Careers—and careerism—in academia and criticism

Careers in criticism examines what D.G. Myers thinks can be done about the possible problem of lousy literary criticism. It’s worth reading, but I suspect that the other problem, which goes undiscussed in this post, is the difficulty of deciding what is good criticism: many people complain that lots of academic and other criticism is bad (I probably count myself in their ranks much of the time), but they tend to disagree with what would be good in its stead. Deciding is particularly hard in a field where wildly divergent ideas of what constitutes quality exists. Therefore you get… gridlock, high school politics, and so forth.

How to solve this? Myers says:

[Elberry] thinks that I am suggesting that “critics should write about less well-known books,” but I suggest this only as a method, a practical expedient, for undertaking their real responsibility: namely, to contribute to literary knowledge. The demand upon critics (in the university and out) must be, not to “write something new and different,” but to add something new and different to the store of human understanding.

I bet that most people who are writing just to “write something new and different” would argue they are adding to the store of human knowledge. I definitely agree with Myers’ formulation on a high level but am not sure how to implement this on a lower level. The best ideas I can come up resolve issues in academic publishing: right now, it can take years to publish an essay in a peer-reviewed journal, which then locks it behind pay walls on the Internet. The length raises the obvious and uncomfortable question: if it takes three years to publish a paper, is the paper really that important? That this process takes forever is hardly new; Lucky Jim mocked it in the 1950s.

My solution: have peer-reviewed journals “publish” online, and have publication be a link to the author’s paper on the author’s website. The journal’s editor could also copy that paper to their own site after anonymous peer review. That way, the information is freely available, especially to people in countries where most universities can’t afford journal subscriptions under the present model; the theoretical “size” of a journal could be limitless, although the practicalities of reading would probably still limit that size; there would still be a recognized body of work that makes up, say “Modern Fiction Studies;” and the journal could still issue a print edition every n months or years for those who prefer it. This would cause the journal to lose the revenue stream that currently comes from publishers, but that stream seems to be so small that universities could replace it in return for the prestige of housing the journal. Alternately, the exceedingly low cost of web publishing—one could buy server hosting with 200GB+ per month transfer limits and so forth for $100/month—could obviate the (relatively) high cost structures that journals already have while reducing barriers to entry.

Current top-notch journals have no incentive to adopt this model, as it would challenge their hegemony, but if lesser journals began adopting it and scholars preferred it, the quality in my wiki-like journal would rise, and competition might force top-notch journals to adopt the same strategies if they’re going to retain their position. Since publishing in English lit seems mostly a prestige and influence game, this strategy has few drawbacks I can perceive. If anyone knows of a reputable journal (which is to say: one backed by a university with at least a few years of regular publication) that’s already doing this, I’d love to hear about it.

The other change is one I read about in Freakonomics, the blog: require peer reviewers to say publish/no publish on each paper, and give comments, rather than giving comments with the implication that, if they’re not taken, one will automatically be rejected. Rather than having a three- to four-draft round-robin time-waster of questionable benefit, a peer reviewer would have to say “yes/no,” on the first iteration in its current condition, and the reviewer’s comments would be an option rather than requirement. This structural change seems less important than the one above.

Anyway, given that I’m in grad school for English lit, expect more on this topic in the future, since I’m now tasting the peer review that many others have called bitter and find that they’re mostly right.


EDIT: Myers has a follow-up post, with a response to some of my comments, here.

3 responses

  1. You’re wading out into a rip tide here, but kudos for that! I have a few thoughts as an academic outsider — i.e., a published, but independent, scholar.

    First, you are quite right to point out that it is difficult, if not impossible, to decide what even constitutes good criticism, since judgment of both the criticism and its target(s) is subjective. One often leans in the direction of assessing value in terms of the number of subsequent citations, etc. This is a metric, sure, but not the only, nor even the right, one. A better metric might incorporate the longevity of relevance. Even that, of course, is not entirely sufficient.

    And “adding to the store of human knowledge”, as used here, is also subjective. At its most literal, adding to the store of human knowledge would include such mundane trivia as all the past winners of American Idol, etc. What Myers means is adding something of value to that store, something worth making room for — and again, we’re back to subjective judgment. But though it is worth thinking about, this problem of subjectivity cannot be solved by us, so I will set it aside.

    So, to consider your suggested solution. You say a peer-reviewed journal should “publish online”, where all that is “published” is simply a link to content already on the web. Do I have that right? So, what is the peer-reviewed journal actually doing? The work is published already, as soon as the author makes it available on his own website, and people will start finding it on their own right away. The journal, then, is merely publicizing it. There may be some value in this, of making a journal’s audience, presumably larger than the author’s, aware of the paper. But I don’t really see how this is a solution to the current problem. True, it would overcome the problem of content locked behind online “pay walls”, but on the other hand, why should such “pay walls” be a barrier to scholarship? What’s to stop you consulting a print copy through your library system? In any case, I do see a benefit to the author in your proposal, but what is the incentive for the journal? In the current system, the journal has exclusivity, but that would be gone under your system. And what would your incentive be to the peer-reviewers? Right now, peer-reviewers have a hand in decided whether scholarship reaches an audience, but in your system, their efforts would determine only whether the “journal” chose to endorse or publicize a work already available online.

    The other problem you mentioned was delay. “If it takes three years to publish a paper,” you ask, “is the paper really that important.” I think this is sort of beside the point. Would it be desirable that papers reach their audiences more quickly? Yes, absolutely! But this is literary criticism we’re talking about, not a research race to cure Parkinson’s Disease (and patent the results). We literary scholars think what we are doing is very important, but in the long run, is it? Is it really? Important in what way, and important to whom? Do our many literary essays extend human knowledge and understanding? Well, sure, I suppose so, in the same way anything extends it (e.g., transcripts of The Daily Show). But does it matter than it take three weeks or two years for a post-colonial interpretation of The Lord of the Rings to make its way into readers’ consciousnesses? What is our real and long-term value to and impact on the human condition? Aye, there’s the rub. We can argue that it has some, certainly, and I think it does, but can we argue that its impact and value are so great that we have to rush out the maximum material in the minimum time?

    “This would cause the journal to lose the revenue stream that currently comes from publishers, but that stream seems to be so small that universities could replace it in return for the prestige of housing the journal.” But they currently have both the revenue stream and the prestige. You’re asking them to give up one for something they have already. That’s a non-starter. In addition, in this day of razor-thin margins (for universities not already losing money), it’s asking a lot that they give up any revenue, no matter how small. Universities, moreover, are among the latest of late-adopters. You will have a hard time convincing them of the benefits of giving up a tangible print-journal for an intangible “virtual journal” — whether it’s cheaper or not. If the journal area going to become virtual, why not the universities themselves?

    You suggest, “but if lesser journals began adopting it and scholars preferred it” — but why would they? They would like the faster time-to-market, undoubtedly, but would that be enough to overcome the advantage in reputation of a prestige print-journal over a new, upstart online journal, already a “lesser” journal (your words)? No, absolutely not. The scholar would choose the stodgy old print-journal every time, content to add “forthcoming” on his vita and simply wait. Could the online journal eventually gain acceptance and build up a reputation to match its offline rivals? Maybe, after a very long uphill climb. It wouldn’t hurt to convince some big-name scholars to contribute to it as a special favor, if they would. :)

    “If anyone knows of a reputable journal (which is to say: one backed by a university with at least a few years of regular publication) that’s already doing this, I’d love to hear about it.” Is a reputable journal only one backed by a university? You see, your own value judgments creep in. But if your solution were to work, the threshold to “reputability” would have to be opened a bit wider. :) Having said that, take a look at The Heroic Age. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness online peer-reviewed journal, published now for over ten years, with an ISSN number, edited by genuine scholars from real universities.

    Jason

    Like

  2. Pingback: Problems in the Academy: Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University | The Story's Story

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