Culture | Don’t judge a journal by its cover

Tamkinat Mirza reads up on McGill’s undergraduate academic journals

Currently, there are 23 undergraduate academic journals published and circulated on the McGill campus within the Faculty of Arts. However, ask any average student, and they would be surprised by this heafty number. It seems that students are largely unable to engage with these publications due to their limited circulation.

23 is a pretty significant number, and serves as evidence of the inherent value of academic journals to the student body.  “Symbolically, [these journals] serve as a collection of student work, to broadcast or show the talents and abilities of those who either work on it or are published in it,” said Joseph Henry, The Daily’s former Health and Education editor and current coordinating editor of Vielfalt, the German Studies journal.

“The departmental journal is probably one of the most important things that each discipline manifests, and, to be fair, also looks great on a CV,” said Flora Dunster, The Daily’s former Copy editor and current editor-in-chief of Canvas, the Art History and Communications Studies journal.

Most undergraduate journals tend to be limited by department within the Faculty of Arts, but some have attempted to branch out and involve the wider student body. “[These journals] function to showcase the academic and pedagogical abilities of that department,” said Henry. “Though Vielfalt is certainly meant to be seen as a product of those from German Studies, we’re publishing work from English Literature, Cultural Studies, History, Political Science, Philosophy, German Studies itself – and that’s just the previously written academic purposes. So, we’re not so much for advocating the intellectual prowess of the department, though hopefully that can come across, but rather the academic dynamism of the field of German Studies [as a whole], especially if that’s comprised from multiple sources,” he elaborated.

As valuable as academic journals are for the larger departments within the Arts faculty, their value for individual students lies in the opportunity for them to see their own writing in print and to gain publishing experience. “Especially if you’re planning to go on with academic studies, trying to get your work published will be a huge part of your life, and getting some experience as an undergraduate is great in that sense,” added Dunster.

Seeing your writing published and your name in print is wonderfully satisfying, but working on the editorial boards of these journals is arguably even more rewarding – it’s a tremendous production experience.

“It’s also valuable for undergraduate students to have the opportunity to create a journal. It’s like working for a newspaper, it gives students experience in editing, production, fundraising, et cetera”, said Henry.

Jasmine Lefresne, editor of Fields, the Anthropology Studies journal commented, “It’s a great way to meet people and gain valuable skills: editing, working with authors, and layout design.”

Most importantly, it’s work experience that doesn’t suffocate your schedule. For the editors on the Canvas editorial board, the bulk of production work is limited to a month or two, and can be snugly fit in along with their other extra-curricular and academic responsibilities.

Academic journals have the potential to benefit their uninvolved audience just as much as they do their producers and contributors. As a collection of past term papers, the journals can be a handy teaching tool, especially for first year students struggling to figure out university-level academic writing styles. “It wouldn’t surprise me if people had used them in the past to get a sense of how successful papers are formatted, how they integrate citations, quotations… In that sense, it could be a valuable resource, and provide students with an idea of what professors in the department are looking for,” said Dunster.

Alternatively, journal content could also be harvested for paper ideas, but their relatively limited circulation seems the biggest deterrent, at any rate – for both harvesting ideas or teaching yourself how to tackle paper construction. “It’s true that it’s hard to get a copy of [Canvas] – you really have to be at the launch, and the people who go to the launch tend to be the people published in Canvas, or just people from the department in general, which definitely limits its circulation,” commented Dunster. “I think McGill would really benefit from a sort of journal library, a place where each department could file their respective publication each year. As of now, you have to keep on top of the launch date and come to the event if you want to get your hands on a copy, which is unfortunate, but hopefully in the future there will be a better method of distribution.”

This is by no means a problem only Canvas faces, however. “The first copy of Vielfalt seems to be something of a collector’s item,” says Henry, “I think I know of four or five copies left, one of which is my personal copy.”

The reason for this collective lack of circulation? As with most smaller-sized student publications, a lack of funding is to blame. Lefresne described how most of Fields’ funding “comes from AUS and the Anthropology department…We can only print a limited number of hard copies of the journal, based on this funding, although we do have an online version which is accessible through the ASA website (… Having an online version is a good first step in making it more accessible.”

Other journals, such as Vielfalt, have branched out from this limited funding from AUS and also their respective departments, in hopes of securing larger funds from other sources. “We’re looking for funding from AUS – which has a journal fund – the German Studies Student Association, hopefully something from the Fine Arts Council, although we haven’t approached these groups formally yet.” said Henry. Vielfalt also does their own fundraising to pad their budget.

While academic journals at McGill struggle to overcome their financial obstacles, their continued existence alludes to consistent effort on the part of their respective production teams.

Besides issues regarding funding, what undergrad academic journals need most is student interest and contributions. So, the next time you’re dissatisfied with a grade, consider scouting out a copy and reading one cover to cover. When that “A” comes around, consider submitting to your departmental journal. Really, it’s a cycle of mutual benefit – see your name in print and contribute to an important scholastic resource in one move. Getting in touch with relevant on-campus journals for publication and production experience may be just what your term papers have been missing out on.

Tamkinat Mirza is a member of the Canvas editorial board.