the Multigraph Collective and new avenues of humanistic scholarship

Allison Miller tells The Story of the Multigraph Collective, an academic group project that eventuated in a book called Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation. I very much want to read the book, but for those interested in the economics of labor in the academy and its effects on scholarship, this part of Miller’s account is especially interesting:  

Being edited by so many other scholars, according to Paul Keen (Carleton Univ.), was unnerving but also “weirdly liberating. It gave us all a license to put our authorial sensitivities on hold and put our faith in this larger brainstorming process.”
Indeed, [Andrew] Piper too describes the endeavor as a “leap of faith,” since no one knew how the final work would be received by tenure and promotion committees or by UK Research Excellence Framework evaluators. One Multigraph Collective member, says Piper, was told that since there were 22 collaborators, the member’s work on Interacting with Print would count as 1/22 of a book—by word count, not even the equivalent of a journal article.
In the thick of it all, however, the process was thrilling. Hierarchies of academic rank and disciplinary territoriality dissolved in a shared commitment to the work. “This project fundamentally changed my ideas about what humanities scholarship could look like and what it could achieve,” says Porter. 

The whole situation is a reminder of the absurdity of the current tenure system, with its crude quantitative pseudo-metrics for assessing “productivity” — but also of the power of tenure. Those of us who have it need to be engaged in projects like Interacting with Print — projects that reconfigure and extend the character of humanistic scholarship (sometimes by renewing older scholarly modes). I’m displeased with myself for not doing more along these lines. 

reconstituting the Republic of Letters (or not)

Here I want to follow up on my previous post on academic publishing and the patronage system.

First, just a note that the article by Stanley Fish that I cited in that post created an interesting conversation that can be found here, at least for those with JSTOR access.

Now, back to the main issues raised by Wellmon and Piper: As I mentioned in my earlier response, their work brings a welcome historical dimension to the issues they raise, identifying the ways in which the rise of the modern research university, starting in the late 18th century in Germany, sought to avoid or transcend the limitations of a patronage regime but ended up (largely, though not wholly) reinscribing such a regime in a disguised and more systematic form.

It was what we might call a Weberian development: a community or network of scholarship — the old Republic of Letters about which Anthony Grafton, more than anyone else, has written so eloquently — that depended a good deal on the charisma of individual figures, from Petrarch to Erasmus to Voltaire, was gradually rationalized and systematized. Wellmon and Piper and I are the heirs of that rationalized system, and for better or worse have to function within it. But as a professor at a private Christian university, as opposed to the public institutions that Chad and Andrew work at, my ties to that system are slightly looser. The epistemic world of Christian scholarship in the humanities overlaps with the larger scholarly world but has various regions that lie well off that map. At Wheaton, where I taught for 29 years, an English or philosophy professor could (might not, but could) get tenure while writing only for specifically Christian journals and presses; at Baylor, where I now teach, that would not be possible, but some publication with Christian scholarly outlets is usually acceptable.

So from where I sit the rise of the modern research university, with its national and often international standards of accreditation and prestige, is a mixed blessing, and I am tempted to wonder whether, in the university as it is currently constituted and likely to be constituted for the imaginable future, any serious alternative to the current epistemic regime can be achieved.

If such an alternative regime is ever to be realized, then it might well need to involve reflection on what elements of that Republic of Letters could be reconstituted. In contrast to the research university the Old Republic was characterized by

  • locally variable interests and approaches
  • dependence (as noted above) on individual charisma
  • loose and variable social ties among its members
  • loose and variable relations to intellectual institutions
  • a common language (Latin) for much of its history
  • private and locally variable publication technologies
  • dependence on postal service for most of its exchanges of ideas

For a time it seemed to me that the internet might allow for the formation of structurally similar networks of scholars, more-or-less loosely related to but not confined by academic institutions. I remember, ten or fifteen years ago, hearing fairly regularly from people who didn’t hold academic positions but who nevertheless — or perhaps not nevertheless but rather consequently — offered interesting ideas that I did not come across in my regular academic reading. (These people often held advanced degrees but did not have academic jobs, for a variety of reasons.)

The success of these networks depended on a reliable means of exchanging ideas, something that, early in internet’s history, was enabled by various technologies: the BBS, the newsgroup, the listserv. But when we moved from those technologies to the World Wide Web, and thus to comment-enabled blogs, things started to go seriously wrong, largely because ignorant and/or malicious people, who didn’t even have to sign up for a listserv in order to share their opinions, drove the more measured and thoughtful people out of comment threads. Then, at about the time that everyone started to figure out the necessity of comment moderation, Twitter arose, and suddenly commenting on blogs seemed burdensome to people.

For instance, the number of comments on this blog has steadily declined, though for a while, until I began emphasizing that I don’t read Twitter replies, people would respond there — inevitably more briefly, and therefore less clearly and cogently, than they would have if they had chosen instead to comment on the blog itself. Now I get very few responses at all to what I write here. I think the rise of social media, and especially Twitter, has done great damage to any hopes for an online Republic of Letters that could provide a kind of epistemic counterpoise to the Academy. Perhaps when Twitter burns itself out — which I believe it will do, and fairly soon, thanks to the crass indifference of its leadership to the abuse that goes on there — some new possibilities will arise, or old ones come back into view.

But without some such counterpoise — some intellectual ferment going on outside the disciplinary powers of the research university (and I mean “disciplinary” primarily in a Foucauldian sense) — then I doubt whether we’ll see a significant alteration in how the university works.

Let me return now to the question that Wellmon and Piper ask: “What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” I want to suggest one possible answer to that question: If we want the university to become a more intellectually diverse space, then maybe we need to find ways to strengthen and vivify intellectual discourse outside the university. Because it is only when serious alternatives to the epistemic practices of the university are being cultivated elsewhere that the university is likely to reconsider how it does its business. In this way a major investment of academic intellectual resources in the world outside the academy could constitute, at one and the same time, a public service and a means of self-invigoration.

publication, power, and patronage

Here’s a PDF of an important article by Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper, soon to be published in Critical Inquiry. And here’s what the journos call the nut graf:

Historically, university reformers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century have touted publication as a corrective to concentrations of power and patronage networks. An increased emphasis on more purportedly transparent or objective measures provided by publication have long been cast as an antidote to cronyism and connections. As we will show, however, current data suggest that publication patterns largely reproduce significant power imbalances within the system of academic publishing. Systems of academic patronage as well as those of cultural and social capital seem not only to have survived but flourished in the modern bureaucratic university, even if in different form. When, as our data show, Harvard and Yale exercise such a disproportionate influence on both hiring and publishing patterns, academic publishing seems less a democratic marketplace of ideas and more a tightly-controlled network of patronage and cultural capital. Just as output-focused advancement is older than we might expect, patronage-based advancement is more persistent than we might like to acknowledge.

And then Wellmon and Piper bring the data that show just how institutionally concentrated academic publishing is. After they had “surveyed over 45 years (1969–2015) of publication data from four leading journals in the humanities — Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, PMLA, and Representations,” they discovered, among other things, that “authors with PhDs from just two universities, Yale and Harvard, accounted for one-fifth (19.95%) of all articles.” (Just for the record, Chad’s PhD is from Berkeley, Andrew’s from Columbia, mine from UVA.)

There are many ways one might explain this state of affairs, and, especially if you’re associated with Harvard or Yale, you might want to start by pointing out that the graduate programs of those schools have their pick of the most talented student applicants, so therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that those students go on to be productive professionals, some of whom then return to Harvard and Yale and select the next generation of graduate students — it’s a kind of circle, yes, but not all such circles are vicious ones. So the argument might go. And we can grant a measure, and even a large measure, of truth to those claims and still be concerned for the various results of such a system.

Among those various results, the ones that Wellmon and Piper are most interested in — and not just in this article, but in the larger project of which this article is merely the first installment — may be seen in this sentence: “The broader question we want to ask, which we can only begin to raise in this essay, is: What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” (Emphasis mine.) Yes, there are social and political effects, but tangled up with those and never fully extricable from them are surely epistemic consequences: a kind of scholarly Overton window of acceptable topics of study, methods, conclusions, all monitored and disciplined by a clerisy that doesn’t acknowledge its own power or interests. A fascinating element of the essay is its brief history of how the whole endeavor of academic publishing arose largely in order to provide an “objective” discursive arena in which the intrinsic merit of scholarly work could be properly assessed — which, however well or badly it served its announced purpose, enforced a system that valued writing above speaking: “advocates of a new university model assumed that written and, most importantly, published material had a higher value than oral exchange or other less broadly public media.” That this system of value concentrates the power of the clerisy may well be, as the Marxists like to say, no accident.

I am very eager to see where Wellmon and Piper go with further research along these lines. Here are a couple of questions I am mulling over and that I would love to see them consider:

1) I wonder if the prestige-distribution system in the publishing of academic books works in the same way that it does within the network of academic journals. My own experience suggests otherwise. Fairly early in my career I discovered that it was far easier and more rewarding to write and publish books than to go through the endless rigmarole of trying to get journal articles published — so I stopped doing the latter. My suspicion is that, unlike journals, university presses need to make money, or at least to avoid losing much money, which gives them a rather different set of priorities. That’s just a suspicion, and one derived from only one person’s experience; but still, I wonder.

2) One of the responses to Wellmon and Piper’s work will surely be that they have exposed a false meritocracy and we therefore need to come up with some way to create and sustain a true meritocracy. Perhaps some will insist that places in graduate programs be determined by GRE scores, or by some imagined replacement for the GRE that more objectively determines merit. To which others will reply that the concepts of “objectivity” and “merit” are and will always be ideological tools by which the entrenched clerisy will sustain itself. Thus the academic profession’s old oscillation between the political and transcendent will simply be renewed.

I take my framing of that opposition from an essay that Stanley Fish wrote in 1979 and published nine years later, “No Bias, No Merit: The Case Against Blind Submission”:

The true and proper view of literature and literary studies defines itself against academic politics, which are seen by the aestheticians as being too much like the politics of “actual life” and by the new historicists as being not enough like the politics of “actual life.” The complaint is different, but its target – the procedures and urgencies of professional activity – is the same, and so is the opposition underlying the different complaints, the opposition between an activity in touch with higher values and an activity that has abandoned those values for something base and philistine. Whether the values are generality, detachment, disembodied vision, and moral unity on the one hand or discontinuity, rupture, disintegration, and engagement on the other, the fear is that they will be compromised by the demands that issue from the pressures of careerism, the pressure to publish, to say something new, to get a job, to get promoted, to get recognized, to get famous, and so on. In the context of the aesthetic vision, these pressures are destructive of everything that is truly intellectual; in the context of the historicist vision, they are destructive of everything that is truly (as opposed to merely institutionally) political. Not only do the two visions share an enemy, they share a vocabulary, the vocabulary of transcendence, for in the discourses of both we are urged to free ourselves from parochial imperatives, to realize the true nature of our calling, to participate in that which is really and abidingly important. It is just that in one case the important thing is the life of the poetic mind, while in the other it is the struggle against repression and totalization; but that is finally only the difference between two differently pure acts, both of which are pure (or so is the claim) by not being the acts of an embedded professional.

Fish is playing the provocateur here, of course, as always, but I think he has rightly identified the constant temptation of the reformer, whether academic or religious or any other kind, which is to seek a purity of purpose and action that escapes the downward-dragging gravity of the grossly political. For Fish, it seems, there are three options for organizing the prestige-conferring, patronage-distributing system of the academic humanities: a falsely-pure aestheticism, a falsely-pure revolutionary politics, and a cheerfully impure intra-profession politics.

Now, even if we agree with Fish that we need to avoid the sham purities, the simulacra of transcendence, that our profession tends to embrace, and accept instead the inevitably political character of our profession, that doesn’t get us very far. In fact, by arguing that we should all just accept and work within professional norms without claiming that they are anchored in transcendent values, Fish simply avoids asking questions about how those norms are created and perpetuated: to Wellmon and Piper’s point about how our models of scholarship ground value in national and international publishing rather than in oral and local engagements, Fish could reply only with a Wittgensteinian shrug. But his warnings against utopian illusions should be noted and heeded by all would-be reformers.

(more forthcoming in another post)

Carr on Piper on Jacobs

Here’s Nick Carr commenting on the recent dialogue at the Infernal Machine between me and Andrew Piper:

It’s possible to sketch out an alternative history of the net in which thoughtful reading and commentary play a bigger role. In its original form, the blog, or web log, was more a reader’s medium than a writer’s medium. And one can, without too much work, find deeply considered comment threads spinning out from online writings. But the blog turned into a writer’s medium, and readerly comments remain the exception, as both Jacobs and Piper agree. One of the dreams for the web, expressed through a computer metaphor, was that it would be a “read-write” medium rather than a “read-only” medium. In reality, the web is more of a write-only medium, with the desire for self-expression largely subsuming the act of reading. So I’m doubtful about Jacobs’s suggestion that the potential of our new textual technologies is being frustrated by our cultural tendencies. The technologies and the culture seem of a piece. We’re not resisting the tools; we’re using them as they were designed to be used.

I’d say that depends on the tools: for instance, this semester I’m having my students write with CommentPress, which I think does a really good job of preserving a read-write environment — maybe even better, in some ways, than material text, though without the powerful force of transcription that Andrew talks about. (That may be irreplaceable — typing the words of others, while in this respect better than copying and pasting them, doesn’t have the same degree of embodiment.)

In my theses I tried to acknowledge both halves of the equation: I talked about the need to choose tools wisely (26, 35), but I also said that without the cultivation of certain key attitudes and virtues (27, 29, 33) choosing the right tools won’t do us much good (36). I don’t think Nick and I — or for that matter Andrew and I — disagree very much on all this.

different strokes

Here’s a typically smart and provocative reflection by Andrew Piper. But I also have a question about it. Consider this passage: 

Wieseltier’s campaign is just the more robust clarion call of subtler and ongoing assumptions one comes across all the time, whether in the op-eds of major newspapers, blogs of cultural reviews, or the halls of academe. Nicolas Kristof’s charge that academic writing is irrelevant because it relies on quantification is one of the more high-profile cases. The recent reception of Franco Moretti’s National Book Critics Award for Distant Reading is another good case in point. What’s so valuable about Moretti’s work on quantifying literary history, according to the New Yorker’s books blog, is that we can ignore it. “I feel grateful for Moretti,” writes Joshua Rothman. “As readers, we now find ourselves benefitting from a division of critical labor. We can continue to read the old-fashioned way. Moretti, from afar, will tell us what he learns.”
We can continue doing things the way we’ve always done them. We don’t have to change. The saddest part about this line of thought is this is not just the voice of journalism. You hear this thing inside academia all the time. It (meaning the computer or sometimes just numbers) can’t tell you what I already know. Indeed, the “we already knew that” meme is one of the most powerful ways of dismissing any attempt at trying to bring together quantitative and qualitative approaches to thinking about the history of ideas.
As an inevitable backlash to its seeming ubiquity in everyday life, quantification today is tarnished with a host of evils. It is seen as a source of intellectual isolation (when academics use numbers they are alienating themselves from the public); a moral danger (when academics use numbers to understand things that shouldn’t be quantified they threaten to undo what matters most); and finally, quantification is just irrelevant. We already know all there is to know about culture, so don’t even bother.

Regarding that last sentence: the idea that “we already know all there is to know about culture, so don’t even bother” is a pathetic one — but that’s not what Rothman says. Rather, he writes of a “division of labor,” in which it’s perfectly fine for Moretti to do what he does, but it’s also perfectly fine for Rothman to do what he does. What I hear Rothman saying is not “we know all there is to know” but rather something like “I prefer to keep reading in more traditional and familiar ways and I hope the current excitement over people like Moretti won’t prevent me from doing that.” 

In fact, Rothman, as opposed to the thoroughly contemptuous Wieseltier, has many words of commendation for Moretti. For instance: 

The grandeur of this expanded scale gives Moretti’s work aesthetic power. (It plays a larger role in his appeal, I suspect, than most Morettians would like to admit.) And Moretti’s approach has a certain moral force, too. One of the pleasures of “Distant Reading” is that it assembles many essays, published over a long period of time, into a kind of intellectual biography; this has the effect of emphasizing Moretti’s Marxist roots. Moretti’s impulses are inclusive and utopian. He wants critics to acknowledge all the books that they don’t study; he admires the collaborative practicality of scientific work. Viewed from Moretti’s statistical mountaintop, traditional literary criticism, with its idiosyncratic, personal focus on individual works, can seem self-indulgent, even frivolous. What’s the point, his graphs seem to ask, of continuing to interpret individual books—especially books that have already been interpreted over and over? Interpreters, Moretti writes, “have already said what they had to.” Better to focus on “the laws of literary history”—on explanation, rather than interpretation.
All this sounds austere and self-serious. It isn’t. “Distant Reading” is a pleasure to read. Moretti is a witty and welcoming writer, and, if his ideas sometimes feel rough, they’re rarely smooth from overuse. I have my objections, of course. I’m skeptical, for example, about the idea that there are “laws of literary history”; for all his techno-futurism, Moretti can seem old-fashioned in his eagerness to uncover hidden patterns and structures within culture. But Moretti is no upstart. He is patient, experienced, and open-minded. It’s obvious that he intends to keep gathering data, and, where it’s possible, to replace his speculations with answers. In some ways, the book’s receiving an award reflects the role that Moretti has played in securing a permanent seat at the table for a new critical paradigm—something that happens only rarely.

This all seems eminently fair-minded to me, even generous. But what Moretti does is not Rothman’s thing. And isn’t that okay? Indeed, hasn’t that been the case for a long time in literary study: that we acknowledge the value in what other scholars with different theoretical orientations do, without choosing to imitate them ourselves? It mystifies me that Piper sees this as a Wieseltier-level dismissal. 

my (recently) absent mind and others more present

Hey y’all, and apologies for the radio silence for the past few days — I’ve been back to Wheaton for a conference and a visit with my son and some old friends, and am trying to get back into the teaching saddle here at Baylor. I may post my talk from the conference, but in the meantime, busy yourselves with this excellent article by Jennifer Roberts, an art historian, on the value of practicing — and teaching — patience:

Given all this, I want to conclude with some thoughts about teaching patience as a strategy. The deliberate engagement of delay should itself be a primary skill that we teach to students. It’s a very old idea that patience leads to skill, of course — but it seems urgent now that we go further than this and think about patience itself as the skill to be learned. Granted — patience might be a pretty hard sell as an educational deliverable. It sounds nostalgic and gratuitously traditional. But I would argue that as the shape of time has changed around it, the meaning of patience today has reversed itself from its original connotations. The virtue of patience was originally associated with forbearance or sufferance. It was about conforming oneself to the need to wait for things. But now that, generally, one need not wait for things, patience becomes an active and positive cognitive state. Where patience once indicated a lack of control, now it is a form of control over the tempo of contemporary life that otherwise controls us. Patience no longer connotes disempowerment — perhaps now patience is power.

And add to that this typically thoughtful and nuanced meditation on reading by Andrew Piper:

Skimming, holding, sharing, annotating, and focusing—these are just some of the many ways that e-books diminish our interactions with books. And yet they remain the default way we have thought about reading in an electronic environment. E-pub or Kindle, it doesn’t really matter. We have fallen for formats that look like books without asking what we can actually do with them. Imagine if we insisted that computers had to keep looking like calculators.


Escaping this rut will require not only a better understanding of history—all the ways reading has functioned in the past that have yet to be adequately re-created in an electronic world—but also a richer imagination of what lies beyond the book, the new textual structures (or infrastructures) that will facilitate our electronic reading other than the bound, contained, and pictorial objects that we have so far made available. Instead of preserving the sanctity of the book, whether in electronic or printed form, we need to think beyond the page and into that all too often derided thing called the data set: curated collections of literary data sold by publishers and made freely available by libraries. This is the future of electronic reading. 

To support such a shift, we need to do a better job of bringing into relief the nonbookish things we can do with words and how this will add value to our lives as readers. We need a clearer sense of what reading computationally means beyond the host of names used to describe it today (text mining, distant reading, social network analysis). Thinking about reading in terms of data and computation isn’t about traversing the well-trodden field of open-access debates. It’s about rethinking what we mean by “access.” 

I may have more to say about both of these essays later, but in the meantime, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.