The Modern Language Association’s recent report from its Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion offers an opportunity to review some of our commonly accepted notions about the role of research in the definition of faculty productivity. The report is worth the considerable effort required to read through its 100 pages of survey data, evaluations, prescriptions and recommendations. Most of us will find its conclusion about tenure reassuring: The rate of tenure acquisition for tenure-track faculty is high and stable. We may be less sure about the significance of its findings about the growing number of non-tenure track faculty (part and full-time) in our institutions.
More interesting, however, is the extensive discussion of the nature of scholarly productivity. The MLA task force clearly struggled with this issue, and it is this struggle that makes the report so interesting. The report explicitly addresses what it calls the gold standard of the research monograph, which means a book length, usually single author publication that presents original research to an expert public, frequently through the medium of a university press. The report worries that this method places too restrictive a burden on young faculty, devalues the research-based article, and may result in overlong articles being presented as books. University tenure committees, the report indicates, may be off-loading the responsibility for evaluating research onto the editors and reviewers of university presses. At the same time, the report’s surveys do not yet support a conclusion that the current method of evaluating research has disadvantaged young scholars in the tenure process.
One of the great strengths of the MLA task force report is its effort to distinguish among different types of institutions, recognizing that the importance of research publication for tenure varies significantly by type of institution and that the patterns of evaluation that characterize the top research universities tend to propagate to other institutions with different missions. The report endorses the well-known case for redefining scholarship to include activities in addition to original research -- editorial work, translations, bibliographies, textbooks, essays, pedagogical writings and even exceptional classroom teaching. Although this is not a topic easily resolved, the common expectations that drive this research focused behavior warrant a closer look.
Departments in colleges and universities, where most of the critical decisions about tenure and promotion are made, reflect the goals and expectations of their scholarly guilds (in the case of the modern language departments, these scholarly guilds are represented by the MLA). These guilds, while they speak expansively about broadening the definition of research to include other forms of scholarship, tend to focus their attention on the rarest of academic talents. Original research appearing in scholarly monographs published by university presses is valued because it is difficult to produce and therefore rare.
College and university prestige (whether established by ranking organizations or popular culture) rest on the acquisition of the individuals capable of producing these rare and difficult works on a constant and consistent basis. The best universities in the world have the highest number of faculty capable of producing works of original research. This is not restricted to the guilds associated with the MLA, although the MLA report is a wonderful testimony to the process. Even as the report argues for the expansion of the definition of scholarship to include many other activities not precisely defined by original published research, it reinforces our understanding of the high prestige associated with the original research publication.
Many commentators worry about the increased competitiveness of colleges and universities, each institution seeking to purchase for higher and higher prices a greater share of the limited supply of high quality students and research capable faculty. Yet the marketplaces that support universities -- parents, students, faculty, legislators, donors, funding agencies, corporations -- all express a strong preference for the presence of these rare talents in academic settings. The issue for academics is not really whether faculty members should develop a broad portfolio of accomplishments in teaching, scholarship of all kinds, public service and civic engagement. Rather, the issue is whether universities can avoid concentrating on identifying and acquiring faculty whose skills will make their university or college campus most competitive. This perspective, ruthlessly businesslike though it is, provides a clear explanation of the behavior of colleges and universities and their academic guilds, and it highlights some characteristics of the academic environment that we might prefer were different.
Colleges and universities have few ways of defining and demonstrating their excellence other than presenting various measures of scarcity. The market assumes that if a campus attracts a large share of scarce, high SAT and high GPA students, its overall quality is better than another campus with lower SAT and lower GPA students. The market also assumes that a campus with a large share of the scarce faculty who consistently publish original research is a high quality campus. These indicators of scarcity are highly reliable measures, even if we can debate at great length whether what they measure is of greater intrinsic value than something else we do not measure as reliably.
Longtime observers of the academic scene know that original research talent is much more fragile than teaching or scholarship or civic engagement talent. Over a 25- to 30-year career, more faculty will sustain consistently good performance as teachers than will sustain consistently productive careers publishing original research. At the beginning, we do not know which of the recently tenured, research productive faculty will sustain that productivity for the next 25 or 30 years. The institution, understanding the importance of these research-productive faculty in validating their external competitive reputations, places extraordinary emphasis on improving the results of the tenure process by focusing intensively on the quantity and quality of published original research. The result is what the MLA observes: increased standards for published research productivity for tenure.
To some extent the excellent recommendations in the MLA Task Force report lose some of their persuasiveness absent a recognition of the powerful marketplace forces that drive all colleges and universities to emulate the competitive standards of the most prestigious research institutions. Whether we view the marketplace influence on college and university values as pernicious or not, we still must recognize that the primary participants in this marketplace are our faculty, students, alumni, trustees, donors, and other friends. Their preferences, expressed through their marketplace choices, reinforce the academy’s intense focus on original published research.
We would like to see the next MLA task force review the language of academic quality as represented in college promotion materials, in the endlessly popular commercial ranking systems, and in the references to quality visible in the popular culture of news magazines, movies, television, and Internet chatter. As is often the case, we are likely to find that the enemy of the good practices we recommend is us.
The title of this column is the title of a manuscript three of us dreamed up some eight years ago. I liked the "how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation" jangle of the words, suggesting something at once so obvious as to be dumb and so dumb as to seem clever. Narrative essays on how a group of people actually wrote their dissertations! Who would have thought? And yet, who could not have thought? The very idea seemed to fit into a mood of exploring all sorts of unconsidered academic practices, a few seemingly invisible.
So we drew up a call for papers. Meanwhile, my two colleagues set about writing their own narratives, as we all canvassed our friends. Gradually, contributions appeared. Organizing principles took shape. Editing began. We actually had a manuscript! Not all of the contributions were as strong as we'd hoped. But most were. And at least the whole didn't suffer from a problem I had been warned plagues all essay collections: sounding as if each essay has been written in the same voice.
Finally, the existential moment drew nigh -- the pitch to a publisher. I began with one whose senior editor I chanced to know. He called for the manuscript, he secured a reader. Was our idea actually going to see the light of published day? Could the process be so smooth? Alas, no. The reader was cool. The idea, it seemed, was interesting. But not all the individual contributions were up to it (excepting a couple of the ones I thought weakest, though including a couple I thought strongest). Worse, the manuscript needed the sort of heft that can only be provided by big names.
This last objection especially maddened me. A section of our introductory rationale explicitly addressed this question. None of us believed in big names for this project because writing a dissertation abides in the profession as something you do in order to get past it (and ideally on to the next stage, publication as a book). The only people who would be interested in writing about how they wrote their dissertations would be people who were not destined to be "names."
The subsequent fate of this manuscript is simply told. It never got published. It never even got a reading from another publisher. Was our pitch letter unsatisfactory? Was the whole idea just a non-starter? In my pitch experience, you never know why, if a publisher's door doesn't swing open. Your manuscript is "just not right for our list." This is usually as specific as a letter of response will be, although sometimes there will be something additional about financial exegencies, worthy manuscripts, and the parlous state of academic publishing today, not to say life itself.
I tell this story for a complicated knot of reasons, having to do with a belief in the power of narrative, a horror of wasted effort, and an acquiescence to the enduring prospect of rejection in professional life. The nice thing about writing a dissertation -- as opposed to writing about writing it -- is that it appears at first to swing free of any of these things, beginning with the fact that nobody ever reads of not successfully writing a dissertation; to write one is perforce to complete it -- and to defend it successfully and finally to receive the doctorate.
What if you fail, and then attempt to write about it? Does anybody actually do this? Whether or no, good luck trying to publish it. Bad enough to try concerning a successful dissertation. Although an account of an unsuccessful one might reveal more about the conditions of writing a dissertation in the first place -- according to a logic whereby failure (or defeat) reveals more about success than success (or victory) itself -- the whole power of the disciplinary narrative embedded in the dissertation is that you complete it, period. Then, perhaps, an individual story begins, albeit again one only possible to relate as a story of success; "How I Wrote My Book," though, is less promising a title than "How I Wrote My Dissertation."
Yet I continue to believe that a narrative -- carefully conceived, creatively organized, and searchingly set out-- about virtually anything possesses an undeniable power of its own. Moreover, some of the best narratives have to do with subjects heretofore disdained, marginalized, or suppressed. Within academic life, a narrative of how you wrote your dissertation constitutes, I think, one of those subjects. How else to demonstrate why to date the story of actual dissertation writing appears to be such an unworthy one?
It's long been a fancy of mine that anything to do with dissertations participates very deeply and mysteriously with waste. Even to complete one efficiently is to have had to keep at bay all manner of false starts, misconceived research, sloppy organization, and other things dissertated flesh is heir to, including inflexible dissertation committees and absent dissertation directors. It's as if to begin in the first place is to have to ignore all this. Many can't. These include people who get to dissertation stage and stop as well as those who never get started.
Another fancy: How I Wrote My Dissertation failed as a project in part because it aimed to explore the waste implicit in writing a dissertation. This was not our intention. (Nor was it the purpose of any of the individual essays.) Yet one reason the very subject appears unworthy is because it cannot avoid bringing to light factors that the profession prefers be suppressed. These include everything from how much time the writing of a dissertation actually takes to how idle is the relation between the completed doctoral degree and a job -- any job.
Writing a dissertation is of course in large part a ritual. It was a ritual when the research it takes to write one could still be expected to inaugurate a scholarly career. Today, when even those who still have some legitimate claim to such a career (because of their institutional pedigree or the disciplinary networks of their directors) can easily wind up as adjuncts, the research seems more hollow than ever. How I Wrote My Dissertation becomes Why I Wrote My Dissertation -- and the reasons emerge as so individual or distinctive (at least this was so in our collection) that ritual efficacy itself is threatened.
Everybody in higher education has an investment in maintaining this efficacy, which is ostensibly so crucial that it cannot be exposed to the vicissitudes of personal experience, as any personal narrative is bound to do. Indeed, personal experience lies at one end of a division encompassing the whole of academic life, at the other end being impersonal professional authority. This authority can of course be questioned -- and personally -- at many levels. But there are levels below which no questioning goes.
A dissertation apparently occupies one of these levels. We don't care Why I Wrote Mine because we care so much instead about the dissertation itself -- whether as the means of authorized entry into a career in higher education or just as a criterion for sorting out prospective adjuncts in terms of their highest degrees. To care about the dissertation is not to care why you or anybody else either did or didn't write one. To care about the dissertation means to believe that even the individual waste involved in writing one can be in some way recuperated.
Curiously, not one of the contributors to How I Wrote My Dissertation would disagree with the last statement. (As I once secretly hoped a few would.) To each, writing a dissertation was worth it, even if it took too long, cost too much, and did or didn't matter with respect to a job. Yet, alas, in the public forum that only publication can command, everybody got rejected together anyway. This brings me to a final point: rejection itself. You've got to be prepared for it in professional life -- the article you can't get published, the class with which you can't connect, the tenure you are denied, the position for which you not got an interview. Arguably, in the construction of a career, the dissertation represents its initial moment, because a dissertation can be rejected.
How I Wrote My Dissertation didn't -- or doesn't -- disturb this moment. And yet in presuming to tell a group of individual stories of how dissertations were accepted, the manuscript does implicitly comport with another story, about how each one could have been rejected. Once more, I think, it is apparently central to the profession that the actual basis of rejection or acceptance not be explored too closely, lest the line between the two grow indistinct or arbitrary. (Was this why the publisher's reader called for narratives of "names," as if to guarantee the boundary?) Part of caring about the importance of a dissertation means upholding both the standards it presumes and the integrity of these standards.
Nobody wants to hear about rejection. Not only because it is always judged to smack of "sour grapes," but because virtually each time rejection threatens to edge up uncomfortably beside acceptance -- and then, although all is not lost, much might well become confounded. The profession after all is full of people who have been rejected in some significant way. (Or in the case of people who choose not to attempt to write a dissertation, effectively self-rejected.) We teach right alongside them. They are part of who we are. No, they are who we are, whether, for starters, we have written dissertations or not. But we don't know many of their -- our -- stories, especially those that courted, or continue to court, rejection.
I've lost touch with the majority of the contributors (and one of the editors) to How I Wrote My Dissertation. I don't know if the rejection of our manuscript bothers any of them; most of the rest I do know seem to have forgotten about it or at least don't bring it up. Why bother? Anyway, in academic publishing, collections of essays especially constitute a crapshoot. (At the moment, I have, let's see, four respective essays with four proposed collections, and haven't so much as heard from the editors of two for a couple of years.) You lose, you move on. What else to say? Not all rejection is worth pondering. Not all rejection is worth narrating.
There are two reasons for offering something of mine. One is that the subject of the rejection marks perhaps the profoundest disconnect in higher education between a professionally authorized project (writing a dissertation) and a personally imagined one (writing about how you wrote it). The second reason follows from the first: Anything to do with dissertations -- ranging from how their content has changed or how they are monitored though what functions they serve -- occupies one of the great mystified spaces. It is mystified because it is uncontested. And it is uncontested, I believe, because it is still not subject to narrative.
We’ve all heard the stories of various professors who warned us of keeping extra copies of our dissertation drafts in a Ziploc bag in the freezer -- just in case something were to happen.
When I wrote my dissertation a few years ago, I never resorted to the frozen dissertation. Instead, I kept one copy on my home computer, another on my laptop, a third on my office computer, and, thanks to the ease of sending files via e-mail, I dispatched a copy to my trusted, long distance friend; I think I had other copies on a local friend’s computer. Additionally, there were multiple disk copies on various (now obsolete) floppies and zip drives kept in a number of locations. I learned quickly to save files with dates embedded in the names so I could tell which version was the most current one. So if my house burned to the ground or my whole town was magnetically tangled in a weird sci-fi meltdown, there would be at least one surviving copy of that dissertation.
Once the dissertation was completed, defended and revised, the fear of losing it subsided. There is, after all, a copy on file with the Library of Congress, and I could always order a copy from UMI dissertation services. The paranoia eased as the nightmares of not really finishing the dissertation and having to start all over again with a new Chapter One began to be a thing of the past. While the dissertation still contains some unpublished chapters that every now and again get glanced at to see if they meet the criteria of a certain call for proposals, new research projects have replaced the one that hung over my head.
So I began to research and write on new items and topics, as most who have gone through the dissertation process will admit to having nervous twitches every time they hear a catchword or phrase from their former project and need to move on. For me, it was “community” (or “the ‘C’ word,” on days I couldn’t even bear to say the whole name). And while I’m still interested in various communities and their connection to writing, writing processes and writers, it was time to move on to bigger and better projects.
I was starting a new book-length project and already had an interested publisher in it. So, after teaching the first half of the summer, I had the rest of the summer mapped out for me. In addition to the book project, I planned on revising a conference paper to expand it to a full length article and send it out for publication. And a chapter of the dissertation was being reworked for a peer reviewed journal.
Once the dissertation was behind me, paranoia about my scholarly work subsided. After all, who besides me would be interested in it (with the exception of my department chair, dean, those who review my work for tenure, and the journals/publications to whom I send my work)? No need for Ziploc freezer bags except to save the blackberries growing in the backyard that I couldn’t eat fast enough before they went bad. No need for multiple copies all over the country on various computers in the age of flash drives, when one could save almost the entire content of one’s computer on a one inch stick of 2 gigabytes, right? Every now and again I could e-mail a copy to my campus PC to have an additional back up, but with a laptop and two flash drive back-ups, I thought I was being overzealous with my system. This way, I could bring a flash drive to the library or my boyfriend’s place and plug in there rather than lug the laptop with me. The ease and portability of flash drive technology must be saving lots of ABDs much anguish and worry over their dissertations and other projects.
But then it happened -- in a flash, so to speak -- and I couldn’t have been more wrong. I returned home from a night at my boyfriend’s place and noticed a light left on and an interior door left open. At first, I didn’t think much of it. I turned off the light and shut the door. Then there were some items knocked over in the bathroom that I picked up and wondered for a minute how it happened, but didn’t really stop to think too long about it. Instead, I returned some phone calls, made some strong coffee, and then decided it was time to get to some writing done. I walked into my home office to turn on my computer and stopped short.
Where’s my laptop??? While it was a functioning laptop, I hardly ever unplugged it from the wall and the DSL modem -- I used it mostly as a desktop, as it was much newer and faster than my dissertation desktop that runs at a dinosaur’s pace. I had sent an e-mail right before leaving the night before, so I know it was there on my desk when I left. But it wasn’t there now. And I stood there dumbfounded.
I grabbed the phone but wasn’t sure who to call. I finally managed to remember 911 and got a dispatcher, to whom I told what had happened. The dispatcher connected me to the local police, who asked a number of questions and then wanted to know if I was in the house. “Yes, I’m in the house,” I said— “Should I not be?” I was told I may wish to wait outside for the police to arrive. Given that I’d been in there an hour, if someone was still in the house, I think I would have noticed. Still, I opened up my front door and waited in front of my house for a few minutes until they got there. The two officers went through my house and thought it was odd that someone would come in only to take a laptop that was two years old. My two back-up flash drives were also missing as was the power supply to the laptop. But the person(s) who took my computer were kind to leave me the DSL and printer connections and the other items in my office.
I told the cops that I am an academic and that all of my research was on the computer and flash drives. They asked if someone in the office was “out to get me” or if I had a disgruntled co-worker or student. I had finished teaching two summer classes the week before and all of the students had passed, so I didn’t think a student would attempt to rob me. And if a colleague really wanted to get me, s/he would have his/her chance as I was up for my fourth-year tenure review in a few weeks. As one of two compositionists in my department, I doubt any of my colleagues would want to sabotage my research or career. They’re mostly concerned that I publish in blind peer-reviewed journals.
Upon further examination of my house, the robber(s) stole my checkbook, cash, traveler’s cheques, some small electronics, a majority of my jewelry and watches -- and a pillow case off of my bed to put the loot in as they left. What they didn’t take, they returned to the drawers and closets, so I guess I’m fortunate that I had relatively thoughtful and neat robbers. The police haven’t been very helpful, but I’ve learned that there had been more than 20 robberies in my neighborhood in the previous week or so. The police also told me that fewer than 13 percent of robbery victims ever get any items recovered. While I was devastated that my grandmother’s jewelry was gone, I was sickened that my scholarly research had disappeared without a trace.
In the sleepless weeks following the robbery, I have met more of my neighbors than I had in the previous three years of living here. Some are nice; some seem rather odd; all are scared about becoming the next victim of a burglary. My passport, Social Security card, and birth certificate are locked in a safety deposit box at a nearby bank, which means I can’t decide on a moment’s notice to grab a flight to Paris, but I can live with that. I’ve also had an alarm system installed and no longer think of opening up a window to let in some fresh air. I haven’t been able to sleep more than two or three hours a night—even after the alarm system was installed. I feel violated and angry, and wonder how much therapy it will take before I am able to sleep through the night at home.
It’s hard to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and start working on the book project and revisions again -- as much of what I did is gone and would have to be started anew. Looming deadlines float over my clouded head.
Perhaps those professors who put their dissertations in the freezer were on to something, though the police said that most thieves look in freezers and refrigerators for valuables. As a writing specialist, I have spent much time dealing with plagiarism. I never really considered someone physically stealing my computer, files -- my work -- as an act of plagiarism, but it is. I’m not sure where it’s safe to put one’s intellectual property. Laptops and flash drives are easy to steal. Thieves look in freezers for cash, jewelry and other valuables. Most non-college educated thieves would probably laugh at seeing an ABD’s dissertation chapters or an assistant professor’s articles under ice. If one can leave it on the university server, that is an option, but our server limits the amount of space available so large texts may not fit there. One can e-mail files to oneself, as I’ve done in the past, but then one must keep track of various drafts, e-mail accounts, and files, and deal with the limited space issue as well.
I’m not sure I have a better answer. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that someone would think to break into my house and rob me. (After all, I was in grad school for nine and a half years; what could I possibly have that someone would want?) The laptop and flash drives are long gone, I’m sure. I just hope whomever took them wiped out the drives, as there’s also a concern now not only of intellectual property loss but of identity theft. I will never attempt to do my own taxes online, as I did on my laptop this year. Credit bureaus have been notified and watches were issued to my accounts; new credit card numbers and bank accounts were also issued, too. There’s a lot of paperwork victims of robberies must muddle through. Trying to remember PINS and passwords to reset bills to internet services and EZ-PASS was a nightmare.
I can’t totally protect myself from becoming a victim of another crime.
So do I contemplate putting my research on ice? Maybe I should resort to an obsolete computer no one would want or—better yet—a typewriter may be worth considering. While I’m not the most technically advanced person in my field, I don’t think I’m ready to abandon technology—I cannot fathom revision without a computer. I like the idea of flash drives. Unless there’s a fire, flood, theft, or one manages to run it through the washer/dryer, flash drives offer portability, but as technology becomes smaller, it is easier to steal or misplace. Laptops are also convenient. But I will no longer resort to only having my research at one location—home, office, or elsewhere. E-mailing files is probably the best way to make sure one has access to them in a flash, so to speak, when one’s flash drive goes missing.
Risa P. Gorelick
Risa P. Gorelick is an assistant professor of English at Monmouth University and co-chair of the Research Network Forum at the Conference on College Composition & Communication.
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.
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.
For many young academics (whether graduate students or assistant professors preparing their tenure files), the subject of publishing is a source of anxiety and consternation. In addition, whether or not one has a sound understanding of publishing more often than not is true thanks to being teamed up with a helpful supervisor. Thus, what most young academics know about publishing is only limited to what little they may have heard from helpful -- and often not so helpful -- mentors.
In this essay, I will uncover what I believe are five secrets to publishing success. These tips arise from my experiences in the fields of philosophy, political science, and law as an author, an editor, and founding editor of the Journal of Moral Philosophy. These experiences may be of particular use to readers working in the areas of humanities and social science, but I hope will also be relevant to readers in different disciplines. The advice below is general and there are always some exceptions, although what I note below is most often the case.
Secret #1: Finding your voice
The biggest key to publishing success is what I call ‘finding your voice.’ What does this mean? Well, think about essays you wrote for classroom assessment. These essays often focus on particular topics and literatures that are covered in specific lectures. When you write, you have a particular audience -- for example, your supervisor -- in mind.
Success in publishing requires a new mindset. The key to success is to find your voice and connecting with the public. When you write for a journal, your audience is unknown: They will be people with an interest in the general area, but they may lack the specific expertise you bring to a topic. You cannot assume they will have the same perspectives on the relevant literature and they will be unknown to you. Writing for such an audience is a different practice (and experience) from writing for classmates and for assessment.
Perhaps the best training ground is the realm of book reviews. Book reviews are easy to have accepted, first of all. Book reviews are typically handled by someone other than the editor, normally a ‘reviews editor’ or ‘book reviews editor.’ I strongly recommend graduate students and others e-mail review editors, stating their areas of specialization and level of study while asking to review a book for the journal. Review editors will almost always agree and when they do -- voila! -- you have a publication ‘forthcoming’ for your c.v. A star is born.
Book reviews are a great training ground because they force you to write in a new way. Reviews are typically between 500-1,000 words. A good review will discuss the main findings and key arguments, while also offering one or two criticisms; there is not room for much more. A good review is never entirely positive. These 500 words or so are practice in small bursts at writing for an academic audience -- your audience -- for the first time. They offer opportunities to develop your skills at communicating to others in your field whom you have not met. The practice lies in writing with a new mindset. You will not know who all the readers of your review will be. One trick is to ask fellow students or colleagues to read your review and provide some feedback. A second trick is to work with a journal’s book reviews editor. These persons are part of your general audience—and they are often very happy to help you develop your review so that it communicates best with the journal’s audience. This advice can truly be invaluable. Indeed, the better you can communicate to this audience, the better are the chances that your work will be published.
Thus, if you desire to begin publishing, then your first step is to get into the proper mindset. Your success will be built off your ability to communicate with a general audience in your area. If practice would help, then book reviews are an excellent place to start.
Secret #2: The importance of focus
In addition to finding your voice and writing from an appropriate point of view, there is a second important secret behind publishing success. This is focus. No matter how clearly you can write (itself a major bonus), you will never find publishing success without constraining your writing within a particular focus. A publishable article is about a clear problem and limits its entire discussion to addressing this problem. Arguments or discussions that address the main problem less than 100 percent should not be exiled to footnotes, but omitted altogether: If your article is about x, then don’t discuss y also. For example, if your article is about a misreading of a particular argument, then do not write about anything else -- such as other misreadings -- that is not directly relevant.
The importance of focus is a particular blessing. First, a clearly focused article is easy to read. The reader knows what is at issue, the steps taken to address it, and the results of your analysis. An article lacking focus also lacks clarity: Readers may be confused as to the main general problem motivating the article, why certain arguments or viewpoints are discussed, and the prospective benefits from your conclusions.
Secondly, a clearly focused article is easier to write. There is no need to give in-depth analyses of everything ever written. Instead, the goal is to say only as much as is needed about only as much as must be discussed to give proper attention to your problem. A sharp focus not only makes your work clearer and easy to follow, but also provides clear parameters to work within (and limitations on the size of the literature you must address).
The importance of focus is simple. A publishable article is an article that referees believe merits publication. It is easier for referees to take this view of your work if they can clearly identify the structure and arguments of your work than if your work is muddled. Referees may not always accept your work even if clear, but they are more likely to reject your work if unclear.
Secret #3: Rejection is the norm
Publishing might not be as highly prized as it is if it was easy for everybody. I believe following the secrets to publishing success outlined here may help make publishing more likely, but rejection is the norm. It is an old publisher’s tale that for every article accepted, about seven are rejected. This sounds about right. Most reputable journals have acceptance rates of 20 percent or less. The end result is that it would be foolish to become upset or too surprised from a rejection as the vast majority will be turned down.
Think positively about rejections as opportunities, rather than an opportunity lost. Often rejection letters will be combined with comments from the editor and referees about potential worries they had about your paper’s quality. These comments can be invaluable as they highlight what your readers have stumbled across. Even when referees offer comments that seem mistaken, view these in a new light: If mistaken, they are a call for greater clarification on relevant points to ensure future readers at another journal do not make the same mistake. Indeed, often nothing can be more helpful than solid criticism from referees. The more advice your paper gets from experts in the field on how it can be improved, the better.
Do not worry too much about rejections: Every author is rejected at one time or another. The trick is not to become demoralized.
Secret #4; Getting a book contract
Few things can boost a career more than a well regarded book. Books receive great attention: how often are there ever "author meets critics" sessions centered on an article? Given this importance, you might think that acquiring a book contract always far more difficult than getting an article accepted. This is not the case.
An excellent book contract is not just about ideas, but also its marketability. Let me first say a few words about this market. Academic publishers regularly remark to me that the difference between academic publishing and trade (or commercial) publishing is that academic publishers have far lower expectations of sales. This is because academic books are not often the stuff of New York Times bestseller lists and blockbuster movies. Sales for most academic books are 500 copies or less: only 5 percent or fewer books sell more than 1,000 copies. (On average, textbooks almost always sell best.)
Given the relatively small sales involved, a solid marketing plan is crucial to the success of a book proposal. Proposals should always spell out clearly how the proposed book offers something new and unique that does not yet appear in the market. Your idea may be “correct,” but if a publisher is unpersuaded that a book will at least break even or fare better, a proposal will often be dead in the water no matter its intellectual merit.
Many publishers have a space on their Web site with information on submitting proposals. As a rule, most U.S.-based publishers expect a full draft of the book to be in hand. Some U.K.-based publishers may accept a book proposal without a full draft prepared in hand, but they will always require sample chapters with the proposal. These proposals and sample chapters are then sent to readers to help advise the publisher on whether to accept your proposal. (You may often be asked for suggested names for these readers, especially where a publisher is very favorable.) If accepted, there will be an agreed date for completion and your draft will be reviewed, but normally only to suggest some helpful final revisions prior to publication.
There are at least three more items worth noting. First, authors rarely keep deadlines and this is rarely a genuine problem. Academic publishers tend to aim for a February release. This is seen as ideal as new catalogs are often produced at this time to help market new books for inclusion in the next academic year’s course syllabi. Taking an extra two or three years beyond the contracted deadline is fairly common, although taking five or more years may render void your contract.
Secondly, keep proposals brief, at between 6 to 10 pages. Always note full contact details, a brief biography, a few pages on chapter outlines with descriptions of chapter contents, and two further important items. First is the previously mentioned section on marketability, to clearly demonstrate that your project is unique, new, and timely. While your proposal should be specific enough to satisfy fellow specialists, these specialists do not vote on approving your proposal at publishers’ editorial meetings: ensure that a non-specialist can understand what issues are at stake and what contribution to knowledge you have in mind. Avoid writing about any books individually, but group them together where possible. For example, do not comment on each book separately when discussing the market, but talk about books that share a similar approach and discuss them together.
The final item worth noting is that journals normally stipulate that articles submitted to them may not be under consideration elsewhere. This is almost never true with publishers. Many publishers allow multiple submissions and this is often noted on their Web sites.
A well-spelled-out idea with a clear presentation of how it fits in the market will combine to create a powerful book proposal.
Secret #5: Publishing takes time
The fifth secret is that publishing takes time ... and probably more than you might think. More than once I have had an eager young scholar ask -- when submitting an article -- if the paper would appear in print six months from today. The answer is very clearly "no;" the peer review process itself may take this long in extremes.
Let us assume a paper is accepted today. Can we be fairly certain that it will appear in six months? Again, the answer is no. For journals, papers for an issue will be sent to a project manager who will then collaborate with a typesetter (who converts papers into the fonts of the journal) and copy editor (who notes possible grammar problems, incomplete references, unclear language, and the like). This will easily take one month. Papers are then sent to authors, often with a copyright assignment form. Authors must then respond to any queries from the copy editor and make final corrections. (They must also sign the copyright assignment form or the piece will go unpublished.) These corrections are then returned to the copy editor who conforms final corrections with the typesetter and the journal editor before the issue is sent to the printers. The process from the moment the editor submits the next issue to the publisher’s project manager to print and distribution is no less than four months and often five or six months long. Books may take even longer, given that there is more to copy edit and a need for an index to be composed after final proofs are created.
If this process takes about five or six months, then why did I say that we cannot be fairly certain a paper accepted today would be in print in about six months? The reason is that all reputable journals have a backlog. Once accepted, your article joins a queue. Authors should normally expect their papers will not be in print sooner than 12-15 months.
The importance of knowing this fact is that, if having a paper in print is important for you, you should expect this process to take more than a year. Do not expect journals to publish more quickly than this.
What to do today
I believe that these five secrets will bring about greater publishing success. There is wide variability between journals and publishers, but these secrets offer a good standard operating procedure to follow. If you have not published before, contact a reviews editor today: ask the editor if you can review for his/her journal and start on your path to improving your ability to communicate with a general audience.
Publishing is never easy, but it also is not mysterious. Knowledge of its “secrets” may help unlock doors and reveal new routes to success. Best of luck!
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.
I am sick of reading about Malcolm Gladwell’s hair.
Sure, The New Yorker writer has funny hair. It has been big. Very big. It is audacious hair, hair that dares you not to notice it; hair that has been mentioned in far too many reviews. Malcolm Gladwell’s hair is its own thing.
Which is only appropriate, since in his writing, Gladwell has always gone his own way. But he’s been doing it long enough, and so well, and has made so much money, that some folks feel it’s time to trim him down to size. That hair is now seen as uppity.
Gladwell is a mere journalist. He’s not shy, and like many children of academics, he is not intimidated by eggheads. He does none of his own primary research, and instead scours academic journals to find interesting ideas -- he collects experiments and experimenters. He is a translator and a synthesizer, and comes up with catchy, sprightly titled theories to explain what he has seen. Some have called him a parasite. He has called himself a parasite.
It seems to me there’s always been a bit of snarkiness attached to discussions of Gladwell’s work. This is often the case for books that have become commercially successful, which is something that seems particularly to stick in the collective academic craw. There is a weird hostility in the reviews of Gladwell’s books that is directed not at the big-haired guy himself who, like a puppy, nips at the heels of academics and then relishes the opportunity to render their work into fluid, transparent prose, but toward those many people who have made Gladwell famous: his readers. No one matches the caustic condescension of Richard Posner, who said, in a review of Gladwell’s Blink, that “it’s a book for people who don’t read books.”
The reviews of Outliers, Gladwell’s latest book, show that even a New Yorker writer can go too far. People are now attacking Malcolm Gladwell as a kind of brand. The critiques boil down to a few things, one of which is that he doesn’t take into account evidence that refutes his theories. In other words, he’s not doing careful scholarship. But we all know that even careful scholarship is a game of picking and choosing -- it just includes more footnotes acknowledging this. And Gladwell never pretends to be doing scholarship.
Gladwell is also accused of being too entertaining. He takes creaky academic work and breathes Frankensteinian life into it. He weaves anecdotes together, creating a tapestry that builds to an argument that seems convincing. This, some reviewers have claimed, is like perpetuating fraud on the (non-academic) reading public: because Gladwell makes it so much fun to follow him on his intellectual journey, he’s going to convince people of things that aren’t provably, academically true. He will lull the hoi polloi into thinking they’re reading something serious.
Which is, of course, the most common complaint about Gladwell: He’s not serious enough. He’s having too much fun playing with his ideas. And, really, you can’t be Serious when you’re raking in so much coin. Anyone who gets paid four million bucks for a book that mines academic work -- and not necessarily the stuff that is agreed to be Important -- is going to become a target. His speaking fees are beyond the budgets of most colleges. In this way, his career is now similar to that of David Sedaris, who can command an impressive audience and still be dissed by the literary folks. Everyone who’s anyone knows that you can’t sell a lot of books and be a serious writer. Just ask Jonathan Franzen. Or Toni Morrison.
I don’t see Gladwell as a social scientist-manqué, or a philosopher wannabe. Instead, I read him more like an essayist. I think of his books as well-written, research-packed, extended essays. Let me show you the evils of imperialism by telling you a story about the time in Burma when I was forced to shoot an elephant. Let’s look at this (bad) academic prose and think about the relationship between politics and the English language. But instead of using his own experiences, he builds on work done by others. He uses a wry, quirky approach and blithely ignores the received wisdom and pieties of academe. He doesn’t seek out the researcher who’s highly regarded within her field; he looks for people who are doing things he finds interesting.
Gladwell reminds me of the kind of student I knew in college, the nerd who takes weird and arcane courses and then rushes from the lecture hall excited about some idea the professor has mentioned in passing and goes straight to the library to pursue it himself. He stays up all night talking about it, and convincing you that even though you were in the same class, and heard the same reference, you have somehow missed something. Maybe not something big, but at least something really, really cool.
Perhaps I have more trust in readers than to believe that they can be so easily bought off by a good story. And I wish that academics, instead of pillorying Gladwell for being good at translating complicated ideas, would study the way he does it and apply some portion of his method to their own work: He makes mini trade books of monographs. Surely this is a lesson worth learning. He uses the narrative art of the magazine writer to animate ideas. He profiles theories the way Gay Talese or Joan Didion did celebrities.
The audacity Gladwell shows in his writing, connecting seemingly disparate things and working hard, yet with apparent effortlessness, to make the ideas engaging, gives me hope for the future of books. It makes me feel better to see folks buying Gladwell rather than the swimmer Michael Phelps’s memoir or vampire novels -- not that there’s anything wrong with that. Yet this same audacity is what gets Gladwell into hot water with academics. He’s not supposed to do this.
Unless you are an aged physicist, you don’t really get to write books that “purport to explain the world.” You can, of course, try to explicate tiny portions of it. Science writers like James Gleick and Jonathan Weiner can go a lot further than most scientists in terms of making arcane principles understandable to the Joe the Plumbers of the reading world and no one gets bent of out shape. Perhaps it’s because of the assumption that scientists, with a few notable (often British) exceptions, are not supposed to be able to write books that normal people can read. Social scientists and historians are, however, expected to be able to know what is interesting and important about their work and present it to the public. Brand name thinkers like Susan Sontag and Martha Nussbaum can take on big ideas. But these people are experts; journalists shouldn’t try this at home.
What I love about Gladwell is that his writing is like his hair. You can see it as arrogant or scary (he writes about being stopped more frequently by cops when he had a big afro), or you can see it as playful and audacious. This is why, of course, so many reviews mention it; he has the right hair for his work.
One final, dour complaint about Gladwell has to do with his relentless cheeriness. He thinks that people are basically good, though he understands that sometimes circumstances aren’t. I can’t abide high-brow literary novelists who trash fiction that “cops out” with a happy ending. Maybe I’m hopelessly low-brow: I still love Jane Austen and Shakespeare’s comedies. The academic response to most things is generally: it’s more complicated than that. And sure, much of the time it is. But if something’s artfully crafted, I’m willing to cut the author some slack. I don’t ever expect to be thoroughly persuaded of anything; I’m characterologically skeptical and like to do the thinking on my own. Gladwell’s books invite me into a conversation. I think that’s part of the job of a good book.
For me, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books is like watching Frank Capra movies. Just because they make you feel good and keep you entertained doesn’t mean that they’re not doing valuable work or tackling hard and real issues and ideas. Sure, someone else could have handled it differently. George Bailey might have finally committed suicide; the bank in Bedford Falls could have asked for a government bailout. But right now, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to read books that are a little more hopeful. And yes, audacious.
Rachel Toor teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. She writes a monthly column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and her most recent book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running. Her Web site is www.racheltoor.com.
Among the hundreds of new regulations in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) passed by Congress in August 2008 are new mandates that require colleges -- and, more specifically, college owned or operated bookstores -- to publish the ISBN numbers and retail prices for textbooks, other trade titles, and related course materials that faculty recommend and students buy for classes. The new HEOA mandates reflect, in part, Congressional concern, echoed in many state legislatures in recent years, about the rising cost of textbooks. The ISBN mandate becomes operational in July 2010.
No question that the ISBN mandate will fuel changes already under way that affect how and where college students buy textbooks. Student Monitor’s fall 2008 survey of full-time undergraduates reveals that 16 percent of undergraduates “bought most of their textbooks online,” up from 12 percent in fall 2007. Additionally, Student Monitor reports that “the share of students who purchase most of their textbooks from their on-campus bookstore continues to trend down: fewer than six in ten students (57 percent) purchased most of their textbooks at their on campus book store,” compared to 64 percent in fall 2006 and down from 72 percent in fall 2005.
College bookstores are (for-profit) service organizations: Prior to the emergence of Internet book sellers just over a decade ago, college students were largely a captive market for the (often one) campus store, usually owned and operated by the college or university (or operated under contract on behalf of the college by an agent such as Barnes & Noble or the Follett Higher Education Group). The money saving options were not where to buy (which store) but what to buy (new or used). Until recently, for most students at most institutions, the primary source for new or used books and related course materials was the “college” store.
Enter the Internet. As with other products and services, Internet merchants provide price and service competition for local providers, in this case college bookstores. The emergence of Internet book merchants -- initially Amazon, followed by Web-based resellers specifically targeting college students such as BigWords, CampusBooks, TextBooks, and others -- offered students new options: the Internet brought a new transparency to the prices of both new and used textbooks. Case in point: in fall 2008 my daughter, a UCLA student, purchased a new accounting book from Amazon for $135 that the ASUCLA store was selling for $176.
There’s little argument that the HEOA mandate to publish ISBNs and retail prices brings a new transparency to the textbook market. It facilitates the efforts of students to shop for books based on price. Concurrently, the ISBN mandate poses new challenges for colleges, college stores, and the firms that operate college stores (and the store Web sites) under contract.
Ahead of the regulations due later this year from the Education Department, campus administrators, college store directors, and, yes, even campus lawyers are parsing the HEOA legislation (Section 133) and also reviewing bookstore operations, Web sites, and current contracts to assess compliance issues. For example, as reported by Theresa Rowe, the CIO at Michigan's Oakland University in a recent Educause listserv post, the campus counsel at Oakland recently rejected an ISBN–link-system solution incorporated into the campus portal provided by Barnes and Noble, the contract operator of the campus store for Oakland.
Campus counsel at Oakland ruled that the B&N link-solution is "not legally acceptable [under HEOA] given that [the university’s] contract with Barnes and Noble does not obligate [B&N to provide the ISBN linking service]; hence, if [B&N] fail[s] to comply with the statute Oakland would have no one to point the proverbial finger at.… if we did, [simply] saying that B&N screwed up is not a good defense to a claim that [the university] failed to comply with federal law."
No doubt lawyers at other institutions may have different perspectives on the linking solutions provided by store operators. Still, it is a safe bet that these contracts will be carefully reviewed -- and many will be revised -- following the release of the regulations governing the ISBN mandate later this year.
While the new transparency that accompanies the publication of ISBNs may be good for Internet book sellers, it will also be a catalyst for new services that target college students and also colleges and universities.
For example, Apple’s student-oriented iPhone ad broadcast during the NCAA men's basketball championship game on April 6 highlighted SnapTell, an iPhone app that supports “photo commerce:” take a picture of a book (including college textbooks) and the SnapTell app will link you to multiple Web sites that sell the book. On the institutional side, Verba Software, a Cambridge, Mass., firm launched by some recent Harvard grads, offers an application that links course lists to IBSNs and then searches the Web for the best prices for new and used textbooks and course tomes.
Internet book resellers that target college students and the textbook market proclaim that they save students money. (Hey, Amazon saved me and my daughter $40 last fall!) So we can expect the ISBN mandate to foster more competition between bricks and clicks -- the campus store on (or near the quad) vs. the on-screen Internet reseller. The ISBN mandate will accelerate the demise of a once captive market: college students buying books and course materials at the local college bookstore.
Many will applaud the increased competition because students will save bucks on books. Still others who lament the decline of “community bookstores” to chain stores, big box stores, and Internet booksellers will also lament what may be the demise of campus stores, as they continue to lose the annuity-like revenue stream from textbooks and course materials that has been essential to their operations.
But let’s also acknowledge that the HEOA mandate to publish ISBNs will not resolve the recurring complaints about (and some might add structural problems affecting) the suggestedretailprice of textbooks and course materials -- and by extension the wholesale price of course materials.
Here other factors are at play that include accelerated updates to stem the used book market, the costs of developing ancillary materials for faculty and maintaining web sites for students and professors, routine and appropriate development and production costs, modest author royalties and, yes even a little profit. Regardless of what I paid for my daughter’s accounting textbook last fall, these factors and others all affected the wholesale price that both Amazon and the UCLA store paid for the book assigned for my daughter’s accounting class. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)
Kenneth C. Green
Kenneth C. Green is the founding director of the Campus Computing Project. Disclosure: Amazon, Apple, Follett Higher Education Group, and Verba Software are corporate sponsors of the project.
Technology, encouraging mass production and homogeneity, could appear a natural enemy to those who still celebrate regional idiosyncrasies. And the online bookstore, ideal for marketing e-books to a global audience, might seem to portend short shrift for regionally themed books that are more suited to a smaller, more local market.