Introducing a podcast: Welcome to Archival Fever! In each episode, your intrepid hosts take you into the archive in search of the wild, crazy, and bizarre … We’re becoming doctors in literature, Ph.D.s to be precise. That means we have research expertise in knowing how stories work and also about who gets to write them. It’s really about what stories mean for humanity and culture: telling you stories about what being human really means.
Being human is about relationships. While the humanities is about being human, humanities research can be isolating in the best of times. While classrooms typically offer consistent spaces to gather, the types of scholarship currently prized are attributed to a single author. Although projects like dissertations or book manuscripts necessitate committee feedback or peer review, mentions of such labor are typically relegated to an acknowledgement section. Scholars are often deterred from collaborative, public-facing, and/or interdisciplinary work by rigid constraints of dissertations or tenure.
Imagine: If innovative and collaborative research was transparently practiced, celebrated by institutions and humanities scholars alike. The routine drudgery of line edits could become a conversation. The confusing maze of grant and job applications could become an extended, meaningful means to share interests and support aspirations.
To offer a model for this type of scholarly production: we offer a brief history of our collaboration and describe our podcast development to demonstrate how digital humanities benefits from slowing down and from finding trusted collaborators.
Our collaboration was a matter of planned serendipity. We met in a pedagogy class offered by The University of Texas at Austin’s Rhetoric and Writing department in 2015. Amy was in her second year of the Comparative Literature Ph.D. program. Caroline had just begun her first year in the English Ph.D. program and had recently read a tongue-in-cheek article in The New Yorker—“Everything I Am Afraid Might Happen If I Ask New Acquaintances to Get Coffee.” Having declared that she hoped to find a peer collaborator at UT, she asked Amy to coffee because of her “great energy.”
Many subsequent coffee dates ensued, and we steadily began working together on course proposals, innovative pedagogical materials, and publications. We also learned early on the benefit of sharing our network and work experiences across campus. For instance, when we first met, Amy was writing for Humanities Minutes, an award-winning podcast that aired between programs on KUT, a public radio station at UT supported by the Humanities Media Project.
What began as an engaging part-time writing gig turned into a crucial piece for our collaborative history. Amy’s experience with Humanities Minutes inspired us to apply for a grant to create a longer form podcast centering archival research. Although we did not receive a grant, the proposal won over Amy’s boss. With the financial support of UT’s Liberal Arts Public Affairs and technological support of Instructional Technology Services, we built Archival Fever.
Our process aimed to make archives accessible and legible for a general audience. We would begin by brainstorming topics or archives we knew and loved. Then, we would take time to visit the materials (usually in person, although we also made a point to feature digitized archives). When crafting podcast scripts, we set the scene for listeners: describing the archive, how to access materials, what materials felt and looked like, their histories, and why they were preserved. We also noted who can access the object. We consulted librarians, archivists, and subject matter experts, often quoted or included as another voice in our episodes.
By the summer of 2017, we found ourselves brainstorming for a new episode in the Harry Ransom Center. Its wealth of resources had been a draw for both of us when selecting a graduate program and narrowing our dissertation topics. On a whim, we decided to mine the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. publishing archive. We were particularly drawn to the Knopf collection because, like our own work, it shows and tells the value of collaboration.
Although many literary and social luminaries are represented among the publishing house’s papers, the papers primarily demonstrate Alfred and Blanche Knopfs’s intensively collaborative social network. The Knopfs built their brand through relationships with authors like André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as tastemakers from South America and Europe. The Knopfs carefully cultivated their publishing house’s literary prestige, including planning where to preserve their work for the future. They donated their extensive personal library and working papers of their publishing house to the Ransom Center (the acquisition process began in 1963).
The Knopf collection particularly speaks to our podcast’s foundational statement: archives store our past, inform our present, and predict future patterns of social movements and cultural change. We also value the archive’s innate interdisciplinary appeal. As one of the Ransom Center’s most accessed collections, scholars and independent researchers with interests in book history, women’s and gender studies, twentieth-century authors, editors, publishers, and cultural historians find material of use.
In one podcast episode, we used the Knopf collection to explore how literary works are rejected. One rejection report dated November 2, 1949 shows how systemic racism pervaded the publishing industry. Editor Herbert Weinstock describes why Knopf rejected a collection of poetry from Langston Hughes. (Note: Weinstock uses racist and derogatory language.)
The rejected manuscript, Marriage of a Dream Deferred, was received by Knopf on Nov. 1, 1949 and quickly dismissed. Weinstock predicted that the crucial artistic production of the Harlem Renaissance was just a fad. Like other contemporary publishers, he doubted the sales potential of writing by Black writers, particularly those who drew upon their cultural histories for their craft. Hughes’s manuscript focused on the social injustices faced by Harlem residents in the postwar period. The manuscript would be published—with a different title and publisher—as Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), including 91 poems intended to be read as a single poem, akin to a film montage.
Throughout our podcast, we tried to make legible the long lives of literary and cultural objects. Art, like life, rarely follows a straightforward linear progress. By documenting the rejections and acceptances alike as part of a story, not a glitch or proof of excellence, we sought to remove the stigma of rejection or reify overly simplistic ideas of success. Our other episodes take on many similar themes and try to include less represented voices, including women and Black creatives, while also turning our scholarly eye to popular works with large audiences, from cookbooks to Christmas cards to literary forgeries and more. Given limitations of time and funding, we were only able to record eight episodes and would welcome the chance to revive the podcast in the future.
Our proposal to transform research and writing practices: find a meaningful collaboration. Intentionally build partnerships across institutions and academic hierarchies.
For those in positions of leadership, lean into 21st-century research. Higher education is rapidly transforming teaching in response to a pandemic—why not also transform research?
Although archival research may be on hold or temporarily delayed, this slowing down offers an opportunity to reflect and improve. For humanities scholars, we recommend embracing the collaborative essence of research. Archival research forces us to painstakingly consider another world, space, and time through textual and visual artifacts. It resists unfounded assumptions and offers a puzzle to be solved rather than a quick solution. What looks like an ideal avenue from the limited information of a finding aid may be a dead end or a revelation. With a trusted collaborator at your side, frustration is lessened and the joy of discovery is shared.
Another set of eyes adds a lifetime’s perspective. Instead of myopically reaffirming underlying assumptions and beliefs, collaborative creativity provides a means to deepen work from the very beginning until the final product emerges. Collaboration provides opportunities for welcome accountability. Aware of deadlines or submission goals, one partner can encourage the other to cease endless revision in favor of healthy work-life balance and acceptance of limitations.
For institutions like archives and universities, we gently encourage collaboration as a way to improve accessibility. Archivists, as we know, assess, collect and organize, preserve, and provide access to objects. Their oft-unsung labors should be more recognized and rewarded. But archives are historically privileged spaces. Many graduate students, adjuncts, lecturers, and independent scholars lack the financial means to travel to and utilize necessary collections (not to mention the other unique obstacles ranging from letters of introduction to arcane registration processes). Instead, these scholars must rely upon the generosity of staff or local scholars to access pertinent materials.
What would it look like if we invested in and rewarded these slow research efforts? Collaborative scholarship provides opportunities for research that builds community and increases accessibility (especially as digitizing collections, the most accessible solution, is generally cost-prohibitive for institutions). It also suggests a way to work across time and space—multiplying the number of people who can access materials. Practically, archives could partner with our proposal by soliciting and funding projects by collaborative teams writing for a public audience.
At UT, we found ourselves pioneering pathways for funding our collaboration. Although we had limited success finding departmental funding for our public projects, we doubled application efforts and offered support creating and revising materials. We pooled resources (including Amy’s generous Engaged Scholar Initiative fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Caroline’s participation in the Ransom Center’s dissertation fellowship program) to achieve our research goals.
Our efforts on behalf of each other became an investment in the academic future we want to see. By valuing co-authored publications, public humanities scholarship, and interdisciplinary research, we encourage others to tell stories of artifacts to bring humanities research to a wider audience. We call on our fellow scholars to prioritize archives that are readily accessible to researchers near and far, and place an emphasis on public outreach. In a time where we can’t leave our house or travel as we would wish, institutions that store our collective heritage like the Ransom Center offer a welcome virtual adventure to build a collaborative future.
 Our podcast title, Archival Fever, is a play on Jacques Derrida’s Mal d’archive: une impression freudienne (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1995), translated as Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Archival Fever ran from 2018-2019, and aimed to recover narratives, treasures, and life stories hidden in cultural collections. This essay interweaves clips from some episodes, italicized in sections.
Together, Amy and Caroline co-own Polyphona, LLC, an education consulting company specializing in public humanities research, writing, and instructional design.