Academic Obsolescence, Indeed

Mail is taking a while to catch up with me these days, given that it’s got to go through the postal service, campus mail, my department, campus mail, and the postal service again before it gets to me. So needless to say, I’m a little behind on some things. But I last week received this letter [Edited to remove link, as target is now long gone. Suffice it to say that this was a link to the Greenblatt letter. –KF], which was apparently sent to all members of the MLA.

Having just completed (yay!) a first full-length scholarly manuscript (known in various stages of its composition as My Stupid Book, and at others demarked by other adjectives), I’m uncertain whether to be relieved by the import of this letter — whew! perhaps this manuscript getting accepted or not won’t be the turn of fate that drives my tenure decision — or deeply chilled. Have I spent the last six years on a project that will never see print?

When I’m able to escape my own self-involvement, however, I can see that there are some deeper issues to be pondered here. Is academic publishing obsolete? Aside from those of us still trying to get tenure, will anyone miss it if it is? And if it’s not, how can it escape the fiscal crisis in which it’s mired? Certain refereed journals on the web have begun to make inroads into that avenue of academic publishing, such that having an article in Postmodern Culture, say, has the something of the same clout as having an article in Representations would. Can the same be done for the monograph? Will anyone stand — er, sit — for reading a monograph on the web? Or is the scholarly monograph all but dead?


  1. I got the same letter from the MLA and wondered about some of these same questions. As a guy who’s written a poor-to-fair scholarly book just so he could get tenure, a book that hasn’t been read by anybody but the poor bastards listed on the “Acknowledgements” page (current sales ranking: 695,858), I can honestly say that not too many people would miss the scholarly monograph. Correction–we wouldn’t be worse off without most scholarly monographs. I think there are much better ways to determine tenure decisions other than weighing publishing accomplishments on some arbitrary scale, especially considering the fact that recent hires, say, within the last 8 to 10 years are facing much steeper publishing requirements than our senior colleagues. However, in most departments, these senior colleagues are the ones making tenure and retention decisions. Instead of writing more books, we should invite people into our classrooms, so they can watch us teach.

  2. It’s clear we need some kind of reshuffling of priorities. But places that consider themselves research universities (my old alma mater among them) not only fail to take teaching seriously as a criterion for tenure, but in fact look with great suspicion on those who do take teaching seriously. There’s some kind of assumption that you can’t be both serious about your research and serious about undergraduate education. So I fear that any shifts in priorities in those places (the ones that, for better or for worse, many other schools look to in setting their own agendas) will require new kinds of ways to assess research itself, as they’re unlikely to abandon that as their ultimate litmus test.

    And you know, if you’d made all those folks in the acknowledgements buy copies, you might be somewhere up around 645,000 or so…

  3. Proposition 1. We already miss diminished respect for faculty, particularly fresh, critical people capable of extremely arcane reasoning. This is manifest in the paucity of our current societal expectations of education. Well, a few people miss it. [insert elitist dispairing very un-PC tome here.]

    Proposition 2: Yep, the market has decided and academic publishing is superdead. It’s not sad, it’s just an interface issue. And as long as people can print out web-based monographs and read them in bed, they will. You’re cool.


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