James Gang expands its reach, partners with ‘draft’ and Center for Humanist Inquiries

'draft' is the latest addition to the James Gang -- photo courtesy of 'draft'
‘draft’ is the latest addition to the James Gang — photo courtesy of ‘draft’
For 14 years, the community-building organization has quietly facilitated the starts of some of Iowa City’s most accomplished arts, humanities and community groups, including Mission Creek, Public Space One and the Saturday Night Free Movie Series. Each of those organizations eventually went on to expand and gain the support of other institutions: Mission Creek became part of the Englert Theatre, PS1 is now affiliated with Legion Arts and the movie series joined Summer of the Arts.

That these organizations moved away from what the James Gang calls its “umbrella” is exactly the point: It exists to help nascent organizations find their footing. Rather than providing funding, it lends burgeoning groups its nonprofit status and the resources that come along with that, with the goal of helping them ultimately take off on their own: “Go Public” is its tagline.

To further assist with that, the James Gang, named for philosopher William James as a nod to his theory of Pragmatism, connects its projects so that they can pool resources and knowledge about grantwriting, fundraising and media outreach.

Two of the James Gang’s newest endeavors — that’s code for its partner organizations — the Center for Humanist Inquiries and draft: the journal of process, represent the breadth of the James Gang’s current reach: a hub for humanities and a literary magazine. The founders of those projects, Daniel Boscaljon and Rachel Yoder, interviewed each other about their two different projects.

Rachel Yoder (draft: the journal of process): Are there any other organizations like CHI that exist?

Daniel Boscaljon: When we were researching CHI, we found a few different university sanctioned organizations that seem to function more or less like humanities think tanks. None of the particular programs, however, shared our focus on public humanities. Few free online courses focus on humanities content, and those that did focused on providing answers, or facts, instead of helping students learn to ask better questions. Our goal is [more] to empower students to become better critical thinkers, more comfortable with inquiry, than to simply provide information.

If resources weren’t a hindrance, what would CHI look like in its ideal form?

In its ideal form, I would love for CHI to serve as a model for the public and digital humanities. I’d love for it to serve as a home for scholars who want an excuse to teach interesting interdisciplinary classes that escape official university designations. Ideally, it’d be a resource for the global community to find a challenging site to learn how to think more richly. It’d become a space that could resolve the “crisis in the humanities” by allowing students to remember why value remains importantly non-economic in nature.

What’s most exciting to you about your upcoming plans for your programming?

Most of last summer and fall has been spent trying to provide content for our online library of classes and lectures. This year, I am going to participate in a podcast called thesacredprofane, focused on critical analysis of culture from a post-theistic perspective. Additionally, I’m hoping to begin collaborating with other nonprofit organizations to offer workshops designed around questions of creation, interpretation and appropriation — ways of thinking more intentionally about the processes that we too often simply do thoughtlessly. Finally, I hope to add a blog to the site as a supplement to the lectures we post.

Daniel Boscaljon (Center for Humanist Inquiries): What are the major drafts that led to the current incarnation of draft?

Rachel Yoder: The idea for draft — a journal that features first and final drafts of stories, essays and poems along with author interviews about the creative process — was one that the other founding editor, Mark Polanzak, presented to me when we were still in grad school. It arose partly out of a desire to have a reason to keep talking shop about writing after grad school and partly from a need we had for this sort of text to use in our own teaching. We started by publishing an Issue 0, what we thought of as a practice issue in which we’d figure out what sorts of questions we wanted to ask and what sort of layout worked best. That was a wonderful learning experience, and, for Issue 1, we were able to find a designer who shared our vision and was able to translate that into the journal. We’re just about to send Issue 6 to the printer, and we continue to refine our process and format. We’ve expanded from just publishing stories to the inclusion of essays and poems. We’ve begun to cross-reference our interview questions with places in the drafts that are pertinent. And each issue winds up being a bit different, with drafts that are formatted differently or showcased in new ways, so our work as editors and curators keeps evolving.

draft’s website is superb — you do an excellent job of showcasing the print journal’s benefits without duplicating it, but you also have a blog that allows for web-based participants to become inspired, rather than dispirited, about the creative process. What are you thinking of doing to continue to expand in both publication presences?

We’re actually going to be expanding into the wonderful world of podcasts, with a show called Beautiful Failures that we’re producing in partnership with the Iowa Writers’ House. Not only will this be a place where we feature bonus material to complement our print journal, but we’ll also be able to take advantage of the wealth of writers who pass through Iowa City and interview them about the role that failure plays in their creative lives. We’re always working to make the creative process more approachable, and this podcast will be another step in our work.

In your work at draft, you find writers willing to share their process with the magazine, expose first drafts and share final drafts. Have you found writers share your passion for teaching (and process), or does convincing them require large amounts of effort?

It’s been surprising and heartening how open folks have been to participating. Almost everyone who we’ve ever contacted has said yes. They don’t always wind up having drafts we can use, or having the time to be involved but, by and large, we get positive responses and writers wanting to participate. We all know how agonizing the writing process is. I think draft strikes writers as a really comforting project. That we’re all making messes on the privacy of our computers as we write — even the writers who we most admire and feature in draft — makes us all feel less alone.

Lucy Morris is Little Village’s News & Culture Editor. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 195.