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The Chronicle of Higher Education Interviews Jadaliyya Co-Founder Bassam Haddad

The following interview was conducted by Ursula Lindsey with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Bassam Haddad in preparation for a feature about Jadaliyya for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The feature was published on 29 September 2014 and can be accessed by clicking here.

Ursula Lindsey (UL): Could you send me any statistics on the readership of Jadaliyya? I would like to get a sense of the overall size of the readership, and how it is geographically distributed.

Bassam Haddad (BH): We have become much less interested in numbers after having passed an important threshold in 2013, but we do not totally ignore them! Unfortunately (because one would like to see an alternative), the best indicator of the growth and expansion of readership has been “Facebook Reach,” which increased from around fifty thousand per week during the first six months in 2010–2011, to one million in 2012–2013, and surpassed 2.3 million in 2014. We actually stopped monitoring such numbers as closely, but know that our social media and classroom presence continues to increase steadily as our Facebook followers have surpassed 130,000. These followers are pretty active in circulating our content, and constitute a large part of how Jadaliyya content is disseminated. Twitter is another indicator. However, we refrain from tweeting too much, as shown by our tweets-to-followers ratio—which is perhaps among the highest (9900 tweets and twenty-seven thousand followers), at about thirty percent. The closest we have seen in our field is about forty-five to fifty percent. This reflects the extent to which each post/article, and/or tweet, is generating interest. It is important to note that our Arabic reading audience, world-wide but mainly in the region itself, has quadrupled since 2011, and now constitutes almost thirty to thirty-five percent of our readership, a testimony to how local informed readers elect to turn to Jadaliyya frequently—largely because our writers on local matters are either writing from the region or are intimately connected with the region.

As to other forms of tracing numbers, such as unique visitors, they seem quite inconsistent because the extent to which Jadaliyya is read not only via Android, iPhone, and iPad apps, but also because of the unusually large level of circulation of PDFs via huge email lists (which we are on and we see!) and, most importantly, its ubiquitous presence on syllabi (for instance, our unique visitors to the site hover around 500,000 a month, while most read Jadaliyya off line via email, PDF, or apps). Our Middle East scholars/educators/researchers list, now combined with that of Tadween Publishing, our sister organization, tops eight thousand engaged Jadaliyya readers who are increasingly assigning material from Jadaliyya.

The reason this happens is not only because we have good content. There is plenty good content if one searches the net carefully. Rather, it because of four very specific reasons: first, our good content has a long shelf-life, an outcome that is built into the editorial process; second, Jadaliyya content serves as an explicit resource or reference, through twelve topical and country/region-specific Media Roundups, profiles and archival posts for reference use, as well as weekly pedagogical reviews of new books, films, documentaries, art exhibits, and relevant social media items; third, Jadaliyya, in conjunction with Tadween’s blog, has become the space that most educators/researchers constantly visit for matters related to academic freedom, publishing, and higher education in the region as well as the United States and Europe; finally, our Jadaliyya content is selectively tapped to produce books and pedagogical publications that are published by Tadween Publishing and other publishers like Palgrave and Pluto Press, giving more gravity, and more longevity, to Jadaliyya content. One important source of such readers is JADMAG, of which we have so far produced five issues geared to educators, and chock-full of resources that are compiled and categorized at the end of each issue. (see www.JadMag.org or www.TadweenPublishing.com for more information). 

This source of readership is constantly expanding as Jadaliyya seems to be the only available site for such content (now quadro-lingual), and is our litmus test and what keeps us on our toes from day to day. The reason we emphasize this source in relation to numbers and quality is because the population of students reading Jadaliyya material based on educators’ choices is increasing exponentially at times, and serves as our most consistent source of readership with time especially that newcomers from that sphere become loyal readers. 

It is no surprise that the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) consistently sends us their critical public letters to publish when they want to reach the broader academic and research/journalist communities, including beyond the United States. It is not something you see consistently on any other website. And this applies to various other organizations that would like to reach the same expansive cohort (based in the United States, Europe, or the Middle East), including the new Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS).

Our colleague and professor of Arabic literature at Brown University, Elias Muhanna, who also runs his own popular blog, Qifa Nabki, commented openly at a conference that he does not know a professor teaching the modern Middle East who does not have a variety of Jadaliyya articles on their syllabi—an honor that ranges from rare to unique when it comes to similar online publications. 

UL: We discussed stories that caused particularly strong debates, and you mentioned the critique of DAM's video. Are there any other pieces that sparked debates?    

BH: Just to clarify, this last piece sparked more than a debate, as some folks where actually unhappy with the approach—though we are still in good communication with the concerned parties (e.g., DAM) given our approach to the matter. The pieces that sparked debate, discussion, and the like are actually many, and I am not sure it would be fair to single out a handful. However, the notable pieces that drew heated debates and attention revolve around the July coup in Egypt, or around the nature of the Syrian uprising. But this is almost a continuous variable, and still sparks heated discussions that reflect the polarization on these matters among concerned publics. Nonetheless, we continue to get serious engagement—even if sometimes a bit over the top—from detractors on various topics, from Palestine and Syria, to articles on sexuality, Islam, and even literature and film. The fact that detractors of the entire publication continue to engage and critique reveals a sense of legitimacy that even this cohort associate with Jadaliyya. For a critical publication, this is priceless, and we think we will fail if we do not maintain that level of quality and legitimacy.

UL: What are the most common criticisms or suggestions for improvement your get? Do you think they are valid? Where do you see room for improvement? When I last saw Jadaliyya Co-Editor Sinan Antoon in Cairo, he said, for example, he thought the site might publish less so as to focus more on the quality of the writing. 

BH: Oh, dear, there are all kinds, and so many of which come from us, the editors, given that various page teams are relatively autonomous. Our position on critique is simple: we ignore any critique at our own peril. This does not mean that all criticisms are equally valid. They are not. It does, however, mean that we take them seriously and assume their validity until we can illustrate otherwise to ourselves and to others. In most instances, critiques do include a modicum of validity, and our responsiveness to nearly every single significant line of critiques (based on a compilation) is the reason we keep growing in quality and numbers. We surely miss some, and we surely make mistakes even in assessing critiques—but these represent a minority of cases within our practice. Based on what we have heard, we see room for improvement in soliciting even more writing from the region; in working harder to get more pieces from the scene, on intractably controversial matters, like Syria; and we agree that we, like any successful publication, can get too comfortable with its status quo of readership and contributors. But questions like yours, and internal discussions based on similar observations, push us on a quarterly basis to make a deliberate and explicit effort to reach out. This is in fact why we dramatically expanded the Arabic section (in terms of readership and contributors) during the past two years. 

All in all we operate on a five-year plan of sorts (despite the problematic association with five-year plans). At this point, as we are still in our fourth year, we are establishing ourselves as a serious and perhaps the go-to publication for informed readership. But you will soon see some changes that will expand our scope and spice things up a bit in a productive direction, at a time when we need not worry as much about the basics and daily operations. Our challenge, actually, is to maintain the essentially voluntary-based nature of Jadaliyya. Therefore, much of what we have focused on during the first years of establishment involves building the best team there is, or what we think is such, under these circumstances. It is a continuing challenge, but it has been working since 1992 when the parent organization, the Arab Studies Journal, started.

As to the question of quantity verses quality, we exercise a mean purge every quarter, precisely to avoid the false impression that quantity is synonymous with quality. Surely, we fail here and there. However, the one development since 2013 has been the reduction of the output rate—which we view as having been somewhat unavoidable as this is how you connect with new readership and contributors in the early stages—from about 175 pieces per month to about 110-120 (though this includes all posts and reports, etc.). But this challenge continues, and—frankly—we hold ourselves to standards that are not observed in comparable publications that either focus on one country, or one approach (e.g., Foreign Policy), or one audience, or one language, or one discipline, etc. So we have to make up our own standards for a new kind of publication. All this takes time, and we welcome any criticism that allows us to meat our challenge. We are not sensitive to productive critique at all! We will fail without it. 

UL: You mention detractors of the site—any examples?

BH: Every new initiative gives rise to critics, and that is a good thing. What is interesting about Jadaliyya’s critics, most of them at least, is that they critique and stick around for the most part—largely because of what they tell us verbatim at times: “We expect more from Jadaliyya,” or something of the sort. Now the question of who these critics are depends on the issue, and often our biggest critics on one topic are our biggest fans on another. Syria is a good example where we get flack from both pro-opposition corners and anti-opposition corners, but you would find avid readers of other Jadaliyya pages among both varieties. Do we have critics that do not think Jadaliyya is worth reading at all? You bet! There is very little we can do to convince those voices otherwise. Having said all of that, the fact is that Jadaliyya has filled a gap and presented a centrifugal force around which critics of mainstream discourse on the region in the United State and beyond hover. That in and of itself has generated detractors. 

UL: It seems to me that Jadaliyya has a pretty clear, consistent identity, both in its politics and its theoretical orientations. The people who edit and write it are generally the same age and peer group, and many have known each other for a long time. Do you think you have a wide enough variety of views? Do you feel like Jadaliyya has been able to spark debates outside of a community of like-minded contributors and readers? 

BH: [One factual note: the editors and contributors are by no means of similar age or belong to similar social circles—not after 2011, regarding the latter comment, and have never been, regarding the former comment. We have had more than a thousand contributors and the Jadaliyya team surpasses eighty people living in different countries now. Any cursory view of any fifty consecutive posts reveals a variety that easily surpasses most comparable publications. As for views, it is a political challenge, not always a question of diversity. See below.]

This is the one-million dollar question. Yes, any good publication must struggle with this dialectic of building a readership based on a particular kind/nature of knowledge production, but then expanding it to attract new readership and contributors while retaining the reason for its success. Are we guilty of not doing this perfectly? Absolutely. Have we gone far beyond most other publications to allow for serious internal differences and reach out to new and alternative views? Absolutely. But that does not exhaust the question. As mentioned above, we are in the building stage, and we view a good part of the shortcomings as related byproducts. However, this is one of our fundamental goals as we enter and complete our fifth year, and it will not come without its risks, risks we are very happy to take. Most importantly in reference to sparking discussion or debates, Jadaliyya articles have been written about and discussed in conferences and in social media in ways that have actually jump-started broader research questions and helped set research agendas—not to mention the impact of Jadaliyya on the carriers of junior writers who make their debut there and then get picked up by other institutions who are hiring, paying, and producing knowledge. The list is pretty long.

Having said that, two comments are relevant here. First, we are not and do not pretend to be an open forum for all views. Though I suspect you recognize that and you are not asking about why we do not highlight and invite problematic (racist, sexist, classist, etc. writers), but rather, from within the perspective we support, we may still afford more variety—and that is totally fair, and the above addresses our need to meet this challenge in increasingly better ways.

The second comment is political, and refers to the context within which Jadaliyya and other publications emerged in recent years. We see ourselves as a counter-discourse in relation to the dominant and quite entrenched discourse on the Middle East in the United States primarily, but also beyond. We also see ourselves in the same manner in relation to the petro-media empire of some Arab states. In this context, we are trying to provide an alternative reference point for sound daily analysis on the region. To establish that difficult reality and standard, we have had to be more focused on consistency and quality, sometimes at the expense of maximum diversity. So, we are not, per se, seeking diversity of “views” in the absolute sense, which is a matter/goal that speaks more to liberal concerns that are often divorced from realities of power and its direct relation to dominant discourses. However, where we have room to improve on this particular point, which is how we understand your question, is to establish even more diversity “within” the “general” perspective we endorse. And, yes, we do have some work to do in that respect, but not always for lack of trying. We are fighting an uphill battle and we also have to pay attention to the challenge of dragging everyone along while expanding this spectrum (i.e., the million-dollar challenge/question above). The years ahead will speak louder than any words regarding our genuine interest in making this happen within the context of a counter-discourse movement.

Also, we do not pay our writers, and this restricts us by excluding many careerist writers who might have provided a diversity of sorts despite differing views.

Finally, it is important to note that beyond the essentials, we have ongoing viewpoint disagreements within Jadaliyya regarding content and particular pieces. We think it is a testament to the absence of a rigid conception regarding which particular views are welcome.

UL: Finally, there is an argument that young academics should focus on scholarly work and publication and not "waste" their ideas and time on writing for web sites and other venues. How do you respond to that? 

BH: We totally agree in principle, considering the kind of online publications and quality that proliferates. And whereas we would give the same advice, we cannot ignore the fact that the strategic position of Jadaliyya within the academic community can be a plus for rising academics who would like to be read and heard. Last year alone, several folks within and outside Jadaliyya remarked to us how valuable their Jadaliyya contributions were in capturing the attention of employers/academics in the hiring process. This semi-exception is borne out of the fact that Jadaliyya has indeed become the go-to place for academics generally, despite what this or that observer can say, sometimes legitimately, about the quality of this or that post. We just have to make sure that this continues to be kept to a minimum in the coming five, or ten, years!

So, in short, it depends. In the case of Jadaliyya, publishing there can be used strategically to enhance one’s chances of getting an academic job. We used to think that this was not the case before we were told otherwise by employers and during academic interviews. Used properly, it can be a plus, and this is not confined to Jadaliyya, as there are a number of quality publications out there. The world is changing, and the academic community is following suit, even if at a few steps behind.

UL: Are you planning on publishing anything soon on Obama's war on ISIS?

BH: Yes, we have published a number of pieces addressing the rise and nature of ISIS, in both Arabic and English, and, beginning the week of 22 September, our fourth anniversary incidentally, we are publishing a regular media roundup specifically on ISIS-related articles. Stay tuned!

If you prefer, email your comments to info@jadaliyya.com.

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