Editors, I’ve discovered, are desperate to find scholars willing to review articles, prospectuses and book manuscripts. Department chairs are at their wit’s end as they struggle to get scholars to review tenure and promotion files. Leading humanities journals find it increasingly hard to attract qualified, experienced candidates to serve as editors.
A growing number of humanities scholars are drifting away from what were once considered professional obligations. The result: editors and departments, more and more, are forced to turn repeatedly to the same reviewers if they want a timely evaluation.
Yet these challenges only represent the tip of an iceberg. Not so long ago, it was unimaginable that a humanities faculty member would refuse to write a letter of recommendation for a student. Now, to my dismay and disgust, the higher ed press contains articles that openly disavow any responsibility to write such letters—and not simply on political grounds.
Equally disturbing is the disarray within the scholarly book trade. With an average print run of 200 copies or even fewer, the publication of scholarly monographs is in deep trouble. In fact, many leading scholarly presses are only interested in books with at least a modicum of trade potential. Otherwise, even a subvention is insufficient to ensure publication. At the same time, interest in publishing anthologies, even those with wholly original essays, has tanked.
Certainly, scholarly articles continue to appear, even though an increasing number of journals seek deliberate provocations rather than the building blocks of scholarly knowledge. Revised dissertations, too, are still published.
Nevertheless, the problems are spiraling. Their root cause isn’t simply financial. It lies in the growing number of humanities faculty who disavow any responsibility for sustaining the academy’s scholarly underpinnings.
The humanities scholarly infrastructure has always depended on volunteer labor. Journals did not compensate reviewers, and university presses only offered a token payment. Nor were faculty compensated for reviewing candidates for tenure and promotion. Many journal editors accepted the position in exchange for a single course release and help from a lone graduate student. These responsibilities came with the job.
So what’s going on?