The Price We Pay: Brian McCrea, Addison and Steele Are Dead

mcrea-not-the-coverFrom the Novel Readings Archives: I still find myself thinking a lot about the questions raised by Brian McCrea’s book Addison and Steele Are Dead, which I wrote about during my first year of blogging. Apparently I’m in something of a minority, or presumably I’d be able to find the actual cover image online somewhere! But rereading this post nearly a decade later, McCrea’s theory about the relationship between literature, professionalism, and teaching still seems well worth considering.


In parallel to my reading of ‘books about books’ aimed at non-specialist readers, I have been reading scholarly books that treat the development of English studies and/or academic criticism in historical as well as theoretical contexts. (Examples include John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society, and Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars. My notes on these have been largely maintained off-line, though my post on Denis Donoghue’s The Practice of Reading comes out of the same line of research.) All of these books (and many more like them, of course) make explicit that what now appear to be the “givens” of professional literary criticism and the discipline of English studies are highly contingent and far from exempt from scrutiny, evaluation, or (presumably) further development.

McCrea’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books in this collection. As his title suggests, McCrea frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments”–not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform.” The opening sections of the book look first at the express intentions of Addison and Steele as critics and men of letters, particularly at their desire to be popular, widely read, accessible, un-mysterious. The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs; the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. (McCrea reports that the last PMLA essay on Addison or Steele appeared in 1957, and that Eighteenth-Century Studies, “the publication of choice for the best and brightest in the field,” published only two short pieces on them in 20 years.) (As an aside, I wonder if a similar argument could be made about Trollope, whose novels often seem difficult to handle using our usual critical tools.)

spectatorAs he develops his argument, McCrea offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McCrea’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field”:

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline–housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition–not in English literature–justifies the existence of the English department.

As McCrea tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism) this decline in the critic’s public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical ‘death’ of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors.

mcgowanWhile we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrea says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public.” (In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself”).

But why, McCrea goes on to consider, should we expect such cross-over between our work–our professional lives and discourse–and our personal lives? McCrea’s answer to this question (we shouldn’t) puts the professionalization of English studies into the context of professionalization more generally, which he argues (drawing on sociological studies) was a key feature of American society during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McCrea’s book, in fact, seems to me to be his insistence that, in this respect at least, ‘professing English’ is (or has now become) just another job, and indeed that its success at establishing itself professionally at once accounts for and has depended on its investment in theory and metacommentary: “The ultimate step in the aggrandizement of any professional group is for its members to get paid to talk about how they do what they do rather than doing it.” If one result is isolation from and (perceived) irrelevance to the broader public, including the reading public, the gains for criticism and even for literature are also, McCrea argues, substantial:

Rotarians no longer look to us for uplift, future presidents no longer turn to us to increase their ‘stock of ideas,’ nor do ex-presidents attend our funerals, undergraduates no longer found alumni associations around us, family members can no longer read our books, and plain English has disappeared from our journals. But professionalization has liberated us from a cruel Darwinian system in which one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male emerged at the top while others struggled at the bottom, grading papers in impoverished anonymity. It has liberated us from the harsh economic realities of eighteenth-century literature . . . while [today’s critics] might wish to share Steele’s influence, I doubt they would want to share his life. He practiced criticism in a world in which there was no tenure, a world devoid of university presses, National Endowments for the Humanities, and endowed university chairs in literature. . . .

In a society in which no one outside the classroom reads Pope, professors can earn handsome incomes by being Pope experts. The five top Pope experts compete with each other, but probably not with the Tennyson experts, and certainly not with the Chaucer experts. The quest for autonomy has cost us Addison and Steele, has cost us the ability to treat literature as a public, moral, emotional phenomenon. But it has left us with a part of literature, with a canon of works complicated in their technique and tone, and with a classroom in which we have a chance to teach those works, to keep them (and whatever value they hold) alive.

Provocative, as I said, not least in reversing the oft-heard line that (undergraduate) teaching is the price professors pay for the opportunity to do their research and as much as declaring that, to the contrary, academic criticism is the price they pay to preserve literature and its values.

Originally published in Novel Readings August 8, 2007.

Fear of Failing

success-failureEarlier this year there was a lot of buzz when a Princeton professor published a “CV of Failures.” I know: “Princeton professor” and “failure” hardly seem to belong in the same sentence. But that was pretty much exactly why Johannes Haushofer decided to make his record of rejection public. “Most of what I try fails,” he wrote in his preamble,

but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

I admit that it seemed a bit silly to me at the time. Don’t we all fail a lot, and isn’t the point of a curriculum vitae to make the positive case? But he and the many people who responded enthusiastically to the whole idea of going public with failure weren’t wrong that in academic culture failures are hidden while successes are trumpeted — not just in the relatively discreet form of CVs (which are all-too-rarely made public anyway), but by announcements from Deans, or applause at Department meetings, or faculty book fairs, for example. In this context failure always feels a bit shameful (which is just one of many reasons the terrible job market for PhDs is so psychologically damaging). Academia is a profoundly evaluative, and thus incessantly judgmental, culture, and thus also a culture that all too easily divides us (if only tacitly) into winners and losers.*

fisforfailureI have been thinking about the question of failure in academia again since my promotion was denied. The appeal is ongoing, so I don’t yet know how the story will finally turn out, but no matter how it does, the fact will always remain that I was not successful in this process.** It has recently occurred to me that one reason last year was so difficult for me is that when things took a turn for the worse, one of my most intense reactions was humiliation. I felt profoundly embarrassed, because I had been held up for scrutiny and found wanting: I had not passed the test, and in this world, that feels not just like a professional evaluation but also like a very personal and all-too-public shaming. I know that this is not an entirely rational response, but I bet it also isn’t unusual for academics who fail in this way, especially when you add in imposter syndrome (endemic among academics) — this is the time you were finally exposed as the pretender you always were.

freakoutthrowstuffWhat I have been thinking about more recently, though, is how much worse this cringing attitude made the whole experience for me, because it led me to be not just discreet but downright secretive about what was going on. I’m not saying that I should have made all aspects of the case public (and I don’t plan to now, either): I have some doubts about the advice on Historiann’s blog (about another case) to “YELL AND SCREAM ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING,” not just because it seems to me a strategy that could backfire but also because it could look as if you’re trying to do an end-run around proper procedures. (Not that those procedures themselves might not sometimes deserve yelling and screaming about, of course, but as a general rule I don’t think professional matters should be litigated in the court of public opinion.) I just mean being frank about the basics, so, for instance, when people ask how you are doing, instead of saying “fine” and then going in your office and throwing things to relieve the stress of keeping up appearances, maybe saying “not great, actually, because my promotion application isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.”

My overwhelming desire to hide in my office and listen to Adele may have protected me in some ways, but it also, I belatedly realize, cut me off from what might have been really valuable gestures of support. Mind you, being more open might well have created other problems, since the sources of my troubles are one way or another all colleagues: presumably we don’t routinely discuss these processes more openly precisely because the airing of internal grievances threatens our collective collegiality. Of course, from my point of view the damage is already done: there are people I’ll never look at the same way again. Also, the prevailing norm of confidentiality strips away some kinds of accountability. My feeling at this point is that like any dissension between co-workers, it’s awkward any way you handle it, but my way — which meant closing myself off from many of the people around me — ended up being quite personally debilitating.

failureI don’t rule out that some of the intensity of my own reactions might be idiosyncratic: I myself was surprised that I took it all so hard, and that has been cause for some self-reflection. (Indeed, I have experienced fits of meta-failure in which I have been thoroughly unimpressed with myself for not handling everything better!) That’s what got me thinking again about the general context, though — about what failure means and how failure is treated in the academic world. And it also got me thinking about other failures in my own life, along the lines of the ‘CV of Failures.’ It isn’t, after all, as if this is the first time I have swung at something and missed. So in the spirit of Johannes Haushofer, here are a few more of my own failures. I’ll restrict the list to things that quantify more easily than, for instance, my general failure to thrive during my graduate coursework, and that are on a larger scale than, say, the many books I have failed to understand.

  1. I was rejected by most of the graduate schools I applied to, including the one I most wanted (the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, which in retrospect I think might have been a complete disaster for me).
  2. I was also did not get most of the jobs I applied for, including the one I really (really) wanted (at Simon Fraser University, where I came close enough to have a campus interview). (Worse, almost, is that they sent the rejection by email so I wept over it in a dank basement computer lab, which is where we read email in those days.) Obviously, I did still get a very good job (just as I did get into a good graduate program) but I didn’t know at the time that’s how things would turn out.
  3. I didn’t get the only SSHRC grant I ever applied for. The funny thing about that, in this context, is that one criticism of my promotion case (from some quarters) was that I hadn’t applied for a SSHRC grant — I had, but it wasn’t on my CV because I didn’t think failed applications belonged there.
  4. I’ve been fairly lucky with articles submitted for publication, though I’ve certainly had failures there too. One that I remember with particular clarity came back with a very dismissive assessment and then was accepted unchanged by a different journal — good evidence for the “crapshoot” theory. Another came back as a revise and resubmit: that ended up being one of the most valuable experiences of my early professional career, as it was for Victorian Studies, the revision advice was both generous and rigorous, and they accepted it when I sent it back.
  5. I don’t yet have much experience with “pitching” essays to magazine editors, but I’ve failed almost every time I’ve tried. Sometimes these failures come in the form of absolute total silence in response — that I don’t really want to get used to, as it seems to me just plain bad manners. There was also that book review that was declared unpublishable.
  6. I have so far failed to turn my miscellaneous writing on George Eliot into a viable book project. I do consider this particular failure a work in progress, though. At the very least, as time goes on and I try different variations of it, I hope maybe I am failing better!
  7. (I thought of this one after I’d published this post originally.) Although I have been nominated 5 times for teaching awards, I have never won.
  8. (Updated) It turns out I did lose the appeal, so that’s a story that ends in a resounding failure. (Not just for me, IMHO, but definitely and specifically for me.)

Like Haushofer, I’ve been very fortunate overall in my academic career. The point is not to complain (that would be absurd, for someone in my privileged position, and anxiety over giving just such an impression has nearly kept me from posting this at all) but to reveal more of the whole picture, to be clear that my career has not been an unimpeded string of successes that nobody with any failures on their record could possibly hope to emulate. I’ve learned over the past year, too, that for all my successes — maybe even to some extent because of them — I still need to work on my own fear of failing, or, more specifically, of being seen to fail. This post is a start.

*I’m sure these attitudes are not unique to academia, but I think they may have some unique features there given the particular form and very long process of indoctrination professionalization we’ve gone through by the time we end up in these jobs.

**I know now; see #8 above.

Academic Enclaves

I was reminded yesterday that SSHRC has awarded a large sum to help start up a Canadian version of The Conversation. I have followed links to the other national iterations of this site before and thought it seemed like a good idea. “Academic rigor, journalistic flair”: what’s not to like?

Well, actually, I don’t altogether like the tone that tagline sets — as if there isn’t journalistic rigor, as if academics can’t have flair, as if the twain otherwise don’t meet. Okay, folks, you’re different, but maybe not that different: people with “deep expertise” do write for other outlets, after all, and once in a while “facts and evidence” actually do get into the public arena from other directions. It’s a great idea to make the kind of expertise academics have more widely available, but that good impulse is somewhat offset, for me, by the site’s faint air of condescension. Am I being uncharitable or oversensitive? Does it strike anyone else this way?

Thinking about The Conversation got me thinking, in turn, about some other academic “crossover” sites I’m familiar with. Almost all of these have occasionally (again, despite their manifest good intentions and the often very high quality of their content) irritated me in the same way: Stanford’s Arcade site, for instance, or the Public Books site (which has another tagline that I don’t like, implying as it does that the “curious public” is passively awaiting delivery of “cutting-edge” ideas); or, in a more niche category, the Branch Collective. Obviously, these sites aren’t all trying to do the same thing, and they have quite different personalities of their own, but they have in common that they are deliberate attempts to bridge the divide between the ivory tower and the rest of the world. Also, they all seem very keen to differentiate themselves, implicitly or explicitly, from the masses of other sites offering analogous content, playing up the scholarly qualifications of their contributors or their replication of key academic processes (notably, in the case of the Branch Collective, peer review).*

I think what rubs me the wrong way is exactly what these sites (with some justification) play up as their strengths — that they may be out in public, but at heart they are still academic. They are careful to explain and assert their own authority, in (mostly) implicit contrast to the many other sites that are equally public but not created or curated by academics. To me, this all has a whiff of the all-too-familiar academic mistrust of the actual “public arena,” in which credentials are neither necessary nor sufficient for authority and peer review neither filters nor stifles contributions to the conversation. It’s not that there aren’t good reasons to get frustrated with the resulting chaos of information and opinion, but to me there’s something a bit precious about setting up special academic enclaves and calling them “public” instead of just joining in. (If you don’t think Wikipedia is good enough, why not make it better?) It also seems to me in some cases as if, alongside the desire (genuine, I’m sure) to offer something of value to people outside the academy, there’s some concern about ensuring that the form that offering takes will pass muster inside the academy — because for all the big talk these days about “knowledge mobilization,” in practice universities are profoundly conservative institutions, and the more familiar an “innovation” looks, or the more it is “branded” as a ground-breaking institutional or disciplinary project, the more likely it is to be praised and given professional credit.

Again, I’m not disdaining the quality of the sites I’ve mentioned. There is just something about their tone or atmosphere that I sometimes find off-putting. I have also been frustrated at having them held out by other academics as exemplary in ways I do not believe they actually are. In my own promotion case, for instance, one of my external reviewers praised the editorial process she (or he, I don’t actually know) had experienced at Public Books, suggesting more or less directly that it was more rigorous than that at Open Letters Monthly because she had found some of my reviews there “repetitive” (which ones, she didn’t say). Well, of course, equally rigorous readers can still disagree about judgments like that — and it’s a hard claim to assess or dispute anyway, without specifics. (I didn’t appreciate the slur on my co-editors, however, even setting aside the criticism of my own writing!) However, in my turn, I’ve read a few things at Public Books that I found ponderous, pretentious, or just too long for me to care enough about to finish, so I don’t see any reason to assume that either venue can claim a uniquely effective process. (I certainly feel confident that contributors to Open Letters get pretty arduous treatment in what we fondly call the “shark tank” of general edits.) I also have academic colleagues who are keen to write essays for Branch but cannot bring themselves to contribute to Open Letters — it’s pretty clear that the academic imprimatur motivates them in a way that our masthead does not. (Or perhaps, as has been suggested to me a couple of times, the prospect of going public quite so openly, even on the modest scale Open Letters offers, is intimidating. As Alex Reid has observed, “the Journal of narrowly-focused humanities studies is a good place to hide,” and I admit it takes a while to get used to just saying what you think without the protective shelter created by peer review and obscurity. Or perhaps they just don’t think very highly of Open Letters but are too tactful to tell me: my speculation should not be too partial!)

Obviously this issue is personal to me, especially at this particular moment in my career, which is why I freely acknowledge that my inverse snobbery about these erudite and high-minded projects may well be symptomatic of my own anxieties about the choices I’ve made, rather than an accurate reflection of anything they’re actually doing or saying. Clearly, I have approached working in public in a different way — not as part of an institutional or specifically professional enterprise (not that we have anything like, say, the Public Humanities program at Western — but even if we did, that’s not what I want to be doing), not in a special space that privileges academics. I have just tried to find a place for myself in the ongoing public conversation about literature, to figure out what I could bring to it and how. In this conversation, unlike at The Conversation, we share and create authority for each other; mine, such as it is, doesn’t inhere in my credentials. I am not saying this is the right or best model for all public academics (it almost certainly would not work for nuclear physicists), and I’m also not saying that the enclave model is wrong — though I do think it should not be insisted on or valued more highly just because it preserves, even relies on, distinctions between the university and the world. I think that for me personally, the problem with the enclaves is that they represent, or resemble too closely, what I came out here to get away from, is all.**

*I can’t decide where The Valve fits in here. I think it always had more of a hybrid quality, and certainly while I was writing for it its boundaries seemed fairly porous. But maybe it struck other people as insular in this same way.

**My way has the advantage of not requiring a SSHRC grant to get on with it — though actually to some people that it’s free (except, of course, for the investment of time) apparently counts against it, because getting grants is a thing we’re supposed to do.

Given to Murder: Amanda Cross, Honest Doubt

honestdoubt

“I know you said most professors aren’t given to murder, but are English departments more given to murder than most?”

“Not as far as I know,” Kate said.

Over the years I have read all of the Kate Fansler mysteries by Amanda Cross (who was really Columbia English professor and renowned feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun). Honest Doubt, published in 2000, is the penultimate of these; the last, Edge of Doom, came out just a year before her 2003 suicide.

I remember not liking Honest Doubt very much when I read it the first time, and rereading it over the last couple of days I could see why. At least for someone with preexisting knowledge of academia and its discontents, Honest Doubt is fairly heavy-handed, with a lot of tendentious explanations of the kind of theoretical and disciplinary infighting that was characteristic of English departments in the 1990s  and also of the territorialism, defensiveness, and self-importance that remain pretty typical. If you live it, there’s not necessarily a lot of charm in reading about it, particularly when the telling offers no new insights or revelations. Often in a mystery the solution to the individual crime points towards a solution to the broader ill it is a symptom of — Honest Doubt, however, does not offer any glimmer of a way forward except the general hope that eventually the worst, with all their passionate retrograde intensity, will die off.

That said, I did appreciate that Heilbrun devised a good formal justification for her expose of academic foibles by approaching her story, not through Kate, as usual, but through a private investigator, Woody, who consults with Kate to make up for her own ignorance of academic ways and means. Woody is an engaging narrator, and her outsider status gives Kate (and many of the other characters) an excuse for explaining how things work as well as how they go awry — with details about all things academic, from adjunct labor to tenure requirements to the hazards of prioritizing teaching over research. It also lets Heilbrun (and thus her readers) have some fun with Woody’s fish-out-of-water experiences on the college campus, and with the hyper-articulate name-dropping poetry-quoting professors she has to interview. There’s no doubt that a lot about how we carry on is kind of absurd if you step back and think about it, and though there are some ways in which Heilbrun’s cynical take seems a bit outdated, she’s not wrong that the extent to which our work often seems inconsequential to outsiders is exactly why the stakes get so high internally. She also does well capturing the ways academics’ identities get bound up in their objects of study, so that it becomes near impossible to avoid taking changes in their field personally. Kate sagely acknowledges the corrupting potential of this over-identification, especially as it converges with academic ambition: she quotes Auden saying that when Tennyson “decided to be the Victorian bard . . . he ceased to be a poet,” and propose that the victim, a curmudgeonly Tennyson expert, experienced a similar fall from grace: “He was a real academic when he began with Tennyson. Then he tried to become the academic and the Tennysonian, and ceased to be even a decent professor.”

heilbrunThe case itself is cleverly contrived but not, I think, particularly meaningful. On a completely personal and thus mostly irrelevant note, I enjoyed that it turned on the victim’s fondness for retsina: retsina is actually the first wine I ever drank, back when I was a regular in a Greek dance performing group, so for some time I didn’t realize just how distinctive (many would say, just how disgusting) it actually is. I haven’t had any in years, but now I’m tempted to see if our local wine store carries any. As I recall, it certainly goes well with the robust flavors of Greek cooking — garlic, lemon, and lamb especially. It isn’t really key to the crime, though, except that because nobody likes it but the victim, it proves a useful vehicle for delivering the fatal poison. (This is not a spoiler, as the method of the murder is one of the first things we find out!)

Otherwise, the only thing that really interested me in the novel was its gesture towards another of Heilbrun’s own recurring interests: solitude. She sees, rightly, I think, that a fondness for solitude is a particularly vexed issue for women, and in Honest Doubt she gives us a character who has managed to achieve the remarkable state of being unapologetic about her need for it. “I don’t want to offer you an extended disquisition on a woman’s life,” she tells Woody (the phrase itself reminiscent of Heilbrun’s slim but mighty book Writing A Woman’s Life)

and how it is made to seem that she really wants what she has, how she believes she has what she wants, and, if she has any secret desires, which are against all the forces of her culture, she hardly dares to face them.

Kate herself also in her own way resists the pressure to want what she’s supposed to – she is happily childless, for one thing – and in other Amanda Cross novels Heilbrun offers a number of characters who try to write their own stories according to their own needs and desires rather than haplessly following cultural norms. In Death in a Tenured Position, for instance, which is the one in the series that I know the best (I’ve assigned it several times in my ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ seminar), a happily married couple struggles with the dubious reactions of friends who realize they sleep in separate rooms — a small private decision that provokes simply because it doesn’t conform to people’s assumptions about marital togetherness. “You’d think they’d decided to be tattooed, or run guns to Cuba,” remarks one of their friends.

tenuredpositionI finished Honest Doubt thinking that, though I didn’t love it this time either, I should reread more of the series. Even 2000 was a long time ago in my own academic career, and for all that aspects of Honest Doubt seemed faintly archaic already, some of its truths hit home in a way they didn’t before. Even its title, in fact, has new resonance to me, taken as it is from Tennyson’s lines (from In Memoriam) “There lives more faith in honest doubt / Believe me, than in half the creeds.” My own doubts about a range of academic values and practices have made me seem to some, I think, like a negative force, maybe even a threat (or, and I’m not sure if this is better or worse, like an irrelevance). I’ve described myself as feeling sometimes like “a nonbeliever in church”: to me, though, my doubts have always been indications of my faith that what we do not only is valuable but can be even more so.

The Myth and Mystery of Scholarly “Value”

bookI mentioned in my last post that I had recently read a new academic book that I ultimately decided not to review, partly because I didn’t want to scapegoat the author for my alienation from the genre it belongs to. I’m still not going to name it (and that’s my own book pictured at left, just so there’s no confusion), not just because I’ve made that ungenerous mistake before but because I have had the same question about a lot of academic books lately. This is just the most recent one to leave me wondering: what is this book worth?

That’s the kind of question that clearly requires better, more precise, framing to answer. Worth in what sense, and to whom? Forget financial considerations: I could look up its list price, but even to the author (perhaps especially to the author) a book of this kind is not a money-making venture, except indirectly in that it is almost certainly crucial to the author’s professional success. My guess is, in fact, that it is the author’s “tenure book,” so obviously that has significant economic implications, as well as a crucial payoff for the author’s career. For the author, this is a very valuable book, even if it generates no royalties at all.

For me, on the other hand, the book has no particular value. I don’t mean that unkindly: it’s just that it doesn’t change anything for me, even though it is a work of scholarship in my area of specialization. I suppose I could keep working with it until it does make a difference to me: I could wrestle with its fairly abstract vocabulary and arguments and then with its readings of its examples until my own account of the Victorian novels it addresses incorporates its insights. But there really is no need for me to do that: it’s not as if my own readings of those books have been rendered incorrect or even incomplete by the work done in this book. The book gives me something else I could think about while reading (some) 19th-century novels, but there’s no obligation for me to do so — there really can’t be, unless I’m obligated to do the same with the many, many other scholarly books coming out all the time, and the surfeit of material makes selectivity a principled, not just pragmatic, choice. If I decided to write a specialized paper on a topic that’s over in the author’s corner, I’d be remiss not to notice the book — but I mostly work in other corners, where other books are more pertinent, and that’s how we all get by, consulting other people’s scholarship on an occasional basis — that is, as the occasion arises, and even then with no expectation that our pool of references will be exhaustive.

victorianstudiesIf there were such an expectation and people routinely met it or else paid a professional price, my own monograph would be cited more often than it is! And yet I’ve peered in the bibliographies of enough books and articles on related topics to know that sometimes it comes up, and sometimes it doesn’t. The essay in Victorian Studies that became a chapter of that book gets more consistent attention, no doubt because of its greater discoverability, its online availability, and the tendency of things that get cited once to get cited again. It’s quite possible that, as a contribution to my discipline, the article is genuinely more valuable than the book — that it informed more people, generated more ideas, supported or contradicted more arguments. I wouldn’t actually argue very hard against the notion that the book’s value lies almost entirely in what it did for my career (first as a dissertation, then, revised and expanded, as my “tenure book”). I’m not saying it’s a bad or uninteresting book, and it certainly contains a lot more material than the article does, but on the whole it mostly wasn’t (isn’t) really necessary, except professionally. I wish more people would cite my chapter on needlework and Victorian historiography — or, for that matter, my concluding discussion about the contemporary resonance of some of the Victorian themes I studied — but that’s mostly my ego talking. I’m honestly not sure if that reflects badly on me, on the profession — or just on my book! But the truth is, if only pragmatically, that what is supposedly the real value of either my book or this other book — that it is a contribution to scholarship, that it advances our knowledge and understanding — is not self-evidently present, if it’s not much needed and won’t be much noticed.

In his inaugural post for The Valve, back in 2005, John Holbo raised some related questions about why we do what we do in the way that we do it:

How many members of the MLA? 30,000? That a nation can support a standing army of literary critics is a wondrous fact, and quite explicable with reference to the volume of freshman papers, etc. that must be marked. The number is inexplicable with reference to any critical project. Yes, we need new scholarship (don’t bother me with more false dichotomies, please.) The point is: no one has a clear (or even unclear) sense of what work in the humanities presently needs approximately 30,000 hands to complete. I don’t mean we should therefore hang our heads in shame, although being a member of a standing army of literary critics must be a semi-comic fate, at least on occasion. But the utter lack of any justification for 30,000 literary critics assiduously beavering away explicating, interpreting, erecting new frameworks, interrogating the boundaries, etc., has consequences. Notably, when a book or article is up for publication and the hurdle is set, ‘if it has real scholarly value’, we discover this condition is just not as intelligible as we would like, conditions being what they are. It isn’t true that literary scholars value the output of 30,000 other literary scholars. They just don’t, and that is quite sensible of them, really.

“If ‘scholarly value’ output can’t be optimally pegged to some sense of how much will be truly valued,” he continues,

(since patently the output of 30,000 is going to be on the heavy side), the level will be de facto set as some awkward equilibrium point between forces of economic and administrative necessity (budgeting and tenure). But this is no way to run the life of the mind. Neither economic nor administrative considerations should dictate the diameter of the sphere of scholarship.

Holbo is talking about all forms of scholarship, but the problems he’s thinking about are most conspicuous with books because they represent the largest investment of our time and resources. I’ve written before here about reasons to resist the assumption that books are always our best option, even for disseminating specialized scholarship to other scholars. Certainly “a book” should not be the default demand for any professional step: surely it would be better for all of us if we wrote books when the project demanded investigation and explanation on that scale, not because we “need a book to get tenure” or because “a second monograph is the usual standard” for promotion to Professor. The MLA has urged us to decenter the monograph and accept “multiple pathways” to tenure and promotion. This is right, because for pragmatic reasons scholars can’t publish books on demand, and for principled ones, they shouldn’t. But it also makes sense because there are so many other valuable — maybe more valuable — things we can do with our expertise. I actually applaud my own department, and my own Faculty, for developing tenure and promotion guidelines that recognize a wide range of legitimate “contributions to a discipline” as worthy of professional advancement. (Whether, in practice, our institutional culture has caught up with those forward-thinking guidelines is another question. Ahem.)

I would never dismiss the book I just read, never argue that it is not a legitimate scholarly contribution, just because I personally didn’t find any value in it. Who knows how many other scholars (or just other readers — though given the nature and style of the book, I can’t imagine it would engage very many of those) might find in it something truly exciting, paradigm-changing, or just useful? And as I’ve said before, though I often look at individual trees with puzzlement, I am a big believer in the overall value of the scholarly forest — precisely because things like value are so hard to measure, and because the kinds of transformations that we all eventually feel and react to in our work accumulate incrementally at first. Also, that we have trouble getting the most value out of our work is at least in part a systemic and logistical problem — not a reason to stop doing the work itself. But I do wish we would stop conflating value with form (as in “you need a book,” or “only peer-reviewed scholarly articles are valuable”), or pretending that it’s self-evident why some kinds of work are worth more than others, professionally or otherwise.

Innovation and the Eye of the Beholder

Untitled-1On university campuses we hear a lot about innovation these days, from hype about the latest ed-tech fad to proclamations by institutions like my own about fostering a “culture of innovation.” This has got me reflecting on how we define or recognize innovation — something that is not as obvious, I think, as its champions, or as those who insist on it as a measure of academic success, typically seem to assume. In some fields, of course, it’s easy enough to tell when something is new, if it shifts or breaks a paradigm. But in others, context makes all the difference, as my own chequered career as a “thought leader” demonstrates.

Exhibit A: my undergraduate degree. When I first started at UBC in 1986, I intended to major in history. I was an avid reader, but it had never occurred to me to study reading. I changed my mind, obviously, thanks in large part to my first-year English professor, Don Stephens. (This is one reason I try never to underestimate the importance of our own first-year classes. They can literally change lives.) I didn’t want to give up history, though, and so I asked if it would be possible for me to do my Honors degree in both departments. It turned out that until then, nobody had done a combined English-History Honors degree, so the logistics all had to be specially worked out. (This was ultimately done by the simple method of adding up the key requirements, so that, for instance, instead of the 3-credit English Honors essay or the 6-credit History Honors essay, I did a 9-credit essay, with double the usual number of supervisors, readers, and examiners. I ultimately defended it to a panel of 7 professors.) Administratively, this was innovative, then — but intellectually, the work I did was very much in line with current trends in both disciplines.

UBClogoToday, of course, an interdisciplinary degree is wholly unremarkable; Dalhousie even has an entire Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program (for which I have done one supervision myself). Even by the time I got to Cornell to pursue my own Ph.D. in English, though, nobody raised an eyebrow at my interest in historiography. In retrospect, I think my role as an innovator actually reflected less on me than on the somewhat fusty assumptions governing UBC’s degree requirements at the time — particularly in History, where I met the most skepticism about my proposal, but also in English, where the Honors program still required one course each in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Exhibit B: my feminism. In my undergraduate history seminars, I was something of a feminist agitator. I particularly remember the efforts my friend Helen and I made to get some scholarship about gender onto the reading lists. We were unsuccessful in our mandatory historiography seminar — I remember one male student pushing his chair back from the table and exclaiming in disgust “But you’re trying to change something in your culture!!” Well, yes, we were: in our wider culture and in our immediate academic culture, in which the male students thought it was pretty funny to see if they could get us (“the feminists”!) riled up. But we were successful in our Renaissance history seminar: I still recall with admiration (and some self-satisfaction) the professor’s comments to the class at the end of the term that he was glad we had pushed for readings like Joan Kelly’s “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” because they had prompted him to reconsider some of his own working assumptions. That’s integrity! And our interventions were clearly innovative: we were very cutting edge!

06-vintage_cornell_souvenir_penantBut when I got to Cornell, I discovered that far from being a radical, I was actually a conservative! It turned out that there were some kinds of questions you couldn’t safely ask there, arguments you couldn’t seriously entertain, without undermining your feminist credentials. My first big mistake was giving a seminar paper called “The Madwoman in the Closet”: it queried some then-dominant trends in feminist criticism, particularly in 19th-century studies, and tried (perhaps crudely, but I was a beginner at all of this — and frankly, my somewhat old-fashioned training at UBC had not prepared me well for it) to figure out how politics and aesthetics were getting balanced (unbalanced, I thought, maybe, possibly) in the debates. My professor was keen to have these discussions, but said to me quite frankly that he felt that as a male professor, he couldn’t raise these questions. So I blundered in, and paid the price. I also wrote a more or less positive review of Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism — I strongly doubt I would write the same review today, but I distinctly remember how scrupulous I tried to be, looking up the statistics and studies she cited and trying to think my way through the arguments she made. As I recall, this review (the first one I ever published!) was far from a cheerleading piece — it was more in the spirit of “these seem like questions worth asking” — but it can’t have done my developing reputation as an ideological throwback any good.

Yet at Dalhousie, gender issues have always been central to my teaching (as they have been to my scholarship) — I’ve even had at least one student complain that I was “pushing feminism down our throats.” More positively, I have had many appreciative comments from students, including one this year who said mine was the first class she’d taken in which “social justice” issues including feminism were simply integrated into the curriculum, even though the course itself wasn’t labelled as a class in “women’s studies.” It’s impossible not to wonder how much I have actually changed, and how much it’s just the shifting contexts around me that make me look different.

TLS-soganExhibit C: my critical writing. There are many possible angles to consider here, but I’ll focus on my recent work outside of academic publishing, because its status has been much on my mind lately. In a way, the kind of criticism I’ve been doing recently — from book reviews to literary essays — is not innovative at all: it’s the same kind of work everyone else is doing who also writes for newspapers and magazines and literary journals. But from an academic perspective, to be writing for those venues instead of for academic journals is itself innovative: it’s the kind of thing that gets called “knowledge mobilization” or “knowledge dissemination” or “public humanities.” Except that some of these publishing ventures resemble (in style, not necessarily in content) an older kind of literary criticism — a kind some might call belles lettres — which is now considered passé in academic circles. So my recent work could be considered retrograde, not innovative. Except that to break from the conventions of academic writing and try to replicate the best qualities of belles lettres (fine, smart, accessible writing, with its own literary elegance) while still doing criticism informed by decades of academic scholarship … couldn’t that combination of new insights and old forms itself be innovative? Then, what about the content of the reviews and essays? Every new interpretation of a literary text is a critical innovation, isn’t it? So every review of a new book, representing a new intellectual encounter, is intrinsically ground-breaking, even if book reviewing as a form is the oldest kind of literary criticism. What if you make a new critical argument, based on original research, but in an essay outside the norms of academic publishing — if that argument falls in the forest, can anybody hear the innovation? Or what if the argument of an essay is new to one audience but not to another? What is going on then?? Am I doing original work or not???

Oops. That last part possibly got away from me a little! But I think you get my point: determining whether something — an interpretation, an argument, a curriculum, a research project, a work of criticism — is innovative, new, original is not always straightforward. It depends on definitions, expectations, and above all, on contexts. The “flipped classroom” is nothing new to English professors who for years have been assigning texts to be read outside of class and using class time for discussion. “Student-centered learning” is no great revelation in disciplines that have always been based on Socratic exchanges, held seminar classes, and taught students to develop their own essay ideas into original arguments based on their own research. But that these are old practices in some contexts does not mean they aren’t valuable ones, or that people shouldn’t try them in other contexts, if they seem promising there. What matters should not be innovation for its own sake: we should stop fetishizing it as an end in itself, as if either its definition or its importance is self-evident. I’m not against innovation — of course not! And we should certainly encourage and support people who risk doing something outside their immediate limiting norms because they think it will serve the university’s mission — because we shouldn’t want what is now to be mistaken for what should  always be, or always was, in any context. It’s just strange to me how absolutely the term “innovation” is used, how confidently it gets invoked — and how, ironically, it can actually be used to reinforce orthodoxies if we never double-check our assumptions about it.

Sowing Seeds: On the Duties of Professors

Arcimbolo LibrarianFrom the Novel Readings archives, a post that addresses issues still very much on my mind: what we mean by the terms “research” and “scholarship,” and what we take to be the duties of professors and the work of the humanities.


A friend and colleague who read and sympathized with my previous post passed along to me an essay by the late C. Q. Drummond, a long-time member of the Department of English at the University of Alberta. The essay is called “On the Duties of Professors,” and it addresses many of the same issues as my post, particularly the competition for attention, resources, and rewards between research and teaching. As competitions go, all academics know, this is a distinctly unequal one these days: officially, university policies may stress the equal importance of both duties, but inadequacy or irresponsibility in teaching will never hold back someone’s tenure or promotion if they have a “strong” publication record, and while the administrative infrastructure for research is large and powerful, topping out at the Vice Presidential level, if the two factors are really equally important, where, Drummond rightly asks, is the “Vice President (Teaching)”? (Here at Dalhousie, our office of Research Services has 22 staff, including a VP and an Associate VP. Our Center for Learning and Teaching has 10, with a Director and Associate Director at the top.) Not that Drummond wants to see an expansion of teaching-related bureaucracy–though I quite like his idea for how a VP (Teaching) would go about his or her business: this VP “would move through all the Faculties, visiting classes, hearing lectures, attending seminars, drinking coffee, joining oral examinations, talking into the night.” Through qualitative engagement with teachers and students, this VP would become “another source of evidence, besides tabulated student assessments, for who teaches well and who poorly.”

Drummond’s remarks are directed specifically at his own situation: at the time of writing (around 1984), he had recently been “penalize[d] for insufficient publication during a year in which [his Faculty] received extraordinary evidence of his merit as a teacher.” There’s a polemical thrust to them, as a result, but Drummond uses the occasion to place his own professional experience into its larger context: the increasing dominance of precisely the kind of quantitative measures of research “output” about which I was complaining yesterday. Actually, there is one difference that signals the 30-year gap between us: I didn’t notice any mention of research grants in his piece. I expect he would have objected still more strenuously to measuring scholarly success by level of external funding. He directs his criticism at “forced publication,” and at the reductive equation of publication with research or scholarship:

The Salaries and Promotions Committee certainly does not ask for wisdom; it does not ask for erudition or for scholarship; it does not ask for learning, or even for research; it asks for output, something to be measured or counted. . . . What good does such output do anyone? If research in an Arts Faculty means humane learning, then we all hope our teachers are as much involved in research as they possibly can be. We want them to know better and better what they are talking about, so that they will have, and will continue to have, something intelligent and important to profess to their students. But if research means output or publication, as it so often does today, how do the students profit? And how does the scholarly world profit from the forced production of ephemera? Most professors in Arts Faculties would be better off reading more and publishing less, and their students would be better off too, and so would the world of scholarship.

The very term “research” is, he argues, part of the problem.  He quotes George Whalley, who argued in an essay of his own that “research” suggests a goal-oriented activity, work carried out in pursuit of something in particular. “The functions of research,” Whalley writes, “are specialized and limited; … the word research is not a suitable term for referring to the central initiative and purpose of sustained inquiry in “the humanities” . . . “The humanities” is what “humanists” do; not only what they study, but how they study, and why . . . .”

BPL EntranceDrawing on the Handbook published by the CAUT (invoked by his Dean in response to Drummond’s appeal of the Committee’s decision), Drummond himself brings in the vocabulary of knowledge “dissemination” which is once again very current in discussions of our aims:

Research should result in teaching, and might result in publication, teaching and publication being the most important means of dissemination of knowledge. We may teach those near at hand in our lectures, discussions, tutorials, apprenticeships, and supervised practical training, or we may teach those distant through our published papers, articles, essays, and books. But in either case we will have to have found out and shown something worth lecturing about, discussing, or writing down. And where will we have our greatest effect in disseminating what we have found out and know? . . . Dissemination has to do with sowing seed; what we hope when we disseminate is that the seed will take root and grow. . . . So much of the seed one sows in publication falls by the wayside and is devoured by birds, or falls on stony ground, or among thorns and yields no fruit. What the good teacher sows in his class or tutorial is far more likely to find the good ground, spring up, increase, and itself bring forth.

 He reiterates at intervals throughout the piece that he is not opposed to either research or publication, only to a mechanistic understanding of both, especially when it “drives out teaching”–which almost inevitably follows: institutional systems of measurement and incentives are set up not “to encourage the combination of knowing and teaching,” but to “encourage the production of printed pages,” and “because we live in a world in which time itself is scarce, the time taken for one must be taken from the other.” Again, it’s not that he wishes teaching, in its turn, to drive out research–teaching depends on research, broadly understood as inquiry.

It’s not, in my turn, that I wish to drive out either research or publication, both of which are essential (as Drummond too acknowledges) to learning, teaching, and knowledge dissemination. What bothers me is the  incessant identification of “productive” scholarly activity with a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible. It’s a shame that the faux-scientific model Drummond objects to is now so firmly entrenched–so deeply entangled in the values, practices, and especially the finances of our universities–that it seems unimaginable that we could ever undo it. Some might argue that we have won more by it than we have lost–that without playing the game that way, we would have forfeited any place in the contemporary academy. Others might reply that, yes, we are playing the game, but on terms by which we can only, ultimately, lose: however vast our research output, will we ever win either the public or the institutional respect enjoyed by the sciences? Hasn’t our preoccupation with research actually isolated us and cost us public support? And in our effort to insist on the goal-oriented practicality of our fields, we may have flagged in our defense of their intrinsic value.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)Again, it’s not that I think we should not do research, or publish what it teaches us–but it’s a shame that the system is so rigged in favor of hurrying it along and rushing it into print–not to mention aiming it at a specific (and very narrow) audience. “I know for a fact,” Drummond observes, “that policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” That’s certainly true of my reading as well. The narrow concept of research and the pressure to publish also, when made the primary measures of professional success, marginalize undergraduate teaching. (The emphasis in grantsmanship on teaching and funding graduate students, or “HQP” [Highly Qualifed Personnel] is another whole area of trouble.) Finally, it seems to me paradoxically retrograde to be urging or following a model that measures productivity by grant size or output of peer-reviewed publications at a time when the entire landscape of scholarly communication is changing. We can circulate our ideas, enhance our and others’ understanding, pursue our inquiries and disseminate our knowledge in more, and often cheaper, ways than ever before. As long as we are all using our time in service of the university’s central mission–the advancement of knowledge, including through teaching–by the means best suited to the problems we think are most important and interesting to pursue, aren’t we doing our duty as professors?

But as the Associate Vice President who spoke to my Faculty on Thursday said repeatedly, there aren’t “metrics” for those other ways of doing (or discussing) research or measuring its impact: they do not yield data that can be counted, measured, and easily compared across departments, faculties, and campuses. Apparently, that means we have to set them aside–or, at any rate, that the VP (Research) will do so, when reporting to us on our “performance.”

The essay I discuss here is in the volume In Defence of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton, and Others by C. Q. Drummond, edited by John Baxter and Gordon Harvey (Edgeways Books, 2004).

Originally posted January 29, 2012.