Academics must not give up on monographs

Producing ‘real’ books builds academics’ collective public presence, and it is also the most irresistible scholarly challenge, says Ödül Bozkurt

April 21, 2016
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Mid-career and overwhelmed, I have a new worry causing much professional angst: what if I end my life as an academic without having written a book? And by that I mean a “real” book: a monograph, several hundred pages of my own crafting, shuffling around ideas, weaving and reweaving thoughts.

Admittedly, as a sociologist hiding in a management school, my evidence is both anecdotal and biased. Business and management as a field tends to be at the forefront of bulldozing academic tradition in the name of progress. Yet even in management studies, the great masters produced “big books”, in which they made their big statements. Among my peers, I know hardly anyone who has ambitions to do that now. We still write chapters. We edit books. We may even write textbooks. But few produce a monograph.

The first obvious reason is that the rewards and sanctions of the research excellence framework actively discourage book writing. A focus on the magic number of four outputs per individual completely disregards the fact that a book project is vastly more complex and time-consuming than any other academic project. It is journal articles (in certain outlets) that emerge as fetish objects under this regime, with a whole range of metrics taken to indicate quality. Without such shorthand indicators for books, they are easily seen by submissions administrators as higher risk. When senior colleagues hint that your idea for a book might not be the best option for your career progression, they are often not only empirically correct, they are also being kind.

Second, books based on academic research now appear less central to our imagined scholarly communities as reading and debating them may be a dwindling habit. One reason for this is the difficulty of incorporating monographs, which tend to offer unique and sometimes idiosyncratic perspectives, into teaching pegged to predetermined “learning outcomes”. Needless to say, setting the “right” amount of reading for optimal “student satisfaction” is a bit of a challenge to reconcile with monographs, too.

So what? Why not rejoice as obsolete conventions are abandoned, especially since academics who have completed books generally describe it as a pretty soul-testing experience? First, I am concerned by the absence of scholarly experts in today’s “big debates”. Although they may be invited on to the odd BBC Radio programme or called on for quotes by local papers, it is hard for them to make a major contribution if they don’t set out their ideas in books.

The academic voice has always been quieter than the journalistic one on many public issues, but what I observe now is full-scale retrenchment. More and more frequently, journalists with big, bold books are invited as keynote speakers to academic conferences, while references to these books keep streaming down the Twitter feeds of academics to corroborate the research we do. If the domain of public debate appears one-sidedly given over to popular books, it is not mere vanity or jealousy that makes me worried about that.

More important, something of inherent value is lost in unwritten academic books. Journal articles do not quite add up to an oeuvre in the way books do, even if they rack up the same number of pages. They are by now so standardised in format that they are often little more than templates with findings filled in. Books can afford to carry more flavour and personality. Points can be repeated so often – with irony, humour, scepticism and nuance – that they stay with the reader. And authors’ thoughts mature in the course of writing a book.

I am not an unqualified fan of Orhan Pamuk’s work, but the opening to his postmodern novel The New Life is rather brilliant: “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” Brilliant, because the claim is surreal yet plausible and recognisable. The promise of perhaps changing a reader’s life makes writing a book such an inviting adventure. I’d feel like I’d failed myself if I didn’t have a go.

Ödül Bozkurt is a senior lecturer in the department of business and management at the University of Sussex.

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