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. 

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)

Intellectual Vices

straw man

Two illustrations of a very serious, and very common, intellectual vice:

One: When Jon Monfasani write a highly critical evaluation of Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern for Reviews in History, Greenblatt responded — and this is the whole of his response —, “I plead guilty to the Burckhardtianism of which John Monfasani accuses me. That is, I am of the devil’s party that believes that something significant happened in the Renaissance. And I plead guilty as well to the conviction, regarded by my genial and learned reviewer as ‘eccentric’, that atomism – whose principal vehicle was Lucretius’ De rerum natura – was crucially important in the intellectual trajectory that led to Jefferson, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein.”

Now, if you read Monfasani’s review, you’ll discover that Greenblatt has simply ignored the detailed and careful argument that Monfasani makes in order to pretend that Monfasani has said ridiculous things. Oh yeah, Monfasani, that guy who thinks nothing significant happened in the Renaissance.

Two: Thomas Pfau, in his recent Minding the Modern, adopts a version of what I have called the neo-Thomist interpretation of history — sort of the opposite of the Whig interpretation of history — according to which a handful of late-medieval Franciscan nominalists broke down the great edifice of Thomist thought and thereby brought about the great catastrophes we call the Reformation and Modernity. Pfau has done his reading, so he knows that there are dissenting historical narratives out there, notably that of Bonnie Dorrick Kent in her 1995 book Virtues of the will: the Transformation of Ethics in the Late Thirteenth Century. Here’s how Pfau deals with Kent’s argument:

Among the most strident accounts in this regard is that by Bonnie Kent, who rejects Alasdair MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas as having achieved a synthesis of Aristotelian and Augustinian thought and — particularly in Whose Justice? and Three Rival Versions — relying excessively on Étienne Gilson’s master-narrative, which unfolds the History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages from an unabashedly Thomist perspective…. Thus Kent rejects “the tendency to describe thirteenth- and fourteenth-century thought in anticipation of developments centuries later. Knowing what will come, the modern writer easily slips into foreshadowing, dividing those masters and doctrines that were ‘properly’ medieval from those that anticipated, even helped to produce, the ultimate divorce of philosophy from theology.” Needless to say, the present argument reaffirms — albeit also seeks to demonstrate at the level of close textual interpretation — the viability, indeed the necessity, of narrative continuities in the domain of intellectual history and philosophical theology.

Two moves of note here: first, before allowing us to hear what Kent’s argument is, Pfau preemptively describes it as “strident”; second, he casts her dissent from the neo-Thomist narrative as a wholesale rejection of “narrative continuities in the domain of intellectual history and philosophical theology.” But of course absolutely nothing that Kent writes repudiates “narrative continuities.” Rather, she argues (persuasively, to my mind) that one particular claim of narrative continuity is mistaken.

So to critics of The Swerve Greenblatt says, “I guess you don’t think anything significant happened in the Renaissance.” And to critics of the neo-Thomist account, Pfau says, “I guess you don’t believe in narrative continuities in intellectual history.” Pure strawmannery, of course; it’s just sadly interesting to see it at work on what are supposed to be the Higher Levels of intellectual discourse.

the circle game

Here’s an excellent post by the redoubtable AKMA on desire and interpretation, with particular reference to the “Jesus’s Wife Fragment” (JWF):

For instance, why did anyone think the fragment was genuine in the first place? I am not a papyrologist, a palaeographer, or a reader of Coptic — but the early photos of the fragment looked odd to me right away. Clearly, they looked right enough to pass muster to Karen King and the experts she consulted, so my unease doesn’t count for much.

I can’t keep from thinking that somewhere in the alchemy of academic judgement, some people wanted to think the JWF was genuine, and others that it wasn’t. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say that I know this was true. Did a prior disposition in favour of revolutionary, disruptive, rebellious parties in early Christianity have any effect on Prof. King’s judgement about the fragment? In an irreproachably sound academic way, it certainly did: she more than many other scholars is open to the possibility that non-standard traditions about Jesus circulated broadly and for centuries after the consolidation of conciliar doctrine about Jesus (as in fact it still does). Many scholars would be less disposed to consider anything about a JWF from the start. So without impugning her scholarship in the least, it seems fair to say that her disposition affected her judgement at least as far as her interest in the fragment and her willingness even to consider its genuineness.

(By the way, if you have any doubts about the fraudulence of the fragment, read this post and follow the links.) As AKMA points out, most of us tend to be far more aware of the desires of our opponents than of our own. Hang around theologically liberal biblical scholars and you’ll get the impression that they are deeply serious truth-seekers, while evangelicals and fundamentalists are too frightened of losing their comforting belief-structure to face hard truths. Hang around with those evangelicals, by contrast, and you’ll get the impression that they are doing serious, evidence-based scholarship while those liberals kowtow to the intellectual trends of the moment in order to keep their jobs at secular (or at best thoroughly secularized) universities.

I would just add that — as I suggested in this earlier post — the desires that AKMA points to are linked to incentives. Religiously conservative scholars who work in religiously conservative institutions have strong incentives to reach religiously conservative conclusions in their scholarship, lest they lose their jobs; conversely, religious believers who work at theologically liberal or secular institutions have equally strong incentives to (a) reach liberalizing and secularizing conclusions in their scholarship or (b) keep their mouths shut about their beliefs and try to limit any dissonance between their views and those of their colleagues.

Both sides, then — and this will be equally true of divided scholarly communities in many other fields — will strive to exclude those who disagree with them from serious consideration. Consider, to take but one example, this recent Boston Globe interview with Bart Ehrman:

IDEAS: Is it widely accepted among scholars that Jesus did not claim divinity?

EHRMAN: That has been a widely held scholarly view for about 300 years among critical scholars. Among scholars who are evangelical Christians who are committed to the idea that Jesus is God and knew he was God, they maintain that Jesus did say that he was God.

Note how Ehrman tries to cast objections to his view as occurring only among “evangelical Christians,” even though he knows perfectly well that countless Catholic and Orthodox scholars hold the same view. And note the reference to “critical scholars”: Truly critical scholars — the term is clearly complimentary — deny that Jesus claimed to be God, because those claims come in the Gospel of John, the historical character of which they reject. But what qualifies someone as a critical scholar? Well, among other things, the view that Jesus did not claim to be God and that the Gospel of John is non-historical. Thus the circle neatly closes.

There are of course religiously conservative versions of the same thing, which is, basically, the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. The question is: how do we get out of these loops of self-confirmation?

on documentation

This essay on scholarly documentation practices lays down some very useful principles — for some scholars working in some circumstances. Unfortunately, the author, Patrick Dunleavy, assumes a situation that doesn’t yet exist and may not for some time to come.

Dunleavy presents as normative, indeed nearly universal, a situation in which (a) scholarly publication is natively digital because we live in “the digital age” and (b) scholars are working with open-access or public-domain sources that are readily available online. When those two conditions hold, his recommendations are excellent. But they don’t always hold, and what he calls “legacy” documentation is in fact not a legacy condition for many of us, but rather necessary and normal.

For instance: Dunleavy says of page-number citations, “That is legacy referencing, designed solely to serve the interests of commercial publishers, and 90% irrelevant now to the scholarly enterprise.” I don’t yet have any data about my recent biography of the Book of Common Prayer — see, and use, the links on the right of this page, please — but for my previous book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, codex sales have exceeded digital sales by a factor of 10. So my 90/10 split is the opposite of what Dunleavy asserts to be the case. It makes no sense for me to think of the overwhelming majority of my readers as inhabiting a “legacy” realm and to focus my attention on documenting for the other ten percent. Page numbers are still eminently relevant to me and my readers. Dunleavy claims that “pagination in the digital age makes no sense at all,” which may be true, if and when we get to “the digital age.”

Moreover, most of my scholarly work is on figures — currently W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and Jacques Maritain — whose work is still largely or wholly under copyright. So I have few open-access or public-domain options for citing them. And this, too, is a common situation for scholars.

Dunleavy is thus laying down supposedly universal principles that in fact apply only to some scholars in some disciplines. Which is why this tweet from Yoni Appelbaum is so apropos: