Scribble, Scribble

Once, it was dangerous for professors to publish too much. Scott McLemee takes a trip to Geezer Junction.

December 1, 2010

In late November, The Journal of Electronic Publishing released a special issue devoted to questions of academic publishing – a topic this column has followed from time to time. The most salient points of the symposium were digested here by one of my energetic colleagues before I had so much as resolved to write about it.

That’s a major effect of the emerging post-print culture, of course, apart from its significance for the economics of publishing and the various problems associated with archiving digital material. There is the matter of speed. A team of diplomatic historians will probably be bringing out a collection of papers about the WikiLeaks revelations (downloadable in PDF) by Friday afternoon.

As it happened, my foot-dragging about the JEP issue coincided with a few days of wandering the stacks of a big university library -- catching up with, among other things, The State of Scholarly Publishing: Challenges and Opportunities, edited by Albert N. Greco and published by Transaction last year. It contains papers by Lindsay Waters (humanities editor at Harvard University Press), Cathy N. Davidson (chair of the Digital Futures Task Force at Duke), and Sanford G. Thatcher (former president of the Association of American University Presses), among other worthies. And the chapter called “Conflicting Agendas for Scholars, Publishers, and Institutions,” by Cass T. Miller and Julianna C. Harris, can be recommended as a smart, succinct account of the basic tensions within what the authors call “the scholarly communication environment.”

But the contribution that really stands out, to my mind, is “Scribble, Scribble, Toil and Trouble: Forced Productivity in the Modern University” by William W. Savage, Jr., a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.

“Occasionally, in secondhand bookshops,” he writes, “I will locate the remnants of some elderly professor’s library, and among the assorted volumes there will be the inevitable stack of professional journals, dating back to perhaps the early 1950s. Perusing these, I am always surprised by how slender they are, and how few book reviews they contain. In contrast, the modern journal is as thick as medium-sized city’s telephone directory, and it is largely devoted to book reviews and notices. I received two journals in the mail recently and beheld in their book review section mention of enough titles relevant to my interests to keep me busy until Social Security kicks in…. One may keep abreast only by keeping awake and ignoring bodily functions that do not involve eye, brain, and printed page.”

This can be framed eulogistically, of course, as evidence of the accelerating “production of knowledge.” But the essayist maintains that an obsession with publication for its own sake has taken hold. He recalls the comment of a departmental chairperson to an assistant professor: “If you’re going to be promoted for publishing rubbish, you’re going to have to publish a lot more of it than you’ve published so far.”

A footnote indicates that the word originally used was not “rubbish.”

And in a passage that may seem literally incredible to younger scholars today, he cites a piece of advice by one professor in the early 1970s – an epoch when “faculty who worried about publishing too much, thereby alienating colleagues and damaging their own careers” still wandered the earth. To be safe, this scholar suggested publishing “an article a year and a book every five years.” That would be enough to satisfy the administration, “but not so much as to threaten [your] colleagues unduly.”

Tell us another one, Grandpa. This slice of ancient history is worth contemplating now – if only because it is so clearly impossible to imagine anything like that situation being restored. E-publishing did not create the cult of hyperproductivity, of course. But it imposes no limitations on that tendency. The only potential barrier to constantly growing scholarly output is the scarcity of attention.

Before the curmudgeonizing gets out of hand, though, it’s worth challenging the usual insinuation that kicks in when the opining starts – that in the good old days, people didn’t have to publish as much, but at least the work they did had to be good, unlike these days.

One consequence of spending time with searchable databases is that you occasionally see just what people used to get away with. Here I’m thinking in particular of a paper appearing in one of the leading journals of American literary scholarship during the early 1970s – when, to go by Savage’s memoir, it would have been just enough for the year’s work.

Someone had noticed that Tom Buchanan’s fascination with a racist author named Goddard in The Great Gatsby was actually a thinly disguised reference to Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy and similar rubbish. The scholar noted this and called it a day. The implications for reading F. Scott Fitzgerald remained for somebody else to pursue. Pointing out that Goddard was actually Stoddard was quite enough. That was that.

Today, of course, someone sussing out an allusion would then go on to document its historical provenance, contemplate its metaphysical implications, and spell out the 47 ways it complicates all hitherto existing understandings of the author’s work. (It would be the prof’s third article of the year – the short one, probably.)

The ever-expanding sphere of scholarly publication means that plenty of material appears that probably shouldn’t -- and that nobody notices, in any case. But that’s the least complaint-worthy thing about the present situation. 'Twas ever thus. The real problem is that now there’s just too much of the good stuff, as well.

To give William Savage the last word: “Youngsters rant, geezers argue, publishers work overtime, and the printed matter” – not to mention the digital! – “keeps on coming, right along with exam papers, term papers, theses, and dissertations, gladdening the hearts of optometrists everywhere.”


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