WRECK PARK

ISSUE NO. 0.1

AN INTERVIEW WITH KENNETH WOMACK

  Kenneth Womack is Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of English at Penn State
Altoona. In July 2015, he will begin a new appointment as the Dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory. We
recently spoke with Dr. Womack about a host of issues, from publishing to the state of the field,
interdisciplinarity to the role of the intellectual.

WRECK PARK

  Perhaps we can begin with a little history and how you came to your work: you’ve been a professor, an editor/founder, a Penn State Laureate, a fiction writer, a cultural critic…What drew you or draws you to such disparate commitments?

KENNETH WOMACK

  I believe that my own career, in many ways, speaks to how open and nurturing academic life can truly be. In my years at Penn State, I have enjoyed unfettered support to pursue my interests. I have had the great privilege of serving at our University’s Altoona College, which began delivering four-year academic programs in 1997. As part of a large parcel of young faculty brought in to meet this objective, I was challenged, along with my new colleagues, to help establish the trappings of a full-fledged college. For my part, I contributed to this mission by founding Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory. After all, shouldn’t every new English program benefit from a scholarly periodical? As you note, I have also recently served as the Penn State Laureate, which functions as our University’s cultural ambassador. Through all of the aspects of my work, I see myself as a kind of public intellectual. And I believe that the heart of our future as scholars will be to take our work to the public and underscore its relevance, along with the power of making new knowledge. Our colleagues around the world are already doing this, in their own way, through blogging and other activities.

WRECK PARK

  Likewise, within your scholarship, you’ve written on ethical criticism and satire in academic fiction; on postmodern humanism; several works on the Beatles; a history of the Sheetz convenience store chain; a student's guide to Shakespeare; and helped publish a conference on Bruce Springsteen and the American Dream—how do you see these works in dialogue (if at all)—do they relate in any significant or peripheral way?

WOMACK

  While I have unquestionably written about a wide range of disparate subjects, I see them all working towards a central purpose—and this idea hearkens back to the value of public intellectualism. Our fellow global citizens consume works of high and low culture on an unprecedented scale—books, music, movies, television, and the like. As cultural and literary critics, we have acquired very powerful tools of analysis that we can deploy in the service of assisting our students with the capacity for understanding these narratives and arriving at their own well-founded conclusions about their meaning. Take postmodern humanism, for example. Contemporary narrative is consumed by a massive audience confronted by the uncertain reality—the void—of our existence. Applying simple tenets of ethics and postmodern humanism helps us to make sense of the convoluted, morally fractured worlds in which we live. As cultural critics, we have the opportunity to help people make sense of their place in the world. And that is a powerful—and valuable—thing.

WRECK PARK

  Developing this idea of the public intellectual—an idea I find quite interesting—do you see the classroom as a political space? That is, if we as scholars have acquired a set of tools to negotiate various cultural, literary, and artistic production, is it our place to evaluate or interpret on some level of a moral, ethical, or some other system of values?

WOMACK

  The model you describe has its origins in the teacher-scholar framework—a world in which the classroom becomes a space of interrogation. I don’t necessarily see it as a political space, although we must inevitably recognize the political antecedents in human discourse. And literary works, of course, often exist as narratives about the flashpoints of human existence. In the post-reader-response era, we have an obligation to use our tools of the trade as means for exploring the manifold truths that exist in any given text—and recognize that they may not necessarily be “right” or even represent our own viewpoints. And possibly not even true.

WRECK PARK

  In this same vein, the public intellectual is no doubt facilitated by life in the University, but do you feel that the University is requisite to this sort of work?

WOMACK

  In many ways, the University functions as a form of patronage in order to facilitate the growth of the intellect. While contemporary universities cite hundreds of millions of dollars in annual research benefits, it often takes many more millions of dollars to generate these same receipts. Hence, even in its most profitable climates, research is a losing proposition in terms of the sheer amount of money that it requires to conduct the scholarly enterprise. But if not for the hallowed halls, think-tanks, and institutes housed in contemporary university life, these investigations would scarcely occur. This is the central role of the University as a proponent of the kinds of research and creative activity that move our culture forward.

WRECK PARK

  It seems that there might be a parallel between what you describe as "the manifold truths that exist in any given text" and the impetus of what we call "interdisciplinarity"—when you started ILS as an interdisciplinary journal did you have a sort of investment in this sort of work? Is the journal in some ways similar to your scholarship and teaching in this sense?

WOMACK

  That’s a very insightful reading of the journal’s purpose. The journal operates from a perspective and recognition that there are many ways to think about a concept or a work of art. Poststructuralism—if nothing else—recognizes these manifold truths—and, further, that no single interpretation or reading holds sway over all others. There is also the issue of the necessity of providing a venue for this sort of work—for scholars to come together to debate the veracity of ideas and the nature of literary work in all of its forms. This kind of collaborative interdisciplinary approach does indeed mirror my own research, which involves the embrace of new ways of looking at texts.

WRECK PARK

  This may be a good time to give us a brief history of ILS—you created it at Altoona as a sort of service to the school and intellectual community—how has it grown, how does it function today?

WOMACK

  At our institution, Penn State University’s Altoona College, we are generally organized into interdisciplinary clusters. Hence, when we established the journal, I felt very strongly that this was the theme and principle that we should celebrate through publication. Beyond our institution, it was abundantly clear that a larger forum was needed in which to explore these questions and their significance to the theoretical project. By celebrating the power of collaboration and interdisciplinary, ILS has succeeded in not only underscoring our college’s mission, but participating, in a larger sense, in the growth and movement of our profession as literary critics.

WRECK PARK

  Were there any journals starting out that you admired or wanted to further the work of?

WOMACK

  There are a number of journals that have exerted a clear influence on ILS. I have always had a great respect and admiration for journals such as Style and Mosaic. They’re both top-flight journals that maximize the interpretive possibilities of interdisciplinary studies. Style was an early leader in applying poststructuralist theory across a wide variety of fields, while Mosaic has furthered this line of critique through a series of thematic special issues and an impressively open-minded approach to genre limitations.

WRECK PARK

   Has the advent of self-publishing, online publishing, and digital literatures in general affected the journal in any significant way? Are you actively conscious of a need to either incorporate or defy the world of digital publishing?

WOMACK

  The evolution of the literary and academic marketplace has shifted considerably since our journal was founded in 1999. In the early years, as digital technologies began to impinge upon the publishing industry, the notion of online publication was understood, almost collectively, as an avenue for cheapening the field. Work published online was clearly seen, rightly or wrongly, as of a lower overall quality than traditionally published materials. Quite obviously, this attitude has changed in a hurry. Promotion and tenure committees are evolving quite precipitously in their understanding and acceptance of online venues. Having said that, we must also recognize that many of the same old biases apply. A first-tier journal or book publisher still holds sway in terms of online publishing, and authors base their publishing plans, for the most part, with these criteria in the academic marketplace. In terms of ILS, online publishing has provided the journal with a greatly enhanced reputation and livelihood. Joining the Penn State University Press consortium has afforded the journal with greater visibility. This has produced dividends in the number and quality of submissions, while also producing greater licensing profits that benefit the Press and the University.

The value and future of self-publishing, at least at this moment in the nexus of academic writing and the Internet, remains to be seen. There is little doubt about the power of self-publishing outside of the academic world. In the past few years, several bestsellers have emerged in the form of entirely unknown authors creating their own marketplace and following through social media and other means. While it has become a democratizing force, the proliferation of self-published manuscripts has also created a daunting challenge for today’s readers who must confront our increasingly complex world of books and eBooks. It will be fascinating, indeed, to observe the ways in which self-publishing impacts the academic world, if it succeeds in doing so at all. Clearly, the operation of blogs has succeeded in many informal ways. But the real proof will involve the emergence of peer-review and other means of sanctioning quality for promotion and tenure committees, who carry much of the academy’s burden in terms of assessing scholarly rigor.