Monday, June 28, 2010
Research, Teaching, and What Ails English Studies (a brief response to Cathy Davidson)
I would recommend readers to Cathy Davidson’s recent post at the HASTAC blog, “Research is Teaching." She helpfully puts the basic drift of her argument in bullet-points, which I’ll paste here:
1. Most doctorate-granting departments require one monograph for tenure, two for promotion to full professor.
2. Yet we do not support colleagues whom we believe have written the finest examples of the genre. We don’t buy them, we don’t assign them.
3. We do not teach monographs even on the graduate level and so miss the chance to teach graduate students how to evaluate and master the form that we say represents the finest articulation of our disciplinary form of thinking.
4. By not requiring that our students study monographs, we are making monographs so unprofitable that many university presses want out of the market.
5. We thereby undercut our own chances and that of our younger colleagues and graduate students of having venues for publishing that crucial monograph required for tenure or promotion.
She’s aware that there may be a problem with the “book for tenure” model, though that is not her focus here. Rather, her point is that there’s something awry in the fact that many people who teach at institutions that effectively require a book (or more) for tenure don’t actually assign the fruits of all that academic labor in their graduate classes.
Davidson doesn’t address the root issue of the phenomenon she describes: most academic monographs adapted from dissertations simply don’t adapt very well to the needs of a graduate classroom. Most first books are simply too specialized for the kinds of courses many of us teach.
Some of this might admittedly vary by institution. At my institution, most graduate students who succeed on the job-search are generally hired for teaching-intensive positions at 4-year colleges, so our aim in teaching graduate students is really to help prepare students to teach the material to *undergraduates*. Thus, a really solid introduction to a critical edition of a text is more likely to add value than a very specialized monograph adapted from a dissertation. Also of value are well-organized anthologies. I recently assigned the anthologies “Modernism and Colonialism” (Begam and Moses, Eds.), and “Geomodernisms” (Winkiel and Doyle, Eds.) for a course on “Modernism, Colonialism, and Sexuality,” and was very happy with the decision.
Yes, the fact that most English studies academics don’t buy other scholars’ monographs poses a problem for publishers, but I think the explanation is simple: we don’t assign those monographs because we don’t value them very highly as pedagogical aids. Davidson’s solution to that problem in (4) above sounds a little too much like “If only I keep buying CDs, I can save the record industry.” It doesn’t work like that. She also doesn’t acknowledge the issue that many of us contend with when we design courses: our graduate students, on limited stipends, simply can’t afford to spend much more than $100 per course on books, and monographs can be prohibitively expensive. (Relatedly, many faculty teaching outside of elite institutions, simply don’t have the research budgets—or, for that matter, the salaries—to buy a lot of specialized books. We depend on libraries.)
The other solution to What Ails Us is still the right one: we simply shouldn’t be requiring a book for tenure at most institutions. It should be a balance of publishing, teaching, collegiality/service, and a general sense of academic seriousness and competency. (In actuality, I think many tenure reviews already work that way.)
Questions for discussion: do you use monographs authored by peers when you teach either undergraduates or graduate students? What are some examples of monographs that have worked well in classes you have taught recently?
I don’t assign monographs, though for graduate courses I usually put a shelf of them on reserve. Most monographs are structured with a general theoretical and/or historical introduction followed by several chapters that ‘read’ various primary texts in light of whatever the main idea is. Unless you’re reading every one of those texts in your course and really, really interested in that particular theoretical or historical issue, a monograph is just way more than you need (as well as way more than you have time for). I assign articles or, sometimes, chapters, if they can stand alone well enough.
Thanks so much for this very nice response. We don’t disagree, by the way, I was taking the pragmatic short-term route in this essay but, as I note at the end, I’ve been working for almost a decade promoting new standards. I’ll simply quote from that ending here, with many thanks again for your attention and all best wishes: “The present one-book-for-tenure and two-for-full-professor requirements are an impoverished way of measuring one of the most important features of academic life. If the academy is that designated place in society where ideas may be pursued without the constraints of politics or making a profit, then we need to grasp that our role is to be lifelong disseminators of learning (not just education), lifelong inspirers of freethinking creativity. We need standards commensurate to our mission. We need flexible measures to predict who is most likely to have the zeal, passion, commitment, and intellectual ability to contribute to society when obtaining tenure and promotion are no longer the objective. We should be seeking an insatiable quality of mind, as evidenced by publication (including multimedia, online) in the most compelling way imaginable for a particular research project.
A scholarly monograph is only one of many ways to communicate our research and ideas. The misalignment in the current academy between our requirements for tenure and our book-buying and book-assigning practices should inspire us to think about what constitutes the best form for conveying our research and ideas, to rethink the scholarly monograph as the only form. I am not suggesting a loosening of standards. Simply giving up standards means that you grant lifelong employment to whoever comes next and freeze out future scholars from the opportunity. An argument for better and more diverse standards is not an argument on behalf of no standards. Quite the opposite.
HASTAC (pronounced haystack, an acronym for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) is a virtual network I cofounded with David Theo Goldberg and others in 2002 (see Davidson and Goldberg, Future of Thinking). We are currently joining task forces, commissions, and committees sponsored by the MLA and other professional associations to support tenure guidelines that endorse many different forms of scholarly production. Along with other professional organizations, we are insisting that multiple forms of publication (including online and multimedia) should be counted for tenure in our digital age. We are also supporting the work of other organizations in thinking through how those different modes of production might be assessed. Reassessing our mechanisms for evaluating the quality and quantity of scholarly productivity is a task long overdue.
However, I am a realist and know that even if every scholarly organization in the country endorsed a more flexible set of assessments for tenure and promotion, it might still be a decade (or two or three) before most departments of English vote for such a change. So while were all waiting for a change that must and eventually will come, I am suggesting a short-term fix whose benefits are immediate and significant. Teaching our research in the form that currently we say we value most is good for pedagogy and the best way to support our research now, today.”
As long as the monographs are peer-reviewed, they don’t need to be published in dead-tree versions. Make them available as free ebooks.
That only cuts part of the cost—you’d still have to pay editors and proofreaders—but imagine a foundation that publishes X books a year and subsidizes the editors and proofreaders. There would be tremendous competition to be one of the X authors, but that might be all to the good. Extreme culling for quality and free dissemination would guarantee a high profile.
Perhaps I should also add that there are people who are neither students nor professors who read specialized texts.
Cathy, thanks for your feedback. Somehow I missed the essay you quoted from in your comment. I think this must be it:
I’m certainly sympathetic to the general gist of this. A few years ago (when I was first on the verge of coming up for tenure, with an extensive array of literary blog posts, and a rather thin peer-review publication record), I proposed some sort of system of “blog peer review.”
The discussion on the proposal was interesting, though it seemed like no one really knew the way forward then (or now):
Needless to say, I’d be curious to hear your own feedback on this.
All universities should be looking for professors who can teach. There is absolutely no connection between being able to fashion an *original* argument about literature and being able (a) to teach students about literature; (b) to teach students to create their own arguments about literature. So while professors should be doing research, that research should be focused on the real work of the humanities: transmitting skills and knowledge to the next generation.
If universities were to create different job positions—tenure-track teachers and tenure-track writers—this would no longer be a problem.
It also seems to me that more humanities scholarship should pay attention to the pedagogical issues at stake in their research. If it took you ten years to understand the historical context of *The Tempest*, how are we to teach undergrads—or even grad students—how to be historicists? If more scholars took the rhetorical position of writing as teachers, of teaching their readers the material, and if fewer moved away from the debate-model of writing, the work itself might be useful in the classroom.
And then, as Zora notes, we need to move into complete web publishing of scholarly research. It must be absolutely free for anyone to access. Once we have a group of professors who are given tenure to research and write, we will also have a group whose job should be the peer review of other scholarship. Each university can host peer-reviewed archives of scholarship on-line.
When I heard Dr. Davidson make this claim at MLA 2008, and again in this article, I was skeptical: “we are infamous, compared with faculty members in virtually all other fields, for not buying one another’s monographs and for not assigning them in our undergraduate or graduate classrooms.” Do mathematicians and physicists and entomologists and philosophy teachers really do more of that than “we” do?
Josh: I can only speak for mathematics, but the answer is “yes”. This is breaking down now, in that mathematicians are switching aggressively to electronic distribution, but historically if there was a monograph in your field, and it’s not too expensive (some publishers charge 300 dollars, and make all of their money from libraries), then you probably own it.
Though I suspect monographs play a different role in mathematics—most stuff sees the light of day in journals (or these days, PDF preprints) first. Monographs serve to consolidate an existing literature.
I’m in history, not literature, so the relationship between monographs and general readerships is a little different: some monographs are, indeed, abstruse and unpleasant reading, but there are enough exceptions that some monographs end up being moderately popular and sometimes make excellent teaching texts. I routinely assign monographs for upper-division courses precisely because I want students to see how a serious large scale argument is made and why it matters. One of my favorites in recent years is a book from which most people only assign the more successful chapters, but reading the entire work demonstrates how scholarship can fail but nonetheless represent a significant advance in knowledge of the field. It helps that it’s an argument directed mostly at particular scholars’ interpretations of evidence, and it’s quite open about the fight being waged. Great fun!
There’s at least one monograph that is (a) the most recent major work on exactly what I do, as well as (b) not in our library. However it is also (c) over $200, and (d) the published version of a dissertation that’s available online