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Commentary on “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship”

Posted by: on Feb 12, 2012 | 3 Comments

So lots of people in rhetoric and writing, especially computers and writing, are talking about Gary Olson’s post “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship.”

Olson counsels deans and department chairs—and us—to beware “commentators there who were recommending changes in how the discipline conceives scholarly work.” In particular, he notes:

Among other things, the reforms call for replacing the traditional monograph-style dissertation with alternative types of final projects; reconceiving professional scholarship to be less dependent on traditional forms and standard scholarly venues; and moving more toward open-access dissemination of scholarship. 

Olson argues that “the proposals are wrongheaded and ill-timed” for various reasons:

Retaining the monograph-style dissertation.

  • “Learning to produce a traditional monograph-style dissertation, then, is essential training for a humanities scholar these days because the experience helps neophyte scholars overcome the cultural and cognitive sway of attention deficit to which we are all prone now.”
  • “allowing doctoral students to produce alternative projects may well disadvantage them on the job market, as hiring committees—or at least some members of them—may not be as receptive to experimental forms and may favor candidates who have, in fact, produced a monograph.”
Using traditional forms and venues; avoiding open-access scholarship.
  • “more and more online journals are claiming to employ a peer-review process. That could be a positive development if we can arrive at a point where the community of scholars has confidence that the review process in online venues is as rigorous as it is in top-tier print journals. At the present, however, many scholars are still skeptical that the processes are equivalent.”

Olson concludes: “We’re trying to keep new and aspiring colleagues from making choices that might damage their careers, at least until more consensus can be established within the disciplines. And we’re trying protect [sic] the reputation of the humanities.”

    Olson’s argument has not been well received by some readers, both in the comments, on Facebook, and in at least one blog commentary. As one commenter points out, Olson is covering—and not properly separating—two different issues: whether the proposals will damage the scholarship itself, and whether the proposals will lead to work against which the academy (dissertation, tenure, and promotion committees) is prejudiced.

    Here, I only focus on Issue 1: whether the proposals will damage the scholarship itself. And in this sense, I think Olson’s argument is a mixed bag. 
    For instance, although I strongly prefer monograph-style dissertations—they provide a strong framework for developing a research arc—monographs are not the rule in many other scholarly fields. When Olson warns that “critics of the humanities to assume that [the humanities] are inferior disciplines and therefore expendable,” I remember that in many fields, the monograph is seen as a post-tenure project, one that a senior scholar can take on because her or his “real” work of articles, conference proceedings, and grants has already been done. Scholars in these other fields still manage to “produce long, in-depth, sustained projects,” but those projects consist of tightly interrelated, tightly argued strings of publications. Surely we can’t blame the digital age for how, for instance, molecular biologists publish.
    I have a bit more sympathy for Olson’s argument about online publications, though I think he hasn’t quite done his homework. As many commenters have correctly noted, many online publications – including journals and books – have indeed established peer review processes. For instance, the WAC Clearinghouse includes several open-access books that are edited by top-flight scholars and dually published online and in print. The medium itself doesn’t matter; the process does.
    At the same time, open-access books and journals face at least two problems that impair their process. 
    One is a money-and-labor problem. A traditional academic press makes money from (some of) its publications, and that money goes to a lot of necessary things besides stamping ink onto dead trees: encouraging submissions, picking up the tab for sending the journal editor to recruit papers at conferences, offering small honoraria to reviewers (in the case of books), copyediting, checking references, designing book covers, and promoting publications. With scholar-supported open-access journals, this work is still necessary, but must be shifted to people who are willing to do it for free – usually scholars, who must then take time away from their own scholarship, teaching, and/or graduate mentorship to do work that they’re not necessarily well prepared to do. In particular, scholars who are good at big-picture applications such as journal editing are often not good at small-picture applications such as copyediting. 
    The other is a chicken-and-egg problem. A traditional journal makes its reputation in part by 
    (a) enlisting a recognized senior scholar as editor; 
    (b) enlisting an editorial board of scholars who can apply a consistently high standard to reviewing articles; and 
    (c) recruiting high-quality papers that exceed that standard. 
    Without those conditions, any journal will struggle. Open-access journals are at a particular disadvantage at this present moment, though, because 
    (a) senior scholars recognize that they take a lot of work due to the money-and-labor problem, so they don’t take them on, leaving less advanced scholars to fill the gap; 
    (b) without a senior scholar as editor, journals face difficulties in recruiting senior scholars to their editorial boards and enforcing consistent standards from their editorial boards, as well as 
    (c) recruiting papers from senior scholars. 
    (All these issues stand apart from the fact that senior scholars are the most likely to distrust open-access publications.) 
    So (a)-(c) work against open-access journals, depressing the necessary confidence that will lead scholars to submit papers and tenure review committees to accept those publications as demonstrating high-quality scholarship. In turn, that lack of confidence means that scholars tend to send their best work to traditional journals.
      I do think that the prejudice in favor of print publications will fade away over time—we’re in a transitional period. But unless open-access publications can decisively address both the money-and-labor problem and the chicken-and-egg problem, that transition period will be a lengthy one. 


      1. rooksbay
        February 12, 2012

        I think this perspective on online scholarship is a necessary one to bring up at this time in our field. I know when I was working toward tenure, I had to focus on the traditional journals because of the politics of my department, but after tenure I've been able to focus more on online, open-access publications. I'm grateful to be able to focus on these venues now because more and more I find myself wanting to read them. I read everything that comes out in _Enculturation_, for example, right as it comes out, and I enjoy what I read there. I want to publish there because I imagine that there might be other people who read _Enculturation_ the same way I do. I don't always have the same feeling about the more traditional venues.

      2. Clay Spinuzzi
        February 12, 2012

        Thanks for the feedback – yes, tenure is freeing!

        Departments can be biased in favor of traditional venues, definitely. But that bias often extends beyond the departmental level to the college-level T&P review. At that level, they must rely heavily on venue reputation since they don't have the background to evaluate the work on its own merits.

        I wonder if the answer is to begin thinking about – and promoting alternative venues as – a broader stratification of scholarship. On one extreme, you have traditional, closed-access journals and books that provide heavily vetted scholarship slowly. On the other extreme, you have blogs like this one. In the middle, you have a range of different venues with their own models, timescales, and specialties.

        Here's a really interesting example of an open-access model:

        The advisory board is remarkable. And the About page emphasizes what a labor of love the project is.

      3. Clay Spinuzzi
        February 13, 2012

        Bonnie Kyburz provided a great, thoughtful response too:

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