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A View from Our ASA Booth

Chris Hu from the acquisitions department describes life around and beyond the Penn Press exhibitor booth.

Notes from the ASA Meeting in Philadelphia

The 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association was held this past weekend in Philadelphia, and I was asked to help staff the Penn Press booth. My duties at the booth were fairly simple: taking book orders, answering questions about our list, and helping prospective authors set up meetings with our acquisitions editors to discuss their projects. I also got the chance to meet a few Penn Press authors with whom I’d previously corresponded via email, including Helen Sheumaker, Susan Smulyan, and Casey Blake.

Overall, the book exhibition was quite lively, in part because a certain New York-based publisher gave away soft pretzels and Yuengling lager at its booth on Friday afternoon. This being the American Studies meeting, you’d think that they would have understood the problematic implications of appropriating Philly’s local delicacies!

 

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On Friday morning, I played hooky from the booth to attend a panel
discussion entitled “Democratic Vistas: How Can American Studies
Scholars Engage with Public Policy?” Unlike the titles of most academic
conference panels, this one actually described the topic pretty well.
The panelists were candid about the many obstacles facing humanities
scholars who want to influence policy: a professional preference for
critique over prescriptive argument and for intricate narrative over
concise talking points; policy makers who are indifferent to
historically informed academic perspectives; America’s long tradition
of anti-intellectualism; and academic promotion structures that
exclusively value peer-reviewed books and articles.

For me, one of the most interesting themes that emerged at the session
was a sense of ambivalence about books as a means of communicating
ideas. Many people expressed excitement about blogs, podcasts, and
online archives of editorials, with the almost implicit assumption that
books, while a necessary professional exercise, will never reach a wide
(or politically influential) audience. During the question and answer
session, one grad student even asked why she was toiling away “for
seven years on a book that no one is going to read.” As someone who
works in publishing, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable, not least
because this attitude implies a very narrow conception of what books
can do.

At a university press, our core goal is to publish works of
scholarship that are aimed primarily at academic audiences. We also
try, though, to publish a few titles each season that have wider
appeal, particularly to policy makers. Last fall we published Trapped
in the War on Terror
, a short, accessible study written by Penn
political science professor Ian Lustick. In the past year, Lustick’s
book has found many enthusiastic readers in the public policy arena,
even within the Bush administration.

New-media outlets like blogs and podcasts can be useful tools, but the
medium alone doesn’t guarantee the audience. Books may not be trendy,
but they are still the most effective way of communicating serious
ideas.

Chris Hu is an Acquisitions Assistant at Penn Press.