Welcome to Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

September 30, 2014 § 1 Comment


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Karen Babine

A guest post from the founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies: Karen Babine:

Here’s something I’ve learned over the past three weeks, since the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies went live:  Google Analytics is my new favorite form of entertainment. In realtime, I can watch how many people are on the site, where they’re located, and how much time they’re spending on each page. When I worked for Mid-American Review and we gave away free copies at AWP, it was a thrill to walk by somebody perched in a chair in a hallway, reading the magazine, flipping the pages, and it was always hard to resist the urge to interrupt and ask what they were reading, what they thought about it. There was a conversation happening between page and reader that I could see—and the same is happening here, even though it’s not paper. Google Analytics is my new version of walking-by-somebody-reading—and this is a good thing.

Assay is designed to be a space where all perspectives on the genre are not only welcomed, but celebrated. Nonfiction is claimed by composition and rhetoric, and literature, as much as it is by creative writing. We have more to gain by talking with each other than we do by insisting on a hierarchy of who owns the fourth genre. The seed idea for the journal came out of the realization of just how much critical work is being asked of our creative writing graduate students, especially in PhD programs, with little published nonfiction scholarship for them to draw on—and fewer opportunities to publish what they produce. The idea of nonfiction studies incorporates more than creative writing workshops; it must include nonfiction-as-literature and nonfiction-as-rhetoric/composition, as well as dedicated space to consider the theory and pedagogy of the nonfiction classroom. Often critical introductions are the only place these discussions happen—I’m thinking of Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, even the state-of-the-art introductions to the year’s Best American Essays—and as a result, they are separate notes, to be played individually. Or, even worse, they are the staccato or tenuto that tells us how the note is to be played, never truly part of the composition.

We take the journal’s name from a quote from Minnesotan essayist Paul Gruchow, who wrote that “There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this.  Places can be claimed but never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained.  You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land.  What you absorb will eventually change you.  This change is the only real measure of a place.” This idea of the essay (to try) and assay (to test) forms the basis for the philosophy of the journal and what we want to see in the work we publish. The goal of Assay is to test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read, to attempt our determinations of their ingredients and quality.

Maybe it’s how my brain works, this core belief that there are many different—and right—ways to explore the questions and curiosities in front of us. Sometimes putting on G.K. Chesterton’s hat feels right—but sometimes, we want to go running after that hat with Derrida or Ursula Heise. We envision Assay to be a space for short pieces that come out of “I never thought about it that way before” moments, musings of the brain on nonfiction subjects and texts that aren’t represented in current publications.  We hear in passing what a colleague is doing in a class, perhaps an old hat like first-year writing or something narrow and specialized, classes we wish we could sit in the back row and observe. Maybe we have heard of Writing Marathons, but we have no idea how to implement them in our classes (stay tuned to the spring issue for this). In another sphere, our TAs often receive excellent pedagogical support for teaching composition, but creative writing pedagogy is much rarer. (It’s a long-term goal to compile a syllabi bank, like ASLE has collated for environmental studies, so look for that initiative in the future.)

A couple of days ago, I posted to Assays blog and asked which volumes of Best American Essays are your favorites—and today, on another Facebook page, Donna Steiner asked who we’d like to see as a future editor. These are the kind of organic conversations that Assay wants to foster, on our blog and discussion boards (as well as Facebook and Twitter), as reactions to what we publish as well as realtime issues and questions within nonfiction studies. (For instance, Derek Hinckley’s Riff on Alison Bechdel appears in our first issue—and Bechdel just won a MacArthur Genius Grant.) To take advantage of these opportunities, we are launching several between-the-issues initiatives, one of which is a dedicated series of guest posts to our blog. Karen Craigo’s guest pedagogy post, on the ethics of teaching your own work, is a good example of what we’re going to be looking for.

Another between-the-issues initiative we’re excited about is our In the Classroom project, and we’re looking to compile pedagogy resources, available to anyone teaching nonfiction, from creative writing to journalism to literature to rhetoric. We are also seeking syllabi for courses in creative writing pedagogy (we are going to be most interested in those geared toward nonfiction, but multi-genre courses are acceptable). We want this to be a community resource, to start and sustain conversations about what we’re doing in the classroom.

Being online gives us a platform to engage with each other in ways that traditional paper does not—though I did not want to lose the link to paper, so we include printable PDFS with each piece we publish. While there’s no way to track how many people read a particular work printed on a book’s page, I can see exactly how many hits a particular page gets and know that 300+ people have read Wendy Fontaine’s article on the neuroscience of memory and its effects on memoir. Ned Stuckey-French’s terrific essay-on-the-essay has (as of this posting) received more than 1800 hits, according to Google Analytics.

So, welcome to the first issue of Assay! We’re very excited about the depth and breadth of perspectives and voices, from traditional literary scholarship to looser forms, from interviews to pedagogy. Submissions are open for the spring issue, which will go live on March 1st, 2015, and there are a lot of truly exciting submissions coming in already—and we hope that you will add us to your list of publishing venues, for yourself as well as for your students. Forward us to colleagues in your department outside of creative writing, whoever might be teaching nonfiction texts. We’re looking for representations that come out of ethnic literature courses, critical theory courses, and other sources of conversations we should all be a part of. If you have a great class discussion, write it up for Assay (or suggest to a student that s/he do so). While we don’t have a firm submissions deadline for the spring issue, January 1st is a good benchmark.

In the meantime, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to the magazine on the website. Feel free to let us know what you’d like to see in future issues, how we can better serve your work as a writer and reader, as teachers and students.

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