Making your Mark: How to Start a New Journal

Riots in the streets, the emergence of transgender issues, defiant political gestures against racism: events that you might not associate with the founding of an academic journal. In what follows, we will explore the foundation stories of some Duke University Press journals to see what circumstances led to the founding of each journal. This post is a part of our current Journals Publishing Series.

ddsaq_114_3SAQ: South Atlantic Quarterly

The South Atlantic Quarterly, founded at Duke University in 1901 when it was still known as Trinity College, pushed the then radical agenda of professor John Spencer Bassett. Bassett believed that Southern historians of the civil war should introduce scientific rigor into their historical investigations and focus less on creating hero cults of the Southern generals. This novel approach to history and a progressive view of race relationships, both championed by the journal, resulted in diatribes from Southern politicians encouraging parents to disenroll their children from the school. Despite the controversy, the college’s board of trustees refused to bow to pressure and rescinded an offer of resignation from Bassett, taking a defiant stance in defense of academic freedom. The journal, now edited by literary theorist and political philosopher Michael Hardt, still takes this defiant stance today, publishing some of the most prominent contemporary writers and scholars tackling urgent political, cultural, and social questions. Recent topics include entrepreneurship, communism, prison realities, revolt, and religious freedom.


The journal Theater was founded after a similar but more provocative incident on Yale’s campus in 1968. In that year, the experimental theater group The Living Theatre put on a performance of the play Paradise Now. Robert Brustein in his book Making Scenes recounts the incident:

The actors proclaimed their inability to travel without a passport, to smoke marijuana, or to take their clothes off—all to a mass of Yale undergraduates who, seeing the actors peel down to loincloths, thereupon stripped down to their underwear, and lit up joints.  Mass love zaps and petting parties materialized onstage among couples of various sexes and sexual inclinations; and after the endless, loveless, sexless public groping was finally over, everyone was exhorted to leave the theatre and convert the police to anarchism, to storm the jails and free the prisoners, to stop the war and ban the bomb, and to take over the New Haven streets in the name of the People.

Tom Sellar, the editor of Theater, explains that this event led to the founding of the journal by students and faculty: “Resulting from those performances there was a kind of desire for real dialogue about what theater’s capabilities were, what the outer limits of the art form could be, and this journal was founded out of that hunger for dialogue and debate.” The journal continues to be a joint effort of Yale’s faculty and students, who learn the business of publishing by participating in the editorial process. The journal publishes pathbreaking plays and essays from dramatists, with recent special issues covering contemporary Brazilian drama, participatory performances, and performance curators.

ddjcl_2_1Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture

Other journals may have less controversial origins but nonetheless seek to address real academic and cultural needs. The Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture (JCLC) was founded in the spirit of transcending academic boundaries. In the foreword to their inaugural issue, the editors discuss some of the goals for the new journal and how they anticipate carrying out their mission:

“Scholarly traditions of all nations form one family” 天下學問一家 is the motto we’ve chosen for the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture (JCLC). It crystallizes our endeavor to create a platform for in-depth dialogue and collaboration between (Greater) China-based and Western scholars of Chinese literature and culture.

To that end, the journal has structured its editorial board, decision-making process, and translation policies to encourage collaboration among scholars of Chinese literature: the editorial board is composed of roughly equal numbers of Chinese and western scholars; Chinese scholars work closely with their western counterparts to create English translations; special sections of the journal highlight trends in Chinese literary theory; and Chinese translations of many English language articles will appear in JCLC’s sister journals, the Newsletter for International China Studies (國際漢學研究通訊) and the Lingnan Journal of Chinese Studies (嶺南學報). The journal thus serves as an intellectually rigorous vehicle for the editors’ goals of learning as one global family.


Similarly, the journal Pedagogy was founded to address the need for extended discourse on the practice of teaching English Studies. Editors Jennifer L. Holberg and Marcy Taylor started the journal while they were still graduate students at the University of Washington. At the time, they explain in the introduction to the inaugural issue, there was no “discipline-wide, mainstream research journal devoted to teaching English at the college and university level”:

We became convinced of the need for a journal during our last years in graduate school: as teaching assistants, we found that the profession paid little attention to issues of teaching; subsequently, as teacher trainers ourselves, we had little information to provide to the new TAs in our program.

Building on rising interest in critical thought about teaching, Pedagogy stepped in to fill this need for enhancing the quality of education at the university level, and continues to be an important forum for issues in graduate education, recently tackling topics such as graduate level education in English studies, the MLA subconference, and teaching medieval literature.

ddTSQ_1_1-2_coverTSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly

Finally, sometimes a new field emerges that demands critical attention and intense interrogation, as was the case with TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. TSQ is the first journal devoted to transgender thought and theory, and has arisen in a time where transgender individuals are becoming more and more visible. Because this field is so important and new, the editors decided to work with a publisher rather than self-publish:

One important consideration, however pretentious it might sound, is prestige and respectability. Because our goal is to change the way the world thinks about transgender issues, we are marshalling all of our intellectual and cultural “capital” to create an authoritative, peer-reviewed publication venue with an elite university press, with an editorial board filled with accomplished and well-credentialed scholars, so that we have the most credible and persuasive voice possible in the marketplace of ideas. We think this is especially important given the newness of transgender studies as a field, and the stigma often attached to transgender lives.  We are determined to produce a journal that demands to be taken seriously. Duke gives transgender studies a lot of credibility.

A highly-polished academic journal was the best way that the editors saw they could spread their message and truly make a difference in how people look at the world.

Have any other stories about the founding of a journal? Please share it in the comments!

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