An Interview with Oleh Kotsyuba about HURI's New Books Website

Tell us about HURI’s new book website. What makes it unique? 
I have to start first with the vision for the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard (HURI) when it was founded in 1973. As Omeljan Pritsak saw it, the Ukrainian project is anticolonial at its core. HURI was thus conceived as an independent outpost to study Ukrainian language, literature, and history, so as to provide vital support to the Ukrainian project. The three chairs that were endowed in the respective disciplines in the humanities as well as the autonomous research facility were meant to establish the field of Ukrainian studies on a par with other fields in Slavic studies and allow for stellar research, instruction, and publications in Ukrainian studies.

This was a monumental task and it was largely accomplished, reclaiming much of Ukrainian history and culture from the imperial projects of Russia and the Soviet Union. However, the field of Slavic studies remains to this day largely Russian-centric and embraces Russian imperialism as legitimate, with no new professorships and only limited publications in Ukrainian studies, thus significantly limiting available career paths to those interested in studying and teaching Ukraine.

Following the Great Recession and due to the current pandemic, as well as a number of other social and economic factors, the arts and humanities are losing the battle to professional education. Across the globe, evidence-based approaches to reality are under attack and political demagoguery is on the rise.

Taken together, these conditions present new and greater challenges to scholarship in general and Ukrainian studies in particular. The new HURI Books website is unique in that it was created specifically to respond to these emerging challenges and to expand the tent of Ukrainian studies by inviting scholars and students interested in the exceptional opportunity for dissent that Ukrainian studies offer. We do that by speaking directly to our readers, both scholars and the general audience, and by structuring all content by overarching thematic categories, including content of the journal Harvard Ukrainian Studies, to provide the reader with immediate access to all relevant publications on the topic of their interest in all available formats.

How can the platform serve scholars, teachers, students, and the general public? What does it offer to readers that traditional academic publishing doesn’t?
Publishing in general has radically changed with the advent of the Internet, but scholarly publishing has been extremely slow in responding to that change. For all the hype around digital humanities, for instance, digital projects are not considered for such career-defining moments in academia as the initial hiring or tenure. With the new website, HURI publications is at the forefront of embracing the opportunities offered by technology today, while at the same time maintaining the high quality of publishing that is traditionally associated with academic publishing.

Of course, we cannot singlehandedly change the culture of producing and distributing knowledge at institutions that are defined by certain inertia in their long-held views and internal processes, and the profit-oriented business-like approach to managing educational organizations.

Just like the educational initiatives that promote affordable access to education, such as edX and Coursera, to name but a few, we offer to scholars more impact and a wider reach, while teachers, students, and the general public can take advantage of unprecedented access to world-class content. We achieve this through a combination of various formats in which the books are directly and immediately available on the website: as plain HTML text, as PDF versions of the typeset books, and as eBooks that can be read on a smartphone app, a computer, or an eBook reader.

Why do you think a digital humanities resource like this important in 2020?
2020 has, of course, presented all of us with new challenges and we don’t know yet what the long-term impact of the pandemic and the isolation and disruption of the processes that it brought along will be. However, we do see the first signs of what’s to come: faced with falling enrollments and diminishing income, colleges that act as for-profit businesses are laying off tenured faculty and closing whole departments in disciplines where the benefit (and profit, more importantly) is not immediately evident—that is, in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Simultaneously, a college degree’s promise of prosperity is weighed by students and their families against the reality of staggering debt that education at American colleges has come to mean for most graduates. Absent state subventions and coupled with the overall falling numbers of students in incoming classes, higher education in the US is heading for a major overhaul.

Online instruction will be an important part in solving the puzzle of the new system of education, and it is not possible without content available online. This is precisely where a resource like the new HURI Books website comes in, as it has the main tools to allow for convenient access to the content online, including such lower-cost options as renting a book online or buying an eBook.

The launch of the HURI Books website also creates a platform for other digital projects, such as the forthcoming Ukraïnica: The Primary Database of Ukrainian Studies, which will host a catalog of high-quality English-language translations of documents, literature, and films, and allow the teachers and scholars to build syllabi based on several sets of taxonomy categories that reflect periods, tropes, and topoi across all the genres and media available. Full texts of comprehensive histories of literature and art are another possibility here in creating a complete ecosystem for teaching and learning.

Of course, online education will never be able to fully replace in-person education, because education is not only about content but also—crucially—about socialization. It is in a social context that students can develop critical thinking, and we want to provide all the tools for teachers and scholars to do that, despite a growing atmosphere of anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism, by making content as easily available and as attractively presented as we possibly can.

What does the future of academic publishing look like to you? How can people in our field (SEEES) adapt?
It is difficult to foresee where the current several crises are going to take us. It is obvious, however, that the trend to publish content with a broader appeal and in a more accessible format will continue. Most university presses are fully separate from—though usually affiliated with—universities, so they will continue to be under great pressure to generate profit.

For some, this may mean reduction or even complete abandonment of narrowly-specialized and meticulously edited publications in favor of projects that tell stories with wider appeal. Smaller publishers have already started this process, thus transferring more responsibility for the quality of their text to the authors. As before in the news and journal publishing industry, the falling book sales and university library orders may lead to the increase in books published in the digital format only, as that would allow to preserve the high quality of editing and a narrower focus.

One big hurdle to that at the moment is the way that the hiring and tenure review processes work at many universities, but the pressure will increase as the crisis deepens. University administrators and faculty should seize the moment right now and create conditions to fully integrate digital publishing and content distribution into their instruction, hiring, and promotion. Although there are limits to what technology can do in education, it offers radical improvements to accessibility that human society has never experienced before. We definitely should take advantage of that.

This interview was originally appeared in the October 2020 NewsNet.