Other Voices gets heard

In three short years of existence, Other Voices has proved Marshall McLuhan wrong: The medium is not the message.

The peer-reviewed journal’s serious content draws about 350 visits to its site a day, according to editor Aaron Levy (C’99). When a new issue first goes on-line, he said, the traffic jumps to about 1,350 visitors per day.

That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to e-zines like Salon.com. But, as English Professor Al Filreis told Levy, “That’s 1,299 more people than read most academic journals.”

The current issue — Other Voices’ fourth — is, like the previous three, organized around a common theme, in this case genocide. The subject is dealt with in critical essays, commentaries, book reviews, lectures, exhibits and literary works by Penn students and scholars, writers and faculty from around the world. Previous issues have tackled psychoanalysis, popular culture and comic art, and reading and remembrance. And while the essays are most assuredly serious — “We wouldn’t want to be a Salon,” editor-in-chief Vance Bell said — they are by and large written in language accessible to the nonscholarly reader.

The international list of contributors shows how quickly word of the journal has spread. Six of the eight contributors to the journal’s debut issue in March 1997 had Penn connections; by contrast, only four of the 19 contributors to the most recent issue hail from Penn.

That’s well over Bell’s stated goal of having half the contributors come from outside Penn. But now that the journal is firmly established, Bell said, “we have a little breathing space to think about how to bring it back to the Penn undergraduate and graduate community.”

The journal began about three years ago as an idea in then-Penn student Bell’s head. “It took about a year and a half before the ball really got rolling,” Bell said of the journal’s progress. But once the editors began to receive unsolicited manuscripts and review-copies of books, Bell began to add all the trappings of a serious scholarly journal: a peer-review process, an advisory board composed of faculty from Penn and several foreign universities, and inclusion in the Modern Language Association’s [MLA] index of scholarly journals.

That last item brought some of the obstacles Internet journals still face to the fore. “When I tried to get indexed on MLA,” Bell said, “I got asked some very pointed questions about our plans to keep [past issues of] the journal around beyond a certain window.”

Bell and several of his friends originally envisioned an interactive on-line forum for intellectual and theoretical discussion. But, he said, “we shied away from the interactivity because we needed a stable base of readers, and we didn’t have that yet.”

What they did not shy away from was their low-overhead publishing model. The journal is produced entirely by volunteer labor, hosted on the English Department server and distributed for free over the Internet. A core staff of seven to eight current and former students, including Levy and Penn alums Benjamin Kim (C’97) and Josh Schuster (C’98), assist Bell.

Even though Other Voices now looks like an elegant e-dition of a conventional academic journal — and a print anthology is even in the works — the editors have not forgotten or given up completely on their alternative visions.

The editors still intend to provide the discussion capability they jettisoned at the start. They’re also interested in multimedia. The current issue includes streaming audio of a lecture by Princeton History Professor Anson Rabinbach, and future issues will include streaming audio of talks delivered as part of the Kelly Writers House’s “Theorizing in Particular” series, which Levy coordinates as part of his resident fellowship this year.


Originally published on March 23, 2000