A new journal for tumultuous times

April 17, 2017

Forced migration is at unprecedented levels around the world, so a new scholarly journal focusing on the work of refugee scholars is a significant contribution, writes Scott McLemee.

FEW ACCOUNTS of a scholar's working conditions lodge themselves in a reader's imagination quite like Eric Auerbach's understated remarks in the epilogue to his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946). A German-Jewish philologist, Auerbach was forced out of his academic position in 1935. He escaped with his family to Turkey the following year, and for most of the next decade, he pursued a study in comparative literature on a grand scale--analyzing texts in several languages from more than two millennia--amid the uncertainties of exile.

The book was written during the war and at Istanbul, where the libraries are not well equipped for European studies. International communications were impeded; I had to dispense with almost all periodicals, with almost all the more recent investigations, and in some cases with reliable critical editions of my texts. Hence it is possible and even probable that I overlooked things which I ought to have considered and that I occasionally assert something which modern research has disproved or modified. I trust that these probable errors include none which affect the core of my argument...On the other hand, it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.

Syrian refugees arrive in Germany
Syrian refugees arrive in Germany (Remi Itani | flickr)

This passage tends to stick in one's memory. It gives the book an aura of heroism. And Auerbach himself stands as the patron saint of everyone trying to resist the urge to consult just one more paper...just one more book...before adding their own mite to the scholarly literature.

ROMANTICIZING THE condition of exile is ultimately one of the more dubious privileges of unreflective security, however. And as such, it evades an unwelcome truth: the condition of the refugee scholar is no historical matter but a 21st-century reality.

So much so, in fact, that one of the oldest academic presses in the world has now added a new periodical to its catalog. As of its second issue, The Journal of Interrupted Studies, founded in 2015 by students at the University of Oxford, will carry the imprint of Brill Publishers. (With headquarters in the Netherlands, the press has been around in one form or another since the 17th century.)

Describing itself as "a multidisciplinary publication dedicated to academic work jeopardized by forced migration," the Journal debuted in June 2016 with six peer-reviewed articles. Three were by Syrians; the other three by scholars from Ethiopia, Gambia and Jordan. By my count, two of the papers concerned political and economic issues directly affecting refugees, while a third, which explored problems in teaching English-language sentence structure and intonation, had clear practical implications for how some refugees adapt to a new country. Another two papers analyzed economic developments in Africa without directly focusing on emigration. Finally, the issue ended with a first-person account of primary and secondary education in Syria, by a teacher and translator who studied English at the University of Aleppo--an essay that, judging by a slightly anxious headnote, the editors clearly wanted to have yet worried did not belong in a peer-reviewed scholarly publication.

The dilemma should not come up again. In January, the journal launched a blog called "Interruptions: New Perspectives on Migration," open to "the journalism, personal essays, fiction, poetry, photography and art of those directly or indirectly affected by migration, and of those who feel they have something to contribute to a revised discussion thereof."

BEHIND THIS ambitious enterprise are Marcos Barclay and Paul Ostwald--two Oxford undergraduates whose friendship owes something to their similarly extraterritorial upbringings. Mark (as he prefers) describes himself as "half English and half Argentinean," while Paul's early years were spent in Germany, Kenya and Russia. Between travel, editorial duties and preparing for finals in a few weeks, they managed to respond to my questions about JIS by email.

The seed was planted in late 2015. While watching a German television show with his father, Paul noticed something about how the program identified its talking heads: a German citizen would be presented with his or her full name, while a refugee would be noted as "Kazim, refugee." Paul had met highly educated Syrian refugees and found the "small but very telling instance of condescending chumminess" offensive on their behalf.

Discussing it later, Mark and Paul decided that what displaced academics needed was a platform from which they could intervene in public life as displaced academics--figures whose participation in the community of scholars ought to be regarded not as marginal but as having been interrupted.

In letting them resume their work, such a publication would have to be interdisciplinary--and open access as well. As Mark put it, "Accepting submissions across disciplines means we can show interruption in different academic fields (social science, natural sciences, art history, law and creative writing, to name a few) and different migration contexts (environmental, political, humanitarian)." Likewise, he says, open-access publishing "allowed us to promote the intellectual dignity of our authors"--who retain intellectual property in their work--"in a forum that encourages exchange."

The first issue of the journal took about six months to prepare. "We started off with encouragement from our tutors and Act Now, an Austrian institution which funded our first issue," Paul told me by email. "Then we received support from the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, the German national scholarship program. Beyond that, we have a fantastic team of about 12 people and independent peer reviewers who continue to work on submissions, and our blog."

A second issue was announced for late 2016, but it has been delayed for what sound like altogether pretty agreeable reasons. "After an exchange of emails and Skype meetings," Mark says, "we found ourselves sitting in the office of [Brill Publishing] CEO Herman Pabbruwe in Leiden. I remember the sleepless night in anticipation of our meeting and the slightly surreal bus trip to the airport at 3 a.m. as we tried to make our 10 a.m. meeting. When we arrived in Leiden, Paul suggested we mark the occasion by stretching our student budget and going for breakfast. I will never forget sitting next to a canal trying to enjoy a very nice scrambled egg, but quaking with nervousness!"

The discussion went well, perhaps in part because of Brill's record of support for open-access scholarship. Besides its digital edition, the journal will also be available in print.

THE EDITORS told me a little about the forthcoming contents--but no details, as yet, about the scholars involved: "We make it a policy not to supply the names of our authors unless we have their consent, as sometimes they may wish to withhold their identity for reasons for personal safety." They hope to be able to give all the names when the journal finally appears.

Of six papers slated for the next issue, three strike me as possibly indicative of the journal's range and potential. One looks at "the strategies employed by German municipalities in integrating [Syrian] refugees at social, cultural and economic levels" and makes recommendations about how the tactics might be more widely applied.

Another paper makes the case for national and international aid to victims of ecological catastrophes in Bangladesh, based on "a number of precedent cases where international bodies have made humanitarian interventions on grounds of environmental risk." The editors say they chose the paper because of the relative neglect of the issue in the West "in spite of the fact it has become a severe threat in the developing world as rapid industrialization unfolds."

And a paper on art history goes back to the origins of forced migration -- or at least one of the earliest stories in which it features. The author examines how the Tower of Babel has been the overt or implicit image of "cultural and social dislocation … throughout many examples of Western contemporary art ranging from Soviet Constructivism to postmodern art."

All three articles are scheduled to appear in the second issue of the Journal of Interrupted Studies, due out this summer.

First published at Inside Higher Ed.

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