Interview by Elana Friedland
EF: How are you?
SS: I’m good, thank you. I’ve put video on, as you can see, just so you can have a look at my space and have some fun. Lots of printing presses, lots of stuff, yeah.
EF: It’s also been a real pleasure to see your space through the videos that you have on the website too, so thank you.
SS: Well, that’s good, because we just had a new website with the responsive template launched last week, so really good timing.
EF: I noticed that and I was curious: what prompted the change to the new website?
SS: They had rolled out a responsive template all across the university, and I’m one of the smaller centers so I wasn’t included in the first tranche, and then they had some extra money so three of the research institutes and centers were asked to rethink their websites. So it’s transitioning into a different mode, but there’s a lot more, shall we say, things to play with, to make it a lot more user-friendly, and to profile a lot more images and that, so that’s a first step, but it will be a growing thing.
EF: Thank you for explaining that. And thank you too for taking the time out to talk to me about the press.
SS: Well, it’s sort of cool that you were here for a semester. When was that?
EF: Back in 2010. I took a survey course on New Zealand literature through the English department.
SS: Yeah. Who was your lecturer? Jane Stafford, or Mark Williams, or Lydia Wevers, or —
EF: I think they all took turns lecturing, because I remember having a rotating cast of lecturers in there.
SS: Great. Yeah. So, small world. So thank you so much for connecting with me, and yeah, it looks like this is a great project, and I love the way that Lori sort of framed the whole course, so it’s been a real inspiration for me to dig down a bit into that too.
EF: Awesome. I’m glad there’s been a value in this for you too.
SS: Oh, absolutely. We’re talking the same language, so I was really excited to see that not only she got her media archeology lab, but some of her inspirations are mine as well, so yeah, I’ll be interested to see how the class goes, and particularly with whatever creative work that you end up producing as a result of your, you know, intersections with all these worlds.
EF: To shift gears a bit, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the work that you do in your role as the director and the printer over at the press. Since it seems like you encompass a wide range of things in that role, how do you find the balance between the different aspects of your role?
SS: Yeah, it’s a bit of a juggling act, as you can imagine. I inherited the space, and the three pillars, which were the research, the teaching and learning, and the printing and publishing, were an important marker of what Wai-te-ata Press was all about.
So I retained all three of those, and in the world of accountability and administrivia, there’s a lot more to do in terms of the back end administration stuff as well. But it doesn’t mean that I can juggle all the balls all at the same time, it means that according to the rhythms of getting external funding for research projects, funding or commissions for printing work, and then the schedule of teaching through the year, it’s quite a flexible kind of space where, depending on what comes in the door and what’s on the menu at the moment, able to weave things in and out.
I’m a sole charge director, which means it’s just me, and I run my own budget center, so I’ve got a level of autonomy, because I’m not associated with the school or a department, but I am under the faculty of humanities and social science, so I do have a kind of academic affiliation, but it’s more a facility that is available to anyone in the university. So a lot of what I do is not only work within the existing spaces that I have, but also reach out to across the university and a lot of external engagement.
So in order to help execute all the stuff that I really want to do, that relies upon me getting funding, generally external funding that then I can hire research assistants. So that’s easiest when it comes to research projects. So at the moment I’ve got four research assistants working on my project on William Colenso and the Victorian Republic of Letters.
We also have something called Performance-Based — PBRF, Performance-Based Research Fund, which is a government-organized census of all individual and university research outputs that are then, every five to eight years, collated, and universities are then ranked, and based on their ranking they get a lump sum from the government, and based on then how the university wants to distribute that lump sum, it will go back to the schools or the departments, not necessarily to the person who has earned it through their research portfolio. So because I’m a single unit and because I’m the one doing the declared research in the census, they’ve made an accommodation for me, and I get the research fund money directed to Wai-te-ata Press, which means then I can hire publication assistants as well to help with that component of the operation.
And then with teaching, depending on what’s going on, that’s a revenue stream, so it gives me a bit of latitude to be able to cross subsidize other stuff that we do.
So I try and keep a healthy balance, because in a world of accountability, if you’re down below the line too often, people start to look askance at you, but I’ve got lots of support from the university which likes the idea that this is quite a unique facility for Australasia, that it does a lot of things, and that it has a lot of street cred and profile in the wider community. So as I say, it’s a bit of a balancing act, but it’s — and juggling the balls all the time for survival in a way, but you can never be complacent in one of these spaces, nor can you be complacent in academia anymore anyway.
EF: I’m interested in how much the community outside of the university is able to get involved with or does get involved with the goings-on of the lab. Is it easily accessible to the wider community, or are most of the folks who come in affiliated with the university?
SS: If we look at the research side of things, we do have partnering with externals, and that can be people who are working on specific research projects themselves, people who have expertise that we want to buy in or collaborate with.
So in digital humanities work, in digital history, which is where I locate our research platform, you can’t always times compared to that within the university, just because in New Zealand we’re about 10, 15 years behind the thrust through North America and Europe. So we don’t have the skill space and we don’t have the density of people who have graduated through DH programs, because we only really have one in the country, and it’s not a fully rendered one. So we’re always looking outwards for expertise. Always looking out beyond the subject area and the individual faculty to alliances within the university.