Virtual conference addresses challenges of a shrinking job market, complex publishing landscape

Monday, August 9, 2021

Over 250 participants from 42 countries on six continents attended “Global Publishing and the Making of Literary Worlds: Translation, Media, and Mobility,” a virtual conference for early-career academics in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. The conference took place Friday, June 4 through Sunday, June 6.

The aims of the event were two-fold: to address theoretical issues in language, translation, and publishing, and to provide scholars with practical workshops. 

Academic discussions included Zoom interactive roundtables, such as “Can the Subaltern be Translated?,” chaired by Isabel Gómez, assistant professor of Latin American and Iberian studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and International Comparative Literature Association (ICLA) Executive Committee member, and “The Anthropocene, Technology and the Making of Literary Worlds,” chaired by Youngmin Kim, a professor at Dongguk University in South Korea and also an ICLA Executive Committee member. 

A keynote plenary on international publishing featured Christie Henry, director of Princeton University Press, as well as representatives from Seagull Books, Europa Editions and TSEHAI Publishers, among others. “We have a global mission as a publisher and a critical part of that is reaching and learning from new voices,” Henry said. “This focus on early-career scholars at a time when publishers need to expand their network was an opportune moment for us to share and learn. It was exciting to be with individuals who are helping to think of publishing as an exchange, transcending conventional boundaries and borders.”

Milad Odabaei, a postdoctoral research associate in the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies in the Department of Anthropology attended Henry’s panel. “They were speaking about the moment of pandemic and publishing, and spending time with books during times of isolation, and sort of reflecting on the significance of writing, and thinking, and publishing during the pandemic in relationship to questions of the fragility of life,” he said. “I found that [panel] to be particularly inspiring. It struck the right balance between the actual concrete concerns of a publisher and editor to get a book out there and work with an author, but also larger questions about why we write, or why we read, and what is the significance of engaging with texts more broadly.”

“Why we write and why we read is fundamental to human nature — it’s how we learn,” Henry said. “It’s also so essential to how we imagine and innovate and empathize. Writing and reading are both powerful, efficient and expansive ways of embedding that empathy.”

Princeton and invited faculty also explicated the nut-and-bolts of a complex academic publishing landscape. William Germano, professor of English at Cooper Union, spoke on “Making the World Legible:  Some Notes on the Promise of Academic Writing.” Wendy Belcher, professor of comparative literature and African American studies at Princeton led “How to Write an Article,” an intensive workshop. This plenary was introduced by Sandra Bermann, the Cotsen Professor of the Humanities and professor of comparative literature; Bermann was also the conference’s lead organizer. 

“I thought the conference was brilliantly conceived and quite original in trying to provide junior scholars around the world with insight into how the publishing industry works at many levels,” Belcher said. 

Pre-tenure faculty, post-docs, or senior graduate student participants were also required to upload a book description with their registration, and each participant had a one-on-one coaching session with a seasoned editor. “Some profound learning happened in the opportunities to speak with early-career scholars,” Henry said. “They brought so much of themselves and their ideas. We responded to their proposals, but also shared ideas that will help them in their path forward. The chance to meet for a moment in time is priceless and meaningful.”

Saidiya Hartman, author, cultural historian, University Professor and professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, presented the opening keynote in conversation with Bermann.  Jhumpa Lahiri, director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing, and Aleksandar Hemon, professor of creative writing, provided keynotes on day 2 and day 3. Lahiri discussed “The Faces of Translation” with Karen Emmerich, associate professor of comparative literature and director of Princeton’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. In “Toward, and Beyond, Collaborative Literature,” Hemon was joined by Paulo Lemos Horta, associate professor of literature and creative writing at NYU-Abu Dhabi, affiliate faculty at Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU, and ICLA Executive Committee member.  Lemos Horta, a co-organizer of the conference, delivered closing remarks with Bermann. 

For 2020-2021 Fung Global Fellow Thana Cristina de Campos, the conference served as a compliment to her virtual fellowship experience. “The conference was as interdisciplinary as the experience of the fellowship itself, where you interact with different scholars who speak a different language, see things in a different way from a totally different angle,” she said. de Campos is an assistant professor of ethics, law, and public policy, School of Government, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. “You have to learn how to speak to a general audience, which for me was very good because that is the kind of scholarship that I would like to do more of in the future — more accessible scholarship, especially as a philosopher.” 

New ways of networking

Instead of relying entirely on Zoom’s videoconferencing platform, the organizers and, Nicole Bergman, manager of Fung Global Fellows program, opted to host the conference’s networking sessions on Whova, an event management app. Whova’s networking interface allowed conference participants to interact in various virtual rooms, from coffee bars to movie theatres, replicating as much as possible the real-feel of in-person networking. 

“It was actually very intuitive and I thought it was actually very fun,” de Campos said. “I felt as if I were in a sort of video game. You can go and be closer to someone, or just go away when you don't want to talk to someone and take off. [It] felt a little bit real.”

“We continued to talk in a more conversational way about our scholarship,” Odabaei said. “But also, people asked for fiction recommendations as well. It was interactive and more like the kind of thing that happens during in-person conferences that is hard to replicate online.”

“The virtual component meant that many around the world participated, which was terrific,” said Belcher. “I had a conversation with a scholar in Ghana working on the early influence of Portuguese on West African languages, whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

“Global Publishing and the Making of Literary Worlds” was organized by the PIIRS’ Fung Fellows Program, the International Comparative Literature Association and Princeton University Press.  The event was co-sponsored by the University Center for Human Values, the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, Princeton African Humanities Colloquium, the Humanities Council, and the departments of comparative literature, English, history and African American studies.