Slackwater to be Discontinued?

The term slackwater is a nautical term, referring to the calm, glassy waters of the time when the tide is changing from coming in to going out. It’s a fitting title, then, for a scholarly journal that documents an area in transition; St. Mary’s County straddles the line between rural and suburban, and with the scientific advances of the naval base, between the technological future and the past. Slackwater the journal was originally conceived in the mid-1980s as the “Southern Maryland Documentation Project,” and in 1998 the first volume was published in its current form. The issue, which revolved around St. George Island, was the first of six editions that dealt with prominent issues that affected the county including the transitional period of the 1960s, tobacco, and the upcoming issue on rights, edited by senior Kyle McGrath.

Originally, former Professor of English Andrea Hammer headed the publication and for the last three issues she was able to procure a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Hammer and the students collected oral histories in the county and published them until 2004 when Hammer left for Cornell. At Hammer’s request, Professor of Anthropology Julie King stepped in, though King had also been involved in the journal under Hammer. “I loved the idea of Slackwater because I love this community. I think it’s the most fascinating and interesting community anywhere,” King said.

McGrath, who is a double major in English and Anthropology, found Slackwater to be the “perfect bridge” between his two interests. Since the spring of 2010, McGrath has been working on the current issue as his St. Mary’s Project and has contributed three articles as well as an editor’s introduction. The other components to the issue are contributed almost entirely by students in photo and cultural journalism classes.

According to King, the previous volumes of the journal have been accepted very well in the community, both at the College and elsewhere. Every time an issue is about to be published the bookstore is inundated with calls, King said. Now, in the wake of finishing the seventh issue, funds are almost non-existent. The journal was able to scrape enough grant money to publish the most recent issue, “and then the Mellon money runs out,” King said.

King understands that the economy is weak now and agrees that the College has to start prioritizing. Additionally, Slackwater is not a cheap journal; it’s published on very heavy, expensive paper and the publication, which is very time and labor-intensive, is very high-end. The question, then, is where Slackwater falls in the College’s priorities.

President Joseph Urgo formed a task force which met in February and which is preparing a report on Slackwater for his consideration. The task force consists of archivist Katherine Ryner, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of the Core Curriculum and Advising Program Ruth Feingold, Professor of Biology Chris Tanner, former principal of George Washington Carver Elementary School Janice Walthour, and mother of alumni and retired journalist Viki Volk.

King believes that the task force will be able to reveal aspects of Slackwater that are vital to the community. At the bottom, King said, Slackwater is an academic project, not a “feel-good” publication, with hard and disturbing pieces, as well as hopeful ones. As a community document, Slackwater functions as a collaborative exercise, and King’s dream is that the journal will have contributions by students, faculty, and community members.

McGrath, who also believes in documenting the county through Slackwater, is aware of the possibility of not receiving funding. As a Student Government Association senator, McGrath realizes that the College is discussing funding cuts for many programs and previous expenditures. The funding for the Terrified Pedestrian Bike Shop, for instance, was cut because it was perceived as stagnant, and though the Bike Shop has recently been funded for three more semesters, Slackwater is an expensive publication.

Currently, southern Maryland including St. Mary’s County, is the fastest growing region in the state, and Slackwater helps to document not only the present and the future, but also the past. Because of the traditional audience of Slackwater, any considerations of using a new, cheaper medium for the journal (such as the internet) usually result in sharply divided opinions. McGrath said that a digital format would not be effective because “folks in the community, watermen – [they’re] not carrying around Kindles … Slackwater lives or dies by its current form.” Additonally, Slackwater’s specific aesthetic and clean look could be compromised if the project became entirely internet-based. “The look has to be maintained to honor stories,” said King.

Though grants are still a possibility for funding, King said grant money would just “prolong the agony,” because eventually the grant would just run out again. Thus, the question of funding, which was originally posed in 2004, is unresolved. In the end, King said, the next step is contingent on priorities. If the benefits and contributions of Slackwater are deemed to be worthy, money will have to be found somewhere. King is confident in the advantages of the publication, though, explaining that whenever she brings Slackwater to other schools, she immediately runs out of them. “[Slackwater is] the envy of other institutions,” King said.

Additionally, King cites the value online archives. There are transcriptions of interviews with community members, some of whom have passed away, from decades ago. From this issue alone, McGrath has several hours of recorded interviews for his three articles.

In the end, McGrath thinks that there are more efficient cuts to be made, as Slackwater is “one of the ties to the community.” Many students don’t know much about the area, and McGrath is always surprised at the lack of knowledge. King agrees that Slackwater is a very important project because the journal reveals the the complexities of the community and the region. Without funding, though, Slackwater can’t continue. “I’m very hopeful that we will find a way to see it forward,” King said, “but I’m also not 100 percent confident.”


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