WINTER 2021
From the Desk of Director Tim Stookesberry
On behalf of the entire SUNY Press staff, we hope all of our readers had a wonderful holiday season and are enjoying the beginning of 2021. We have a busy January planned at the Press as our spring paperback list begins arriving this month. You’ll read about some of those books in this issue of our newsletter—but first, here’s some great news about one of our fabulous SUNY Press editors!

I am delighted to tell you that Dr. Rebecca Colesworthy, the acquiring editor for our education; Latin American and Iberian studies; Latinx studies, nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century studies; queer studies; and women’s and gender studies lists, has just been elected to an at-large seat on the Modern Language Association Executive Council. Rebecca will serve a four-year term that commenced January 11, 2021.

It is quite an accomplishment for a university press editor to fill such an important role for the MLA. To our knowledge, it has only been done once before. We’re incredibly proud of Rebecca for tackling this responsibility and wanted to share the happy news with all of you!

Tim Stookesberry is the Director of SUNY Press, and he would love to hear about your publishing projects! Contact him at tim.stookesberry@sunypress.edu.
It isn’t every day that SUNY Press—or any academic publisher—receives a starred review in Publishers Weekly. But that’s what happened earlier this fall with their review of our translation of Djinn, by Tofik Dibi, which released this month. PW wrote that Dibi “shatters stereotypes with this punchy, raw chronicle”. Here’s an inside look at this outstanding work from Nicolaas P. Barr, who translated Dibi’s memoir from the original Dutch.
“The Netherlands is beautiful from a distance. Until you zoom in. Then you see other things,” writes Tofik Dibi at the beginning of his recently published second book, a novel titled Het Monster van Wokeness, or “The Wokeness Monster.” The lines are an apt description of my own experience of getting to know the country, beyond the nostalgic memories of childhood visits to see my maternal relatives. I still find it incredibly beautiful, but it is only by facing those “other things”—racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant discrimination, all belied by its quaint liberal image—that we see the Netherlands in full color.

For Dibi, the son of so-called “guest worker” immigrants from Morocco, such forces of marginalization are experienced viscerally, from his childhood to today. But growing up, there were other challenges even closer to home. Djinn is his story of coming to face himself as a gay man and a Muslim, without having models available for navigating this identity. Dibi dedicates the book to “my brothers and sisters,” those facing the same struggle between “it”—their queerness—and “them”—the voices of one’s friends, family, community, and the dominant society, which threaten ridicule, rejection, or worse. His story offers a model, even a lifeline, for those who, like him, are doubly marginalized—“a minority within a minority,” as he puts it.

All the more remarkable is that much of Dibi’s path unfolded in the public eye. In 2006, at age 26, he was elected to the Dutch parliament as a member of the Green-Left Party. This was a major political achievement, perhaps not unlike Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to prominence in the United States: the emergence of a bold, young, progressive leader from outside the established channels of power, one who both reflects and stands up for communities that have long been marginalized by the political elite. Mobilized by the wave of anti-Muslim discrimination in the Netherlands precipitated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Dibi became a leading voice against the Islamophobic platforms of right-wing politicians like Geert Wilders, leader of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), who describes Islam as “barbaric” and seeks to close the country’s mosques and ban the Koran.

What makes Djinn distinctive is how it threads together larger issues of contemporary European cultural politics with Dibi’s intense personal conflict over his sexual and religious identities. It gives flesh and blood to often abstract debates about immigration, multiculturalism, race, religion, and sexuality in Europe, making it an accessible and engaging resource for teaching across a range of fields and disciplines. As much as Dibi countered the rhetoric and policies of Wilders and others, he grappled with struggles of his own: how could he make sense of the Koran’s apparent strictures on homosexuality? And how would his family, his friends, and the public react if they found out?

I won’t spoil the story for you. It is gripping and a punch to the gut at times, but also poignant and deeply inspiring, even if one doesn’t face the particular challenges that Dibi faced. Although I am not an explicit addressee of the book, his search for self-acceptance spoke to me deeply, and continues to speak to me upon each rereading. The courage that it took to write this book is extraordinary, and I am honored that Dibi put his trust in me, as a first-time translator, to bring his voice into English.
When I first met Dibi, I was nervous and somewhat starstruck. I’d watched videos of him speaking in Parliament and on television programs, and I invited him to speak to a group of students from the University of Washington as part of a study abroad program, with a critical focus on the discourse of tolerance in the Netherlands. His mild-mannered presence quickly put me at ease, and he inspired our small group of students just as much as when he’s speaking to national audiences. As the group discussion ended and continued informally into the evening, what struck me most was his unfailing generosity as an interlocutor, alongside his unwavering commitment to social justice. As a politician, he had had to listen calmly to the citizens he represented and political opponents who put his very humanity, as a Muslim and person of color, into question. As we know from our own context in the United States, not everyone who holds such views can or wants to be reached, but Dibi’s compelling voice has the power to challenge preconceptions and stereotypes.

Djinn thus allows us to see these thorny political issues in a fundamentally different light from the “clash of civilizations” narrative that still dominates popular perspectives on contemporary Europe. As right-wing politics further permeate the mainstream, in the Netherlands and across Europe, it is an urgent invitation. Dibi, and so many young people of color, offer an alternative vision of the future, one that paradoxically captures those things that are most beautiful about the Netherlands. Audre Lorde once wrote of Afro-Europeans and other people of color, “I believe it is the hyphenated people of Europe who represent a last chance for Europe to learn how to deal with difference creatively, rather than pretending it does not exist, or destroying it…. And, with or without you, we are moving on.”
January is an exciting month for SUNY Press as we release the spring new in paperback list. We have 63 titles coming out in paperback editions this month, which typically provides opportunities for the titles to find new audiences—including classroom use. Don Waisanen’s new Improv for Democracy is a great example, as it’s a title that explores how improv-based teaching and training methods can bridge differences and promote the communication, leadership, and civic skills our world urgently needs. In this excerpt, Don explains the genesis of his book and offers insight into how it can be used as a core teaching resource for individuals and groups.
When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait to get home from school every Wednesday to watch my favorite television program, Whose Line Is It Anyway? Each week, the completely improvised comedy show would challenge actors to play different characters, make up musicals on the spot, or provide punchlines to random joke suggestions from the audience. Years later, when I went to see a live, professional improv performance for the first time, beyond all the humor and entertainment, I ended up being most stunned by how the performers worked with and trusted one another. They exhibited a level of play and joy seldom seen in everyday life, constantly built on rather than negated one another’s lines and actions, and overall, practiced fearless, superhuman communication skills. After, I decided to take an improv class and have never looked back. 

While most people are familiar with improv for comedy, across the last couple of decades a whole other field has developed: improv for professional development and human growth. Also called “applied improvisation,” many businesses, in particular, started turning to improv as a way to help staff improve their speaking and listening skills, as a way to get more comfortable on their feet, and as a creative means to idea generation, better team collaboration, and learning to manage the unexpected. I’ve run everything from brief trainings to entire courses using improv in these ways. For instance, in an applied improv workshop participants might be put into pairs to carry out a conversation using only three words at a time, which is not only fun, but highlights the importance of brevity, making one’s words matter, and using nonverbals to supplement one’s messages. Or, in a class focused on leadership development, a student might play an expert on a particular topic, and be asked to answer rapid-fire questions (even sometimes ridiculous ones) from the audience with elevated confidence. Research on the use of improv training to help people in sectors such as healthcare, science, and education has demonstrated the measured success this fully involved form of learning tends to have on people.

Beyond all its personal and professional benefits, however, my book project takes these applications to the next level, showing how improvisation holds the potential to transform our organizations and societies in ways previously unimagined—especially as a way to teach and train for civic education. My research for over 15 years has focused on political communication and civic engagement, so this project was a total joining of vocation and avocation for me. I connect improv to deep and broad research findings, interdisciplinary scholarship, and longstanding calls for a wider range of learning methods that can advance intellectual, emotional, and behavioral results. In fact, amid the social and political crises of our time, many programs seeking to bridge differences between citizens have drawn from this surprising field. From building relationships between police and civilians in conflict to teaching youth in afterschool programs to collaborate and develop resilience, improv is being used around the world to train people to engage with one another in ways that promote empathy and understanding. Following these remarkable cases, this book shows how improv-based teaching and training methods—which originated in improv theater but have since been adapted and evolved in many other contexts—can forward the communication, leadership, and civic skills our world urgently needs.

While a lot has been written about what democracies should look like, far less has covered how to actually train citizens in democratic perspectives and skills. Filling this gap, Improv for Democracy provides a new philosophy and complete framework of ideas and practices for scaling improvisation as a way to transform individuals, organizations, and societies. It details specific exercises and thought experiments that can be used by educators of all kinds, advocates for civic engagement and civil discourse, practitioners and scholars in communication, leadership, and conflict management, training and development specialists, administrators looking to build new curricula or programming, and professionals seeking to embed productive, sustainable, and socially responsible forms of interaction in and across organizations.
Whether you’re looking to promote dialogues in a playful spirit, to get your technically brilliant team to become more adaptable to the challenges of working with diverse human beings, or to ditch typical educational methods such as slideshow lecturing to teach the same content with more engaging and interactive techniques, my greatest hope is that this book will become a core resource for such individuals and groups. Aiming to pull societies upward, my book ultimately offers a new approach for helping people become more creative, heighten awareness, build confidence, operate flexibly, improve expression and governance skills, and above all, think and act more democratically. It also builds upon growing movements underscoring the necessity of play, fun, games, and productive forms of humor to human growth and development and education writ large. Far from peripheral considerations, this book advances recent work (e.g. Making Democracy Fun by Josh Lerner) demonstrating the centrality of playful forms of interaction to our public and political lives.

Little did I know that what basically started as a fun hobby would eventually develop into this undertaking, but I came to the point where keeping my own and others’ stories about all this boxed up any longer just wouldn’t do. I think that improv is some of the best training for life and handling all of its surprises that one can get (pandemic, anyone?). The ease with which human beings can deal with unpredictability—learning to operate from multiple perspectives, play different roles, and handle situations with a willingness to learn from and attend to others’ concerns and needs as they happen—is at the core of democracy. If there’s one part of this book that matters the most, then, it’s that in this new curriculum for training engaged, innovative, and flexible citizens, every one of us can learn to improvise better.
Multi-time SUNY Press author William G. Tierney wrote his most recent book, Get Real: 49 Challenges Confronting Higher Education, to cut through the noise and give readers an informed, level-headed look at colleges and universities today. Bill brings the same practical perspective to bear in a recent op-ed for Inside Higher Ed. Reflecting on this past year, he calls on academic institutions to further live up to their promise and play a more public role in response to national crisis.
Like many of you, I tend to give books as presents quite a lot, and our new coffee table book by Diana S. Waite The Architecture of Downtown Troy: An Illustrated History was a big hit with my friends this year. Now it’s an award-winner! Check out the news about all of our recent award recipients here.
The Preservation League of New York State has recognized The Architecture of Downtown Troy: An Illustrated History by Diana S. Waite with a 2020 Excellence in Historic Preservation Award. The lavishly illustrated book tells the forgotten but surprising stories of the many handsome and significant buildings in downtown Troy, which the New York Times has called “one of the most perfectly preserved nineteenth-century downtowns in the United States.”
 
For anyone living in New York’s Capital District, this is a perfect companion for a leisurely stroll in downtown Troy.
  
Other recent award winners:
 
Ana-Maurine Lara
2020 Ruth Benedict Prize, presented by the Association for Queer Anthropology
 
Yoni Van Den Eede
2020 S.I. Hayakawa Book Prize, presented by The Institute of General Semantics
 
Tanhum S. Yoreh
2020 Canadian Jewish Literary Award in the category of Jewish Thought and Culture
 
Elena Aydarova
2020 Critics Choice Award, presented by the American Educational Studies Association (AESA)
Winner of the 2020 Outstanding Book Award presented by the Council on Anthropology and Education
 
Charles Sanft
2020 James Henry Breasted Prize in Ancient History, presented by the American Historical Association
 
Ruthie Abeliovich
Finalist for the 2020 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award in the category of Jews and the Arts: Music, Performance, and Visual presented by the Association for Jewish Studies
 
Timothy C. Shiell
2020 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title
 
Philipp von Wussow
Award: 2020 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title
 
Katja Grötzner Neves
2020 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title
 
Susanne Klien
2020 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title