16 September 2022. The date was set. We would be meeting with the Princeton University Press European Advisory Board—in person!—after a two-year hiatus. And we would be gathering in our new premises in leafy north Oxford, to which we had moved in late 2021.*
Our theme of the afternoon was “Public and Policy Engagement”—the practice of connecting with the public and/or policy-makers about matters of broad interest and timely relevance—a theme we collectively chose in advance of the meeting. This was a big subject to cover in a few hours, but our aspiration was to take the pulse of the moment, to consider our role as a publisher of scholarly ideas, and to think about how our role could evolve or should evolve in the coming years. We were all invited to contribute from our various disciplines and perspectives, and we anticipated revealing themes of resonance, as well as themes that might surprise us.
An important leitmotif that emerged from our meeting was the power of books to connect people. Writing words and ideas for others to read is a hopeful exercise in seeking connection. Books that serve to bridge cultures of thought and inspire conversations, collaborations, and healthy debate are needed now more than ever. I might even go so far to say that such books help to forge the bonds of humanity. But, even while I took pride in the role we play in helping authors and readers connect and reconnect, I observed that my colleagues and our advisors also expressed measures of sadness, weariness, and concern. Healthy debate, in the long tradition of scholarly engagement on a topic from differing viewpoints, is under pressure. Some might argue that its tradition and practice are positively eroding. In some quarters of the scholarly world, especially as it intersects with the public square, it is increasingly rare to see debate modeled in a healthy, respectful, and inclusive way. Concerns were raised about threats to free speech, and we (and other publishers) were charged to continue supporting the publication of truth in an age of sensationalism, misinformation, tribalism, and censorship.
Worries were also raised about the future—about young scholars who increasingly seem to feel that they cannot survive in academia. This led us to discuss the next generation of scholars and authors, as well as readers, and what they want to communicate about and read. There was much discussion about young academics not being universally encouraged to communicate about their work in book form with the public. We also discussed the role that we, as a publisher and more particularly as a mission-driven university press, play in the ecosystem of scholarly publishing and in publishing for engaged readers everywhere. In a sense, we are a hybrid publisher, invested in publishing the most exciting and impactful work and ideas from the scholarly world for diverse audiences within and outside of academia. Central to our publishing efforts, we seek to be a means of creative connection between authors and readers. And there is no question that we—and readers—want to hear earlier from the next generation, as the importance of their contributions to the conversations that will shape the world and our futures is clear.
This said, our conversations turned to how public communication opens up authors to censorship, smearing, cancellation, and other forms of trolling and backlash. It is as though we have experienced a “great splintering.” While it can feel comforting to have found one’s tribe, it can be very unsettling to be attacked by opposing tribes for expressing one’s voice and views, or even to be regulated by one’s own tribe for “straying” from a prescribed path. It is important to recognize here that, gathered together for our meeting, we formed a tribe of our own, and one that is not truly value-neutral. One could argue, however, that value-neutrality as an organization may not always be for the greater good. If one of our strongest organizational values is fostering connection, we can feel justified in proactively working against splintering forces and seeking to publish a diversity of voices that—with every word, engagement, debate, and even outright disagreement—aim to forge understanding and connection among readers both known and as yet unknown. Through our role as a publisher and our efforts to realize the value of connection—even and especially in context of the expression of divergent viewpoints—we can foster public conversations that ultimately have the effect of bringing people together.
It seemed clear to me that we were experiencing, like so many others, anxiety about what lies ahead. Colleagues and board members described having an initial sense of hope that the pandemic might give humanity a shared sense of purpose and lead to positive change; but, disappointingly, this hopeful change never materialized. Sometimes, in our times, it can feel “dangerous” to speak, write, and read. Yet, in context of the splintering and convulsions our world is experiencing, we can still have inspiration, determination, and courage. The values of our tribe include a commitment to free speech, to critical thinking, to the kinds of conversations and forms of healthy debate that challenge us to think differently, self-critically, and that ultimately serve to connect us. We can cultivate the power that is at the heart of sharing words and meaning across space and time. Faced with voids that seem impossible to cross, we can be a counterforce to the energy that seeks to drive us apart. As a publisher, we can encourage, advise, and protect authors who seek to take risks, write polemics, engage in civilized debate, question prevailing wisdom, and provoke and challenge the status quo. We can share a foundation of trust and integrity, as we publish books that help us make sense of our world, our selves, and each other.
And, in the end, we can be hopeful. We should be hopeful. There has never been a better time to share the ideas of the scholarly world as widely as possible. We publish in the name of connection, to change our world for the better. There has never been a better time to be hopeful than now.
* We also held a separate online meeting for colleagues who weren’t able to make it to our in-person event. This essay includes themes that emerged from both meetings.