Blogs > Cliopatria > Misc.: Thurs.

Jan 8, 2006 3:28 pm

Misc.: Thurs.

Maureen Dowd's (firewalled) column in yesterday's Times notes that Bush has, on 108 occasions, issued signing statements that the administration claims determines"legislative intent." That the President can in any way--much less unilaterally--define"legislative intent" is as violative of the principle of separation of powers as anything we've seen from this administration.

IHE has more on the MLA's proposal to water down the scholarship requirements associated with tenure. Obviously there's a problem with declining publication rates by academic presses, but I'm sure this idea will go over well with state legislators. Also in IHE, the AAC&U proves how out of touch it is by expressing surprise that many students who don't identify their race/ethnicity on college admissions forms are, in fact, white, rather than multi-racial.

The full list of Abramoff campaign contributions makes for very interesting reading.

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Timothy James Burke - 1/9/2006

KC, seriously, you cannot be defending standards of scholarship and then turn around and say something that amounts to, "The collective membership of the MLA is incapable of producing work that communicates with broad or general audiences." As George Williams notes, you're letting a few panels and papers widely reported in the media form your entire opinion of the vast majority of several disciplines. It's not just unfair: it's evidentiarily sloppy. If you want to make sweeping characterizations, you need a good command of what is typical or representative about that which you characterize. In the context of the MLA program, that means you have to go deeper than a few articles in the mainstream media: you have to look over the entire program over a series of years and try to assess what seems to be the normal or typical kind of panel. Moreover, if you want to talk about what kinds of things MLA members write and what they might write, you need to look in detail at the kinds of things MLA members publish, and talk about what kinds of general-appeal works might be done within literary and cultural criticism.

George H Williams - 1/8/2006

With all due respect, most people who have never attended the MLA (or looked at the program) have no idea what kind of work MLA members do. Do not let the usually flawed portrait painted by news outlets be your guide. The vast majority of the 700 or so panels have to do with subjects related to language and literature that few would consider shocking.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/7/2006

I agree completely that there's nothing (at all) watered down about writing a textbook. But the MLA claims that a practical rationale--the declining number of books published by academic presses--is motivating their recommendations. Having just finished up a co-authored textbook myself, the idea that presses of any sort are going to give textbook contracts in large numbers to unpublished authors is hard to believe.

With regard to writing for a general audience--I wonder, exactly what kind of books does the MLA have in mind? Should, for example, an anti-Bush screed published by a Democratic house organ be considered an example of "scholarship"? Given the kind of work that MLA members do (at least judged by their conference presentations), I find it hard to believe that there'd be any publishers willing to put out books for a general audience on the kinds of topics that appear at MLA conferences. So I'd have to assume that their books for a general audience would, in fact, be on topics unrelated to their academic interests.

Timothy James Burke - 1/7/2006

There's nothing necessarily watered down about writing a textbook, just the nature of textbook buying in this country. And writing for a general audience well is if anything harder and certainly more important than producing a narrow monograph. On this subject, you're siding with the kind of professiorial conventions that normally you question. If there's anything state legislators should be "interested in", it's this vision of scholarship and the proposition that the primary purpose of the academy and tenure is to underwrite it: narrow and by scholars for scholars.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/6/2006

I don't know that I'd call it prejudice against the messenger but suspicion of the messenger's intent! This is, after all, the exact same conference (and some of the same people) who considered an anti-ABOR resolution whose original form denounced conservative ideas as stupid, and removed the language not for intellectual but tactical reasons.

I agree that peer review certainly can be abused. Yet there are lots of built-in mechanisms to guard against abuse--double-blind reviewing, the integrity of editors, etc.--that don't exist in evaluating collegiality. It's possible that a piece published in a blog or an unedited on-line journal will be of as high quality as, say, a peer-reviewed journal article. But I don't think we can assume that to be the case regularly. And the other alternatives the MLA panel recommends--textbooks, writing for a general audience--do seem to me a watering down.

Timothy James Burke - 1/6/2006

See, I think that's unfair, that you let what is effectively a prejudice against the messenger drown out the content of the message. If there's anyone in the world that ought to be suspicious of peer review as the gold standard of what qualifies something as a worthy example of humanities scholarship, it's you: peer review is constructed around many of the same dynamics as issues like collegiality, and subject to the same abuses.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/5/2006

I agree with you completely that the academy is going to need to wrestle with the question of what to do about declining publication rates in academic presses. And I'm not at all wedded to the monograph idea--actually quite the opposite. At Brooklyn, we have a contingent of faculty that constantly talks about the "book" as all that's needed to satisfy scholarly tenure requirements--as if publishing a book, regardless of whether it's any good or not, regardless of whether it's published by a first-line press or a fourth-tier non-academic press, should earn someone tenure. I'd much rather see someone publish three or four high-quality journal articles than a mediocre book.

But I also don't see how some of the MLA's suggestions can be viewed as anything but watering down--i.e., viewing on-line publications as comparable to paper publications. Most on-line journals are not peer-reviewed. Most standard journals are.

Donald Hall (whose proposal for increasing the role of collegiality in evaluative processes for both grad students and untenured faculty I've been criticizing in other posts) was on the MLA panel; according to IHE, he advocated multiple pathways to analyzing research excellence, such as "essays or books for a general audience, works in electronic format, collaborative work, textbooks, and other approaches as well." At one point or another in my career, I've done all of those (except the vague "other approaches"--perhaps Hall means be collegial?), so have nothing against them as a concept. But it's a lot easier to clear a bar of--say--collaborative works in electronic format than to publish a monograph or a series of peer-reviewed articles.

Moreover, I admit that I'm suspicious of the messenger here--virtually every other key proposal that came from the MLA conference suggested almost a parody of an academy out of touch with reality. I'd be very leery of how people like Hall would actually translate these vague principles into policy.

Timothy James Burke - 1/5/2006

There's one thing that's very conventional about your views of academia, KC, and that's the defense of standard-form monograph publication as the major, meaningful test of whether an academic is returning value to the profession and to the institution that employs him.

Whatever you (or state legislators or the MLA) say, that test is going to go the way of the dodo. That's the very clear message coming from university presses. The monograph as we have known is already on the verge of death. Given that this is the case, it's well past time to re-evaluate what we think constitutes useful scholarship, best defined as the dissemination of research and knowledge.

The MLA is at least trying to think about this situation, and in their recent meeting, I think actually had some ideas of unusual clarity and daring. You're going to need a better alternative than implying that state legislators will see such suggestions as slacking off. If state legislators had any wisdom at all, they'd be much more interested in whether faculty at public universities return fair value to students in terms of teaching and other institutional work, rather than scholarship. What does monograph scholarship in the humanities or even most of the social sciences do for the public that it warrants extensive subsidy out of state budgets? Scholarship is the the cloak that many faculty use to hide behind when they shirk their commitment to students and colleagues, scholarship is the justification for the reduction of service and teaching loads. I think that might go over even more poorly with state legislators.

Defend the traditional one (or two) monograph standard if you like, but that simply isn't going to survive changing conditions of publication and dissemination. Given that's the case, you'd be better off offering an alternative conception of what you think scholarship should entail in the 21st Century that rises to the same challenges as the MLA's initiative.

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