CHE graduate students and faculty members gathered in a circle of interdisciplinary conversation during our place-based workshop on "Landscapes of Extraction" in May 2014. Photo by William Cronon. Click to enlarge.

Working the Edge; or, How We Built This Thing

[The following post was published in partnership with Ant Spider Bee, a blog focusing on digital methods and practices in the environmental humanities.]

Just one year after launch on October 9, 2014, Edge Effects boasts almost 400 email subscribers and averages close to 5,000 views each month. That’s an exceptional feat for what was originally going to be a humble little graduate-student led publication.

The site was officially conceived in the spring of 2014, but the idea for building something like it had actually been in the air for much longer. Two years prior, graduate students Kate Wersan and Garrett Dash Nelson had first suggested creating a digital publication that would occupy the intellectual space of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE). Two years is a long time for something to materialize from daydream into reality, but overcoming inertia is one of the biggest and most common challenges of launching projects like Edge Effects. Although I can’t offer much guidance on overcoming that particular obstacle, I hope this first-anniversary history of the site will prove instructive in other ways for those aspiring to build and maintain something similar.

Beginnings

Edge Effects emerged from the twinkling eyes of a couple graduate students into a bona fide project—complete with a timeline and a mission—during one of Bill Cronon’s mentoring discussion groups in early April of 2014. The topic was “Communicating via Alternative Media,” and several grads felt strongly that it was time CHE had a digital venue for publishing work that didn’t necessarily fit the models of scholarly articles and monographs. Together, we imagined a website that could host other expressions of our research, whether the tentative and speculative findings of works in progress, or more unconventional scholarly forms like poetry, fiction, photography, film, and even comic strips.

Within a month, a few of us present at that meeting had come together to craft a proposal for CHE’s steering committee. For the curious, I’ve embedded that document, below.

Notice some of the goals and values that have been at the center of the project since its very beginnings:

  • This would be an emphatically graduate student-led project, focused primarily on sharing the work of CHE grads, faculty, and other associates.
  • Content published on the site would be explicitly oriented toward a broad audience, engaging not just an interdisciplinary set of scholars, but also wider publics.
  • Creativity and play would embody some of the project’s core values, and contributors would be encouraged to experiment with voices, media, forms, and themes not typically found in traditional scholarly publications.

After CHE’s steering committee approved that document as a (sketchy) blueprint, I volunteered to lead development of the publication for an expected launch in early fall of 2014, in anticipation of the Anthropocene Slam workshop. (Side note: wherever possible with these kinds of projects, avoid arbitrary timelines in favor of hard deadlines over which you have relatively little control—your efforts are far more likely to bear fruit).

Development

Given the seasonal rhythms of academe, summer often seems like a natural time to embark on major new projects. The teaching, research, and service demands of a semester in full swing rarely leave room for building something like Edge Effects. And yet, summer—with its enticements of fieldwork, family obligations, and even a few stolen moments of downtime—remains an acutely challenging time to coordinate a team. Nonetheless, we muddled through June, July, and August quite well with a revolving working group of grads and faculty. The team suggested features and offered feedback as I developed the actual site.

Like almost a full quarter of the Web, we decided to build Edge Effects using WordPress, a premium theme, several plugins, and some CSS and PHP customizations. One feature our development working group wanted to see implemented was a multi-column, Pinterest-style homepage, rather than the more traditional blog format. Although I resisted at first, the design has actually served us quite well, offering visitors a variety of material that can be scrolled through with a glance.

Readers will also notice from our proposal that we were quite uncertain about what to name CHE’s new publication. That question wouldn’t be resolved until late July 2014 and turned out to be one of the more difficult problems we faced during development. A first round of solicitations for naming the site resulted in about two dozen possibilities, none of which generated overwhelming excitement from the community. “Edge Effects” in fact emerged quite late in the name game, alongside one other possibility. When we conducted a final poll of CHE’s membership, we found even and enthusiastic support for both of these two options, leaving the development working group to make the final call. After meditating on the numerous evocative ways “Edge Effects” seemed to embody our vision for the project, the rest was history. One of our first posts upon launch would be a lovely essay from Bill Cronon about what the phrase “edge effects” means for CHE.

And, as we hoped, Edge Effects has lived up to its name. Collectively, our contributors have trod and traversed the many intersecting edges of CHE’s intellectual space, rendering more porous the boundaries distinguishing academic disciplines, theory from practice, laboratory from field, text from image, and even scholarly expertise from public knowledge. Our authors have posted a vast collection of photography, a poem or two, a comic strip, and almost a dozen interviews with some of the wisest and most inspiring thinkers we have found. Visitors to our site have discovered serious engagements with theater, video and other visual arts, music, children’s literature, herpetology and rewilding, crafts like woodworking, and the African safari. A few deeply personal narratives have presented our readers with complex, beautiful ideas about human relationships with animals and insects. And thoughtful essays have shared emerging scholarship on themes ranging from the cultural landscapes of boom and bust to the idea of the Anthropocene; from death and citizenship, to the politics of belonging in postcolonial places.

Mechanics

“Gear Wheels” by Ian Britton, 2011. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

By August 2014 we had not only a name and a customized WordPress theme, but also an editorial board, consisting—as outlined in our original proposal—of five other graduate student editors and one faculty advising editor. Together we took the site from a template filled with dummy content to a fully operational blog, including four posts ready for an early-October launch and several more in the queue.

While I don’t want to bore my readers with too many technical details, so few web publications reveal their inner workings (this ProfHacker piece is a nice exception) that it might be helpful if we shared some of our process.

Edge Effects has its own dedicated Google Drive where we maintain documents like our style guides and editorial manuals. I can’t emphasize enough how important this kind of documentation is for maintaining institutional memory. Given that we operate almost entirely thanks to graduate student volunteers, having manuals and other documents on hand helps guarantee a consistent product even with regular editorial turnover.

Probably one of the most important of those documents is our Google Sheets editorial calendar (check out the screenshot below). While fairly simple, it’s an indispensable tool for pushing out new content twice weekly (like clockwork, I might add). The entire editorial board meets twice monthly to discuss new pitches and fill the calendar, typically for at least the next six weeks, if not more. For the vast majority of posts, we manage to stick to that schedule. On occasion, however, a post has been delayed, in which case we’ve brought something else forward for publication. In fact, we always try to have a post or two ready for immediate publication in the event of just such setbacks.

A sampling of the Edge Effects editorial calendar. Click to enlarge.

A sampling of the Edge Effects editorial calendar. Click to enlarge.

Notice also that each post is assigned two editors—another important element of our workflow. Although we evaluate submissions for scholarly content to some extent, our editorial process is far more journalistic than what you might experience with an academic journal. Clarity, accessibility, and liveliness of prose are fundamental to Edge Effects. As such, we do some fairly fine-grained editing of our authors, typically going through at least two sets of revisions with two different editors. Our managing editor also always does a final sweep for typos, misplaced modifiers, and the like.

Given that many of our contributors are often more accustomed to scholarly peer-review, clarifying the kinds of edits and revisions they should expect has been critical to the project’s success. Our style guide runs just over three pages and is supplemented by a brief document offering guidelines for opinion pieces or essays that engage more polarizing issues, particularly around current events. Every author is also given a publishing timeline and a rough sketch of what each stage in the editorial process looks like.

All told, our editorial process can be fairly labor-intensive, but it has also reaped real rewards. We not only manage to publish dutifully on-schedule, but also shepherd through content that has been of a consistently high quality, ensuring readers regularly return to the site and share its posts. The trade-off here, of course, is that Edge Effects has evolved into something much more demanding than the category “blog” often suggests. Balancing the openness and accessibility of a blog with the schedule, style, and rigor of a magazine or journal has been an edge we’ve tried carefully to tread.

The Edge Ahead

Contemplating the edge ahead, Davos, Switzerland. Photograph by Robert J. Heath, 2010. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

From its initial development through the rich content that appears twice each week, Edge Effects has been a significant achievement for the CHE community. When we built the site, we did so without needing to hire a single person. Whether we were sorting out the pros and cons of working within the severe security constraints of university servers, solving knotty PHP coding problems, or imagining logo and banner design, the CHE community provided. As our editors have moved on to new projects and other commitments, our graduate students have enthusiastically stepped in to fill those vacancies. As the editorial expectations of the project have grown and solidified, both our contributors and editors have worked to meet those expectations.

The vice of all that virtue, however, is that almost any community has limited human resources. Although we’ve happily and very successfully relied on the in-house expertise and voluntarism of our graduate students (and a few faculty), questions remain about the long-term sustainability of a project like Edge Effects. This is particularly true at a time when the academy still views such work at best as “service,” or at worst as a distraction. Although these attitudes are changing, they may not be changing fast enough.

Despite this most fundamental of challenges, Edge Effects continues to share exciting and inspiring work from across the vibrant intellectual landscape of CHE. Our site remains one of the few projects out there that so deftly and creatively explores the boundaries of public scholarship across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. As Edge Effects celebrates its first go around the sun, it seems to have grown remarkably well into the space between a humble blog and something quite a bit more.

Featured Image: CHE graduate students and faculty members gathered in a circle of interdisciplinary conversation during our place-based workshop on “Landscapes of Extraction” in May 2014. Photo by William Cronon.

Adam Mandelman developed Edge Effects and served as its founding managing editor from October 2014 – May 2015. He recently earned his Ph.D. in Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His dissertation was entitled “Porous Boundaries and Permeable Places: Ordering Nature in the Mississippi River Delta, 1718-2012.” He is currently managing editor for Wisconsin 101, a collaborative public humanities project that crowdsources the state’s history through objects. Contact. Twitter. Website.

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