(*And for your musical accompaniment while reading, a throwback to the swinging nineties.)

I have had this quote from Cathy Davidson on the back burner for a while. She discusses the subject of academic publishing and specifically the monograph in English studies. Her main point is that nobody buys and nobody reads academic monographs in English:

Ask any book editor at a university press. Englishers write a lot of long (too long) books, sometimes without much regard for the fact that someone out there will be reading them. Maybe that’s realistic, given that relatively few English profs buy other Englisher books–and they assign relatively fewer in their courses. But it shouldn’t be that way. If we believe in what we do (and I happen to be a believer), we should be writing for readers, first of all, and, second, we should be reading one another’s work and, third, we should be teaching it. Right now, a sale of 300 or 400 copies of a monograph is a lot. That’s appalling. The result, materially, is that we do not pay our own way and certainly not that of junior members of our profession. Intellectually, our students never learn the value the genre of the monograph because we teach excerpts in our courses, even our graduate courses. We do not teach the kind of extended, nuanced thinking that goes into the genre that our very graduate students will have to produce for tenure. We say the scholarly monograph represents the epitome of our profession and a hurdle to “lifetime employment” at a research university. So we do not practice what we preach, adding to the crisis in scholarly publishing and the crisis in the profession of English in particular.

I think that this comment is, on the whole, fairly accurate. I didn’t read many monographs through until I started my dissertation, and then I read too many of them through before I realized that it was the nature of the genre not to be read but consulted. (I did learn something from the experience: that you have to read monographs through until you understand when it’s acceptable to consult them instead.) And while I’m still fairly new to graduate teaching, I don’t (as a rule) assign entire monographs to my classes.

Anyway, assigning monographs in classes doesn’t seem like a viable solution to the problem. As Davidson points out, they’re not meant to be read. An academic book is a sustained investigation of a narrow issue or problem. As such they might have a place in Ph.D. programs–though I think it’s telling that I wasn’t assigned many in mine.

More to the point, however: they’re basically not teachable. Occasionally you might find one clear enough for really sharp undergrads: Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel and Christine Korsgard’s Creating the Kingdom of Ends are two I’ve seen floating around my campus lately. But it’s rare to have the opportunity to teach a course that lends itself to such focus. And when we do, the nature of the academic workplace–with all of us overextended in several directions at once–is that if we do create a class around someone’s narrow scholarly focus, it’s not going to be another person’s, but our own. And that is because of something they did teach us in graduate school: good time management.

Davidson concludes:

There’s something here [in this book collection she writes about] for everyone, articles selected from the pages of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing by someone who understands the business of publishing in a world where, as we have seen from the recent demise of Wall Street, there’s been an awful lot of over-extension, inflation, devaluation, Ponzi schemes, and sometimes, well, highway robbery.

Who are the robber baron’s? Sometimes (yes, I mean you, English professors!), it is our own short-sighted book writing and book buying habits that are the problem. Some of the “crisis of scholarly publishing” is of our making. Sometimes the Ponzi schemes start with us.

Throughout the essay Davidson has nodded, however briefly, at many of the forces that combine to make the book-for-tenure model a bad one: administrative, financial, market, disciplinary. Here all those concerns get truncated into “our own short-sighted book writing habits,” which allows her to circle back around to the idea that the crisis of scholarly publishing is really our problem. The suggestion seems to be that professors collectively lack virtue. Her solution is that we start buying, reading, and assigning academic monographs as a way of acting in good faith–to a system she describes as a Ponzi scheme, with ourselves as the perpetrators!

That last part especially troubles me. Academia might be a Ponzi scheme: for all I know it’s an apt metaphor, though I’d like a few more specifics before I buy in. But why should professors shoulder so much of the (moral and financial) penitence when, as Davidson acknowledges, there are a lot of other factors involved? And if these things are the case, I’m still not clear on why we should busy ourselves reading still more books that aren’t often meant to be read through.

Until we get those explanations, I think these suggestions work best in the category of things better honored in the breach than the observance.

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