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academicky discourse

Steven Shaviro's got a nice entry about Lindsay Waters' new book Enemies of Promise, which SS describes as "a jeremiad about troubles in the world of academia and academic publishing. Waters says that too many academic books are being published, books that sell poorly for the most part, and that this situation is not sustainable either economically or intellectually." Waters is the humanities editor at Harvard UP, so presumably he knows whereof he speaks.

I haven't read the book, but I probably will now. What's unfortunate about it, if Shaviro's description is accurate, is that it offers no real solution to a huge problem that stretches throughout the academy at large, one that can probably be linked in any number of ways to the University of Excellence. As curmudgeonly as we seem to be about grade inflation, it would be refreshing to hear my senior colleagues (and I'm casting that net as broadly as it will fly, not critiquing my immediate ones) admit some culpability in what I think of as "grind inflation," the assumption that tenure requirements must grow over time, to the point where junior faculty are held to far higher standards than those who judge us are themselves capable of meeting.

Like Shaviro, I'm lucky, but for a different reason. I didn't waive any years towards tenure when I moved up here from Virginia, and the result (I hope) will be a far better first book than I could have written otherwise. Rather than flipping my dissertation around, I've reworked it almost entirely, and framed it as a project with much broader implications. In that way, I can identify with the one "solution" Waters offers:

At the end of the book, Waters praises silence; "it is possible to be a great thinker and not publish anything" (78), he writes, citing the obvious example of Socrates. Water urges scholars and critics to hold back, to publish less, to give their ideas more breathing space to develop.

At the same time, this strikes me as woefully naive, because it simply ignores the realities that face junior faculty, who have been taught for years, both in and out of graduate school, that "breathing space" is a luxury reserved for the tenured, and fenced off by tenure committees. That's part of what I take Shaviro to mean when he says that "the way we train graduate students is the main culprit in creating this situation." I don't know that I'd agree that there is a "main culprit," because I'm as complicit as anyone when it comes to trying to prepare graduate students to compete for positions and to succeed in them once they arrive. But I'm equally loathe to fall back into a lame defense of "the market made me do it." Seems to me that it's a vicious cycle with multiple factors, and the only answer is to intervene at some point to keep it from feeding back and accelerating.

Shaviro says that Waters rejects the Internet as an option, which is disappointing, but not wholly unexpected. Intellectual sustainability is one thing (and a big thing), but I continue to believe that projects like Parlor Press and print-on-demand are a powerful answer to the question of economic sustainability. If Dave Blakesley's experience is any indication, I think that most of the UP's in our field will have to move in that direction, one way or another, over the next ten years. That's not the Internet per se, but it does offer one way out of the cycle, and a far better one than, say, widespread adjunctification.

At any rate, I'll put Enemies of Promise on my fall reading list, which I'll tackle once I've--what else?--finished up that first book manuscript...