Today is day four of the University Press Week (#UPWeek) Blog Tour. Today’s theme is “Throwback to the Future,” so we decided to write about our experiences around publishing the Charleston Syllabus—a book born from a hashtag—and later organizing a symposium around the book at UGA earlier this fall. For links to the other posts in today’s blog tour, see our roundup.
— UGA Press (@UGAPress) September 23, 2016
After the massacre of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, at the hands of a white supremacist in June of 2015, Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain—all noted historians who are considered important voices on the topics of race and racial violence—began sharing material over social media using the #CharlestonSyllabus hashtag.
For those with little facility on social media (or lack the requisite inclination to figure it out), a hashtag works something like this: when a word or phrase is preceded by the “#” symbol on Twitter and other social media platforms, those words or phrases are then linked to every post that contains the same hashtag. So when people get online and want to engage in a broader discussion about something that’s happening in the great wide world, the hashtag provides a really clever vehicle through which people can share their thoughts with others on a range of topics, whether it be something as silly as #NationalFastFoodDay or something as important as the #CharlestonSyllabus. The hashtag is at once mundane and immensely powerful.
Eventually #CharlestonSyllabus began trending among academics and other voices online. Because the hashtag is such an efficient way to share links to primary sources, it was easy for the editors to quickly offer historical context for such a tragic event. And for those in search of this context, it was a way for them to access knowledge without setting foot in a classroom. UGA Press Executive Editor Walter Biggins and Press Director Lisa Bayer immediately recognized this and began talking about publishing an anthology based on the material shared via the hashtag. They reached out to Chad, Kidada, and Keisha (who’s keeping up the hashtag game with the #TrumpSyllabus) and thus a unique book was born. In May the University of Georgia Press published Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence. (See Biggins’s post on the full backstory of the book here.)
There are other ways this book reaches back and forth across time. For instance, this spring we decided to hold a symposium based around the book at the University of Georgia. For this symposium, we wanted to be at once traditional and forward thinking. Yes, the Charleston Syllabus Symposium would be held at a university with panels of experts, but in the age of live broadcasting via the internet, we also wanted to open up the possibility to participate and engage for those who could not be present physically. Fortunately the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Library had just installed a new camera in the auditorium with streaming capabilities, so we worked with the staff there to broadcast the symposium via WebEx.
There were a few technical hiccups here and there. Some viewers complained of problems with the audio as they were streaming (which usually turned out to be issues with their own computers, not our mics). We also realized after the fact that we should have made a separate recording from the camera’s feed as the WebEx software only records what’s displayed in that format (which you’ll notice below). Still, this broadcast made it possible for anyone in the world to log on, view, and participate in what was an intense but positive discussion about race, racial violence, the historical factors contributing to the perpetuation of racism, and the durability of white supremacy into the 21st century. And we have a record that others can look to for inspiration when organizing their own symposia around a similar subject.
For all of the challenges, the partnerships and connections we made over the course of planning the Charleston Syllabus Symposium will serve as a template the next time we want to organize a large-scale event on campus. It built bridges between us and departments we had only a passing familiarity, and it raised the profile of the press both at the university and the community at large. All things we hope work toward fulfilling President Carter’s charge to go “beyond the gates of the campus.”
Jason Bennett is a publicist and the social media manager at UGA Press.