It’s not always clear where the Zeitgeist ends and synchronicity kicks in, but Intellectual Affairs just got hit going and coming.
In last week’s column, we checked in on a professor who was struggling to clear his office of books. They had been piling up and possibly breeding at night. In particular, he said, he found that he seldom needed to read a monograph more than once. In a pinch, it would often be possible to relocate a given reference through a digital search – so why not pass the books along to graduate students? And so he did.
While getting ready to shoot that article into the Internet’s “series of tubes,” my editor also passed along a copy of “University Publishing in a Digital Age” – a report sponsored by Ithaka and JSTOR.
It was released late last week. On Thursday, IHE ran a detailed and informative article about the Ithaka Report, as I suppose it is bound to be known in due time. The groups that prepared the document propose the creation of “a powerful technology, service, and marketing platform that would serve as a catalyst for collaboration and shared capital investment in university-based publishing.”
Clearly this would be a vaster undertaking than JSTOR, even. The Ithaka Report may very well turn out to be a turning point in the recent history, not only of scholarly publishing, but of scholarship itself. And yet only a few people have commented on the proposal so far – a situation that appears, all things considered, very strange.
So, at the risk of being kind of pushy about it, let me put it this way: More or less everyone reading this column who has not already done so ought (as soon as humanly possible) to get up to speed on the Ithaka Report. I say that in spite of the fact that the authors of the report themselves don’t necessarily expect you to read it.
It’s natural to think of scholarship and publishing as separate enterprises. Each follows its own course – overlapping at some points but fundamentally distinct with respect to personnel and protocols. The preparation and intended audience for the Ithaka Report reflects that familiar division of things. It is based on surveys and interviews with (as it says) “press directors, librarians, provosts, and other university administrators.” But not – nota bene! -- with scholars. Which is no accident, because “this report,” says the report, “is not directed at them.”
The point bears stressing. But it’s not a failing, as such. Press directors and university librarians tend to have a macroscopic view of the scholarly public that academic specialists, for the most part do not. And it’s clear those preparing the report are informed about current discussions and developments within professional associations – e.g., those leading to the recent MLA statement on tenure and promotion.
But scholars can’t afford to ignore the Ithaka Report just because they were not consulted directly and are not directly addressed as part of its primary audience. On the contrary. It merits the widest possible attention among people doing academic research and writing.
The report calls for development of “shared electronic publishing infrastructure across universities to save costs, create scale, leverage expertise, innovate, extend the brand of US higher education, create an interlinked environment of information, and provide a robust alternative to commercial competitors.” (It sounds, in fact, something like AggAcad, except on steroids and with a billion dollars.)
The existence of such an infrastructure would condition not only the ability of scholars to publish their work, but how they do research. And in a way, it has already started to do so.
The professor interviewed for last week’s column decided to clear his shelves in part because he expected to be able to do digital searches to track down things he remembered reading. Without giving away too much of this professor’s identity away, I can state that he is not someone prone to fits of enthusiasm for every new gizmo that comes along. Nor does he work in a field of study where most of the secondary (let alone primary) literature is fully digitalized.
But he’s taking it as a given that for some aspects of his work, the existing digital infrastructure allows him to offload one of the costs of research. Office space being a limited resource, after all.
It’s not that online access creates a substitute for reading print-based publications. On my desk at the moment, for example, is a stack of pages printed out after a session of using Amazon’s Inside the Book feature. I’ll take them to the library and look some things up. The bookseller would of course prefer that we just hit the one-click, impulse-purchase button they have so thoughtfully provided; but so it goes. This kind of thing is normal now. It factors into how you do research, and so do a hundred other aspects of digital communication, large and small.
The implicit question now is whether such tools and trends will continue to develop in an environment overwhelmingly shaped by the needs and the initiatives of private companies. The report raises the possibility of an alternative: the creation of a publishing infrastructure designed specifically to meet the needs of the community of scholars.
Is this even possible? How public would it be? How accessible, for example, to professors and students at less richly endowed institutions? One of the striking things about the Ithaka Report is its explicit recognition that scholars increasingly have the ability to create their own networks of publication and distribution at appropriate scale. It notes the important "gray" zone of scholarly communication online -- the role now played by blogs, ad hoc document collections, and the pre-publication distribution of draft papers. What sorts of intellectual-property issues would be raised if such informal networks were assimilated to the proposed platform?
These seem like questions everyone should be discussing -- and will be, in due course. By all means have a look at IHE’s coverage of the Ithaka Report. But it’s also worth reading the text itself. Remember: you will be tested on this.
The ghost of Ronald Reagan haunts the American university. College campuses are widely supposed to be the bastions of shaggy liberalism, but the good people managing our higher education system have sometimes behaved as if they were possessed by the spirit of Reaganomics rather than the enlightened principles of humanism. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this vexation is their treatment of university presses.
As the gatekeepers of the peer review process in the humanities and many of the social sciences, university presses (along with equivalent journals in the biological and physical sciences) are supposed to ensure that only high-quality scholarship is published -- or at least that flawed research never sees the light of day. They are the foundation of the entire scholarly edifice. Yet, over the last three decades, American universities have frequently undermined their presses, displacing their dedication to scholarly values in favor of an incoherent amalgam of free-market ideas about competition and profit. Scholarly publishing in 2007 is a hollow shell of its former self. We now seem to be witnessing a merciful reversal of this trend at the 11th hour; but unless the reversal is made permanent, our system of scholarly communication will remain in terrible peril.
Those of us who work in books tend to see the early years of scholarly publishing as a kind of intellectual utopia. Universities subsidized not only the research and writing of books, but their publication, marketing, and -- through library budgets -- their purchase. Indeed, the viability of most university press books was largely assured on the basis of their library sales alone. It was an almost perfectly closed economic circle.
This benign socialist cycle functioned more or less unhindered from the creation of university presses around the turn of the 20th century until it was eroded by the flood of federal education dollars loosed by World War II. The influx of wartime cash accelerated the growth of existing fields and sparked the equally swift development of new ones. The cumulative result was the mega-university, with its sprawling campuses, big-budget research projects, and close ties to government agencies and corporate R&D units. Meanwhile, the G.I. Bill fueled enormous increases in student enrollments.
This convergence of forces taxed the capacity of the higher-education system as a whole, and the publication system in particular: Although presses flourished during the 1950s and ‘60s, the effort required to accommodate such rapid growth was quietly taking its toll. The strain of publishing the system’s vastly-increased output was compounded by a variety of wider social stresses: campus integration; anti-war protests; the emergence of new constituencies and consequent calls for curricular relevance. The 1970s piled on rising oil prices, historic rates of inflation, and growing unemployment. By the mid-1970s, the edifice was collapsing under its own weight. The volume of published output had increased beyond the absorptive capacity of publishers’ scholarly readership; while at the same time the market itself was shrinking, the result of severe cuts to university library budgets -- historically a significant consumer of academic books.
And then there was Reagan. With his election to the White House in 1980, Ronald Reagan -- who as governor of California had led the charge against his own state university system -- ushered in an ideology of tax cuts, reductions to government programs and private-sector gimmes that proved absolutely toxic to public universities. Some of the programmatic cuts came at the federal level: the research budgets of NOAA, NIST and the Department of Energy were slashed during his administration, for example, But these were hardly the main sources of government spending on higher education. The worse damage resulted from Reagan’s “federalist” devolution of spending burdens onto the states, the universities’ primary source of support. Program cuts and tuition increases became the norm -- and continue to be so to this day.
The erosion of public support was particularly devastating to the humanities and scholarly publishing, areas that did not benefit from Reagan’s increased defense spending and trickle-down tax cuts for the wealthy. Arriving at a large state university in the early 1980s, as I did, was like showing up at a house party after the last guests had staggered home. The streets were littered with burnt-out hippies and faded dreams.
And yet, for all this change -- seven decades of sweeping, perhaps even revolutionary transformation in American higher education -- university publishing in 1984 was almost indistinguishable from what it had been in 1920. Research methodologies had changed; cover art had become a bit more modish; but technical monographs were still very much the rule. Times had changed; but time had not changed the university press. Instead, presses’ once-admirable dedication to scholarship now appeared, against this shifting economic and cultural background, as an almost fatal resistance to evolutionary pressures.
By 1980, those pressures were finally becoming irresistible. Press revenues were sinking, while expenses were increasing. Many universities, alarmed by the collapse, were perhaps too quick to see the problem as something that could be solved on the open market.
Ten years passed. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Like the now-stilled Soviet factories, university presses had once benefited from a system of public subsidies that allowed them to produce their goods without regard for demand. Once the subsidies were eliminated, the rate of production quickly became unsustainable. It was shock therapy time, not just in Moscow and Magnitogorsk, but in the People’s Republics of Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison. Reagan had triumphed at home, as he supposedly had abroad. But both may have been Pyrrhic victories, as we are only now discovering.
At first glance, the defunding of presses seemed like a legitimate market correction: After all, if consumer demand for university press books was insufficient to support their publication, why should the presses be allowed to continue producing them at the same rate? To the onlooker unfamiliar with the history and inner workings of academic publishing, a university press looked a great deal like a New York trade house in miniature. Therefore, logic dictated, they should be just as capable of surviving on the open market. If Alfred Knopf could make money selling his titles, why couldn’t university presses do the same? Campus administrators found it very hard to defend what appeared, in this light, to be underperforming revenue centers. Over time, they began urging their presses to attend more closely to the bottom line.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking incorporated two critical fallacies:
1. A book is not a book is not a book. University presses were established out of a recognition that academic monographs were never going to be profitable. They were too technical, their audiences too small to support mass-market publication. Instead, the closed cycle (scholar as author, university as publisher, library as consumer) was supposed to subsidize work that was of significant intellectual and scientific value to a small but influential cadre of experts. In other words, university presses were specifically designed to produce a public good, exempt from market forces. The decision to defund presses was made without sufficient attention to this history, or the effect that disregarding it would have on the scholarly production of knowledge.
2. Even if all other things were equal -- which they weren’t -- commercial publishing faced serious problems of its own. Sales of individual titles were declining, fueling intense competition for readers. New market-research techniques were defining ever-narrower audiences and creating a Balkan nightmare of microgenres, from historical romance to religious self-help. Corporate media conglomerates were buying up old-line brands like Random House, Doubleday, and Simon & Schuster with an eye toward discarding their unprofitable divisions and extracting core value. High-prestige, low-revenue genres like literary fiction and serious non-fiction were often seconded in this process, or discarded altogether.
In short, university administrators were pushing their presses into the deep end of an empty pool. Monographs, once the pride of the industry, were now derided as money-losers (to this day university press editors disqualify commercially unpromising manuscripts on the grounds that they’re “too monographic”). Provosts and vice presidents for finance, dismayed by steadily shrinking revenues, imposed further cutbacks, slowly strangling their already-weakened charges. Embattled press directors were busy just trying to keep their organizations afloat.
Reagan had won a crucial battle in the culture wars, without ever firing a shot -- or even realizing that battle had been engaged. His unwitting campus allies had overlooked the relationship between the two basic contributions of university presses: their stewardship of peer review, which ensured the quality of new scholarly research; and their production of high-cost, low-sales technical monographs, which advanced the knowledge of small but influential fields of experts. These were public goods that no one could generate, absent a subsidy. But university leaders, instead of recognizing the inability of the market to properly value scholarly books, saddled their presses with a pair of contradictory missions: to produce the most advanced research for a small audience, while simultaneously earning their own way with at best a minimal subsidy. University administrators would be loath to admit as much, but somewhere the Gipper was probably smiling.
The market was, and still is, allowed to determine the relative publishability of many university press books. This has not worked out well, of course, and many host universities have quietly forgiven their presses’ debts over the years -- a tacit acknowledgment, perhaps, of the underlying paradox. But even this partial exposure to market forces has quietly, radically transformed the way the presses do business.
Press directors have, until recently, had relatively few options for resisting these pressures. Although they chafed at the suggestion that their presses should be self-sustaining, their arguments mostly fell on deaf ears. Many of them relented, embracing various plans to achieve financial independence. One of the most popular of these “solutions” was the generation of revenues from the publication of supposedly profitable genres (trade, regional, nature, cookbooks, fiction, or special-interest titles, such as the books about universities’ football and hockey teams that have done so well recently). These funds would then be used to subvene the publication of unprofitable monographs, thus reinstating some version of the closed cycle and allowing university presses to uphold their mission. But in a business where every new title, no matter how carefully crafted and market-tested, is an almost pure embodiment of risk, and where presses are still beholden to unrealistic financial expectations, university publishers have understandably continued to shun less-profitable scholarly texts.
The presses carry their share of the blame for this impasse. Few industry sectors in America are so antiquated in their practices, or so ill-informed about the market for their products, although this is now rapidly changing in the face of extreme pressure. Publishers are fond of reminding whoever will listen that books are not widgets: When you are rolling out 50 or 100 or 500 new titles a year, each appealing to a unique community of readers, it’s simply not possible, they claim, to conduct market research the way that Ford does for cars or Microsoft for software. Books are one of our most idiosyncratic goods: walk into a bookstore sometime, and try to figure out what makes you pick up one volume over another. Or log onto your favorite online bookseller’s site, and try to understand what makes you choose one of the almost 200,000 titles published every year. You will quickly appreciate that publishing books is like using the world’s largest shotgun to bag the world’s smallest songbird.
The presses are further hampered by chronic undercapitalization, and at least privately many directors blame their host institutions for their woes. I am fortunate, in that the University of Michigan (at whose press I was until recently employed) has been foresightful enough to invest in certain of its press’s key initiatives. But this is the exception that proves the rule. By subjecting presses to the whims of the market, while simultaneously insisting that they continue to publish their inherently unprofitable scholarly books, most American universities have forced their publishers into an untenable position. It is equally true that the directors of many of those presses have so far failed to creatively resist these expectations.
If the real value of university presses is their role as the stewards of peer review -- the rigorous scrutiny of research by qualified experts, and the publication of high-level scholarship for a specialized readership -- then profits, no matter what the preferred strategy to achieve them, should never be a presumptive goal. University presses are valuable when they make the very best research available to scholars and the world at large. Anything else they try to do will just leave them a pale imitation of the trade houses. HarperCollins will always outdo Cambridge in volume; Princeton can never match Random House in sales dollars; Norton’s social impact will inevitably transcend Chicago’s. Perhaps the simple answer is that we publish too much. But the stream of new books can’t stop as long as society and the tenure system demand new ideas and expertise. Reaganomics delivered a crippling blow to the socialist ideal of scholarly publishing, but the demand for human knowledge forces us to limp on.
Deus ex digita: The advent of digital technologies has made possible both process economies and more sophisticated and flexible publications, incorporating everything from blogs and wikis to streaming audio and video to user-driven GIS applications. But despite the enormous value that these new technologies offer to scholarly researchers, university presses have been exceptionally slow to adopt them. Although most presses now have reasonably functional, if not always terribly sophisticated, Web sites, very few offer their readers digital publications with capabilities much beyond the basic scrolling, search and print functions -- and this despite the fact that their host institutions are the acknowledged fonts of technological innovation. The recent Ithaka report laments this state of affairs, noting the rather haphazard nature of universities’ investments in their presses, and pressing for more aggressive -- and strategic investment in digital publication.
Why are we having this conversation now, so many years after the commercial media began moving into new-media ventures? Put simply, the presses’ struggle to survive on an open market to which their products were ill-adapted left them cash- and resource-poor. With the exception of a few of the wealthiest operations (e.g., Oxford), university presses have no venture capital, no institutionalized means for investing in next-generation media. This lack of resources is compounded by the current insufficiency of demand for digital publications. The presses have found themselves temporarily stranded: clinging with one hand to a raft of print books whose market value is steadily sinking, while grasping with the other hand for new technologies that bob, tantalizingly, just out of reach.
A number of savvy administrators and press directors have decided to reach for the digital lifeboat, despite the considerable risks involved. MIT Press is perhaps the best-known, but many others, including Michigan, are propounding coherent visions of the digital future. Sadly, even at the prototype stage some of these efforts have been hampered by the host institutions’ continued insistence on the presses’ self-sustenance. After all, a digital book is no more likely to make money than its print analog. Indeed, because of high opportunity costs and the difficulty of establishing the intellectual and professional legitimacy of digital publications, most early-stage efforts will be lucky to break even. The result is an odd paradox: despite the fact that everyone agrees in principle on the promise of digital media, university presses are not on the whole being equipped to move decisively into the digital domain. This was perhaps the main finding of the Ithaka report, and one of the reasons why press directors and university administrators have damned the report with faint praise, by lauding its clear assessment of the problem while, by implication, lamenting its failure to propose a practical solution.
If nothing is done, and soon, unrealistic financial requirements will distort our efforts to distribute scholarly information in digital media, much as they have long hampered our work in the ink-and-paper era. With intelligence and foresight, new technologies could enable university publishers to more effectively fulfill their core mission of vetting and publishing the best research. This effective use of new technologies requires an understanding that presses are not revenue centers, but an irreplaceable service to science and society. Conscientious university administrators are already recognizing this public good as being well worth the price. Hopefully their peers will follow suit. It’s time, in 2007, to lay Reagan’s ghost to rest.
James F. Reische
James F. Reische is a development writer at the University of Michigan; he was until recently senior executive editor at the University of Michigan Press.
Last month, a little bird told me that MIT Press was celebrating its 30th year with Roger Conover as executive editor. One day soon -- if we haven't reached that point already --the idea of anyone remaining at a single position for three decades (especially in the challenging field of academic publishing) will sound only slightly more credible than the mortality data recorded in the fifth chapter of Genesis.
But that wasn't what made me want to interview Conover on the occasion of this anniversary. In this reader's opinion, MIT Press produces some of the most interesting and visually appealing books to appear from an academic publisher each season. It stood to reason that the executive editor would have something to do with that.
Conover answered my questions by e-mail, assembled here into an interview. Given that the exchange took place amidst the usual chaos of holiday travel, we only had time for three rounds. But the discussion was plenty broad -- art, architecture, Cold War sensibility, Slovenian punk rock, and nuclear submarines, among other topics.
Q:Around the time you were joining MIT Press, I was a teenage science nerd. Whatever MIT books came my way then tended (if memory serves) to be titles on mathematics and computer science. Was that just a matter of being stuck in one part of the library? When did the emphasis on the visual arts begin? Were books in the arts and the humanities published by MIT Press before you started there?
A: MIT Press had a boutique list in architecture and design going back to the 1960s. This came about largely as a result of Muriel Cooper, the first art director of MIT Press and also the designer of our logo. Muriel was a pioneer in computational design and information graphics; she had already founded MIT's design services department, and would go on to found its Visible Language Workshop, a dynamic laboratory of interactive design within MIT's Media Lab. Some of the cornerstones of MIT's architecture list were in place before I got there.
I am convinced that Muriel's design had a lot to do with attracting authors like Robert Venturi, Herbert Muschamp, and Richard Saul Wurman to MIT Press in the first place. When you think of books like Hans Wingler's Bauhaus, Robert Venturi's and Denise Scott Brown's Learning from Las Vegas, Kevin Lynch's Image of the City and Site Planning, Paolo Portoghesi's Roma Barocca, and Steen Rasmussen's Experiencing Architecture, you get a sense that there was something pretty special going on here in the 1960s and 70s.
These are the books that attracted me to MIT Press, and Muriel was the person I worked with most closely when I first got there. We were natural allies, as I had come to MIT Press from the Architects' Collaborative, the firm that Walter Gropius had founded when he left the Bauhaus to teach at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. MIT Press had already published several books by Bauhaus authors before I arrived -- Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, and Josef Albers were all on the list. When the Bauhaus teachers left Germany and took up positions at places like Black Mountain, Yale, and Harvard, they needed a publisher, and MIT Press was the first one to pick up their work.
That was the part of MIT Press that I knew, and identified with, in the 1970s. So while my picture of the way things were at MIT Press in the 60s and 70s is not quite the same as yours, it's also true that those early architecture and design books were not part of any systematic acquisition program. I was the first editor MIT Press hired to develop a formal program in the visual arts, but I definitely was able to build on strengths that were already there, and to attract visual-minded authors because of the press's strong design department. In terms of my activities, architecture and design came first. Art and photography came later.
I think it's fair to say that MIT Press was the first university press to make a serious commitment to graphic design, as well as to architectural publishing. Thirty years later, there are more players, but the depth and longevity of MIT Press's commitment to design publishing and practice remains quite exceptional.
Q:Over the past few years, you've started publishing books by Slavoj ZIzek and his circle -- including a very interesting study of Neue Slowenische Kunst, the avant garde movement of which Zizek was, at one point, a kind of fellow traveler. (The rock band Laibach was also part of NSK.) I've heard that you had contact with this milieu for some time. How did that come about?
A: My response to that has more to do with ideas, politics, and place than people. My interest in the things you're asking about actually predates those references by quite a bit. I first went to East Berlin as a teenager -- on one of those "don't talk to anyone in the streets and be back in your hotel by dark" passes -- part of a 1960s cultural exchange program sponsored by a YMCA boys' camp, which I now understand was part of an American Cold War youth propaganda initiative.
Passing through Checkpoint Charlie and disappearing into the grey streets of Berlin was like stepping through a one-way mirror and looking back at your own world from the other side of paranoia. This was obviously long before I had ever heard of "hauntology," or read Derrida's Spectres of Marx, and it was also a long time before I would see the defensive bunkers that Enver Hoxha had erected all along the arid "Albanian Riviera"--the perfect reverse imaginary of our East-bearing submarines. But this experience was perhaps my first inkling of what theory was for, and of how writers like Andrei Codrescu and Slavoj Zizek, and artists like Mladen Stilinovic and the Irwin group, would later matter to me.
But I'd like to go back even further, to explain how Eastern Europe first insinuated itself as an idea and a desire. Growing up outside of New London, Connecticut, the home of the U.S. submarine base, the Millstone power plant, General Dynamics Electric Boat, Pfizer, the Coast Guard Academy, and the Underwater Sound Lab, I was raised on the fantasy that when the Russians attacked, we would be the first target after the Pentagon. This was always mentioned with a kind of pride, as a point of honor: New London County was of concern to the Kremlin.
I don't remember exactly when I figured out that the bomb was probably not going to be dropped on us, but I know that I registered that realization with mixed feelings. There was an element of letdown as well as relief in reprieve. So much thought and investment had gone into the preparation. The idea of that my best friend's basement, which had been made into a bomb shelter, was never going to be used -- it seemed a waste.
And all those class trips on the nuclear subs -- didn't the sailors have better things to do than show their missiles to us schoolkids? When the sirens blasted, did it always have to be just another air raid drill? And all those practical toys we had grown up with: ham radios, periscopes, gas masks, Atomic Disintegrator cap pistols -- weren't we ever going to be able to show the enemy we knew how to use them?
In a more serious sense, I think the long-deferred assault of post-Stalinist firepower on American space, the long-anticipated invasion, has finally begun to take place, and that the books you refer to are one of the manifestations. I guess you could say that my wish finally produced something; or, as Zizek would say, that I am finally enjoying my long-festering symptom.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I started traveling intensely through the countries that were fast on their way to becoming the former Communist bloc. I wanted to meet the artists, writers, and philosophers whose work had influenced the political changes that were taking place, and whose projects had had so much to do with critiquing a system that was now being replaced. Some of these individuals and groups were already beginning to look critically at another system, one that was still new to them, and that they had not had much experience with, but that their training and instincts equipped them to view with strategic distance -- the Western art market and global capital economy.
I was also interested in Collectivity -- how it functioned both as a social reality and as artistic practice. And yes, one of the art collectives I came in contact with early on was NSK. I first heard about them from Obrad Savic, a Serbian philosopher who was very active in anti-Milosevic, anti-Serbian nationalist circles, and one of the founders of the Belgrade Circle. I had met Savic on one of his lecture trips to the US, and when he heard I was going to former Yugoslavia, he hooked me up with some of his philosopher and artist friends in places like Sarajevo, Ljubljana, Belgrade, Pristina, Skopje, and Zagreb.
That's how I first met NSK, and first heard of Slavoj Zizek. You are right that Zizek came out of the same milieu. When he published his first book with MIT Press in 1991 ( Looking Awry), he was just another Slovenian philosopher. His biggest claim to fame in those days was that he had made a bid for (and lost) the presidency of Slovenia in 1990.
Q:Would you please discuss the MIT's history with October? For readers who aren't familiar with it, the best way to describe the journal would be to call it the switching center where cultural theory and the art world cross paths. But there's something rather severe about its design and inscruitible about its functioning. (If somebody published a memoir about how the inside of that particular Kremlin operated, I'd definitely want to read it.) How did it come to MIT Press? And how has it being there influenced your acquisitions?
A: The history has a history. If you look at the first four issues of October, you will see a largely forgotten detail. On the copyright page it says: "published by the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and distributed by Jaap Rietman."
Jaap Rietman was a bookseller in NYC, and a friend of Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, two of the founding editors. (Trivia question: Who was the third founding editor, now an L.A. based artist and critic? Non-trivia question, for the memoir you want to read: who was Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and why did he leave after three issues?).
Anyway, "distribution by Jaap Reitman" meant Jaap sold the journal in his store in Soho, Manhattan. But "published by the IAUS" meant something else. The IAUS was the architectural discourse laboratory co-founded by Peter Eisenman, Kenneth Frampton, and Mario Gandelsonas in 1972; they were also the founding editors of its house organ, Oppositions, a journal of largely European neorationalist and modernist tendencies devoted to the theory and criticism of architecture. Oppositions was initially published by Wittenborn; in 1976, it moved over to MIT Press.
A few years later, we launched a series of books giving fuller play to the ideas and writers introduced in the journal. Oppositions Books was the model and the precedent for October Books, the series we later launched, and still co-publish, with October. The IAUS was one of the places I cut my editorial teeth; I was initially hired to acquire architecture books for MIT Press, and there no was better place to meet the players, hear the voices, and listen to architectural ideas being debated in those days than the IAUS.
I met many people there whom I would later publish, or work with, many of whom are still collaborators. Rosalind Krauss was one of them. I met her in 1977; at that time, the IAUS was still October's institutional host, but a year later, Oppositions and October were both being published by MIT Press. Krauss was already an MIT Press author at that time. Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith was published by MIT in 1971 (Krauss taught art history at MIT from 1967-1971).
In 1984, the IAUS, Oppositions, and Oppositions Books abruptly folded. But the intellectual force that Oppositions exerted soon led Michael Hays to launch a new journal, Assemblage; Assemblage ran for another 10 years; then it elegantly suicided, announcing its intention to do so, and giving its reasons in advance. Basically, Michael had accomplished what he set out to. It was time for a new generation to take over. Out of Assemblage's editorial ashes rose Grey Room.
Oppositions has been gone for almost 25 years now, but it still acts as an intergenerational force and intellectual spark in a way that many living journals do not. Oppositions went 26 issues. October is now up to 122. In their founding editorial, October's editors referred to "a number of isolated and archaic enterprises" that had "sustained a division between critical discourse and significant artistic practice" [and had] "encouraged the growth of a new philistinism within the intellectual community."
Citing Partisan Review as one of their negative examples, October's editors set their course: " October's strong theoretical emphasis will be mediated by its consideration of present artistic practice." Partisan Review, the journal that began by advocating the culturally revolutionary values of modernism and holding up Trotsky as a redemptive model for American proletariat culture, petered on for another 20 years. By the time it was officially put to rest in 2003, it had become the enemy it had once warned its readers against -- one more voice of neoconservatism defending "standards" in art and culture. It's necessary to think critically about duration, especially if you are a journal, the very idea of which is time-based. Journals, by definition, are about being replaced.
October's founding editors were breakaway editors from Artforum, and breakaway thinkers from their elders. I am glad that October is part of my professional history. I have learned a great deal from that project. The way I became aware of it -- through architecture -- is what first led me to start acquiring books in art -- through architecture. I wouldn't say, beyond that, that my list has much to do with their politic. Their editorial exercise is rigorous, and it is one of the things that challenges me to stay fit. I know I feel an obligation and desire to work some art muscles that they don't, especially because we are perceived to work out of the same gym, the MIT gym. It would not be good for the field if our games were the same, and if there was no tension in the relationship.
I am very aware that observations like yours -- putting Kremlin next to their name -- are becoming more frequent, and are meant to raise questions about power and practice. I can also imagine that it's flattering to be called the Kremlin when you are just the old administration. Personally, I hope I am knocked out of the ring by a young buck or have the sense to get out long before I am offered such compliments.
What will it take to make essays the standard of achievement once again in the scholarly world? This is not where we are: Books are the gold standard for tenure in most of the humanities and some of the social sciences, so much so that journal articles almost don’t even count. As august a figure as Helen Vendler assured me recently that essays could never replace books as a basis for tenuring junior colleagues. So, in departments of English as on Wall Street, counting is all that counts. “It’s the bottom line, stupid.” Countability is the thing whereby you’ll catch the conscience of the dean, as a friend of Hamlet might advise the young Danish assistant professor or the young Shakespeare scholar. Articles don’t make a thumping sound when you drop them on a table the way a body might in Six Feet Under.
I have claimed elsewhere (subscription required) that the book-for-tenure system is coming to an end, that it is unsustainable, that its growth has been an obscenity, because it was mindless, because it sought to make something automatic and machine-like play the role that should only be played by the soul. Please excuse my antiquated language: The “soul,” I remind you, is that faculty of the human body whose juices are made to flow by the exercise of judging myself whether something is of merit. In earlier publications I have charged that professors have been seeking to dodge the one activity that is most essential to their own development when they outsource tenure decisions to bureaucracies and counting replaces reading as the central job of tenure committees, because in that situation content goes by the by. Personally, for me as a publisher, the situation that has arisen is sad beyond endurance. I believe the contents of the books I publish matter. I am not selling milk, which does sustain life, but is homogenized by comparison to book. In fact, milk’s the very definition of homogenized. Each of the books I publish is different.
Books are the standard now, and for me to ask you to think that the future will feature the renaissance of journals and the replacement of the book by the essay might seem crazy. (You should know that it does not seem crazy to many of the leading university press publishers.) My suggestion is not crazy; it’s utopian. We don’t live in that world I am asking you to imagine, the world in which essays are the norm, but if we were to imagine that world could exist even for a second, how might seeing things that way cause us to change what we are doing?
We need to slow down, and remember that the essay has been the main form for humanistic discourse. The book is an outlier. Many of the writings that changed the direction a scholarly community was marching toward were essays. Think of Edward Said’s “Abecedarium Culturae” or Paul de Man’s “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” to stay in recent history and not begin, as I easily could, an epic catalog from Montaigne’s “De l’amitie” onwards. Some of the most important books are collections of essays, sometimes assembled with no pretence to forging a unity of them, such as John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. One could give many examples.
There is no good reason why the essay should not replace the book, and a lot of good reasons why it should. I am tempted to say -- in order to be maximally provocative -- that anyone who publishes a book within six years of earning a Ph.D. should be denied tenure. The chances a person at that stage can have published something worth chopping that many trees down is unlikely. I ask you: How are you preparing for the future that could be yours and mine? We -- I mean the world in general -- don’t need a lot of bad writing. We need some great writing. “Pump Up the Volume” has been the watchword in the scholarly world and in America long before that movie with Christian Slater came out. “Don’t Believe the Hype” somehow got twisted into “Believe the Hype” along the way, too. Totally.
The big problem that afflicts the humanities in the United States is not a problem of quantity. Yes, I know, some politicians ridicule university administrators who retain on their staff professors who produce so little by way of income, student-credit hours served, and publications. The newspapers said that U.S. troops could “walk tall again” after conquering Granada. Will professors be able to walk tall again if they produce tall heaps of publications on the scale of manufactured goods coming out of the factories in Suzhou? (If you don’t know where Suzhou is, look it up. It’ll do you good. You are going to want to know in fewer years than you can imagine.)
No, the productivity problem of professors in the U.S. is not one of quantity, but quality. (Same is actually the case in China, too.) I recently got a book proposal that I decided to look at closely rather than reject it summarily as I knew it deserved. It consisted of a welter of confusing sentences. It was contemporary, very up-to-date, located right where the profession is. And the scholar, though young, was very accomplished in the way the world judges achievement, a dozen or more fellowships, a book from a major press, tenure too at a respectable university. But the views in the proposal were those manufactured by others and the linking of them in the proposal had no coherence, and the problem was manifest in the clumsy writing. Who had ever read anything by this young scholar seriously before, I wondered?
Has social passing come to grad school? A friend teaches in a clinic to help people from 3 to thrice 20 to remedy problems of speaking and reading. I have been curious about the stories she tells me of people in their 50s confident enough about their personal success in life to address what used to be a source of deep embarrassment -- the fact that although they could talk like a college grad they could not read better than a second-grader. It takes great self-acceptance to go to the clinic at that age and confess you cannot read and to be taught the things little kids learn.
One of the chief explanations these learners give for how it was they got by for so long without learning the basics of reading is social passing, the decision of teachers to ignore what it is they think they cannot deal with. Imagine an air-traffic controller ignoring some slight intimation a plane is going off course? You cannot, but you know that Captain Delano in Benito Cereno stifled his worries that something was amiss on the San Dominick. Problem too big for me to solve. “I’m a mere fourth grade teacher. I cannot remedy such a huge problem. The system is so much bigger than me or this kid. The principal will be angry if classes get clotted up with the unfortunate. Pass.” So a person might say to themselves privately. Are professors in grad school saying such things to themselves now? I am sure most of them are not, but some must be. Otherwise how did this person get this far writing like this? This person is not alone.
In his Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly lambasted Joseph Addison, co-founder of the journal The Spectator because he was “an apologist for the New Bourgeoisie.” The problem: Addison wrote playfully and unapologetically about nothing, casting a smokescreen in front of his readers. Addison is like Zizek. If Zizek is a success -- and you know he is -- the consequences are worrisome. The kids who flock to see him might try to write like him. In fact, if the elders present Zizek as a star speaker, then what is a kid to think? If this stuff flies, my prose -- a young scholar might reasonably say -- can crawl and stumble and I can become a superstar of theory, too.
I believe sometime in the dark backward and abysm of time, when Zizek was closer to Hegel and Lacan, he must have been a good expositor of the thinking of Lacan, but he is not now. He’s an entertainer, an ersatz version of real explorers like Derrida and Umberto Eco. People used to complain bitterly about the way Derrida, DeMan, Deleuze wrote. Such people’s problem was that they did not pause to read what newly emergent scholars wrote. Derrida and the others wrote perfectly well. Their sentences were difficult to read, perhaps, but they parsed. It is different with Zizek. The torrent that flows from him is like (to go to a realm he’s visited to criticize someone else and very unfairly, too, I might add) a toilet overflowing.
As one critic of his writes, “He does not develop a clear-cut idea, nor does he structure a book around a definable topic. His proofs are mostly introduced with an ‘of course,’ or ‘it is clear why’. He delivers what his fans want -- razzamatazz.” Pascal wrote, “A maker of witticisms, a bad character” ( Pensees, p 12). Let me give a sentence of his to be concrete: The first sentence of the Preface of his new book For They Know Not What They Do is: “There are philosophical books, minor classics even, which are widely known and referred to, although practically no one has read them page by page (John Rawls's Theory of Justice, for example, or Robert Brandom's Making It Explicit) -- a nice example of interpassivity, where some figure of the Other is supposed to do the reading for us.” First of all, even if you accept the Lacan-lingo (“other”), what could the made-up word “interpassivity” mean? And why would I want to know when, second, the sentence in which it occurs is a lie, not a clever one, but a stupid one. Almost 300,000 people have bought the Rawls and the reading of it was so important to enough of them that they have kept their copies of the book, so the used book market is not swamped with copies. And Brandom has nowhere like the same sales, but his book is an international sales success. Remember the “blancmange” skit in Monty Python? Zizek’s writing is “blanc-et-noir mange.” It was a style. Eliot complained the West was but a heap of broken images. Zizek, in this still a Soviet sympathizer, wants like Kruschev to bury us in the heap of his verbiage. It’s not fun anymore, if it ever was. Beware, Mr Zizek, Connolly also says that “one can fool the public about a book but the public will store up resentment in proportion to its folly.” Words suffer under the whip of such a taskmaster.
If words lose out, so do we all: We are in danger of losing our souls, our backbones, our bearings. We are in danger of losing the civilization that was created in the West in the Renaissance. Until I’d read Ingrid Rowland’s book on 16th century Rome, the Rome of Raphael, I had not known about what I’ll call “the Renaissance of the sentence.” I’d lived in Florence when I decided to study the Italian Renaissance, and I’d gotten a very concrete sense of the how, what, when of the Renaissance of architecture at Santo Spirito. I knew about the Renaissance of narrative plotting from immersing myself in Ariosto and Milton and seeing the debate about plotting over Tasso. But the Renaissance of the Sentence -- it had never occurred to me. Hadn’t the monks kept the art of the sentence alive through the Dark Ages? Short answer: No.
Ingrid Rowland recounts how Angelo Colocci (aka “Serafino Aquilano”) pioneered the transformation of writing in vernacular Italian. No longer was it revolutionary to use the vernacular instead of Latin; no, revolutionary was using the vernacular with rhythm, with passion. The point of writing in such a way was because it unleashed a power one could have using word to “unlock the emotions through a combination of words and music.” To write in this way was to have style, what Colocci called “modo.” Sure, one could write about sexy topics in the vernacular, as shown by the author of Hypnerotomochia Poliphili, one of the most famous books of the Renaissance, but the results were not sexy, because the Italian was in a ponderously Latinate style. Sexy sentences got to have rhythm. As Rowland wonderfully describes what I, not she, call the Renaissance of the Sentence, (but my description owes all to her interpretation of the historical record), Castiglione wrote in a manner that “set standards for vernacular style: like the building blocks of a classical temple, the subordinate clauses interlock, one after another, to construct the sonorous bulk of Castiglione’s monumental run-on sentences.” Castiglione brings “epic muscularity” of Michelangelo’s sculpture into sentence construction. The writers of the Renaissance had figured out what made Ancient writing click, and they’d found a way to do it on their own.
What I’m saying is that the first step to re-establishing the essay as the standard in humanistic writing is to reinvigorate the sentences we write, so that, when one reads an essay, one feels it. One feels it the way one tastes -- and here I’m going global -- a good curry. It really sets you back. Or maybe forward. Style, maniera, modo is what we readers demand. The humanists of the Renaissance knew the Romans had the ability to put sentences that had concinnitas, but that their ancestors in what we call the Middle Ages had lost that ability. When the Ancients constructed the Arch of Constantine, it stayed together for centuries, even though neglected. Concinnity -- what a splendid word!
It seems to me that when bad styling of sentences became accepted, we got used to it. We compensated for the lack of quality and impact of the sentences that people wrote as evidence of their scholarly abilities by asking them for more of them in the hopes we could get the same buzz going that we used to get from fewer sentences. Last year I ran a panel at the Modern Language Association on “Slow Reading,” and today I’m advocating slow writing. Editors are in the position to make this change take place.
Now, I can hear you saying: Who am I to think I can turn the academic world around?
I suggest that what we in scholarly publishing -- books and journals -- need to do is to simultaneously go down-market and upscale. I am also an editor for a journal, a member of the editorial board of the Duke University Press journal boundary 2. We decided to change our policies to deal with a whole set of changes that have beset the academic world since 1989. Before I talk about the specifics of the changes in policy, I ask you to step back to take in the bigger picture. It’s important to see our moment in historical perspective from the Oil Crisis of 1973-4, which had a profound effect on university libraries, until 1989-2001. Because of the oil crisis of the early 70s, librarians cut back drastically on purchasing books but maintained journal subscriptions. As a result some publishers decided they could raise prices on serials with impunity. It was license to print money. The result radically distorted university library budgets.
After September 11th the universities finally decided they could reduce purchases of journals as much as they’d cut back on books. I’m talking about general trends. Of course, there are exceptions to what I’m saying. The development of electronic forms of publication provided the justification for the cutbacks. There was a sense that if a library switched its purchasing to electronic media, it was not really cutting back, because there were alternative avenues for publication. This was partly true, but in the meantime, there was a growing sense that educators needed to be policed better and given measuring sticks for productivity. Thus, the demand for books increased even at the time the budgets for purchasing books were slashed. And libraries were appropriately looking for opportunities to cut subscriptions to print journals that were perceived as unnecessary.
Journal editors felt the need to rethink what they were doing to make themselves seem more essential, less cuttable. In the meantime, the good intellectual and academic times that ran from the late 60s were over. The wonderful flowering of new theories in almost every field of academic endeavor had run their course. In literary studies, for example, the great excitement of theory had mutated into the police state tactics of the New Historicism that in fact often focussed on policing, setting rules, enforcing market conditions. So it was not a time for developing new journals and readers’ interests were waning. When people did not understand de Man and Foucault, there was interest in essays by scholars telling readers they’d finally come to understand these gurus of the postmodern, but this sort of thing gets stale. It got really stale. And we found our pages filling with careerists eager to add another line to the cv. Jonathan Arac, one of the lead editors of boundary 2, describes the new policy for acquisitions for the journal in these simple terms: We decided to serve our readers more than our contributors. Paul Bove summarizes the changes in the journal editorial policy as consisting of four criteria:
1. ordinary language, not jargon 2. essays first, scholarly articles second 3. application of the “cui bono?” test to all submissions 4. contents of journal must educate the readers and serve the audience, not the careers of the writers
We must, he said to me, appeal to the curiosity of the reader and recover the right to use the word “stupid” as a judgment call.
A journal, hopefully, stretches on and on. Editorial principles will change if the journal stays as flexible and fluid as the sentences that we hope will appear in it. It should be structured to make the needs of the readers primary, those needs as imagined by the editors in an act of empathy and political responsibility. How could one set up a journal or any publication where essays were being gathered in order to make them command respect. We have some work to do on this at boundary 2, but we are trying to demand more of ourselves in order to give more to readers.
I am involved in a project now where the essay is the monarch, where we have set up editorial procedures to push us, the editors, to publish the best essays, and that is my book, forthcoming in Fall 2009, called The New Literary History of the United States, whose chief editors are Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. In publishing it’s always about how to rig things for the best results, knowing there’s going to be a lot of resistance coming in from every which way.. The book depends on the chief editors and the members of the editorial board leaning on the best people they know to contribute. But having done that, how can you be demanding? Beggars can be choosers, I say!! We set up the editorial procedures to make sure the personal loyalty of the editors to contributors doesn’t interfere with the loyalty of the publication to its readers. I’ve been through this twice before with the French and German literary histories in 1989 and 2004, but I think we’ve improved things! Working with my chief editors who have each had a lot of experience editing the work of others, we set the editorial procedures up to fight the lazy writing habits that have entered the academic world over the last decades.
When Edward Said predicted the decline of writing by professors in the early 1980s, I did not believe him; but he was right and I was wrong. A lot of bad habits developed, and now they are protected by power by those who write poorly who have now risen in rank as a result of what I called “social passing” in educational levels above the primary and secondary schools. We had fights and had to have emergency meetings of the board for Hollier’s New History of French Literature because, although Hollier was demanding and so were we at Harvard University Press, some members of the board did not think we had the right to make professors revise to the degree that every page would be readable.
What an outrage! I remember the would-be contributor whom we were demanding more of who said “But I’ve written the perfect New Historicist, feminist, deconstructionist essay. You dare not tamper with my very self and voice. And we dared not tell Professor Polonius that he did not have any writing voice at all. You cannot be comical-pastoral-tragical (I am playing on what Polonius says at Hamlet 2.2.397.) and speak in any tongue in which humans have spoken. We nearly turned down an entry by one of the chief editors of that book. With the Marcus/Sollors I confess to having stacked things towards readability by making one of the founding editors of Rolling Stone be one of the two editors-in-chief of the volume. Guilty as charged. The way I have set up the Marcus/Sollors is all around the essay. The book is a collection of 220 essays that resonate in surprising ways so that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts, but each individual part is a free-standing essay.In the making of this book I have pursued the essay so strongly that I have made it function in a new way like an individual instrument in Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
If we want change to happen so that essays become the norm of scholarly publication for tenure for junior people, then we will have to make it happen. It is in our power, but it will not happen unless we make a concerted effort. We need to make changes in our journals, as I described we did with boundary 2 and the Marcus/Sollors. . We need to do what we might fear will be dumbing down our publications by insisting upon clearer language set forth in rhythmical sentence. The reason for the persistence of gobbledy-gook is that it’s a lot easier to hide mediocre thinking under the cloak of gobbledy-gook. If we insist upon clarity, we will miss those moments of professional “stuplimity” (to use my dear author Sianne Ngai’s word) caused by the deep unclarity of the sort we get from Zizek. But we’ll win back readers. We want to publish writings people will talk about.
The real, dirty secret of academic publishing, as a daring author of a letter to the editor of Nature had the courage to say, is that it’s too easy to get published nowadays: “Let’s admit it . . . one can publish just about anything if one goes low enough down the list of impact factors,” wrote Vladimir Svetlov of the Department of Microbiogology at Ohio State University. There are procedures for refereeing and they make some difference in an international context (this is going to be a bigger and bigger issue in the years to come), but those procedures don’t in and of themselves guarantee anything. In fact, where I hear people talk the most about journals edited according to international standards for refereeing, it often attached to mediocre publications and is a reason for excluding from counting towards one’s record publication in essays it is almost impossible to get into because they have their own, very high standards, like Critical Inquiry.
A good journal has a direction, a mission and scholarly goals. The for-profit publishers know how to set up a journal that gets credibility in the most facile way possible. It has become harder to make money from journals since September 11th. The old tricks won’t work, but the authorities in the universities have not adjusted to them and in some way they feed into them, feed into the undermining of scholarly standards. The profit motive undermines true credibility of many scholarly journals. I have been clipping the articles from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers that document the assault on the authority of scholarly journals by a number of for-profit operations. It has become a lot more dangerous to edit a scholarly journal, especially in the medical sciences where there is big money to lose when the claims for a Big Pharma product are contested by a scientist. I have a big sheaf of such essays gathered over the last three years. All this would be bad enough were it not that papers like the Wall Street Journal also run essays by -- what is the right word for it? -- people like Professor Thomas P. Stossel of the Harvard Medical School saying that scholarly journals “are magazines,” no better than the magazines you find in the grocery store with no more authority than such publications. The pull-quote from the essay reads: “Why are scientific journals regarded with such reverence?” This shameful screed was meant to undermine scholarly journals. To say the least such talk is of no help in the effort I am encouraging to bring more authority back to the scholarly journal.
We live at a time when I can see that a whole series of great developments are emerging in philosophy, literary studies, and other fields. We are on the verge of great things, and they are apparent in a number of articles appearing in journals and some of the projects have developed far enough to merit publication in book form. But these are also desperate times for many, a time of uncertainty and false prophets. Now, Mr. Zizek is about to be shut up by a whole set of people who are tired of hearing him blab his mouth. About time! But, look, it’s America: There are still a lot of snake oil salemen ready to try to convince you that up is down. Beware! As we prepare for the next thirty years we need to refind our foundations, to re-establish learning on the best foundations, and the best one of all is the sentence that the Renaissance reinvigorated. A sentence is not like a laundry line on which we pin words so they can flap in the wind. No, a sentence “is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.”
Will the Internet, will Google destroy the scholarly journal? Will blogs spell the end of little magazines? I hope not. Look at N + 1. There’s no authority in being disseminated by the Internet in and of itself. As Benjamin wrote of technology, it is is a force for good and ill; all depends on humans subordinating the tool to human needs. The iron we smelt we can use to make railway tracks that bring us together and movie cameras we use to make art that brings us together. Or that metal can be made into bullets and bombers. It is up to us. The tools don’t determine our course. That’s why we have to go back to fundamentals, to the sentence, to judgment -- it’s no surprise those words can mean the same thing -- to reassure others, and more importantly,ourselves that what we do is essential. Against the bluster and braggadocio of a Zizek and so many other boastful denizens of the Roaring Nineties, let us affect the modesty that seems to be endemic to the essay!
Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities at the Harvard University Press. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave at the meeting of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, held in December at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. His Enemies of Promise came out from Prickly Paradigm Press in 2004, and then from State University Press of Sao Paolo in 2006 and will come out from Editions Allia in Paris in 2008 and from Commercial Press in Beijing in 2009.
For all that they are seen as bastions of knowledge and unfettered flow of information, colleges and universities are not typically known for welcoming rigorous scrutiny of themselves. They often have love-hate relationships with the journalists who cover them.
So imagine my surprise in 2002 when R. Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri’s Journalism School, asked me, an investigative reporter on its faculty, to write an institutional history of the school, the world’s first and arguably best, to commemorate its centennial.
The offer felt like an attractive one -- he agreed to pay a sum commensurate with what a New York City book publisher would pay for a trade title found in the country’s major bookstores, and had lined up the University of Missouri Press, a first-rate academic press, to publish it. Still, I said no -- I was under contract to write a trade book, I did not think I could handle a second book project at the same time, and the idea of an institutional history sounded potentially boring. But the dean demonstrated persistence. Each month that passed, the money became increasingly appealing, in part because my advance from the trade publisher had long since run out.
I was sure, though, that my unshakeable demand -- complete editorial independence – would cause the dean to draw back. I was wrong. When he agreed to that condition, I said yes, despite my reservations.
You have it right: Mills chose the person most experienced at unearthing skeletons, digging up dirt, (substitute your own cliché, if you like), to tell his institution’s history. Was he crazy, or gutsy, or what?
Protected by my written promise of complete editorial independence, I began digging -- er, researching. What happened over the next five years surprised me, a veteran of seven trade books, over and over.
Surprise Number One: The secrets hidden in archives. As an investigative reporter, I am accustomed to being stonewalled when I seek information from government agencies, private sector corporations and even not-for-profits such as charities. Yes, I had used archives before, so I grasped their importance. That said, what I found at the University of Missouri archives astounded me at times. The dedicated, skilled archivists delivered box after box to the table where I was taking notes. They never withheld folders, never inquired about my motives, never complained about the voluminous nature of my requests.
Inside the boxes I found revealing information about journalism school programs (including budget increases and cuts) as well as documents about faculty, staff and students, many of them still living. Negotiations preceding faculty hires, disciplinary panels, tenure and promotion applications and votes – all there for my consumption.
Surprise Number Two: The prickly questions of self-censorship I faced. Access to sensitive files meant potential invasions of privacy if I decided to publish what I found. As an investigative reporter writing in the omniscient third person, I worry about invasions of privacy infrequently. A story important to a broad readership must usually trump concern about an individual. That formulation might sound heartless, but those uncomfortable with it should never become investigative reporters.
I felt differently as the chronicler of the journalism school’s history. My name would appear as author, but I did not consider the book so much “mine” as I did “ours,” with me representing current and former faculty, staff and students. I understood from the start that lots of folks constituting “ours” wanted me to produce an upbeat centennial history rather than an expose. As a result, I discussed only the tenure and promotion controversies necessary to document themes, such as the troubles faculty at what is partly a vocational school encounter when being judged for tenure/promotion by a campus-wide committee of Ph.D.s in biology, physics and history.
Not all the self-censorship puzzlements arose from archival material. For example, I knew from my decades at the school of faculty on faculty extramarital affairs; faculty on staff extramarital affairs; and faculty members who began romantic liaisons with students. How to handle those, especially because at least a few affected the educational atmosphere within the school? I considered writing about the impact of some affairs without naming names. But that would have violated my personal ban on anonymous sources and subjects. Furthermore, failing to name names would have cast a shadow on the uninvolved. For better or worse (probably worse), I omitted all such sexual liaisons from the book, except for rumors involving the founding dean and a student, rumors that had been published previously. That student became a faculty member, as well as the dean’s second wife after he spent years as a widower.
Surprise Number Three: Examining my biases. I arrived at the University of Missouri in 1966 as a student. I graduated from the journalism school in 1970. In 1978, I joined the faculty, eventually became a full professor with tenure, and continue to teach there part-time. That means for more than 40 years I have known many of the people mentioned in the book. I never pretended to put aside all biases. I devote more paragraphs than some other author might to my mentors. I devote more paragraphs than other authors would to Investigative Reporters and Editors, a professional group with headquarters at the journalism school; I served as executive director of IRE from 1983-1990, and still serve as an editor on IRE’s magazine. I did my best to avoid score settling, but probably failed to erase or even hide all my negative reactions to certain individuals. In the preface, I warn readers: “When I possess firsthand knowledge of people and occurrences, I have allowed that knowledge to inform the narrative. I am acutely aware that my firsthand knowledge is open to interpretation by others with different values and vantage points.”
Surprise Number Four: The dilemmas of context. The journalism school has been home to ugly episodes of racism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia and ageism. I worried about slamming the journalism school for such behavior when the same ugliness permeated the entire university (the first African-American faculty member did not arrive until 1969), city, county, state and nation. I eventually decided to cover a few of the most significant ugly incidents in depth, and omit the rest.
Well, the book is generally available now (press.umsystem.edu). Its main title is The Journalism of Humanity, part of a quotation from the founding dean Walter Williams, who, by the way, never attended college but eventually became the University of Missouri’s president. The subtitle is “A Candid History of the World’s First Journalism School.” I believe the word “candid” is accurate, despite what I omitted.
Imagine what would need to happen for university presses to return to what was once, long ago, their virtually exclusive mission: the publication of scholarly monographs intended for restricted, indeed sometimes infinitesimal, audiences. It would require more changes than the mind can readily picture.
Libraries would need to have bigger budgets. The costs of printing and distribution would have to deflate. Chain bookstores, apart from paying for their inventory up front, must agree never to return books to publishers. And that’s just for starters. Professors, while cultivating an interest in fields well outside their own, ought to buy more books. Graduate students would be given generous stipends earmarked for building up their own collections.
Also, while we’re at it, everyone should get a pony.
But reality, which tends to be pony-free, has long compelled university presses to split their catalogs ever more sharply between specialized works and commodities designed for a wider market. Occasionally, though, a new title hits that sweet spot somewhere in between. In a column earlier this month, I began scanning the fall lists for possible “crossovers” -- books that might reach an audience beyond the ivory tower. Here are a few more possibilities.
Half the effort involves guessing what the public’s appetite might crave. Over the past few years, some university presses have been quite literal on that score. Hence the emergence of something called “food studies” -- a trend that will no doubt culminate, one of these days, in an endowed chair in Cookbook Theory.
For the moment, at least, the United Nations has declared 2008 to be the Year of the Potato, making it very timely that the University of Wisconsin Press is bringing out Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, by Dirk Burhans. Scheduled for November, it promises to uncover the “dark side of potato chip history,” according to the catalog. Alas, its purview does not extend to an analysis of Funyuns, which have always struck me as far more sinister. (See this phenomenological description.)
Another, still more stomach-churning exposé is due from Princeton University Press, which is publishing Bee Wilson’s Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, in October. It provides a survey of how foods and beverages have been “padded, diluted, contaminated substituted, mislabeled, misnamed, or otherwise faked” throughout history. Of any academic book published this fall, Swindled has the best chance of inspiring a really horrific documentary.
A more comforting prospect seems to be Maria Balinska’s The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, due from Yale University Press in September. This cultural history begins in 17th century Poland and ends, I’m guessing, in your grocer’s freezer – though if you think that’s a bagel, you don’t know bagels. As if to confirm that a bona fide trend is emerging within the field of food studies, Balinska’s narrative, too, has its darker side: an account of “the Bagel Bakers’ Local 388 Union of the 1960s and the attentions of the mob.”
If the Association of American University Presses gave an award for best subtitle -- which, by the way, it really should -- this fall’s strongest candidate would be Marion Nestle’s Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, out in September from the University of California Press. The book “uncovers unexpected connections among the food supplies for pets, farm animal, and people,” according to the catalog, “and identifies glaring gaps in the global oversight of food safety.”
Another appetite that always generates attention, academic and otherwise, is that of the libido. Not long ago I complained that a recent series about the history of the sexual revolution might have benefited from the involvement of scholars who actually knew something about the matter. (Instead, the producers filled out the show with commentary by fifth-rate demi-celebrities.) Clearly, though, this is an area where stirring up popular interest is not too difficult. The crossover appeal of books on the subject is obvious.
The one scholar to appear on that program was Linda Williams, whose new book Screening Sex is forthcoming from Duke University Press in November. Moving between personal recollections of how she responded to particular films and in-depth cultural and historical analysis, Williams begins with cinematic representations of the kiss -- though the book becomes considerably less chaste in very short order. Larry Flynt used to do jail time for publishing things less explicit than some of the movie stills in this book.
Even more startling for most people, though, will be Steven Marcus’s classic The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. First published in 1966, it will be reissued by Transaction in September with a new introduction by the author. This is not a book to read just because Foucault alluded to it in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, or even because Marcus was doing cultural studies well before anybody was calling it that. All duly noted, of course. But The Other Victorians is fascinating in its own right -- a riveting look at how Victorian smut reconciled desire and anxiety in a vision of insatiable excess that Marcus calls “pornotopia.”
Every so often, we learn that a politician or famous clergyman, or even the occasional provost, has carved out his own little niche for pornotopian bliss. Some of those figures recover from having their walks on the wild side exposed (Bill Clinton for example) and some do not (what is Mark Foley doing these days?) In The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America, due from Princeton University Press in October, Susan Wise Bauer analyzes what works and what doesn't. Evidently "a type of confession that arose among nineteenth-century evangelicals has today become the required form for any public admission of wrongdoing.” This book should probably be bound in loose-leaf format, thereby permitting frequent updates.
If all else fails, plead behavioral compulsion. Leading disability-studies scholar Lennard J. Davis’s Obsession: A History, appearing in November from the University of Chicago Press, traces how behaviors once understood as the result of demonic possession were transformed into symptoms of a medical condition -- one with a “huge increase (estimates up to 600-fold) in diagnosis” over the past three decades.
Another condition that is diagnosed ever more frequently, autism, is the subject of two books due out this fall. In Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure (Columbia University Press, September), Paul A. Offit, a physician and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, “recounts the history of autism research and the exploitation of this tragic condition by advocates and zealots” who champion dubious theories and quack cures. The philosophical implications of the disorder are considered by Deborah R. Barnbaum in The Ethics of Autism: Among Them, But Not of Them (Indiana University Press, November). The disconnection between the autistic individual and other people raises questions about both the nature of consciousness itself and the possibilities of moral understanding among those with the condition.
Health-care reform is bound to be on the national agenda once George Bush is safely out of power. In October, Harvard University Press will publish Harold S. Luft’s Total Cure: The Antidote to the Health Care Crisis, offering a “comprehensive new proposal” the author dubs SecureChoice. The details cannot be quite grasped on the basis of the catalog description. But once SecureChoice is established, it seems, things will be just about perfect. All of us will be happy -- doctors, patients, drug companies, everybody. Well, good luck with that....
This survey of the fall's potential breakthrough books has been quick, dirty, provisional, impressionistic, and by no means complete. The point bears admission, if only in the vain hope of mollifying any publicist inclined to write a letter of complaint. Your press's exciting new cultural history of guacamole clearly deserved mention. I feel your pain. But variety was the intent here, and not exhaustiveness.
As a matter of fact, there is at my elbow a list of other forthcoming titles that, while of less interest to the nonacademic book buyer perhaps, do merit notice in this column. We’ll consider many of them here in months to come.
Meanwhile, your roving correspondent will soon be headed to the Association of American University Presses annual meeting, held in Montreal later this month. Here’s hoping any Intellectual Affairs readers who plan to attend will say hello. The life of a professional bookworm has its pleasures -- but conversation is good, too.
It can be a frightening time to be in the publishing business. The economic mechanisms that support the reproduction and distribution of information in print have been disrupted by the economics of digital media. The newspaper industry provides just one example. As Eric Alterman pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, “In the Internet Age,… no one has figured out how to rescue the newspaper in the United States or abroad.” Print circulation is at its lowest level since records have been kept and online revenue from advertising and subscriptions are nowhere close to making up for those declines. It is well known that journals and scholarly presses are also struggling to adapt their business models.
At the same time that established publishing organizations are struggling, more and more academics and academic organizations are attempting to enter digital publishing. They are digitizing new content daily, developing new software tools, and collecting new data. Naturally, the creators of these online academic resources (OARs) wish to make them broadly available and to ensure their continued availability and currency.
These new digital resources have generally been created from one-time grant funding or short-term commitments of resources. However, unlike a printed book, digital resources require continued investment. The software systems and platforms on which they depend must be upgraded and kept current. It is the nature of digital resources to be continually growing and changing, attracting new content, and rapidly cycling through revisions and additions.
Increasingly, therefore, foundations, government agencies and universities are asking where they will find the recurring funding to sustain these online resources over time. They are requiring the leaders of such projects to develop sustainability plans that include ongoing sources of revenue; in short, they are looking for academics to act as publishing entrepreneurs. Success in such endeavors requires entrepreneurial expertise and discipline, but in our experience at Ithaka, few OAR projects employ fundamental principles of project planning and management. Why don’t they?
What we have observed is that deep cultural differences separate the scholarly mindset from the mindset of the e-entrepreneur. Most people overseeing online academic resources are scholars, raised in the academy, accustomed to its collegial culture and deliberative pace, shielded from traditional market forces. However, the rapid changes and ruthless competitive landscape of the Internet require a different mindset. The challenge for a successful OAR project leader is to marry the scholarly values essential to the project’s intellectual integrity with the entrepreneurial values necessary for its survival in the Internet economy.
To assist project leaders in successfully managing digital enterprises, Ithaka embarked on a project to study the major challenges to the sustainability of these online academic resources. Working with support from the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Strategic Content Alliance, we interviewed a range of people both in the academy and industry. During that effort, the fruits of which were published last week, we identified several aspects of the entrepreneurial approach that seem particularly important to creating sustainable digital projects:
1. Grants are for start-up, not sustainability. Most often, project leaders should regard initial funding as precisely that -- start-up funding to help the project develop other reliable, recurring and diverse sources of support. The prevailing assumption that there will be a new influx of grant funding when the existing round runs out is counter-productive to building a sustainable approach. There are exceptions to this assertion -- for example, if a grantee offers a service that is vital to a foundation’s mission or is exclusively serving an important programmatic focus of the funder -- but these cases are unusual.
2. Cost recovery is not sufficient: growth is necessary. Project leaders need to adopt a broader definition of “sustainability” that encompasses more than covering operating costs. The Web environment is evolving rapidly and relentlessly. It is incorrect to assume that, once the initial digitization effort is finished and content is up on the Web, the costs of maintaining a resource will drop to zero or nearly zero. Projects need to generate surplus revenue for ongoing reinvestment in their content and/or technology if they are to thrive.
3. Value is determined by impact. OAR project leaders tend to underestimate the importance of thinking about demand and impact and the connections between those elements and support from key stake holders. The scholarly reluctance to think in terms of “marketing” is a formula for invisibility on the Internet. Without a strategic understanding of the market place, it is only through serendipity that a resource will attract users and have an impact on a significant population or field of academic endeavor. And of course, attracting users is essential for garnering support from a variety of stake holders: host universities, philanthropies and government agencies, corporate sponsors and advertisers. The most promising and successful online resource projects are demand driven and strive for visibility, traffic and impact.
4. Projects should think in terms of building scale through partnerships, collaborations, mergers and even acquisitions. Project leaders need to consider a range of options for long-term governance. Start-ups in the private sector, for example, aim for independent profitability but they also consider it a success to merge with complementary businesses or to sell their companies to a larger enterprise with the means to carry those assets forward. Not-for-profit projects should think similarly about their options and pursue different forms of sustainability based on their particular strengths, their competition, and their spheres of activity. Given the high fixed costs of the online environment, collaborations and mergers are critical for helping single online academic resource projects keep their costs down and improve chances for sustainability.
5. In a competitive world, strategic planning is imperative. In the highly competitive environment of the Web, project leaders must embrace the best operating practices of their competitors -- a group that includes commercial enterprises -- for mindshare and resources. That means they will have to act strategically, develop marketing plans, seek out strategic partnerships, understand their competitive environment, and identify and measure themselves against clear goals and objectives for how they will accomplish their missions successfully and affordably. An academic disdain for “commercialism” can doom many a promising scholarly project to failure on the Internet.
Historically, academic projects have been shielded from commercial pressures, in part by funders, but mainly because their economic environment operated independently from other areas of commerce. This separation between the “academic” and “commercial” economies is no longer meaningful. The project leaders that are most likely to succeed in today’s digital environment are those who can operate successfully under the pressures of competition and accountability, and in the messiness of innovation and continual reinvention.
6. Flexibility, nimbleness, and responsiveness are key. OARs need to develop the capability for rapid cycles of experimentation (“fail early and often”), rather than spending years attempting to build the optimal resource in isolation from the market. Unfortunately, many OARs are structurally set up to do the latter – their grants commit them to promised courses of action for several years and tie them to specific deliverables. Leaders of online academic resources may not realize that many funders would prefer nimbleness if it means that the OARs will have a greater impact. Funders, for their part, must recognize that multi-year plans need to be highly flexible to allow for adaptation to new developments in technology and the marketplace.
7. Dedicated and fully accountable leadership is essential. Running a start-up – and developing an online academic resource is running a start-up – is a full-time job requiring full-time leadership. The “principal investigator” model, in which an individual divides her time among a variety of research grants, teaching assignments, and other responsibilities, is not conducive to entrepreneurial success. New initiatives aiming for sustainability require fully dedicated, fully invested, and intensely focused leadership. If a principal investigator cannot provide it, he or she will have to retain a very capable person who can.
If new digital academic resources are going to survive in the increasingly competitive online environment, the academy needs a better understanding of the challenges of managing what are essentially digital publishing enterprises. Leaders and supporters of these projects must orient themselves to an entrepreneurial mindset and embrace principles of effective management. If they are unable to do that, important resources serving smaller scholarly disciplines will disappear, leaving only those projects that are commercially viable.
Kevin M. Guthrie
Kevin M. Guthrie is president of Ithaka, a nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for higher education. From 1995 to 2003, he was the founding president of JSTOR.
The late Jean Baudrillard – postmodern theorist and, in his day, major brand-name cash cow in the world of academic publishing – used to speculate about how technological objects were enacting their revenge upon us. But something else seemed to be happening at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, in Montreal late last week.
The audience would wait patiently as someone at the podium typed on a laptop, cuing a video clip appropriate to some theme. And then – nothing. YouTube seemed to be boycotting the proceedings. During another session, the speaker ran through important arguments as supporting evidence was projected, via PowerPoint slides, on a giant screen. But so were periodic bursts of static ... ripples from the cyber-ether ... digital burps. (Which, like the corporal sort, punctuate a lecture in ways that don't improves your concentration.)
It felt less like revenge than aloof indifference to puny human wishes. And don’t think that the humans aren’t noticing. In the course of numerous interviews and off-the-record chats, I got an earful about how people at university presses really feel about their new-media overlords.
Over the past few years, a certain boilerplate rhetoric has emerged about the need for university presses boldly to face the challenges of the information technology -- the better to seize the exciting new opportunities thus created, yadda yadda yadda. But beneath all the digital platitudes, one detects a growing frustration. The tone of discontent is usually pretty muted. Few people want to be known as Luddites. But after a while, they just don’t want to hear about any more “exciting new opportunities” – least of all given the state of one’s budget. The menu of existing options is more than sufficient, thanks very much.
And while the Ithaka Report stirred up a fair bit of discussion when it appeared almost a year ago, an informal survey of AAUP attendees suggests that its affect on the academic-publishing agenda has been very unevenly distributed.
The report urged scholarly publishers and university libraries to work together to resolve the contradictions in the established system for producing and distributing monographs. Why issue a specialized work with a potential audience of hundreds, at most, in an extremely expensive hardback that takes a big bite out of the library’s budget? Would it not make sense to create a new digital publishing platform (basically, JSTOR on steroids) permitting wider circulation of a monograph at much lower cost?
As a conversation-starter in Montreal, I would to ask people how the Ithaka Report had influenced decision-making at their presses over the past year.
Some answered along the following lines: "The Ithaka Report is an incredibly important document that we all discussed when it appeared. [Pause] What was it about, again?”
A few responded that yes, they were now publishing e-books. Some mentioned that they knew that academic titles were now selling in Kindle-ready format.
As for the Ithakan vision of some vast new architecture that would revolutionize the publishing and dissemination of scholarly material ... well, it just did not loom on their horizon. You couldn't blame them. They had more urgent concerns. There is enough to do just getting the books ready for each season’s catalog while trying to squeeze a dollar out of 83 cents.
On the other hand, a portion of the AAUP membership is trying to follow the Ithaka recommendation to cultivate a closer relationship with the librarians on their campuses.
“We started meeting with them a couple of months ago,” said James McCoy, the marketing and sales director for the University of Iowa Press. “Librarians have a sense of how the products we publish are going to be used. In general they tend to be much more in touch than we are with emerging trends in information technology. We’ve become aware of things like the Charleston Conference and have learned a lot by reading Against the Grain.”
McCoy was not the first person in Montreal to cite the annual conference on books and serials acquisition, held in Charleston, S.C, each November. (An informal gathering of librarians and other bookpeople, it is not sponsored an organization.) I had never heard the Charleston Conference mentioned at a previous AAUP meetings, but this time it was mentioned during panels as well as in less formal discussions. The Charlestonian journalAgainst the Grain describes itself as “your key to the latest news about libraries, publishers, book jobbers, and subscription agents.” It, too, was referred to by numerous people in Montreal as a must-read for anyone in academic publishing who wants a glimpse of how their colleagues across campus are discussing the new information tools.
Mark Saunders, director of marketing for the University of Virginia Press, told me that he and his colleagues had been having monthly meetings with UVa’s librarians for “about a year...to talk about sharing hardware and software and to increase awareness of complimentary programs we have underway.” The press and the library also now share an IT person. “This is all happening from the bottom up," he said, "rather than as some kind of high-level initiative.” It was not so much a matter of being inspired by the Ithaka Report itself as “continuing and deepening what we’ve already been doing.”
James Peltz, an acquisitions editor for the State University of New York Press, says that members of the press are meeting with librarians from the SUNY system. He said there was a “five-year plan” to create the SUNY Center for Scholarly Communication.
Not quite clear whether this was an ironic allusion to Soviet economic models or a literal prospect, I later got in touch with Gary Dunham, the executive director for SUNY Press. He passed along a memorandum on the "series of far-reaching organizational changes," beginning this year, that "will incrementally transform the book publisher" into "a digital and print-on-demand publishing research portal tailored to the specific needs of the vast SUNY system and also geared toward disseminating research in targeted fields of research elsewhere." It will do so through "a shared digital platform." This is not just in the spirit of the Ithaka Report, but sounds pretty close to the letter.
Some panels in Montreal addressed ways to promote paper-and-ink books via digital means. A panel on “New Media for Scholarly Publishers” focused on one medium in particular as having important potential: online video. Participants emphasized the decreasing cost of digital movie cameras and editing equipment, the growing distribution of the skills required for using them, and the rapidly expanding segment of the public that regularly watches video on the internet.
This was persuasive in spite of the gremlins. The audience did at least get to see a Princeton University Press clip of Henry Frankfurt discussing the peculiar susceptibilities to bullshit of the highly educated. Panelists and members of the audience suggested that a press could build a “studio” from scratch for under ten thousand dollars. A ready pool of camera operators and video editors is there to be tapped by any university with a radio-television-film program. (And even, I suspect, by schools without one. By now there are probably Amish teenagers who want to direct.)
Two sessions were devoted to “Selling to Libraries,” of which I managed to attend one. An interesting point made in passing was that while university librarians are meticulous about strengthening their collections on the basis of reviews printed in scholarly journals, online reviews such as those at H-NET are having a strong influence on the market.
And if the price of video production is going down, the expense of publishing and mailing each season’s catalogs is headed in the opposite direction. Nor is it clear that such catalogs are especially useful to those in charge of building collections. While reviewers and retailers think in terms of publishing seasons, librarians don’t. (Instead, they find subject listings much more useful.)
Either way, it sounds like a matter of time before printed catalogs begin being phased out in favor of something e-formatted. In fact, the last couple of catalogs from the University of Georgia Press have arrived by email in just such fashion. Such a change can be easily justified (or rationalized, if you prefer) by reference to “green” concerns or economic realities, or both.
Returning home from Montreal to my cubicle, I gazed at the stacks of Fall ‘08 catalogs and wondered if it might be a good idea to box them up for sale to collectors on e-Bay a few years from now.
By the morning of the final day of the conference, it seemed as if there were a disconnection between the question I had been asking everyone (what do you think of the Itkaka Report?) and the discussions during the scheduled panels. At the sessions I attended, the report was never mentioned.
The important exception came a bit later, during lunch, when incoming AAUP president Alex Holzman, director of Temple University Press, cited the Ithaka Report in his first speech to the association. But this was in passing, and his talk did not sound particularly gung-ho about the exciting new opportunities of the digital age.
Rather, he noted the “air of worry over the coming financial year” and stressed the need to defend the particular and irreplaceable role that university presses played in scholarly life. (Holzman also announced that the coming year would see an extensive reappraisal and reform of the association’s committee structure. More on this as it develops.)
Only upon running into Sue Havlish, the marketing director for Vanderbilt University Press, could I start to put the pieces of the conference together. This was the second time I have had the benefit of an audience with Sue at an AAUP conference. The experience is to be recommended. Much that was subtly evaded by others, she nailed down in sentence.
What did she think of the Ithaka Report? Havlish didn’t just answer that question; she helped connect what, to an outsider, looked only like unrelated dots.
The report’s proposal of a comprehensive new publishing platform “is the 800 pound gorilla in the room,” she said. “Nobody wants to look at the gorilla because we’re all scared of it. Some librarians think that putting a text in a repository is ‘publishing’ it. There’s a fear of our role as publishers being subsumed by the libraries.But I still want – and I think most people still want – a book that been edited, that’s been shaped into something and marketed to me by a publisher that I’ve heard of already.”
Havlish discussed how university presses take a manuscript and transform it into a finished product. She started to use the term “value added” before catching herself. She refused to use management-speak. The issues could be better expressed in ordinary language.
“We’re afraid that people are going to forget that there’s a difference between publishing something and just printing it,” she told me. “You need somebody to separate the wheat from the chaff, because it’s the wheat you want.”
And then she put her own critique in context: “Of course everything I’m saying may be go with being able to remember a time when gas was at 98 cents a gallon.”
Quite so, given the ripple effects of fuel prices on production and distribution costs for non-digital books. (Now there’s a hideous expression.) Many changes in the relationship between technology and publishing are going to be decided, not through visionary planning, but by bottom lines.
“With the economy shaping up as it seems to be,” Havlish said, “we’re going to see a 15 year leap in publishing in the next two years.” This was not- - as it once might have seemed -- a profession of optimism.
Lynn Worsham, editor of JAC, a quarterly journal of rhetoric, writing, culture, and politics, recently wrote a helpful essay offering suggestions to professors to help them navigate the peer review process and have articles published in their field. It was so helpful, in fact, that I passed it out to our students who are thinking about one day entering into the disciplinary conversation. However, what I found missing from it was what we professors would like to see from editors and peer reviewers. As we are expected to follow some written and unwritten rules, editors and readers should be reminded of a few ideas, as well.
First, most professors I talk to about this issue complain a good deal about the amount of time it takes for them to hear back from editors and readers. Many of us know that the problem often lies in the hands of the peer reviewers, as we have been readers at one time or another ourselves. However, when we are the readers, we seem to forget about the professors at the other end of the submission process, so it only bothers us when we are the ones doing the submitting. There are times, though, where editors and readers are simply not holding up their end of the bargain by returning a decision in a timely fashion. If professors wait over a year for a response, their progress toward tenure is severely affected, especially if they actually honor some journals’ requests for not submitting the same article to various journals simultaneously.
What can make this matter even worse is when professors have to keep track of which journals have responded to the articles they’ve submitted so that they can remind the editor of the submissions. I have encountered and heard stories of editors simply ignoring e-mail queries about where one’s manuscript is in the process. Time that we have to take to investigate where we stand in the process is time away from the research we should be doing to keep up with our discipline.
Next, editors should also follow the rules that they set for us writers. For those journals that still require hard copies of submissions, a self-addressed stamped envelope is almost always requested (and should be sent anyway, as most professors know, though some choose to ignore that knowledge). However, I have had several journals send rejection notices via e-mail and keep the stamped envelope. This practice is a minor inconvenience, of course, especially for those of us who do not have to pay our own postage. However, for graduate students and part-time faculty, those mailing expenses can add up, and every stamp that is not used simply adds to the cost of submission. Just as professors’ not numbering pages correctly or not quite following the correct formatting is a reflection of their inattention to details, editors’ not following their own rules reflects poorly on the journal and its staff.
The last and most important issue when it comes to editors’ and readers’ responses to professors, though, is the tone of the response. Those of us who are engaged in academic discourse know that readers will disagree with our arguments, and we know that editors will decide, for whatever reason, that our submissions should not be published in their journals. However, that does not give them license to insult either our work or us. In speaking to friends and colleagues, we all have horror stories about responses from editors and readers that are nothing more than ad hominem attacks or a dismissal of ideas because of the readers’ particular view of a work.
This type of response can be especially problematic for graduate students and professors just beginning in a field. When I was in graduate school, I submitted an essay on Edith Wharton to a journal. The essay was the best one I had ever written, as far as I could tell, and I was eager to begin participating in what I hoped would be my future discipline. I attended a college, though, where professors never discussed publishing, so I had no knowledge of it before I entered graduate school. Not surprisingly, the journal turned down the essay and rightly so, as it was certainly not the caliber of writing that editors should expect. However, the response has stuck with me for years, as the reader simply wrote, “This is a good essay, for an undergraduate.” When I tell that to most people, they are surprised that I stayed in the profession and that I ever submitted anything again.
As professors we are not afraid of a healthy debate about ideas, and we seek honest feedback on our work. However, insults, whether directed at those ideas or at us personally, have no place in the critical debate. We would never allow our students to write essays using some of the responses I have seen from readers, nor would we write those comments on our students’ papers. Instead, we would tell them to focus on the ideas of the critics, as we focus on the ideas our students present in their essays. We put aside our personal feelings about the students and try to truly engage the ideas in and of themselves.
What professors truly want is constructive feedback that will make them better writers, thinkers and researchers. If, especially in our early days, we have somehow overlooked a seminal work (or a work that a reader at least believes is seminal), or have faulty logic, then, please, tell us so, but do so in an effort to make us and, therefore, the discipline, stronger.
I have had several wonderful editors help me take an article that was not fully formed and change it into one that they and I could be proud of, simply by asking a few questions or making one or two truly helpful suggestions. One editor simply suggested looking at two or three sources; only one of them turned out to be helpful, but that one led me to turn a few-page opinion piece into a full-length article that went beyond a scope I could have imagined. When I submitted a book manuscript to a university press, I received a rejection letter that was a page and a half long, and, to be honest, it stung. However, after reflecting on the comments, I revised the manuscript, adding enough material to lengthen it by a third, then had another press pick it up.
We do not expect to be coddled, but we do expect to be treated decently and to have our efforts dealt with respectfully. In the same way that editors and readers wish to be treated as professionals who have guidelines that writers should follow, so, too, do professors wish to be treated as ones who are trying to make a contribution to our disciplines.
Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University. His forthcoming book, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels (Kennesaw State University Press), will be published this year.
In the January issue of The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press, tries to imagine a world in which "the well-wrought, slowly gestated essay" has replaced the monograph as the gold standard for scholarship in the humanities.
Some of his argument seems familiar. For one thing, Waters tried out an earlier version as a keynote address to the Council of Editors of Learned Journals when they met at MLA in 2007, where I heard it. For another thing, one idea in it came from me: the daydream of a world in which people would be penalized for publishing too much and too early in their careers. This is among the most cherished of my crackpot ideas. By now Waters has doubtless been subjected to some variation of it at lunch, probably more than once.
Of course there would be occasions when some wunderkind had so many ideas that brisk and frequent publication became a matter of urgent necessity. But that would be rare. A strictly enforced set of proscriptions would add excitement to things. Picking up a book or journal, you would know that it had involved some risk. Scholars might begin to publish pseudonymously, if they felt it was absolutely urgent to get a piece of research out. The spirit of adventure would probably be good for people's prose as well.
Well, someone has to draw up the floor plans for utopia. I found the page proofs of Waters's article while trying to clear my desktop before the start of the new administration. (Emphasis on "trying.") The title of the essay is "Slow Writing; or, Getting Off the Book Standard: What Can Journal Editors Do?" Another version ran as a Views piece here at Inside Higher Edlast year -- and if you missed it, as I did at the time, I'd recommend a look.
The alternative to utopia is not pretty, but a lot more probable.
The fundamental problem with the approach that Waters takes in his essay -- and in his little book Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship (University of Chicago Press, 2004) -- is that it overlooks the essentially compulsive nature of the human urge to produce and accumulate garbage. Waters seems to assume that the production of badly written monographs is an unfortunate failing of the system that could be fixed if different standards were adopted. But this is wrong.
The system works just fine. Unreadable works are unreadable precisely because nobody was ever supposed to read them in the first place. Communication is not the point; accumulation is. The producer of text accumulates credit for publication, while the glory of an ambitious research collection is that it is complete, whether or not any given work is used. The beauty of e-publishing is that it reduces the amount of physical space required to store all the unread material.
As it happens, all of this was predicted almost 50 years ago by Hal Draper, a figure best known (at least among people who know this kind of thing) for numerous definitive works in the field of Marxology. Draper also translated literary works by Goethe and Heinrich Heine, and wrote a widely circulated book about the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. I've heard that when the Sixties catchphrase "Don't trust anyone over the age of thirty" first caught on in Berkeley, people sometimes added "except for Hal Draper."
Draper's day job was as an acquisitions librarian at the University of California at Berkeley. His experience inspired him to write a short story called "MS Fnd in a Lbry," first published in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1961 and currently available online.
The anthropologist from Andromeda who narrates this piece of library-science fiction reconstructs the efforts of civilization to handle the accumulation of books generated as it spread throughout the galaxy. Libraries the size of a solar system were not enough to handle the human urge to churn out books. After billions of years of accumulation, a technological breakthrough allowed all of the material to be stored, in subatomic format, in a single drawer. Not to give too much away, but it isn't always easy to remember where you filed things.