April 22, 2009

Why Books?

This post from Sisyphus is timely for me, as I had a meeting recently with a representative from a university press to discuss what kind of monograph might lurk beyond the discrete research and writing projects I have been engaged in lately, and as a result I have been thinking a lot myself about the shape, purpose, and necessity (or not) of academic books. Sisyphus asks,
why is the "gold standard" in literary studies a book for tenure if we are not assigning them in our classes?
I hadn't thought about monographs in our discipline from quite that angle before, but it's true that, consistent with what Sisyphus says about other disciplines, I remember being assigned quite a lot of scholarly books to read in their entirety when I was a history student, and doing assignments that were essentially a kind of book report or review. But it would never occur to me to assign more than a fraction of a scholarly book in one of my own undergraduate classes, or, for that matter, in my graduate classes. If I assign anything besides a stand-alone article, it is most likely to be the framing chapter(s) from a book, where the main theoretical or interpretive argument will be laid out, sometimes along with a chapter directly addressing an assigned primary text.

I'm not sure, though, how to connect these observations (keeping in mind, of course, that my practices in this respect may be anomalous) with what we ought to value when it comes time to assess tenure files. Our classroom work typically bears little overt relation to our published work, doesn't it? Also, as the students doing Sisyphus's library assignment discovered, however dynamic and engaging we are when we teach, in our books and articles our "academic voice" becomes "difficult, contentious, and completely boring"! That may be one reason why, as has been pointed out in a couple of places recently, even academics hardly read other academics any more.

Another likely cause of our own relative failure to 'keep up' with each others' output, as well as our reluctance (assuming this is a general phenomenon) to assign entire books along with--or, as every syllabus is a zero-sum game--instead of primary texts, may be the massive proliferation, and overwhelming micro-specialization, of academic monographs. No matter how narrowly I define my own research interests, it is physically impossible for me to read all the relevant available material, and as my interests in fact range across periods and disciplines, the labour of choice rapidly becomes overwhelming in itself. Inevitably, it seems to me, the excessive supply degrades the value of any particular book; it becomes hard to justify singling out one (or two, or even three) monographs that really demand and deserve such special notice and extended engagement. This is not to assume that any given monograph is not in fact, on its own terms, valuable, but here's a not entirely hypothetical case: I'm teaching a graduate seminar next winter on George Eliot. Which entire academic book would you assign in its entirety? My instinct is that the best candidate would be an older book--a critical 'classic'--because you'd want its range and applicability to be as broad as possible: Barbary Hardy's The Novels of George Eliot, for instance, or Dorothea Barrett's Vocation and Desire: George Eliot's Heroines. Books published since about 1990 get increasingly specific in their interests--George Eliot and science, or historiography, or empire, or Italy, or music--and thus decreasingly useful in a more general context such as my seminar (though, of course, they would be invaluable to students pursuing presentations or papers on related narrower topics).

The overwhelming number of highly specialized academic monographs was one of the things I wanted to talk to this university press acquisitions editor about. It's hard not to feel at times as if we should all just stop and ask ourselves what we are doing and why, and whether doing it in book-length manuscripts that may eventually be seen into print only to languish, expensive but unread, on library shelves should really be our goal. The MLA argues for decentering the monograph as "the gold standard" for tenure and promotion, but largely on practical grounds: publishing books is only going to get harder, for reasons that have little to do with the quality of their content. (It may have something to do with the nature of that content, of course, as the intense specialization typical of an academic book guarantees a small market.) If we could do that, though--if we could remove the expectation that junior scholars need to "have a book" to get tenured, not only could we release them from the vice but also liberate ourselves from the book glut. Because let's face it: how many monographs published in the last two decades are book-length because their arguments "need to be thought through on this level of scope and depth across a lot of pages," as Sisyphus sums up the usual pro-book argument, and how many for more careerist reasons? The standard model is a theoretical, contextual, or critical framing (the book's selling point) and then a series of chapters "reading" particular texts from that angle or through that lens. (That's exactly how my own monograph is structured.) That's not a terrible way to build a book, but almost inevitably the "readings" chapters lack urgency: they are illustrative, rather than integral or developmental. They show the main idea in practice, and they demonstrate how or why it is an interesting or useful or important idea. But they're arbitrary, rather than necessary, and they might do just as well as supplementary articles. They might even have more portability and usefulness in article form because they would need their own framing material, perhaps a refined version of the book's larger argument, and so would work well as assigned readings, whereas in chapter form their specific claims may not be entirely cogent without the explanation offered in the book's introductory chapters. (Now that I think of it, I do often assign articles that have eventually appeared as book chapters, but I use the stand-alone version, for more or less that reason.)

Lightening up on the book expectation would also remove the corrupting pressure to inflate, not only our prose and our manuscripts, but our claims. Book-length treatments of subjects do require justification, after all: the claim needs to be made that here is something really worthy of time, attention, space, and resources. So we make relatively grandiose claims about the innovation and importance of our work. It's no use having insight into a particular author or text: you need to propose a revision of a major critical paradigm, or a reconfiguration of traditional literary histories, or a radical new understanding of the importance of some side-angle in a particular writer's corpus (pickles, anyone?), or otherwise attach what may be a genuine but modest claim to something as big as you dare. You need to make it sound "interesting," even if that means knowing your reach will exceed your grasp.

The editor I spoke with was firm about the commitment of his press to specialized academic monographs, and we should all be grateful that there are publishers who recognize that some subjects do need to be treated, some arguments made, in long form, and that their value is not defined by the size of the audience they will reach but by their contribution to knowledge and understanding. We've all probably been delighted, too, to discover on the shelves hitherto unknown books, maybe books we are the first to sign out, that illuminate a topic about which we have suddenly discovered we want or need to know more. But something's wrong when "a book" as such is the goal. Shouldn't we work on a smaller scale until we discover we really can't explain ourselves without a larger canvas? Shouldn't a book be a capstone achievement, as it once was, rather than an obligatory and thus often perfunctory professional performance? If enough people keep asking these questions, maybe we can "be the change."



Unknown said...

Isn't there also an extremely practical reason for not assigning an entire book? Namely, $$$. I mean, my own book now costs $110 (arrrgh!)--nobody in his or her right mind would ask a student to spend that much money!

Unknown said...

Hmmm... Very thought-provoking, Rohan. I have observations more than opinions, at this stage. First, I remember when some of my old students read the book that came out of some senior seminars I taught. They were surprised that the classroom work was so easily identifiable in the research. You are right that we don't always make the connections explicit between teaching and research, but it would seem that students are not always quick to pick up what connections are there for the picking. Second, amongst my colleagues, I can make a division between those who are always at work on some mysterious, long book project and those who write articles, reviews, give lots of papers. When did these activities get so mutually exclusive?

Christopher Foy said...

When a Victorianist proposes that there are many books that are artificially long, there's bound to be something to the suggestion.

Perhaps, as with Mudie's and the triple-decker, the forms (scholarly article and monograph) are (or have become) artefacts of the way academic publishing is structured more than any way in which the forms serve the current needs of the discipline. The phenomenon of turning blogs into books is suggestive of how the traditional publishing industry's strengths in promotion and making money from writing (not perfect, but still real) can trump the
demands of form, especially in what may turn out to be a transitional period.

Perhaps, too, as you suggest, tenure committees
in an era of increasingly narrow specialization find the existence of a published book-length treatment as a useful heuristic foridentifying scholars as specialist authorities, however narrow the topic, or unnecessary the length of the treatment.

While I'm not whiggish about electronic publishing, the stereotypical structure of
the monograph discussed in your post, might be a better fit with a more flexible
electronic form that links a theoretical framing to specific readings: a key, plus a choice of selected mythologies, so to speak.
Moreover, in the same way that podcasting is capable of getting around the artificial limits of a radio piece (podcasts do not have
to be regularly scheduled nor padded or shortened to an arbitrary length), I can
imagine a scholarly publishing environment that allows for a flexibility in form, length and publishing schedule.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Miriam, you're right, of course, about the pragmatic issue of cost. Academic books available in electronic format do not seem to be any cheaper, either. Mind you, students in science disciplines routinely pay over $100 for textbooks. Perhaps the thought there is that they are investing in books with broad utility to them in their later work? I don't know.

Craig, I'm interested in your point about the seeming exclusivity of different kinds of research and writing. In my own department, I think one factor that isolates different kinds of researchers (assuming that we are all, in our ways, hard at work on something) is that we have no good forum for sharing work in progress. We have a weekly 'colloquium' series but for as long as I've been here, presentations have tended to be quite formal and complete.

I think, Chris, that your description of the forms of publishing being "artefacts" of structural issues is very well put, and also you are exactly right about the real or implicit purpose of valuing monographs--as in themselves evidence that the author is a certain kind of scholar. There are also institutional pressures to measure research output: "a book," "an article," etc. all seem to bureaucrats to be countable goods, like car parts, that we ought to be churning out at a certain rate.

One alternative to "the book" for tenure that actually makes me even more unhappy is "a SSHRC grant"--in more than one case that I know of, successful competition for a grant is taken as sufficient evidence of one's scholarly accomplishment, with nobody apparently willing to point out that there is a difference between proposing something and actually producing it (and thus proving the viability of the proposal). Grantsmanship in general is very well rewarded, as far as I can tell (including helping in winning more grants once the first one has expired).