From Grub Street to the Ivory Tower (and Back)

Getting from academe to the publishing world isn't easy, but Scott McLemee finds some grad students who just might make it.

March 7, 2007

Perhaps you should sit down before reading the next sentence, for it may shock you: Not everyone who begins the Ph.D. program in English -- or finishes it for that matter -- gets a job in academe. (No, seriously, there have been studies about this and everything.) In spite of the hard realities, it can be difficult for graduate students to imagine any alternative to that desired career path. But it seems like a judicious and responsible thing for graduate programs to bring up some of the alternatives, at least.

That’s what the Carnegie Mellon University Literary and Cultural Studies Colloquium did on Monday by hosting a program on higher education journalism. I spoke at it, alongside Liz McMillen, deputy editor of The Chronicle Review. The invitation was proffered a few months ago by Jeffrey Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon. It was an honor just to be asked. But as the date drew near, I wasn’t at all sure how to prepare for the event. It felt like any lessons to be drawn from my career would tend to take the form: “Well, I tried doing X, and that didn’t work. So don’t do X.”

Williams responded to my panicky e-mail expressing trepidation by explaining -- with patience, and sensibly enough -- what students really needed from the discussions. For one thing, it would be good for them to have some direct contact with people who cover university life and academic publishing for the mass media. They could hear about the routines, including the familiar problems, that go with doing such work. Grand statements or life lessons would count less than the experience of seeing, and asking questions of, someone who is involved with publishing on a day-to-day basis. Graduate students could take away from it a sense of this being a real option, not something undefined and mysterious.

Actually I still find the whole thing kind of mysterious myself, even at this late date. But not to worry: The students were sharp, and the discussion seldom flagged for very long. They asked good questions, many of which concerned the various changes wrought by the growing importance of digital media.

I said they were good questions, not that any brilliant answers sprang to mind. The best way of responding is probably to speak from personal experience -- while also being explicit about how much uncertainty is involved. Aspects of magazine and newspaper publication that took shape over the course of three centuries suddenly began changing, in a big way, over the past five. It's hard to talk about this without indulging in either apocalyptic or wishful thinking. Given the pace of recent changes, it is difficult to think about what things will be like in 2 years, let alone 5 or 10.

Is there an upside to this? To some degree, yes, for people in their 20s, anyway. Uncertainty means plasticity. When familiar patterns aren’t in place anymore, it’s not just possible to try something new, it's an imperative to do so. And the margin for creativity is greater among people who can take the qualities and the potentials of the new media for granted, as a given.

That doesn’t mean that the printed page will disappear. On the contrary, in conversations with several young writers, editors, and academics over the past year, I have noticed that they often show a strong interest in publishing -- as that word was understood before everything started to change. They sound intrigued by the prospect of creating books or journals that will be well-designed objects. They like the idea of the text existing as an artifact in the nondigital world.

The first time I listened to this fascination with publishing expressed, I considered it was just a personal interest of the speaker. But after hearing more or less the same thought articulated by half a dozen people (none of whom known each other, by the way), I have the impression something more is involved. It is a truism that young people consume a great deal of material online -- text included. But they also recognize that the experience of encountering words on the page is quite distinct from that of seeing them on a screen. Not better, necessarily; not worse; just different.

Some of the discussion I heard at Carnegie Mellon reinforced that impression. And a few of the students there already possess more qualifications for moving into the worlds of journalism or publishing than they perhaps realize – particularly since some of them have had the chance to work on a major literary and theoretical journal, The Minnesota Review.

Now, I have been reading MR since the early 1980s --  well before Jeffrey Williams took over as editor –  and in all that time it has never actually been based in the state of Minnesota. (Go figure.) The journal is probably best known for its continuing series of thoughtful and extensive interviews with literary scholars, a selection of which appears in the volume  Critics at Work (New York University Press, 2004).

MR’s announced schedule of two issues per year has often been honored only in the breach. There have been quite a few double issues, plus at least one triple issue. But thanks largely to the skill and effort of the graduate students involved in its production, the journal is becoming regular. Two issues came out in 2006, and two more are on track for this year. The term “deadline” now has some force behind it, as would-be contributors are learning.

It sounds like they are also being initiated into the deepest mystery of all: the art of editing prose. (Evidently this secret is kept from most academics.) One of his students told me that Williams once demonstrated how the 250-word opening paragraph of a seminar paper could be reduced to 75 words without any loss of meaning. A valuable lesson. I can think of several university presses that would benefit from hiring that student immediately.

Returning from Andrew Carnegie’s university to my hovel here on Grub Street, I’m reminded of an interesting development from an earlier story about a graduate student finding his way into the world of publishing.

Back in August 2005, "Intellectual Affairs" reported on Alfredo Perez, who at the time was a doctoral candidate in political theory at the New School. He had created an invaluable site called Political Theory Daily Review – an aggregation of links to recent articles and conference papers, along with tips about chapters of new books you could download from university presses. It's an intellectual omnivore’s smorgasbord.

Perez’s gift for finding smart, strange, and/or esoteric material online was phenomenal -- no doubt about it. But what has been in question, both for PTDR’s admirers and for Perez himself, was whether he could continue to keep the site running while keeping body and soul together.

Well, last year he entered discussion with a few print-based publications whose editors were interested in working PTDR into their “brand” (or vice versa). By early fall, he passed along some news that I had to keep quiet until the details were worked out. Today the Political Theory Daily Review site bears a small logo saying “sponsored by Bookforum.

The latter publication (an offshoot of "Artforum" magazine) was mentioned yesterday by The Wall Street Journal as a happy exception to the tendency of review publications to lose ad revenue and shrink in size. Over the past few years, Bookforum has emerged as one of the most prominent critical journals in the United States, and one of the few showing a serious commitment to covering university-press titles regularly and in depth. Eric Banks, its editor, told me that acquiring PTDR is an important part of relaunching the magazine’s online presence – which he sees, in turn, as a prerequisite for the longer-term goal of increasing both the size and the circulation of the print edition.

For now, PTDR and Bookforum exist as separate entities online, but they will be merged in the near future. The rather minimalist design (to put it nicely) of PTDR will be replaced with something easier on the eyes.

That’s nice, of course, but the really good news is that Alfredo Perez will be able to continue exercising his distinctive knack. He's turned it into a job. The loss of one graduate student to the field of political theory is a gain to civilization, more broadly conceived.
Finally, a bulletin from the world of micro-media.... A few weeks ago, I started a blog called Quick Study, which is hosted by The latter is a well-established site with a sizable audience among people concerned with the fine arts. Most of the other folks blogging there are refined aesthetes who can identify which movement a passage from a Sibelius symphony occurs in, after hearing just three notes.

So my blog probably looks like a Hell’s Angels' clubhouse opening in a nice neighborhood. Quick Study is prone to some of the format's vices -- miscellany, impulsiveness, a certain amount of "well I thought this was interesting so here it is." It's a place where I can put up a notice about a bootleg translation of Alain Badiou’s writings on the philosophy of mathematics ... or discuss Maoism in Georgia during the 1970s....or provide a YouTube clip of the band X Ray Spex performing “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”

In any case, the site has an RSS feed, and visitors are certainly welcome.


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