take courses in languages outside our Indo-European comfort zone, to experience the variety and complexity of the world’s languages, in order to understand how varied and extraordinary language can be. So I took courses in Abkhaz, Sumerian, Albanian, and Coptic, among others. I was very fortunate to be able to study these topics, as most of them were cut in subsequent “reorganizations,” an obliteration by higher ed administrators of the minor humanities that I will return to at the end of my presentation. After two semesters in Coptic, the final stage of the Ancient Egyptian language still used in the Coptic Orthodox Church, my professor from the Egyptology department told me: “There is this other language in the same region, but we don’t really understand it very well. As you are a linguist, do you want to do a special seminar to figure it out a bit more?” So there we were, two Egyptologists and two linguists, poring over Old Nubian material, which had only been discovered a century earlier. This was in 2005.

Geographically, Nubia is located along the river Nile, from the first cataract upstream to the sixth cataract, from the current Aswan High Dam to the pyramids of Meroe. The current Nubian heartland runs up to the fourth cataract, to Jebel Barkal, the Holy Mountain dedicated to the Egyptian god Amun. This area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and has been known to Western historical sources since Antiquity. In the eighth century BCE, the Kingdom of Kush controlled all of Egypt and waged war up to Mesopotamia before being pushed back by the Assyrians, and eventually outlasted the Pharaonic empire well into the fourth century CE. In the remnants of this empire, we find the emergence of three, and eventually two Christian kingdoms, which lasted up until the sixteenth century. Old Nubian is the language that became the state language of the Kingdom of Makuria in the 6th century, and with Meroitic, which has only been partially deciphered, it represents the oldest surviving records of a native African language.

I only returned to Old Nubian in 2010, when I was doing my PhD at the European Graduate School on the philosophical origins of the linguistic concept of case. I felt somehow the need to reconnect with hands-on linguistic work in a period when all of my research had become very abstract. So I returned to some of my notes, which led to the first article on the Memorial for King George (pictured below).

In the same period, I had started a publishing house, Uitgeverij, based on Creative Commons licensing and enabled by the emergence of print-on-demand services. This was part of its manifesto:

We publish under no name, the word “publisher” in all languages. We fight for language: poetically, epically, philosophically, linguistically, ethnographically, or otherwise. We put our faith into five maxims. We enjoy working with authors who recognize themselves in them. And even though this is written in English, you have to trust us.

  1. All languages are equal.
  2. Every edition is endless.
  3. Copyright is no right.
  4. Only experiment can represent the present.
  5. All publications are the same.

And so, the idea was born to do an edition of an Old Nubian text translated into a contemporary Nile-Nubian language. Because the strange thing is that, while Old Nubian is studied in the fringiest margins of academia, its existence and heritage are little known to the Nubians of today. The education systems of Egypt and Sudan, between which the Nubian territory has been split, systematically repress Nubian culture and heritage, or appropriate it within their own nationalist discourses. Moreover, the Nubian people have been subject to widespread forced dislocation, as a result of the inundation of their ancestral lands by dams in the Nile. The enormously traumatic impact of this exodus continues to be felt within the Nubian community.

Through a colleague I was put in touch with Shafie El-Guzuuli, a tireless Andaandi language activist. Together we produced the first Andaandi translation of an Old Nubian text, the Miracle of Saint Mina. As a result I ended up at my first Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Conference, co-hosting a panel on Nubian languages, and then discovering that there was no venue in which to publish the proceedings of the Nubian panel.

At the time, there were only a few extant academic journals that featured articles related to Nubian studies: the Journal of Juristic Papyrology at the University of Warsaw, the Beiträge zur Sudanforschung from the Society for the Promotion of Sudanese Studies at the University of Vienna, the journal Kush from the French Archeological Unit of the Sudan Antiquities Service, and Sudan & Nubia from the Sudan Archeological Research Society. None of these were oriented toward linguistic work, none of them were open-access journals, and the small nucleus of “early career” Nubian scholars that we had assembled at the conference thought that an open-access venue was essential in order to better include and reach Nubian scholars and scholars from Nubia in Egypt and Sudan. This is how the idea of open access and print-on-demand journal Dotawo was born, under the aegis of the following mission statement:

Nubian studies need a platform in which the old meets the new, in which archaeological, papyrological, and philological research into Meroitic, Old Nubian, Coptic, Greek, and Arabic sources confront current investigations in modern anthropology and ethnography, Nilo-Saharan linguistics, and critical and theoretical approaches present in post-colonial and African studies.

Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies brings these disparate fields together within the same fold, opening a cross-cultural and diachronic field where divergent approaches meet on common soil. Dotawo gives a common home to the past, present, and future of one of the richest areas of research in African studies. It offers a crossroads where papyrus can meet internet, scribes meet critical thinkers, and the promises of growing nations meet the accomplishments of old kingdoms.

The proceedings of the conference were published in the first two issues of Dotawo in 2014 and 2015. The journal was hosted at the digital repository of Fairfield University, where my co-editor-in-chief Giovanni Ruffini is based, and the print versions are published by punctum books, where I have been co-director with Eileen Joy since October 2015.

Dotawo 3 dealt with “Know-How and Techniques in Ancient Sudan,” Dotawo 4 with “Place Names and Place Naming in Nubia,” while we are currently preparing a fifth issue on “Nubian Women.” Meanwhile, we have also started a monograph series, Dotawo Monographs, publishing new editions and grammars.

So let me change gears a bit and delve into the ways in which Dotawo actually works — into the conditions of its existence.

Nubian studies is a small, and dare I say, fledgling field. Serious archeological work in Nubia only started with the UNESCO salvage missions organized in the slipstream of the Aswan High Dam construction, and much of the material unearthed in the 1960s and 1970s still awaits publication. As nearly all of Egyptian Nubia has been inundated, most Nubian archeological work is done in Sudan, whose autocratic regime poses specific challenges to scholars both in and outside the country.

In spite of the enormous amount of work that remains to be done, at the time we started Dotawo, a rather insular mentality still appeared to dominant, at least in the study of Medieval Nubia. Archeologists and scholars would “sit” for years on the finds they had the “right” to publish, leading to enormous backlogs and sometimes publications of questionable scientific quality. It is simply impossible for one person to be a specialist in three different languages from three different language families, while at the same be fully aware of the archaeological records, historical contexts, pottery, architecture, textiles, Byzantine Christianity, and Coptic monasticism.

This is why Dotawo from the beginning espoused a collaborative approach, in which critical editions became group work. The first result of this experiment was the edition of the textual material found in Attiri, and the same working group is now preparing a much larger edition of the epigraphic material from the church in Sonqi Tino. Another aspect of collaboration is that we favor open peer review, which means that authors and reviewers have each other’s contact details, and often collaborate extensively on articles. This is also necessary, as many contributions from non-Western academic environments are often not up to the formal standards of scholarly publishing, while they do contain novel materials and insights. It would be unacceptable to reject these contributions simply because they do not follow the jargon of Western academia.

The second condition, closely tied to the first, is the idea of a multi-disciplinary approach. Nubian studies and especially publications in the field are often divided along temporal or disciplinary lines. The idea of Dotawo was to bring all these disciplines and time zones together in one place, so that they can inform each other and establish rapports that otherwise would not be possible.

Third is the condition of accessibility. Many scholars in the field, including myself, do not have a university affiliation, or are not working in an academic environment that is dedicated to their field of inquiry. Much of the research is done by “lone Nubiologists,” taking refuge in archaeological, Egyptological, or religious studies departments. By publishing our journal open-access and under a Creative Commons license, we guarantee maximum accessibility, especially for scholars outside Western academia, in Sudan, Egypt, and elsewhere.

But because Internet access is not necessarily a given in Nubia, and because everyone likes books, for us it also important to have a print version of the journal, so that it doesn’t only exist in the digital realm. Even though our academic audience is rather limited compared to larger fields of inquiry, print-on-demand technology allows us to produce affordable print copies of the journal, bring them to conferences, and when we visit our colleagues in Sudan and Egypt. We have to always remember that even the Internet is not truly accessible to “all.”

Finally, there is the question of institutional support. Expenses like typesetting, author copies, editorial work, image rights, metadata management, and so on require some form of institutional funding. Currently, Fairfield University gives us a very modest annual budget, but this is contingent on many factors, including, in the end, the personal preferences of a dean, who has decided to end funding for Dotawo after this coming September. At the same time, punctum books’s publishing platform allows Dotawo to be embedded in a broader scholarly network, and this in turn has led to several new multi-disciplinary and multilingual initiatives, including a journal of Libyan Studies called Lamma, which is currently working on its first issue, and a new collaboration with Debtelin, which is a journal devoted to Manchu Studies.

I consider Dotawo to still be a young initiative. Although we have overcome many hurdles, and have established ourselves as a credible outlet for Nubian studies, the sustainability of the project is not guaranteed without solid institutional support. Apart from the financial aspect, we also would like to make improvements in terms of our digital standards. Our articles still lack DOI numbers, for example, and we’re not yet indexed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).

As may be clear, Dotawo is only a concrete result of a much broader attempt to imagine a different, multidisciplinary, collaborative, inclusive Nubian studies. A Nubian studies where, moreover, academics work alongside language activists and cultural workers, and, in general, anyone interested in Nubia. The beginning of thinking such an environment has been the idea of founding a Union for Nubian Studies, which, significantly, started by returning to a Nubian orientation of the Nile, in which upstream is up. UNS is now the official body behind Dotawo, and is planning its first conference.

We have also extended our collaboration with The Nubia Initiative, a “transboundary international non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding all things Nubia.” Among others, we are currently developing a project to design a pan-Nubian font and cross-platform keyboard interface, which would facilitate Nubian writing and overall literacy in the digital and print realms. In these types of projects, precisely something arcane as an insight into medieval literacy and writing culture can suddenly become essential for contemporary cultural preservation and reinforcement.

I would like to end with a broader consideration of the relation between open-access publishing and what I would call the “minor humanities.” I don’t mean “minor” in the sense of lesser, but in the sense in which it was used by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: as a resistance to the majority – a majority that in our current times is rapidly acquiring fascist characteristics. The minor humanities, to a large extent, deal with civilizations that have died or are in the process of dying. Nearly all of them are non-Western languages, complicating and queering the precepts of classical and renaissance philology and modern linguistics, ceaselessly interrogating the methodologies that the “major” humanities tend to enforce. At the same time, they provide a paradigm for us to think our current predicament of living in a civilization that is dying, on a planet that is dying. How to deal with a world that is faced with destruction and radical upheaval? Ask the minor humanities; ask the Medieval Nubians.

If the minor humanities, the study of that which was and is spoken and lived on the edge of extinction, are to survive, open-access publishing, a publishing that is radically open and welcoming, may be the only way. And as such, it may be the only way to continue to revive and rejuvenate the humanities as such.

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