Must Read: HASTAC/MLA Rethinking Tenure Guidelines

Cathy Davidson has an excellent post up at HASTAC thinking about the meaning of tenure and ways of imagining valid tenure standards for an increasingly interdisciplinary future. Along the way, she announces that HASTAC will be working with the MLA on reimagining tenure guidelines, and that they hope to work with other disciplinary organizations as well.

But the key moments of her post come after that announcement, as she ponders what the basis for tenure decisions ought to be:

The basic question is not have you published that book. The fundamental question is, based on one’s first six or seven years in the profession, is one likely to be a lifelong, energetic, idea-filled, responsible, creative, innovative contributor to the profession, even when the Damocles’ Sword of tenure is no longer swinging above.


How in the world can a “floor” requirement ever predict future performance? That is, if you establish a quantitative measure, such as one book for tenure, two books for full professor, what in the world are you saying about future contributions? You achieve the measure and then you stop? Really? Is that the ideology of tenure?

The point of the tenure evaluation is supposed to be using a scholar’s past performance as a predictor of continuing performance — on some level, the existence of the first book is meant to stand in for all the future books that will follow. For too many scholars, though, the book requirement becomes a literal end in itself, a finish line that, once crossed, leaves the scholar without future direction or motivation.

So what if we were to say, forget the book, or whatever number of articles one were to set, and instead focus the standards for tenure on the demonstration of an active, ongoing research agenda? How many different forms might meet these new standards? What new kinds of scholarly engagement might we foster?

Probably Unrelated Observations

1. I am writing my way into new holes far faster than I can do the research and reading necessary to fill them. On the one hand, this is great; I’m clearly making progress on the chapter. And what I need to be doing right now, more than anything else, really is writing, even of the broad strokes, fill in details later variety. On the other hand, I’m trying to do both some writing and some reading each day, and each day’s writing changes my sense of the most pressing thing for me to be reading, so I keep picking up new texts each day.

2. Attempting to keep the details of a complex project straight in one’s head becomes significantly harder when the head in question is so occluded by unspeakable substances as to cause significant degradation in one’s optimal oxygen intake. Which is to say that I have another cold, and I’m seriously annoyed about it. Stupid MLA.

The Blob

The peer review chapter that I’ve mentioned a few times of late is a key element of the big project I’ve been working on since January (or more accurately, given the last couple of months, gearing up to work like crazy on this summer). I’ve said several times that I want to start blogging some pieces of the project, both to get some of the ideas into preliminary circulation and to get some early feedback. I’ve held off on doing so, though, partially out of an ongoing nervousness about putting unfinished material out into the world — a deep irony, I recognize, given that I’ve been at this blogging thing for nearly six years now, not to mention all the talk I’ve done at MediaCommons about shifting the center of gravity in scholarly publishing at least slightly away from finished products and toward process.

Another part of my hesitation, however, has to do with my ongoing uncertainty about the mode of production of the project itself. On the one hand, I have some strategic reasons for wanting the project to have a print existence, not least among them that the argument I’m making could otherwise very easily fall into the trap of preaching to the choir; the argument, about the institutional change that will be required in order for the academy to move into the digital publishing future, has to reach those most resistant to that change, and they’re unlikely to read it online. On the other hand, I want the text to have a primary existence online, to put its metaphoric money where its mouth is, to show what that digital future might look like.

But there’s the $64,000 question: what might it look like? I don’t want the digital version to simply replicate the printed page online: no paper under glass! The text needs to be networked and commentable, but beyond that, I’m not yet clear what I want it to look like or how I want to release it. For instance, I could, as Siva is doing, blog bits and pieces of the research and the ideas as they come together, while working on a separately produced linear text, or I could, as Noah did, release the text in chunks for comment and discussion after it’s fully drafted. Or, I imagine, I could do something inbetween, something more akin to drafting online.

I’m going to post the project proposal in the next few days, I think, so that I can start talking about the argument and its structure. For now, though I’d really like to hear some opinions about the structural possibilities for a project like this in general, as distinct from the structure of this particular project. Some of how this goes will likely be determined by the press with which I hope to be working, but I think I’ll have a pretty significant role in shaping the process, so I’d love have some discussion here about the kinds of things I should be thinking about as I move forward.

It’s the amorphousness of all this that has me unable to refer to the project as anything other than a “project” to this point: it’s not a book, or at least not only a book, but I don’t really have another word for it as yet. As Bob Stein recently told me, it’s a blob — a book-like object. And at the moment, it certainly feels all-consuming enough to qualify, even if it isn’t made out of strawberry jam.

Planned Obsolescence, Scholarly Publishing, and Peer Review

I’m back at work on the peer review chapter this morning; I started re-reading it yesterday, but was unable to make much sense of what I’d done during the spring. Yesterday, at least, I was still firmly in the scrambled-eggs-for-brains stage, in which I was pretty sure that the sentences that I was reading were written in English, but wouldn’t have been willing to swear to their meaning in court. Today’s a bit better — a second full night’s sleep! — and so I’m re-re-reading, and have a better sense of what’s going on in the draft, I think.

In the meantime, though, Miriam has pointed to a number of conversations and issues with which this chapter (and the larger project) crosses paths, all of which reminds me that I really need to get cracking — and need to get some of the material I’m working with blogged sooner rather than later. I’m hoping to sketch out a plan for the project as a whole, and the blog’s relationship to it, in the next few days.


I had one of those moments earlier this week, in which I suddenly felt as though the fog had lifted and everything I’d been muddling through for the last year or so became clear. I’m really hoping that this clarity isn’t temporary — I’m hoping I’m actually onto something — but I’m extremely excited about it right now. And I’m hoping that writing about it here will help make the thing that I’m thinking a bit more real.

Here’s the backstory: for the last couple of years, as those of you who’ve been hanging around here know, I’ve been writing a good bit about the future of scholarly publishing, producing a range of blog posts, manifestos, and even a couple of full-on articles. And they’ve been exciting to produce, and they’ve led to a certain kind of awareness of my work in the field that hadn’t existed before. But I wasn’t sure how much work they were doing for me, in a long-range sense. And here’s where a kind of craven careerism creeps into my thinking about my work: I need to be working on a project of the sort that one would call a “book,” not least because the second book is pretty much key to full professordom around these parts, or if not key, then certainly something somewhere well above helpful.

But I’ve been having a couple of problems with thinking about a large second project. The first is that such a project, in a lot of ways, is diametrically opposed to the manifestos and articles I’ve been producing, all of which have been arguing about various aspects of the problem that the book poses for the future of academic discourse; to be making those arguments while working on a book has felt more than a little hypocritical, and counterproductive to my real goals for the academy. And the second is that I’ve tested out a number of different ideas for that second project, and while the one I spent the summer working on seems like it will eventually come to fruition, it’s just not evolved enough yet. And every article or manifesto I’ve written has taken time away from that big project, and has made its full evolution seem that much more remote.

So when I decided this week to reinstitute the half-hour focused morning writing sessions, I had to figure out what exactly it was I was going to work on. I’ve got an article that I’m interested in writing toward that projected next big project, but I’m really not ready to launch into it. On the other hand, I’ve got another article on the future of scholarly publishing — the peer review article I mentioned a couple of posts back — that I also want to work on, and that I have the sense could be put together fairly quickly.

So I spent the first day of morning writing blocking out that article — writing the introduction, laying out the sections, figuring out how to proceed — and was very pleased with the results. And then later in the day, while thinking about something else entirely, it suddenly hit me (and with such a force that I honestly can’t believe this hadn’t occurred to me sooner):

What if all this writing about scholarly publishing is the next “book” project?

A flood of questions followed right behind that: What would the overall argument of such a project be? How would it be structured? What pieces of such a project are already in place, and what yet needs to be figured out?

And most importantly: Is the project a book, or a “book”?

I’m pretty rapidly figuring out the answers to those questions, and I’m hoping to share some of those answers here soon. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share this much: there have been few joys in my career thus far quite comparable to the moment — and I’ve now had it on four separate occasions — of realizing that all the random stuff I was doing, often not sure why I was doing it, was adding up to something coherent, and that that something coherent could actually, possibly, be really good.


I’m finally acknowledging this morning that the holidays are over, that there are two weeks left before classes start, and that if I’m going to get anything done, now’s the moment. I’m hoping to return to some regular writing here in this new year, and so am going to begin with a few relatively random bullets, just trying to capture some of what I’ve been pondering.

Originally uploaded by KF
  • The big-ass storm that pounded the west coast seems finally to have passed. The radar pictures I watched much of the weekend were quite dramatic — rain, at one point last night, stretching solidly from Palm Springs to the east to the coast, and from southern Orange County to well north of San Luis Obispo. Storms of that size are like a homecoming of a sort — one of a few things that I really miss from Louisiana — but they’re unusual enough to be a bit of a pain here: flooded streets, crap drivers, and a general creeping damp cold that my heating system can’t seem to overcome. On the upside, however, is that the storm has left us with enough snow that the desperation of this year’s drought might be a bit ameliorated.
  • The first episode of season 5 of The Wire already has me hooked, but that was pretty much a foregone conclusion: combine my absolute adoration for the show’s narrative strategies, its complex web of characters, and its focus on the systemic obstacles to really fixing serious social problems with the fact that, this year, the media provides the primary system in question, and I’m one hundred and four percent sold.
  • I’m back to work on some MediaCommons projects, which I hope I’ll have more to show for, soon.
  • I’m also attempting to move forward with my own writing projects, but as usual, they’re getting short shrift. I keep saying that I want to find ways to integrate that writing with posting here, and I keep not following through. I’m determined to get some blog mileage out of the research I’m doing right now, though, and some project mileage out of the blog, too. I’d call it a new year’s resolution if I really believed in those.

More from the homefront, soon.


I am completely up to my eyeballs in theories of subjection right now, and am thoroughly enjoying the connections that the reading that I’m doing is helping me to make, but I just want to note, for the record, that I long to be able to read (and, I guess more to the point, comprehend) at a rate such that my to-be-read list grows more slowly than my have-read list. I’m not holding out much hope for such an eventuality, alas, but it would certainly make things better, where “better” is defined as me feeling like less of an ignoramus.


The Institute for the Future of the Book has today announced the release of its open source WordPress theme, CommentPress, which allows for easy online publication and discussion of a wide range of documents. My article on scholarly publishing, released earlier this spring by MediaCommons, was published in an early draft of CommentPress, and I’ve now put the finished release into use on a paper-in-development that’s, appropriately, about CommentPress.

Stop by if:book, download CommentPress, and read (and discuss) all about it…

Again with the Blegging

Somewhere, not terribly long ago, I heard or read someone make the argument that blogging was the first genuinely internet-native mode of publishing. I’ve been searching around for such a statement, and am coming up a bit dry. My fear is that this was just said to me in casual conversation, just someone opining. But, in the event that it wasn’t, have you come across anyone arguing something such as that, in, say, a citeable forum? I’d like to be able to use that point in the argument I’m trying to make right now, but right now it’s sitting there in that “arguably, blogs are the first…” mode that raises more questions than it answers.

[UPDATE, 11.00 am, CET: Interestingly, I’ve now found several sources that make the point exactly as I do, saying that blogs are “arguably the first” blah blah blah. Is there some magical point at which enough people suggesting-without-proving a point like that becomes convincing enough a part of the conventional wisdom that we can stop qualifying it with “arguably”? Or are such bits of hearsay precisely those that most demand questioning?]

Semi-Random Thoughts about Books

1. The box of them (a.k.a. le colis de mystère) is still nowhere to be found. The USPS remains clueless. La Poste no longer acknowledges that there was once a package with the number they’d assigned to it.

2. The ones I ordered, estimated to arrive sometime between Monday and today, haven’t. At least yet.

3. I cannot be positive, but I believe that in the missing box was a book about the history of the book, which it turns out I desperately need right now, not for the project I thought I needed it for, but for another one that I didn’t know I was going to be working on. So I’m about to start searching for decent online sources on the history of the book, because I don’t want to tempt fate by attempting to have any more books shipped to me. If you know of good sources that I should look at, please send them my way. Electronically.