The Eye

Do You Read Undergraduate Journals?

The words “academic journal” conjure up images of late night forays into JSTOR before essay deadlines and hurried bibliography citations. Aside from midterms and finals, most students at Columbia tend to choose progressive Facebook posts and Netflix over page after page of academic research. Even so, a new student strolling through the Activities Fair might be surprised at the number of student journals on campus—the University’s “Clubs and Organizations” webpage boasts a large range of active undergraduate journals, covering topics such as Eastern European studies to urban affairs and global health.

Still, the academic journal genre is not widely read; their “mind-bending specialisation” often poses an obstacle to expanding and maintaining readership. This legacy of esotericism seems to have followed the genre up until now, often resulting in exorbitant prices and limited distribution.

At Columbia, the specialization of academic journals has manifested as a cycle of short-lived publications. Founded as practice grounds for the intellectually inclined, the journals have both benefitted and suffered from their imitation of academic habits and culture. They provide valuable ways for students to acquaint themselves with academic writing, but also face continuing problems of relevance that mirror broader academic trends.

A quick dig into Columbia’s recent history reveals that most of the existing undergraduate journals on campus were founded within the past decade. That is not to say, of course, that there were no undergraduate academic journals on campus before then: The earliest references to them in Spectator’s archive appear in 1877, the year the Columbia Daily Spectator was founded. Evidently, every one of these early journals (and many of their successors) died out somewhere along the road to the present.

The Columbia Undergraduate Journal of History was one such campus publication, which folded twice only to rise again. First founded in the 1980s, it was soon left in the dust of the University’s archives until Adam Wolkoff, a 2004 graduate of Columbia College, fronted an effort to refound the journal. In a 2004 interview with Spectator, Wolkoff lamented a trend in which “a journal starts strong, and after a year or two, it might just peter out—the original spirit gets lost.”

Many of these questions of readership remain relevant today, but that has not stopped the growth of academic journals at Columbia: At least 17 exist on campus today. To provide one example of the revival, in 2008, history professor Sia Mensah and the Undergraduate History Council spearheaded an effort that finally succeeded in reviving CUJH. The journal is still operational.

Journals like CUJH continue to thrive because they provide interested students with a microcosm of academic publishing, at the undergraduate scale.

For students like Max Ridge, a Columbia College senior and a member of the Undergraduate History Council, and Zhenrui Liao, a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior and editor-in-chief of the undergraduate board of the Journal of Global Health, both of whom are considering careers in academia and research, editing journals provides a valuable opportunity to polish their skills in preparation for graduate school and to experience academic publishing from the editorial side.

Liao, who is on the pre-med track, seeks a balance between the researcher and publisher roles that he plays. “In a lab, you’re on the side of the author,” he tells me. “You have to think about your experimental design. You have to think about your figures and your writing. And on the editorial side, you’re really trying to criticize that.”

Meanwhile, the emotional benefit of publication holds a certain appeal for those who want to see their paper on some other surface than their computer monitor.

For Ridge, the mission of the newly revived CUJH is to showcase the best and most legitimate work of undergraduate history majors, which had previously lacked an outlet for publication. This lack of available recognition for academic work by undergraduates can be discouraging.

“I think what gets lost in a lot of undergraduate education is the feeling that your work is important,” Ridge says. To him, CUJH can be a valuable avenue to show undergrads that the research they spend grueling hours on could end up somewhere than the depths of their teaching assistants’ desks.

“Hey, those papers you spend writing in Butler [Library] are not a giant waste of time,” Asha Banerjee, a Columbia College senior and UHC member, adds, addressing undergraduates. “[Even if] it doesn’t seem so right now or if you finished the class, there exists a readership for all of these topics. You just have to put yourself out there and submit to journals.”

It is true that a readership exists, albeit not a large one. Addressing the problems that journals have faced, Banerjee tells me there is a “lack of readership and the problems that all print magazines are facing,” such as distribution, funding, and the question of how to use online content to enhance a print tradition.

Indeed, in providing the rewards of academic publication—recognition and practice in research techniques—undergraduate academic journals are bound to exhibit some of the negative attributes of academic journals at large: namely, a sense of insularity caused by lack of readership and circulation.

When I ask Liao why he writes a journal for which there is little readership, he retorts, “I think a better question to ask would be: Why are there so many undergrads who are so interested in global health that they would be willing to found a global health journal?”

His answer reveals a key factor of the conception of academic journals—they tend to focus more on the writers than on the intellectual benefit their readers may gain. It mimics a certain insularity in the academic world of publication, in which the producers of content are the ones who would also be most likely to benefit from it. Indeed, none of the editors I talked to listed intellectual benefits to the readership in their answers for why their journal is important.

The mimicry of academic journals has created other, more concrete problems for undergraduate journals. They have experienced disruptions in response to funding cuts and shifts in board leadership as the result of their reliance on funding from the Activities Board and academic departments. Roma Patel, Columbia College junior and editor-in-chief of the Helvidius Group’s Journal of Politics and Society, tells me that student journals are reluctant to depend on advertising revenue “for fear that it would look less academic.” Professional academic journals do not include advertising.

Editors of journals on campus, however, are well aware of the problems that imitation of academic publications can cause, and they are working to address them.

Unlike professional academic journals, which have been criticized for monopolization and elitism, student journals often hold more egalitarian ideals toward public access, even when they do charge subscription fees to cover printing and shipping, Liao tells me. The Helvidius Group, meanwhile, only charges databases looking to index their content, not students searching for it.

Meanwhile, Helvidius is also looking to make their coverage more relevant to a broader readership. The Journal of Politics and Society prides itself on an editorial board with interdisciplinary academic interests to avoid the esoterism of more specific journals. Patel gives the example of a sociology major editing an economics paper, which she says both broadens focus and adds another layer of social ramifications to a purely economic analysis.

Patel tells me that the in-depth specialization of academic journals often causes problems with engaging regular students. “Nobody just sits down and reads a 30-page paper,” she tells me.

She says that this tendency requires an editorial team “willing to share information and be as collaborative as possible” to combat disengagement. At Helvidius, students who work on the journal are routinely encouraged to exchange methodologies behind their areas of expertise with fellow editors.

While she acknowledges the value of the journal’s roots in traditional print, Patel suggests exploring newer online options in conjunction with print ones. Beyond increasing the Journal of Politics and Society’s Facebook presence, she will be asking associate editors to write accompanying web features that highlight research findings and apply implications to contemporary events.

Liao tells me that the Journal of Global Health is also introducing online content, having debuted a popular weekly podcast called “WiGH?” (What is global health?) to broadcast student voices on public health issues on a more informal, accessible, and increasingly popular platform.

As a final tactic, undergraduate journals have begun to heavily rely on collaborations with academic departments to spread the word and raise public profile. Alex Braslavsky, a Columbia College senior, is the editor-in-chief of The Birch, an undergraduate journal of Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies. Braslavsky was surprised to learn from a poll on the journal’s website that most readers and contributors were referred by word-of-mouth through professors.

“I think that speaks to the beauty of it,” Braslavsky says. “We know these are students who have written some of the best work in the country in this field because their professors cared enough to say to them personally, ‘We really want to encourage you to submit.’”

Both Ridge and Banerjee feel indebted to the history department for its unwavering support in solving some of the very same issues that doomed prior attempts to relaunch the CUJH, such as funding and distribution. For example, last November, with the help of the department, UHC invited renowned professors specializing in histories of Europe and the Middle East to share their opinions with students over pizza and refreshments. The next semester, Banerjee and fellow council members held a similar panel discussion at which history professor Eric Foner spoke about the dysfunctionality of the Supreme Court.

Through similar events in the future, UHC wishes to create an environment where students and faculty members feel comfortable exchanging ideas and intellectual interests.

“There actually might be a connection to prospective students, too,” Ridge muses. “To have something that they can bring home and realize they are entering into a community of thinkers.”

Daniella Apodaca, Jordan Allyn, and Gavrielle Jacobovitz contributed reporting.

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