From where I sit: Think outside the book

June 3, 2010

A few years ago, I served on the Modern Language Association (MLA) Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. The committee was formed in the belief that young scholars in literary studies, unable to place their first books with university presses, were failing to get tenure and withering on the vine. That belief, we discovered, was wrong.

There was indeed a crisis in the monograph, and scholarly books were being squeezed by both sides: cost-cutting university presses unwilling to publish books that would sell no more than 200 copies, and cuts to university library budgets, which largely accounted for the dramatic decline in book sales.

But somehow, junior faculty were still getting tenure - even at institutions that had begun to require books to achieve this status, without giving faculty members the time or research support to write them.

Still, the crucial question remains: why are we continuing to demand that our junior faculty produce monographs that fewer and fewer libraries are going to purchase - and still fewer people are going to read? Can't we think of some other, better way to conduct scholarly exchange?

The problem begins, of course, with the dissertation: if you demand that graduate students write proto-books for their PhDs, the departments that hire them will (quite reasonably) expect them to be able to revise those proto-books into first books.

So at some point in the committee's deliberations, I drafted a tentative statement on "rethinking" the dissertation.

We eventually decided, however, to leave this task to others. We had covered almost every aspect of the tenure process in English and the modern languages; we thought that it was time to pass the baton.

Sidonie Smith, the current MLA president, has now picked up that baton and run with it. In a provocative pair of newsletter columns, Professor Smith challenges the discipline to move "beyond the dissertation" and to begin to imagine the new and various forms scholarly work can take.

She rightly puts especial emphasis on the digital humanities: "Doctoral students in the modern languages will increasingly create and use digital archives and invent multimodal forms of scholarly presentation and communication in the next decade. Why should the dissertation remain inflexibly wedded to traditional book-culture formats?"

Traditionalists will no doubt complain that people such as Smith and myself are trying to lower scholarly standards; perhaps we will even be accused of trying to replace dissertations with Twitter and blogs. For the record, I have nothing against books: I like them, I own a few and I plan to buy more. Some of my best friends write books.

But no discipline is so overinvested in the book, to the exclusion of all else, as English. Some of us are so habituated to this system that we simply don't know how to evaluate a piece of scholarship unless it comes in a binding.

But that system is slowly, surely, collapsing around us, even as new media for scholarly exchange are emerging. It is time, finally, for graduate programmes in English and the modern languages to ask themselves whether the proto-book is the only form of scholarship worthy of a doctoral degree - or whether we can begin to think outside the book.

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