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Alex Reid wrote an excellent rejoinder against academic book publishing last week. The post was inspired by a discussion at the recent Computers and Writing conference about traditional publishing versus blogging and other forms of digital publishing. It’s an old, perhaps even a boring topic at this point, so Alex turns the subject back on itself: most scholarly monograph book sales, he reminds us, are measured in the low hundreds. In the face of this fact, Alex asks the incisive question,

why do we keep writing books that no one wants to buy or read?!?

And he answers it too: “because academic books are not written to be read; they are written to get tenure.” I fear it’s even worse than that, for tenure at least counts as an external goal, even if an idiotic sole reason to publish anything. The more general (and even worse) answer is, academic books are not written to be read; they are written to have been written. That’s true for other sorts of scholarly writing too, journal articles and the like. It’s what I’ve previously called write-only publishing or vampire publishing.

In his post, Alex proposes some solutions, including massively co-authored books written in a single voice. Even though I’m participating in such a project right now, it’s certainly not the sole answer. A better prompt is the one on which Alex ends: “how can I communicate with the world?”

In the comments, Benjamin Robertson poses a number of questions to Alex, among them a concern about equating sales with success. Alex backpedaled a bit in response, but I’d stand by his original point: hyperspecialization be damned, we shouldn’t be striving to write books that will only appeal to a couple hundred people. Scholarly books shouldn’t have to be bestsellers, but they’d better damn well try to speak to a broader audience than just a scholar’s immediate colleagues. Moreover, scholars have a responsibility to act as public servants to a degree, no matter if their institutions are public or private. We ought to think in public. We ought to be expanding our spheres of influence and inspiration with every page we write. We ought to be trying to influence the world, not just the blinkered group that goes to our favorite conference. And that principle ought to hold no matter your topic of interest, be it Proust or videogames or human factors engineering or the medieval chanson de geste. No matter your field, it can be done, and people do it all the time. They’re called “good books.”

On that note, Robertson also poses a question to me in the comments on Alex’s post:

And Ian, it’s somewhat funny to me that you agree with everything in this post and then announce on Twitter that your page proofs have arrived from Minnesota [for my forthcoming book How to Do Things with Videogames -ib]. Can you say something about your apparent jadedness with this system and you continued participation in it? No need to justify, as many of us feel similarly, but yours seems to be both a hyper-jadedness and a hyper-participation.

And the answer is really simple. I am not jaded about books, not even scholarly books, not even scholarly presses! I love books, writing, reading, and publishing them. I’m jaded about useless, narrowly-focused, terribly written, obtuse, turgid, bullshit books that scholars seek to vampire publish. I’m jaded about academics who believe they have a right to live in insular, esoteric, closed-minded echo chambery country clubs. And worse, I’m jaded about those who endorse vampire publishing as a desirable and even a rightful privilege of a scholarly life. Tick the boxes, publish the books, get tenure, all without leaving the comfort of your ivory tower office!

The reason there is no irony in my simultaneous support of Alex’s position and my continued participation in scholarly publishing is quite simple: people actually want to read my books. They buy them, both in print and electronic format. And I’ve tried very hard as an author to learn how to write better and better books, books that speak to a broader audience without compromising my scholarly connections, books that really ought to exist as books. Imagine that!

published May 30, 2011

Comments

  1. Ben Robertson

    Thanks for your response Ian. Perhaps I take your manner on Twitter to reflect jadedness when I should not.

    However, while there can be no doubt that your track record demonstrates that people want to read what you write, I don’t know that other scholars are *simply* participating in vampire publishing. That is, many no doubt want people to read what they write and even try to write things that they think people will want to read but do so under the constraint of a system where they do not have any power to do anything but what the system tells them to do.

    To be clearer: those entrenched in positions of tenure and power do not fight for change because they are comfortable and/or the system has served them well. Not all, but some (perhaps many). Those without tenure might want something different, but are obligated by the system to reproduce it if they want to stay within it. Not all, but some (perhaps many).

    Don;t hate the player, hate the game. Perhaps I being unfair, but your answer here seems to reflect a “by the bootstraps” mentality that does not account for a system that often rewards (with rare exceptions perhaps only rewards) participating in the system in the manner you condemn. Given how hard many academics have worked to get their degrees and their jobs I am not surprised that many of them have developed Stockholm syndrome and now identify with the system itself. Even those who have not may find it easier to go with the flow than try to overcome it. Excusable? Perhaps not. Understandable? I think so, especially when many do not have the luxury of tenure, the tenure track, or even full time employment. They want to remain within the profession and are not in a position to do anything but what allows them to do so. Of course, again, that does not mean we should accept the system, but it does mean that we might empathize with people who see no way out of it.

    Nothing to see here as I am saying what people already know.

    But several things.

    First, I would guess that most people in academia do care about being read and also that many of them work to make their work readable–by some audience if not the public at large. But of course this point raises the question: what is an audience? Cannot an audience be narrowly defined? Why must an audience be large? I am likely imputing to you claims that you are not making here, but i sense here an argument that we should be writing for more people than we are. Your argument is that most academics are not interested in writing for anyone, but I disagree: they are simply caught in a system that cannot allow for reading. Who has time to read when we all must write! write! write!? My point is that I think people want to be read, but they may not always want to be read by everyone. They may not be capable of being read by everyone. They may not work in a field that can be read by everyone. Sometimes the difficulty of a book or essay has to do with the difficult of the subject matter under discussion and not a failure on the part of the writer. I would assume you would agree with this point just as I recognize that sometimes people cannot write well to save their lives. But I suspect that most people do try to write well and that few simply say: “go to hell, I am privileged and I will write badly if I want to.” But then, perhaps my experience is narrow.

    Second, yes, your books sell. And I don’t doubt that you work hard at writing them in any number of ways. However, is that why they sell? Better, is that the main reason why they sell? Let’s limit ourselves to literature/culture departments and consider the subject matter of books that get people tenure. Some write on Shakespeare, others on television. Some write on closet dramas, and others on film. Some write about lyric poetry, and some on music. In each of those pairs, is not one term likely to be more popular because it speaks to a broader audience? To the public’s tastes more broadly than does the other? Is it not possible that, in addition to their being well-written, your books sell because you write about a subject that appeals to a greater number of people–at the very least those interested in culture and philosophy as well as those interested in video games (which, last I checked, are even more popular than television and film)? If the answer is “yes,” that’s fine and since you’re one of the people who identified this field and made it possible, you should enjoy that success. The question then becomes, for me, whether scholars should have to write about only those things that a broad segment of the public cares about. I don’t see this argument being made in the context of quantum mechanics or public policy. Of course, there are popular books written about innovations in those fields, but they are often written by people who are not working directly in those fields (they’re written by science writers and Joe Klein). As for your books: do you expect that Alien Phenomenology will sell as well as your books on games? I am looking forward to reading it myself, and I hope it does. If it does, I suspect that it will do so based on your past success and that were you to write about philosophy only from here on out, that you would experience a drop in sales because the subject simply does not appeal to as many people as does your other interests.

    Third, perhaps I put it poorly, but my point about sales is not that they don’t correlate with success (although there are other measures of success), but rather that they do not correlate necessarily with readership. I but books (and I suspect many people do as well) that I never read (hello Neal Stephenson!). A library may buy a single copy that is read by many people (in whole or in part). My argument with Alex was that people often say that “no one reads mongraphs”. We can revise that to “no one reads bad monographs.” Fine. But I don’t know how we are measuring readership. What about the people who read all of the essays that became the monograph? What about the colleagues who read draft chapters and manuscripts? What about students who read photocopies of chapters? Now, not all monographs will enjoy success on any of these fronts, but we really don’t know. If you DO know, I would like to see the data or where that data comes from. Again, sales give us some measure, but I am not sure it’s an adequate one.

    Thank for taking the time to write this post and answer my previous questions.

    Reply
  2. Ian Bogost

    This was a long comment, Ben! Let me try to respond.

    On point one:

    I should reiterate that I do not believe, as you do, that most academics want to be read or that they want to make their work readable. I think there’s plenty of evidence for this.

    But more importantly, I’m not saying academics should want to be read by everyone. I do think that’s a noble goal, and not a goal of a sell-out, but I tried to be careful in the post to clarify that I think academics should want to talk to a larger and larger audience, and that they should do so step by step.

    Tenure is not about publishing quantity, it’s about publishing impact. People who “hate the game” tend to misunderstand this fact, and in their defense it’s a misunderstanding that starts very early… I think this is the point you’re trying to make about Stockholm syndrome. Those who seek and achieve impact always enjoy greater reward, but I suspect they more frequently collect a reward like tenure as a side dish rather than as an entrée.

    On point two:

    Let’s focus on the humanities specifically. Anything, anything whatsoever in the humanities can become a successful book—if it’s a good book. Good books are harder to write and publish than are vampire books. I really do believe that it is every scholar’s responsibility to make their chosen subject “popular,” that is, to make it resonate with a contemporary audience. It doesn’t take a “popular culture” subject to do that, even if I’ll happily admit it might be easier in that case.

    About Alien Phenomenology, I don’t know if it will sell as well! But I’ve certainly been working hard to make it more likely to do so, both in terms of the writing and the publishing. It’s certainly the case that there are many very, very successful books of theory and philosophy that sell much better than my books on videogames, after all. Also keep in mind the point I made above… I’m not saying every project should strive for the bestseller list. I’m saying that every project should strive for more than just whatever happens. Ironically, there’s a section of Alien Phenomenology about writing books, which is germane to this topic!

    On point three:

    I think this is a silly argument. Sure, some people buy books and don’t read them. And some people read books without buying them. It’s just one metric, and it’s not a bad one.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a lengthy response. I offered shortish answers in an effort to elicit further discussion.

    Reply
  3. Mark N.

    I largely agree with the diagnosis of the problem, but I do think there’s a “sell-out” risk to keep in mind, and a bit of self-checking is needed to write a book that you personally think is a good book, communicating valuable ideas. But with all those caveats, then also writing a book that people want to read seems like a good goal.

    I worry that scholarly publishing is starting to take the easier route, though. One is just to pick popular topics, hence the X and Philosophy series, which sells very well. You may even have benefited from this a bit: some proportion of the Racing the Beam purchasers probably just bought it as “book from an academic press about the Atari, wow!”, and it could have had almost any content at all in it. Maybe those are okay hooks to get people into things anyway, but it seems like a risk, and you already see it affecting the subjects academic presses are more keen to publish in.

    The other move, long popular in nonfiction writing, is the take-an-extreme-position one, Thing: Why It’s Ruining America and Our Lives. You can, again, package good work under an obnoxious title like that, and I think historians have been among the better at doing so. But I worry about a future where it’s all Clay Shirky v. Nicholas Carr duels. On the one hand, people do want to read those, much more than they want to read books that take less clear middle-ground positions. Debate between exaggerated positions might even be informative. But I guess I’m a bit weary of its prevalence, and its likely future increased prevalence.

    Reply
  4. Alex Reid

    Thanks Ian. I agree with what you’re saying here. I’d say there are two inter-related problems. One is rhetorical and the other market-economic. As a writer, one can take a rhetorical approach that envisions a broad audience. I can ask, how do I address an audience that would include, for example, the 230 grad students and faculty in my department and others like them around the world? That’s an imagined audience in the 10,000s that would inevitably include academics beyond English and non-academics as well. Of course it’s just an imagined audience and I’m not sure how well I can imagine that audience. Where does it stand in the continuum between “specialists in my field” and a “general non-fiction audience”? I suppose the answer is that this is one of the rhetorical challenges of writing (and that this is why editors are important).

    However there is still a market-economic problem. Even if we were all able to target a large audience, there is still a question of how many books can the market bear? If there are 1000 such books in English each year, aren’t we still likely to gravitate toward the few that target us more specifically as an audience? We still end up with average sales in the 100s with the 80/20 long tail thing in effect.

    So I agree that we should address a broader audience but also recognize that if we are all going to be authors that we will need a publishing mechanism that makes economic sense. Now maybe the issue is that we don’t all need to be writing books, but that’s another issue.

    Reply
  5. Ian Bogost

    @Mark

    I’m in agreement with you about the X and Philosophy problem and the Thing: Why it is Ruining America and Our Lives problem. The latter is really a trade press problem, even if it is a real one (the first chapter of How to Do Things with Videogames addresses that problem directly, in fact). The former is really quite worrying at times; the philosophy section of bookstores is basically filled with that stuff now (Graham Harman once joked with me that perhaps someday we will see books like “Kant and Philosophy”). But I think such concerns really exist at the extremes, and they don’t necessarily constitute a sell-out risk. And ironically, my understanding is that the X and Philosophy series still hasn’t managed to keep Open Court in good financial stead, so perhaps its not as good a strategy as it looks.

    @Alex

    I think the harsh point to keep in mind is that we’re all *not* going to be *successful* authors. Or maybe book authors at all! Perhaps this is a fact we should include in your market-economic solutions.

    Reply
  6. Alex Reid

    A good point Ian. And maybe if we get rid of the book-for-tenure business then many academics will decide they don’t want to write books.

    Reply
  7. Ben Robertson

    Thanks for your response Ian. I doubt we’re very far apart on some of these issues, if any of them.

    Just a few things.

    One, I don’t know anyone (in the humanities anyway; my brother-in-law is a mathematician, which is a whole other thing) who explicitly says “I don’t want to be read” or “I don’t care if I am read.” Again, maybe no one I know says it out loud or my experience is not broad enough to know these people. I can certainly *imagine* them, but I feel like Mr. Smithers in “Who Shot Mr. Burns”: “And when he tried to steal our sunlight, Mr. Burns crossed over that line from everyday villainry to cartoonish super villainy.” I can’t quite imagine them in the real world. Even Harold Bloom, for all of his pompousness, seems interested in being read. If these people do exist, and I am sure you must know them even if I do not, then yes: what the hell is the point? They need not dumb it down; they need not cater or sell out. But they should, at least, aim for an audience, however they define that audience (so long as it is defined as >1).

    I see your point that good books are harder to write, regardless of subject, than are vampire books. What I have read of your writing is very good, very accessible, so I commend you for finding a way to write good books. I wish more people did that. At the same time, and I think we agree here, it does seem as if people get into bad habits early in their careers (as undergrads even). They think that they should write like Deleuze or Derrida because those writers are “right” in their attempts to be difficult (or poetic; I think many people confuse one for the other). They fail to grasp (as did I; I still might) the difficulty of the concepts in play and the lack of adequate, conventional language for discussing them that forces writers into positions where difficult is the only answer. Unfortunately, and I am sure you have seen it plenty, people think that you’re simply supposed to write like that or, god forbid, Homi Bhabha/Judith Butler. The most successful writers will be those who constantly interrogate their own practices and, in so doing, begin to recognize that they need not purse this type of writing (or should only pursue once they realize why they are pursuing it). I still believe that the system is at fault here, but recognize that a PhD should be able to look at the system and understand how it works and why. I think that your response to Alex is spot on. It is harsh to say that not everyone can hack it, but in an age of grade inflation, etc, we need to hear this. I recall a former professor of mine complaining about students who “didn’t have the chops.” I recall hoping that I was not one of them. But it’s wrong to pretend that everyone is simply equal in this department. We don’t have to moralize over it to recognize it, and it’s in this context that we should recognize people for having other skills within academia.

    Finally, I’m not sure if you meant, by “silly argument” you meant my claims or the ongoing conversation. In any case, I am not making a strong claim (or not trying to anyway) so much as saying that sales are not an *adequate* measurement of readership. They might be one of very few (citation indices being another), and therefore “as good as it gets”, but I still don’t think that they tell us as much as we would like to know. This is a throwaway point and one not worth defending, so I will drop it.

    Thanks for your response.

    Reply
  8. Ian Bogost

    @Alex

    Clearly there’s also the connected matter of overproduction of PhDs and the labor issues that come therewith, to which Ben’s comments attest.

    @Ben

    Among the many strange things about people, one of my favorites is our simultaneous ability to believe one thing and do the opposite. So while I agree that few academics would say “I want to write books nobody reads,” they nevertheless somehow write books nobody wants to read. In other words, we act differently than we think we’re acting. Reading your comments, it doesn’t seem like we disagree on this matter.

    I agree with you completely that the system is encouraging (or at least, failing to discourage) bad writing, including the sort of copycat obfuscationist writing you mention. There are lots of reasons this is the case, and no single corrective. It doesn’t help that many doctoral students have mentors who themselves can’t (or won’t) write well, or who are significantly disconnected from the world. But again, that’s just one of the problems.

    As for the silly argument bit, I just meant that I wasn’t persuaded by your specific point that sales ≠ readership. You’re right, of course, but sales is at least one way to measure readership, and I find it a suitable shorthand for our context. I agree that this particular objection is not central to our conversation.

    Reply
  9. Ian Bogost

    Ben, one more thing I want to emphasize: while the style of writing (the topic of our latest exchange) is part of the problem, the way academics conceive of and present their ideas is an equal if not greater problem. As I suggest above, no subject whatsoever should be deemed unworthy of attention, but scholars must focus on bringing their ideas through the present and into the future. That’s hard to think about and to do, but it must be done.

    Reply
  10. Bill H-D

    I’d throw one wrinkle in here. When I am writing for an academic audience, my goal is to create something useful. That is, I don’t always imagine that the article, chapter, etc. is the object of someone’s attention for a session of pleasure reading. Rather, I am guessing that when they are reading my work, they are working. And so I do what I can to make their work easier and, if I’m really being helpful, better.

    When we think about “a book” as the coin of the realm, by the way, we are limiting ourselves to the Humanities and parts of the Social Sciences. In other disciplines, books are what you write for fun or profit. Articles are what you write for tenure and promotion. Articles are *supposed* to be more useful to other researchers. They should be this way for folks in the Humanities too, but they aren’t always.

    Write to be useful. That’s a goal that needn’t be destructive to (nor does it necessarily intersect with) writing to be read.

    Reply
  11. Ben Robertson

    Thanks again for taking the time to hash things out here.

    Yes, academics do not present their ideas well. They either cannot find the thread and fail to simplify when they need to (I fall victim here; I suspect that even the well-intentioned do), or they oversimplify to such a degree that their ideas appear boring (I think that this happens in undergrad teaching far too often). No doubt they fail for other reasons as well (for example, they fall victim to the mentality of Democrats who understand, a priori, that the other side is “right” and that all of their ideas must be justified in such a way to fit with the extant narrative, in the case of the humanities, that this work is “valuable” in some ill-defined sense that games the system against the work under discussion).

    For what it’s worth, and any minor disagreements aside, I’m glad to know that you, as someone with a considerable degree of success, are not content with the system as it is.

    Reply
  12. Ross Wolfe

    I agree that many academic publications should aim to speak to a broader audience. Not to say that there shouldn’t also be highly-specialized books within a discipline or across disciplines that deals with very obscure (though important) theoretical issues.

    One of the biggest problems has been academia’s loss of immediate political and social relevancy. It enjoyed this for a brief period during the 1960s and 1970s, but after the collapse of the New Left and its disintegration into the “post-political” Left, it abandoned any hopes for a broader social vision of transformation in favor of cultural politics within the confines of liberal democracy.

    And so it just focused on media representation, identity politics, and increasingly lost sight of the growing monster of neoliberal capitalism. At this point, though they are beginning to theorize it (to be fair, Harvey, Jameson, and Postone, etc. have been at this for years), those who are so entrenched inside of academic institutions realize that they’re politically impotent, and so they only write for their friends and colleagues. It’s quite sad, really.

    Reply
  13. Ian Bogost

    @Bill H-D

    Good points. This conversation started from the vantage point of the book rather than the article, so that’s why it was thusly focused. You’re right, of course, that many disciplines don’t see the book as research currency. I think they’re wrong to do so, fwiw, since books are an excellent way to reach beyond the walls of the academy, but that’s a subject that’s perhaps best left for another time. In any case, there are lots of kinds of writing, as you point out. Useless writing is, well, useless.

    @Ross Wolfe

    Being “political” in the academy–particularly in the humanities–does indeed seem to have more to do with fashion than with politics. I’m not sure the 60s/70s should be held up as our best epoch, however, since that’s the time when the seeds of today’s pretend-politicism were sown.

    Reply
  14. Nick LaLone

    There is something within this conversation that I have been thinking about as I work as a graduate student and as an administrator in a college department. It is also connected to a series of conferences I attended recently. I’ve been starting to notice something.

    Name drops as conceptual shorthands.

    The reason I bring it up here is that through the course of a single conference, I got to hear the name Bogost name dropped so many times that I started trying to think of rules for a drinking game for it (100 or more over 2 days).

    Success as you’ve had it, Dr. Bogost, seems amazing. People are reading your books (maybe?). However, I have yet to hear anyone explain how they interpret or translate your work or even what your work is. The few that did made what could only be called poor attempts to criticize your work in an effort to boost the controversy of their own.

    Now, I have given department heads Persuasive Games,put it on “Must Read Before College is Done” lists, I’ve given copies away to game designers who hate academia. I’ve given your Atari book to academics who hated video games. I’ve even given NewsGames to some people in our journalism department. In essence, i’ve tried to introduce your concepts to people yet all I seem to be hearing is Bogost says, Dr. Bogost states, Ian says, etc. Is that what academics really want?

    In the book chapter I have co-written with Jessie on Tom Metzger’s games, (that I hope is coming out this year), I tried to do what I had not seen done, employ your work in such a way as to display how games were creating ku klux klan-based meaning through the expression of procedures. and their beliefs through procedures. But I digress.

    Ultimately, I am curious of how you want your work to be used.

    Reply
  15. Jason Mittell

    Great post & conversation. One issue that I’d raise about the “popular” topic question: for those of us writing about contemporary culture (me television, you games), there’s a lot more to be said that has never been said before. But humanists in older fields with older objects face a real challenge in writing a readable book that also adds something new to our knowledge (which presumably is the real goal we all share) – my sister-in-law is a Classicist, and in her lifetime, she’ll maybe have one book’s worth of new insights about the tiny amount material she can study (with decades of other scholars grappling with the same material). Thankfully, Classics is not a book-for-tenure field, but arguably other literature departments are reaching the same saturation point for non-contemporary topics. How do we grapple with that problem?

    Reply
  16. Mark N.

    @Jason: I don’t really want to tell people want to study, but for people who have multiple interests, one option could just be not to choose one of the picked-over fields. =] There are a ton of things with huge gaps in scholarship! I think it’s actually somewhat self-reinforcing, because the better-covered areas of scholarship spring up a publishing apparatus (conferences, journals, etc.), which in turn makes it seem like a legitimate thing to study, and that encourages more grad students and more publishing.

    My own perspective comes partly from being very interested in sourcing Wikipedia information, and noticing that the academy has left large gaps. Some is contemporary culture, though it doesn’t have to be too contemporary. For example, 20th-c popular music is very poorly covered by academia, as far as I can find, outside a few favored genres (50s/60s rock, folk, jazz, and recently punk/post-punk). History that is post-classical but pre-modern also has significant gaps; nobody has taken the level of detailed study that people do of ancient Greece, and applied it to, say, 17th-century Greece. Going through a copy of the late-19th-century Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie recently, the majority of the figures covered there have never received even a short biographical treatment in English in the past century, if ever, even including some fairly significant figures. And in my own field, artificial intelligence has not really had very good humanistic study done of it, despite its popular appeal; there is no good history-of-ideas study comparable to some you can find for, say, physics or chemistry.

    Is there a way to counter academia’s tendency to push new grad students into studying established, already-well-studied subjects with communities of scholars and existing academic discourses; and instead direct them towards the large gaps?

    Reply
  17. Ian Bogost

    @Nick

    Well, one doesn’t really get to decide how one’s work is used! And I suppose that’s part of the point I’m making here. I’d like the possible uses of my work to exceed the ones I can predict, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also direct that work at the particular opportunities I can’t see. You’re right that it’s maybe silly just to name drop, but name dropping isn’t always empty either… it suggests something about a reader’s sense of direction, the ways they are struggling to incorporate ideas into their own work.

    PS – thanks for hawking my books. I appreciate it.

    @Jason

    You’re right that it’s harder to find something new to say about classics as there is in popular culture. One answer is the one Mark gave: “choose something else.” A less extreme version of that argument would be something like, “make old things new.” I think that’s just terrifically important, actually.

    There will always be a place for teaching classics of course, and there will also be a place for a very small number of really persistent, head-down primary research classicists who are digging in the dirt of original works finding truly new things. But the overproduction of PhDs in fields like classics, with the promise that those scholars can just “be smart” or whatever, that’s helping nobody.

    All of us must find something new to say, something important, urgent even. It’s easier to do that with television, but it’s hardly impossible to do it with classics (one could even talk about classics and television together!). The one thing that’s always refreshing itself is time. We’ll never run out of novelty in the present and the future, because they are always changing. Humanists don’t have to live in the past to study it. Unfortunately, that’s not the prevailing sentiment.

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  18. Jason Mittell

    Agreed about the need to “make the old new” – of course one of the challenges in academia is the prevailing sentiment among many that the “old way is the right way.” I could imagine that the hypothetical type of scholarship that would most be wanted to be read (or played/viewed/etc.) by larger numbers of people – classical influences on TV, for instance – is the exact type of scholarship that traditionalists would say is inappropriate for tenure. In many fields, the professional rewards of T&P run directly opposite from the broader goals of disseminating novel & interesting ideas and modes of expression. And for a junior scholar, you’re potentially risking your career to embrace a mode of scholarly address that seems new or “popular”. Hopefully that’s changing, but change is slow & hard…

    Reply
  19. Ian Bogost

    You’re right, Jason. But no risk, no reward either. The easiest tenure cases seem to be the ones with undeniable impact, local institutional imperfections be damned.

    Reply
  20. Denise Troll Covey

    Thank you for this rich and thought-provoking discussion.

    I’m a librarian. Over the past two decades I’ve observed the rising cost and proliferation of journals force a decrease in book purchases, a factor contributing significantly to the decline in sales of scholarly monographs. Writing books that appeal to a broader audience could lead to sales to individuals rather than libraries. This is not just a practical (potential) solution, but one the academy should have aspired to all along (IMO), given their public service mission and purported focus on impact.

    I should tell you — though I am a librarian, I do not select, purchase, or catalog library materials; answer reference questions, give library tours, or provide bibliographic instruction. I am a researcher, primarily conducting studies of scholarly communication processes.

    I agree with points made in this discussion. There are significant problems in the tenure and promotion system and many faculty suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, despite their awareness of the problems and complaints about the system. The problems and syndrome affect all disciplines. The substitution of quantity for impact perhaps affects disciplines where the coin of the realm is journal articles or conference papers even more than disciplines where the coin of the realm is books. And in the academic ecosystem, the realms clash — the proliferation of journals and conference proceedings robs the library’s book budget. Overall, the academy is producing more scholarly publications than the market (budget) can bear and more than scholars/researchers can read. The “write-only” phenomenon of vampire publishing is rampant in the journal literature as well as books.

    How do we change it? Even if someone could devise a plan for fixing the problems in peer review, maintaining quality assurance,reducing turn-around-time from submission to publication, recognizing and rewarding new forms of scholarship, and assessing impact in an affordable, sustainable way, how would it get implemented? A top-down mandate likely won’t work because the old guard won’t allow it. A bottom-up push is unlikely to happen because the new/young guard is insecure, often risk averse, and struggling for position (learning to game the system, succumbing to the syndrome).

    I’ve discussed new metrics for assessing impact with faculty at my university. They admit the hypocrisy — an official rejection of journal impact factors, citation counts, and other metrics as substitutes for assessments of impact, but private pressure to publish in journals with high impact factors, to report citation counts, etc. The system is glutted and the academy has effectively out-sourced impact assessment to substitutes, all of which — from the peer review process to bibliometrics — can and have been gamed.

    What are we to make of this?

    I believe academics write not just to be read, but to be cited, to be invited to speak or to consult, to somehow know and show that their work made a difference, mattered, had impact. How do we design and transform the system to facilitate these laudable goals, leaving behind those who “don’t have the chops,” while in the meantime the new guard is being cloned to the old?

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  21. Tim Morton

    Alex, I missed this, sorry. I shall look. Ian I like this a lot. My editor at Harvard is a stickler for good style. He provocatively asks, “Before you send a book to us, ask yourself, was it worth cutting down the tree for the paper?”

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  22. dmf

    while I agree with most of what has been arrived at here I would like to reserve a space for untimely meditations and other causes of “incredulous stares”. plus narrow and even highly technical are only bad if they aren’t evocative of differences that make a difference, here I largely follow Dewey on the raison d’etre of academic endeavors vs the boomer follow yer bliss model.

    http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/05/in-praise-of-the-incredulous-stare.html

    The larger concerns of publish or perish aside I think that our, in the US, relative rush to get a PhD doesn’t serve people well when it comes to research and writing, nor our general lack of seminars with close readings which feeds the cut and paste monster.

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  23. Erik

    @Denise, that is really interesting! I suspect part of the problem is peer review of academic monographs and edited chapters, it appears to vary greatly between publishers and editors, and it is also not always clearly published.

    Secondly I have noted one publisher in particular, republishes my book chapters in other edited books without even informing me. Is this a widespread problem?

    Another problem I have found is that the apparent reputation of a publisher in a field is not necessarily directly related to their care when you publish with them. I have recently started a project with ETC Press, and I wonder what you think of them and other lulu/creative commons type publishers?

    Lastly, journals and conferences-how does one rate or rank them in say the game design field?

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