Imagine Otherwise: Jessica Bissett Perea on Indigenous Transformations in Academic Publishing

by | Aug 18, 2021

Jessica Bissett Perea on Indigenous Transformations in Academic Publishing

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 139

About the episode

Publishing plays a central role in higher education, primarily through the hiring, tenure, and promotion process. Because of this, transforming academic publishing means transforming how scholarly knowledge itself is produced, circulated, and applied.

The research process, writing process, and publishing process are all deeply intertwined and all offer opportunities to build the kinds of worlds we want to inhabit.

To explore how this process works and the worldmaking possibilities it opens up, in episode 139 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Dena’ina musician-scholar Jessica Bissett Perea.

Jessica is the founder of the Indigeneity Collaboratory, an Indigenous-led and Indigeneity-centered research collective that advances relational ways of being, knowing, and doing. She’s also an associate professor in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

In the conversation, Jessica shares various entry points for decolonial intervention that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, editors, and publishers can explore.

First up, Cathy and Jessica chat about Jessica’s experience switching research topics early in her career. She shares practical tips on how to find the research topics that inspire you and give back to the communities you care about as well as how to think critically about your specific positionality in relation to your research.

They also tackle the writing process.

Everything from stylistic choices like capitalization and italicization to the citation politics of bibliographies offer opportunities to remake how intellectual labor is exchanged and valued.

Finally, Jessica and Cathy turn to academic publishing itself. This is a field that has seen some encouraging progress lately but still has a long way to go toward equity and inclusion. They chat about what faculty journal editors, professional copyeditors, and authors can do to build publishing workflows that center the desires, experiences, and knowledge of marginalized populations.

Guest: Jessica Bissett Perea

Jessica Bissett Perea is a Dena’ina (Dena [Alaska Native]) musician-scholar whose work intersects the fields of Native American and Indigenous studies and music and sound studies.

She currently works as an associate professor and graduate advisor in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

In 2020, Jessica founded the Indigeneity Collaboratory, an Indigenous-led and Indigeneity-centered research collective working to advance relational ways of being, knowing, and doing to generate more just futures for Indigenous communities. Jessica also co-directs the Radical and Relational Approaches to Food Fermentation and Food Security research cluster, which advances Indigenous knowledges and performing arts processes to unsettle and densify modes of knowledge production and research in academia.

Her first book, Sound Relations: Native Ways of Doing Music History in Alaska, will be published in fall 2021 by Oxford University Press as part of the American Musicspheres series.

Episode themes

  • Surfacing the density of Alaska Native popular music
  • Transitioning to a new research focus
  • Relationality and accountability in writing
  • Decolonizing academic publishing
Jessica Bissett Perea wearing a black shirt. Quote reads: The reproductive technology of citation practices brings new communities of knowledge into being and makes new connections possible, new ways of going forward possible.
Jessica Bissett Perea wearing a black shirt. Quote reads: So much of settler capitalism is based on products. It doesn’t tend to value the process. And what’s so wonderful about writing is that you don’t really know what you know until you sit down and try to express it in words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Instead of learning to write, you’re writing to learn.

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:23] What would a more just academic publishing landscape look and feel like how would the world views labor workflows and language of publishing change if marginalized communities were at the center?

Publishing plays a vital role in higher education through its centrality in the hiring, tenure, and promotion process. Thus, transforming academic publishing means transforming how scholarly knowledge itself is produced, circulated, and applied.

[00:00:51] The research process, the writing process, and the publishing process are all deeply intertwined, and all of them offer opportunities to build the kinds of worlds that we want to inhabit.

To explore how this process works and the worldmaking possibilities it opens up, I was excited to bring on the show Dena’ina musician-scholar Jessica Bissett Perea.

[00:01:13] Jessica is the founder of the Indigeneity Collaboratory, an Indigenous-led and Indigeneity-centered research collective that advances relational ways of being, knowing, and doing. She’s also an associate professor in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

In our conversation, Jessica shares various entry points for decolonial intervention that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, editors, and publishers can explore.

[00:01:42] First up, we chat about Jessica’s experience switching research topics early in her career. She shares practical tips on how to find the research topics that inspire you and give back to the communities you care about as well as how to think critically about your specific positionality in relation to your research.

[00:02:01] We also tackle the writing process. As we discuss, everything from stylistic choices like capitalization and italicization to the citation politics of bibliographies offer opportunities to remake how intellectual labor is exchanged and valued.

Finally, Jessica and I turn to academic publishing itself. This is a field that has seen some encouraging progress lately but still has a long way to go toward equity and inclusion.

[00:02:29] We chat about what faculty journal editors, professional copyeditors, and authors can do to build publishing workflows that center the desires, experiences, and knowledge of marginalized populations.

In many ways this episode is the culmination of a huge range of conversations I’ve had on this show about justice-oriented knowledge production and its relationship to activism.

[00:02:53] Whether you’re the faculty editor of an academic journal, a grad student debating whether to follow your passion, an early-career scholar writing your tenure book, or a professional editor who works on interdisciplinary scholarship like we do at Ideas on Fire, we all have a crucial role to play in the process of decolonizing the publishing and knowledge production process.

[00:03:14] And that’s a crucial way that we imagine and create otherwise.

[00:03:18] Thank you so much for being with us today.

[00:03:20] Jessica Bissett Perea: Oh, thank you. The pleasure is mine.

[00:03:22] Cathy Hannabach: So this month at Ideas on Fire, we’re focusing on transformation and all of the ways that change has really been the central theme of, I think, everybody’s life for the past year and a half, if not longer.

[00:03:37] I’m curious: How is transformation or change showing up for you these days?

[00:03:42] Jessica Bissett Perea: One of my favorite mantras prior to the pandemic was the phrase “the revolution starts at home.” And so these days, especially given that we’re nearly a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, I would rephrase that to say transformations start at home.

[00:03:58] And I think that this comes from my own grappling with what education means in a time like this. I mean, many professors were kind of thrust into these really strange environments of having to do online learning, as were students.

[00:04:13] And we also have two small children. Our son is four and our daughter’s nine. I’m thinking about what normal is. I know there are lots of people who are anxious to quote unquote “get back to normal,” especially here in California, but there’s an equal amount of folks from disenfranchised communities who, I would rightly say, argue that normal wasn’t working for us and that greater societal transformations are needed, and many along the lines of care.

[00:04:39] How do we care for each other? How do we show up for each other in ways that’s respectful and productive, but in more generative ways, not in capitalistic understandings of productivity.

[00:04:49] I guess another way that transformation has been showing up for me is that as of July 1st, I’ve officially embarked on a new chapter in my professional life as I was tenured and promoted to associate professor.

[00:05:03] So while I’m taking in the enormity of this moment, that there’s not many tenured Native academics in the world, it’s been difficult for me to, and many researchers from historically excluded communities to, fully disentangle or compartmentalize work/life.

[00:05:19] So in a way, this promotion is a professional acknowledgement, but it’s also a very personal one. These work/life scenarios are intimately intertwined.

[00:05:30] So, I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about how do I transform my own understanding of time? How do I want to spend time going forward? And how do I transition out of a frenetic, deficit-oriented energy of being pre-tenure junior faculty and into, hopefully, what I fantasize about being a slower paced, desire-based energy of a tenured faculty.

[00:05:52] So in my own way, I’m thinking a lot about transformations these days and it’s kind of an interesting moment to be doing that, given all the things.

[00:06:02] Cathy Hannabach: Congratulations, first of all. That’s really exciting. And I know that certainly brings a lot of changes for everybody when that happens. So congrats.

[00:06:10] Jessica Bissett Perea: Thank you.

[00:06:11] Cathy Hannabach: I hope it also brings the kind of slower pace that you were talking about wanting.

[00:06:16] Jessica Bissett Perea: One can dream, right?

[00:06:17] Cathy Hannabach: Exactly. Speaking of tenure, one big project that was part of that process for you is your fantastic new book, which is called Sound Relations: Native Ways of Doing Music History in Alaska.

[00:06:31] The Ideas on Fire team was privileged to work with you on that, on the index.

[00:06:35] That book explores what you call the density of Indigenous sound and music practices and the ways that those transform what we think of as decolonial struggles, as well as how we experience and practice musicology.

[00:06:49] I’m curious, what was your path into studying Alaska Native music?

[00:06:53] Jessica Bissett Perea: Well, I should start by saying that the idea or the term density as I’m using it in my book is definitely a nod to Robin D. G. Kelley, historian of Black history in the Americas, and Chris Andersen, Métis scholar who has used that to talk about how Indigenous studies gets densified or the need to densify our understanding of Indigenous studies in academic institutions.

[00:07:18] My interest in density stems all the way back to when I realized in high school, I think, that I knew I wanted to be a teacher but I couldn’t really decide what discipline to go into.

[00:07:30] I knew that I liked music and I really enjoyed musicking. What got me out of Alaska, actually, was my love for jazz. I started out in my academic career as a jazz historian and a jazz performer on double bass and voice.

[00:07:46] In a lot of ways, I was always interested in popular music, but I think what eventually changed for me and how I got into studying Alaska Native music was actually the Alaska Native popular music styles. And that’s really what the book focuses on.

[00:08:01] So often when we hear the terms Native American, American Indian, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian—these terms that in the US mean something in terms of how colonial powers like to categorize and compartmentalize us—we usually think of quote unquote “traditional music” as the thing that matters, as the practice that matters.

[00:08:23] But what really intrigued me about Alaska Native popular music were the ways that it still very much expresses other ways of knowing, being, and doing in the world that are inherently and deeply Native, that deeply come from community-based relationalities.

[00:08:41] So it wasn’t a huge step, I think, from going from studying very deeply African American experience in the Americas and jazz musics because a very popular narrative or central narrative to jazz music is its rootedness in the Black experience in the Americas. Looking for that and how do I tell that kind of a story for Native American popular musicians.

[00:09:04] So that’s really what got me what is expressed in this first, tenure book.

[00:09:11] Cathy Hannabach: I’m curious what kind of lessons you learned along the way through that transformative process that you’d be willing to share with other scholars. I’ve certainly heard this come up a lot in conversations I’ve had on this podcast.

[00:09:23] Folks who want to switch their research focus or are curious about a new direction for their work, but they’re not quite sure what that would mean for their career, not quite sure what that means for their life, not quite sure if they’re even allowed to do that. So what lessons did you learn along the way that could maybe make that transitional a little bit easier for folks?

[00:09:44] Jessica Bissett Perea: Yeah, I think that that was definitely a high-stress decision. I was already past my qualifying exams that I had done in jazz studies. So I was at UCLA doing my PhD and I went home to Alaska to participate in what was called the Arctic Institute for Indigenous Leadership. And it was through that experience that I applied for on a whim because I was homesick.

[00:10:06] In going home, I really was confronted with the notion that it was time to do something that gave something back to where I’m from, to what’s important to me, to what’s at stake, and my even being in academia.

[00:10:22] So for me, it was really highly personal. I know my colleagues in Indigenous studies and ethnic studies, women and gender and sexuality studies, these topics are very personal and there’s a lot at stake in them. And if it’s important enough, you feel called to do something.

[00:10:41] There’s lots of people who will tell you, you know, it’s career suicide to change from a conventional topic to one that nobody knows anything about. You know, there’s so many times where, because of the topics I’ve chosen, nobody knows what to do with me. What box do I fit in?

[00:10:57] But that’s kind of my joy in life. I love to be places where people either don’t expect me to be or they don’t want me to be, in terms of everything from being a female bass player in jazz programs—I was usually one of the only females in a jazz scenario—or being, in my current research projects, a Native person in science education circles.

[00:11:19] It’s a great thing to know that there are and more Native scholars engaging in science studies, but it’s not somewhere that people expect us to be.

[00:11:27] I think the advice would just be, if you’re called to do something, you’re going to need that desire-based energy to make it through something like a dissertation or a tenure book.

[00:11:37] Follow that and make sure you surround yourself with people who get you. You know, they might not be the people you expect to get you. There are many people who will go into grad school thinking they need to study with the expert in X or the expert in Y. Sometimes those people aren’t going to be the most supportive. Look for mentors and companions for your journey in unexpected places.

[00:12:01] So just being open—I guess that’s another thing I would say. Being open and being curious to things that often feel serendipitous. Those are usually the most generative directions my work has taken for sure.

[00:12:16] Cathy Hannabach: It seems too a willingness to follow that strain of curiosity, right? To give yourself permission to play around with something that might not turn into anything, or you’re not quite sure where it will go but privileging the journey.

[00:12:31] Jessica Bissett Perea: Yes, exactly. This is something I tell my students a lot of the time. So much of settler capitalism is based on products. It doesn’t tend to value the process. And what’s so wonderful about writing is that you don’t really know what you know until you have to sit down and try to express it in words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters.

[00:12:50] Instead of learning to write, you’re writing to learn. I think that’s a really important lesson in terms of just giving yourself permission to figure it out and to enjoy, hopefully enjoy, the process.

[00:13:01] Cathy Hannabach: You mentioned writing, and this is something that I was very excited to talk with you about on the show because I think you have a particular kind of perspective on this and the way that you tie your research to your writing.

[00:13:14] Across your various scholarly projects and community projects, you emphasize the role of relationality and accountability, and you tie that to an Indigenous method of doing research. I would love to know how that emphasis on relationality and accountability shows up for you in your approach to writing and publishing.

[00:13:34] Jessica Bissett Perea: Yeah, the writing part is one that I’ve really gotten interested in in the last, I would say, five to six years. Even just in the last couple of years, there’s been more attention to this, I think, in terms of style manuals. Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style is a major inspiration.

[00:13:52] Being in Native American studies at UC Davis, I’m constantly faced with, you know, lowercase “i” for Indigenous, like these small things that seem small or insignificant, unless you happen to be Native American or Indigenous. But when you see it in print, there’s this massive shift that happens between the lowercase i and the uppercase I.

[00:14:12] This has been a long-standing practice in things like African American studies, where the B in Black is capitalized right? So I take a lot of inspiration from Gregory Younging’s work. There’s a lot of amazing stylistic stuff that shows up in Pacific Island studies in terms of not italicizing Native languages.

[00:14:34] There’s a lot to the writing process that when you’re looking at it the printed page, there’s a lot of decolonial things you can do right there instead of taking some of those things for granted, whether it’s capitalization or italicization.

[00:14:49] There’s also this element of citation practices. Like when you look at your bibliography, who’s in there? Genealogies and a density of thought is really reflected, I think, in some of the most exciting Indigenous studies scholarship out there, I would say. And there’s lots of feminist writing out there, Sara Ahmed and work by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang and the citations challenge that they put out on the Critical Ethnic Studies journal website.

[00:15:16] When you think about the reproductive technology of citation practices, that in itself is also bringing new communities of knowledge into being and making new connections possible, new ways of going forward possible.

[00:15:30] In terms of writing for me, it’s a weirdly aesthetic or visual thing when you think about how is this going to look on the page and what are the conventions that need to be changed significantly. Even though they’re small changes, they mean an immense amount to the genealogies of ideas that you’re presenting in something like a bibliography. So those are things certainly that I think a lot about and I encourage my students to think deeply about. That’s one way those things show up in my own writing.

[00:15:54] Cathy Hannabach: I’ve been talking with a lot of folks recently about the politics of citation and thinking critically about who do we cite and who do we not cite and where do we cite them?

[00:16:05] A couple episodes ago we had the editors of Feminist Anthropology on to talk about the Cite Black Women movement and how they’re using that framework to shape journal editing from a managing editing perspective. This is certainly a conversation that I’m seeing more and more of these days in scholarly spaces and publishing spaces, which is really exciting.

[00:16:26] But it’s also hard, right? It has a lot to it. It has a lot of pushback at times, for sure, because it changes the way that we write and publish.

[00:16:37] Jessica Bissett Perea: Yeah. Regarding publishing, some of the projects I’m most excited or proud of are these moments when I get to serve on editorial boards. We did a special issue on music, colonialism and Indigeneity for the Journal for the Society of American Music. Being a co-editor of this special journal, my colleague and I, Gabe Solis, were able to push things and we did some of those things I was mentioning in terms of requiring capitalization practices or not italicizing Indigenous languages.

[00:17:07] We really pushed the journal to do that. And after that issue came out, they actually went back and the editor in chief for that particular journal instituted some changes that are gonna stay permanent going forward.

[00:17:21] I think it’s really important that more of us from historically excluded communities participate in that editorial board process, in the co-editing process. Even though usually academic change happens at a very glacial pace, it sometimes seems like we’re waiting years for something to happen, these little movements, these little gestures that we can do in publishing, I think, will only continue to cultivate different types of archives, different types of knowledges that are being documented now that will hopefully make it easier for those who come after us.

[00:17:54] Cathy Hannabach: Did you find, in editing that special issue, that this was something that you worked with authors in a different way on? Did you give them different feedback on who they’re currently citing or different ways that they could approach their citation politics?

[00:18:07] Jessica Bissett Perea: All of the above. Your question just reminded me of one of the other major practices that we certainly got into.

[00:18:13] One of the things that really came out in that particular special issue was this practice that’s becoming very commonplace in Native studies that I think many different disciplines could also benefit from is this idea of removing the veil of objectivity by explicitly stating one’s positionality. Like who are you in relation to what you’re writing about and why does that matter?

[00:18:36] Our communities have been studied on and about—instead of with, by, for—for so long. There’s this great movement that’s been happening for the last decade or more of really paying closer attention to your own relationality as an author to be with, by, for the communities that you’re writing about.

[00:18:54] Cathy Hannabach: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to talk with folks about, and I love closing out every conversation with this because I think it really ties together the various projects that you work on across academia, across activism, across art, across families, all the things that we’re involved with.

[00:19:10] That’s that version of a better world that you’re working toward when you step in front of a classroom (sit in front of Zoom these days) or when you create a new project or when you switch research projects to follow something that you’re deeply passionate about and that you think can give back to the communities that you care about.

[00:19:28] What’s the world that you’re working toward in all of these endeavors? What kind of world do you want?

[00:19:34] Jessica Bissett Perea: To return to the theme of density and to think about what equity means or what does it take and what does it want, for me, it really means humanizing all peoples, all places, and all projects.

[00:19:47] There are many Indigenous worldviews that understand people’s places and projects to be intimately intertwined or ways of being, knowing, and doing. To me, it’s not trying to create one way of being Native or one way of being, you know, German or something like that. A lot of differences do need to stand—except for the ones, of course, that are creating violences or genocides.

[00:20:10] I’m very much in this moment thinking about the recent discoveries of unmarked graves in Canada. It’s only a matter of time before we start looking here in the United States in terms of boarding schools and the violences and atrocities and genocides that were committed in these institutions.

[00:20:25] It’s unfortunate that our literal bodies have to be the evidence of centuries of dehumanization.

[00:20:33] But I feel strangely optimistic about this moment, more so than I have in the last ten years, that this is a moment where we can start to really talk about scientific racism, we can talk about histories of genocide in the Americas, and that it’s going to lead to, hopefully, the inclusion of a denser array of peoples, places, and projects in something like academia but also in government.

[00:20:58] I’m so happy we have Deb Haaland as the secretary of interior. That’s momentous. Going from the previous administration we had here in the US to what we have now, I guess I’m feeling positive that things are perhaps headed back onto a track of generating true change and true humanization of all peoples.

[00:21:17] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these amazing ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

[00:21:24] Jessica Bissett Perea: Thank you very much.

[00:21:26] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks. You’re listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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