Opening the Journal: How an Open-Access E-Journal Can Serve Scholarship, the Liberal Arts, and the Community

Hong-Ming Liang, May 2013

During this period of great turmoil for higher education, when the "usefulness" of liberal arts education is under assault, supporters of the humanities and the liberal arts must actively and creatively advance the cause by finding ways to increase participation, interest, and relevance without watering down scholarship. We at the Middle Ground Journal found that an open-access e-journal can be the center of such an effort, contributing to its host institution's core mission of liberal arts education while connecting the surrounding communities to a global network and broad perspective.

The Middle Ground Journal: World History and Global Studies is the journal of the Midwest World History Association (MWWHA), an affiliate of the World History Association (WHA). The journal was launched in 2010 and is housed at the College of St. Scholastica, which generously provides critical IT and logistical support.

Like any peer-reviewed journal, Middle Ground publishes the latest research and furthers scholarly discourse. The journal has adhered to the important standards of peer review for research articles. We have also developed an active scholarly book review section facilitated by good working relationships with many of the major publishers. Because of the open-access and e-format, our reviews are freely available to readers around the world. But we have also made a concerted effort to involve undergraduates and K-12 students with diverse interests, turning the Middle Ground Journal into an effective tool for broad outreach and advocacy on behalf of the liberal arts.

We've found three components that allow the Middle Ground Journal to serve both scholarship and outreach. First, we have meaningful undergraduate participation. In particular, we creatively developed areas for undergraduate participation beyond world history and global studies, such as teaching, marketing, study abroad, experiential learning, and web 2.0 and social media. Managing these functions is labor intensive, but it is a fundamental part of the journal's mission. Second, we created and nurtured community outreach and partnerships with area K-12 classes. Finally, we started experiments with formats more suitable to contributors outside academe-such as columns, reflective essays on teaching, interviews (potentially as video clips or podcasts), and class materials for teachers on all levels.

The Middle Ground Journal has created a variety of ways for undergraduate students to participate in its production, creating a sustainable, lasting, and mutually beneficial relationship with our host college. Undergraduate students interested in peer review and editing shadow editors working on projects. Students have been given opportunities to research book catalogs, recommend books for the journal to review, and follow the process of placement of books with reviewers, editing, and publication of scholarly book reviews. Undergraduates contribute to marketing, social media, and web 2.0 projects-for the journal and for MWWHA and WHA as well. For instance, one of our student volunteers, a marketing and design major, designed a logo that was adopted by the MWWHA-a real boost to his confidence, and a good item for his portfolio. Because of our diverse internships, we have had students from such disciplines as economics, biology, marketing, psychology, and nursing. The journal benefits from the interns' diverse perspectives and skills, and the interns learn something about historical scholarship.

Undergraduates are also deeply involved in our partnerships with area K-12 teachers and students. A world history journal can cover the globe, creating a network of scholars and readers, while moving flexibly between the past and contemporary issues. A scholarly journal can marshal the resources within the college, across disciplinary boundaries, while adroitly working with groups and individuals in the community and around the world. These community and global connections in turn give the student interns a strong sense of purpose, professionalism, and global awareness, and the liberal arts context helps students infuse these connections with empathy and curiosity.

This means our student interns are well prepared to bridge college and K-12 classrooms. Following an outreach effort designed by our undergraduate student interns, we developed a sustained partnership with the North Star Academy charter school and its eighth grade social studies teachers-who serve over 100 middle school students. The journal's undergraduate student interns work alongside our host teachers in their year-long global studies classes.

Student interns studying everything from mathematics to history, politics, global studies, applied economics, marketing, biology, and psychology have given talks at North Star Academy on a variety of global and historical issues based on their own research and their world travels. Topics have included political systems and democratic elections, imperialism and colonialism, the social-economic plight of nations such as Bolivia and Haiti in an age of globalization, the histories of Australia and Tibet, and material culture produced by the age of imperialism and colonialism.

By participating, student interns are given a forum to use and refine what they've learned in their liberal arts general education courses. In their work with the journal and the classrooms, they bring critical analysis, empathy across time and space, and an open, flexible, curious, and humble approach to the unfamiliar. Interns also practice the liberal arts skills of research, contextualization, and clear communication. Our lead student intern, Kathryn Hirsch, displayed this empathy and flexibility when she took note of the challenges facing teachers: "Being in the classroom has shown me the difficulty of teaching middle school and the need for adaptability, both in the materials and the educator...it has been gratifying to see the response from the students, and confirmed the value in beginning a serious global studies program at the youngest age possible.

"Our undergraduate student interns and I have also assisted the middle school students with their National History Day (NHD) research. This process began when we created dozens of examples of potential research projects for the middle school students to use as models. Over the course of several weeks the student interns assisted the North Star students in formulating theses, asking pertinent research questions, discovering and discerning valuable primary and secondary sources, and polishing and clearly communicating their research findings-another excellent opportunity to utilize their foundational liberal arts mindset and skills. Many of the journal's student interns noted their sense of contentment and joy derived from this sharing of knowledge. The broadest liberal arts message, perhaps, is that many of the important things in life are not purely utilitarian and vocational.

A student volunteer also pointed out that by participating, she has learned important lessons about professionalism-of keeping commitments made to middle school students who are younger and who clearly view the journal interns as role models. Because of our cooperation this year, North Star Academy's eighth grade global studies teachers are already redesigning components of next year's syllabus to further integrate the participation of the journal and its student volunteers.

Still under development are a series of edited classroom visual materials. The tentatively titled "Visualize the World" collection will consist of sets of 10-15 annotated pictures of historically significant sites. Our international network of student and scholarly volunteers is providing the pictures and annotations, and the collection will be of use to students on all levels. Once we establish our template, we hope that all who visit historically and globally significant sites will freely share their photos with classes and students who don't have the means to travel.

By offering a range of internship activities-from marketing to teaching-we hope to demonstrate to liberal arts students the range of career paths available to them. With all of the avenues of participation of our undergraduate student volunteers, we hope to demonstrate the importance of a liberal arts education for students on all career paths. Furthermore, we are modeling the ideal that teachers and students on all levels must learn from one another: that by teaching one can test and refine one's research, and by learning one can teach.

Even students outside of the disciplines of history and global studies, or students who are not planning to teach in the future, will, with an organization such as the Middle Ground and its partnership with the North Star Academy, enhance their undergraduate students' candidacy for future jobs or for graduate school. But beyond those pragmatic hopes, we are certain that, by engaging in voluntary, scholarly work; sharing with and learning from middle school teachers and students; engaging broad, global, historical ideas; and learning from the scholarly editing and review process, our undergraduate student volunteers gain a deeper sense of their own intellectual potential and the deeply enriching roles the liberal arts can play in the lives of any person, no matter the profession. Ultimately, situated in these journal-sponsored activities are specific, tangible answers to the increasingly shrill and utilitarian question, "Why a liberal arts education?"

-Hong-Ming Liang is chief editor of the Middle Ground Journal, assistant professor of history and politics at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, and serves on the executive council of the World History Association. The Middle Ground Journal invites submissions from teachers and students at all levels.