Collections in crisis?

I was intrigued to see the announcement last week by the historian Peter Webster that he has a new book under contract that will address the recent history of the edited collection as an academic publishing format.

While this might seem at first glance like a somewhat esoteric or very narrow topic, it goes potentially to the heart of a more general issue: in what ways and in which formats do scientists and scholars present their research findings to their colleagues and (potentially) to a broader public.

As Webster puts it, in what looks like a brief précis of his forthcoming volume:

In recent years, the edited collection of essays has undergone a crisis as a form of scholarly publishing. Without fanfare or particular crisis event, the perception spread that publishing in such collections was less prestigious than in journals; that such chapters were less visible to readers, and less acceptable to those assessing a scholar’s work; and that publishers were in retreat from such volumes.

As I’ve worked in three academic systems (the US, the UK and Germany), I have developed a sensitivity to certain issues that seem to be unique to each of them.

And, indeed, the edited collection seems to have suffered in the last couple of decades in the UK. It’s certainly not that they’ve disappeared, but it does seem (as I’ve at least anecdotally heard via colleagues), that British publishers take far more convincing to publish a collection than they once did.

And I know more directly that when I was involved in the 2000s with my then-institution’s submission to the 2008 “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE, now known as the more buzzwordy “Research Excellence Framework” or REF) that collections and contributions to them were clearly considered  to be less valuable (today, I suppose, “less excellent”) than journal articles.

(There might be an exception here with those various series of mammoth — and mammothly priced — “handbooks” put out by prominent publishers at an increasing rate in recent decades. But that seems like a story for another day.)

I can’t speak for other countries, but I don’t have the sense that there’s been any comparable decline in Germany, where, in fact, the essay collection — or “Sammelband” — seems to be alive and well. (Maybe somebody has statistics on this, but I’m speaking merely subjectively.)

To make a long story short, I think the factors leading to this difference are obvious.

1) German academics are still largely free from systematic research assessments and rankings. (This is one of German academia’s great virtues, whatever other problems it might have.) There are recurrent moves toward a more thorough and comprehensive assessment system, but nothing has emerged that is remotely like the highly centralised and enormously powerful directives and bureaucracies that dominate the British scene. German education systems are highly federalised, which may play a significant role here.

The amount and quality of your work, of course, is taken into account. But this is done more variously and individually by different committees at different times and in different contexts (external grant applications, hiring committees, etc.) rather than in one recurrent assessment that has a significant impact on your career (and the future state funding of your institution).

Moreover, there is a strong — if less tangible — commitment to an ideal of scholarly independence, which most academics can largely take advantage of (except, of course, those who are employed to work on specific projects).

Academics the world over are as susceptible to an incentive system as any other occupation (as one sees maybe most clearly in the UK), but, so far, there’s been no clear message that I can see in Germany that one needs to prioritise articles over chapters in collections.

While the distinction between peer-review and non-peer-review has become more observed in Germany, the obsession with it and with “impact factors” and the like has yet to take hold, at least in comparison, again, with Britain.

Indeed: having a long list of chapters in essay collections (or several of one’s own collections) won’t generally count against you here. On the contrary: it might well be to your advantage, and it seems to be expected that someone will produce at least a few collections in the course of their career. The demonstrated ability to bring fellow scholars together and to synthesise their thoughts into a coherent collection is something that is, overall, valued.

2) Equally important — possibly more so — is the fact that there is a well-established system for funding the publication of Sammelbände. Like in much of academic publishing in Germany (unlike, in my experience in the US and UK), it is pretty standard to pay the publisher in advance to publish your work, once it has been reviewed and accepted. This includes essay collections. So German academic publishers face little pressure to avoid publishing them out of a fear (which seems to be a factor in the UK) that they’ll be “hard to sell”.

The Sammelband or series of them (Reihe) of them can actually be something of a status symbol in Germany. There are many long-extant collection series put out by particular institutions (or particular scholars). Some of them are prominent and respected. And this is all accompanied by an extensive set of grants and funding opportunities to support such publication.

So some combination of economic infrastructure, status incentives and scholarly ideals has led to a situation where, in Germany, the Sammelband seems alive and well or, at least, not “in crisis” as it seems to be in the UK. (Some related issues were addressed, it occurs to me, by Susan Pedersen some years back on British variants of the Festschrift.)

Is the continuing liveliness of the collection format in Germany a good thing? It’s hard to say conclusively, but I would say, on balance, that it is.

One sometimes hears the complaint that there are too many essay collections being created. This might be true, and it is clearly the case that the quality is variable.

However, I doubt that the range of quality is necessarily any worse than that of the articles flooding out of an increasing number of (sometimes questionable) academic journals. Academic overproduction — in many senses of the term — is a genuine issue, but I think it has little to do with publication formats as such.

Another complaint is that essays in collections are harder to access than articles. And there is something to this: yes, it’s far more convenient — if you have institutional access to a journal that is — to sit at your desk and click “download article” than to actually try to get your hands on a printed essay collection. However, with the advent of e-books, there is not, in theory, any reason why this distinction should matter all that much. (And, in any case, since when did going to the library once in a while become seen as such an onerous task?)

Moreover, the tendency to zero in only on individual articles — even when they’re part of a thematic “special issue” — means that something is potentially lost when readers fail to engage with the broader context in which a journal article was meant to be read.

When they’re done well, I think, essay collections can be enormously valuable, even exciting scholarly works. Being “done well” means that they should have a clear purpose, express a coherent set of ideas (or at least a common set of concerns) and manage to become, as a whole, more valuable than the sum of their parts.

My feelings on this might be affected by having put out my own first Sammelband a couple of years ago, Christianity and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Europe: Conflict, Community and the Social Order.

It was a good experience, not least since it was part of a very good series and I had the benefit of some helpful in-house editorial advice and assistance. The collection had its start in a panel I had organised, but I then approached individual scholars with particular interests to supplement this core group. In this way, the result was something that (at least I like to think) has an internal coherence that makes for the best collections. And the reactions have been positive so far, which is encouraging.

When I  look back on my career (or even just sideways at my bookshelves), I can identify several collections that had a great impact on myself and the fields in which I have worked (mainly the histories of crime, media and religion).

Done well, it’s a format that is as good (an in some cases better) than a journal special issue.

It would be a shame for it to disappear.

However, it seems to me that the “crisis of the collection” is a distinctly British (or maybe transatlantic) phenomenon, one that is clearly rooted in the imperatives both of a centralised assessment system and a more market-oriented publishing model.

Though maybe I’m one of those old fashioned types who likes the way that research turns into tangible forms. With stable covers, an image on the front and an ISBN number.

Benefit of (the) doubt

Alice Dreger’s recounting of her experiences giving a lecture last week at Wellesley is intriguing for a number of reasons relevant to understanding  the state of the American college campus.

Long accustomed to controversy (as readers of her marvellous book Galileo’s Middle Finger will know), she was nevertheless taken aback by the scale and vigour of protest that greeted her at one of America’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges.

It turns out that prior to her arrival an email had circulated with viciously anti-transsexual quotes that were — falsely — attributed to her.

The whole thing is worth reading, and Dreger does the enormous service of providing a short list of constructive suggestions to young college activists  that, one hopes, will be pinned up in college dorm rooms from coast to coast.

But I was struck by this passage (emphasis added):

“All in all, I think the engagement at the Wellesley protest went well, even if it was an ironic lesson in the social construction of identity. A number of students came up to me to say they had really had their minds opened by realizing what they’re told about someone might not at all be true. A few told me they were planning to push back against the problem of what amounts to falsehood-based activism.”

Quite apart from everything else in the article — such as the all-too-predictable combination of overbearing self-righteousness and muddled inarticulacy on the part of the protestors — the fact that several adult students at an elite college were apparently unaware that sometimes people lie about other people  (something that I think I learned in, oh,  about second grade) is dispiriting.

But given the just-about-daily regularity in which I see overwrought social media commentary on people and works that make clear that the critic hasn’t actually bothered to read or watch the thing criticised, I suppose I am myself being naive for thinking that it’s anything but the new normal.

(Again: I definitely recommend Galileo’s Middle Finger, one of the best and most moving things I’ve read in the last couple of years.)

Functional Cultural Illiteracy

So this is the advertisement that I asked students of English, English Literature and Culture and American Studies at a large university in Germany to analyse in the final exam on a Cultural Studies lecture:

The task was to apply the categories used by Roland Barthes in his essay “Rhetoric of the Image”, which we had discussed at some length during the semester (I’m off the theory these days, but still partial to early Barthesian semiotics, which can provide a helpful framework for the systematic interpretation of all kinds of artefacts, especially advertisements).

While on the whole students handled the task quite well, many of their responses confirmed my long-standing disaffection with my discipline and the humanities at large (which I know I share with some of my colleagues and many more interested outsiders). Of the 50 students who took the exam only two noted the double Biblical reference (visual and verbal) in the advertisement (although a few more realised that there was something special about the phrase “your daily bread”, but couldn’t place it). In case you’re wondering: most of the students were white, Western (in fact, probably from our mainly Catholic area) and therefore likely to have grown up in a Christian context (Lord’s Prayer and all).

By contrast, seven students read the image as an illustration of toxic masculinity, with bread a symbol of “masculine superiority over women” and the charming old bloke in James Harriot get-up an incarnation of “raw” patriarchal power.

Roughly the same number of students came up with a crypto-Marxist commentary about the ad’s complicity with the exploitation of the industrial (sic) working class, whom it urges to consume bread of the brand to maintain constant availability to the forces of capitalism. Not a single student seemed to know that a person who works with wood is called a carpenter and that this particular carpenter is working in his own workshop (another unfamiliar term), not a factory.

All this spouted with knee-jerk automaticity, as if imbibed already in the nursery.

What saddens me most, however, is the deadly seriousness of it all. No real appreciation of this punchy piece of advertising genius, so little sense of humour – only a dire and dour moralising. Being twenty-something these days must be a god awful experience.

Listen carefully

Looking through an older London Review of Books today, I ran across a fascinating review by Charles Nicholl of The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo.

Medieval Italy is most defintely, as we historians all too often have to say, “not my area”, but the book is now on my list.

I started my studies as a wannabe early-modernist with a focus on the seventeenth century, wrote my MA on the eigtheenth centry, and then my PhD dissertation (which became my first book) on the nineteenth. My second book considered the 1920s, and the forthcoming one concentrates on the 1930s and 1940s.

The relentless forward momentum is hard to overlook.

But more recently, I find myself more interested in returning to earlier periods, at least as a side interest. And Origo’s book sounds like it employs a kind of historical biographical approach that I’ve at least come close to in the last two books (my study of the Pace murder trial in 1928 and my forthcoming book on a British Christian intellectual group in the period around the Second World War).

Nicholl cites a passage from an essay on method from Origo (“Biography: True and False”, published in 1984 and originally written for a lecture in 1958).

Its main idea is one that I can very much second:

“The young biographer who has upon his desk his first intriguing pile of papers, will do well to arm himself with humility, and let them speak for themselves. Later on the time will come to sift, to compare, and to bring to life again; but first he should listen without interrupting. Then, as he deciphers the faded ink, a phrase may stand out which reveals the hand that wrote it. He may see – as suddenly as, at a turn of the passage, one comes upon one’s image in a mirror – a living face.”

The past cannot, of course, “speak for itself”.

But in writing about those who lived in it, one must, indeed, be a good listener above all.

A new start

This post commences the new stage in the development of Obscene Desserts, the blog that we began in 2006 at another location. In recent years, a variety of things conspired to get in the way of keeping the old blog going. Above all, I suppose, it was a wave of work-related commitments on both our parts.

But there was also the feeling, perhaps, that we’d run out of things to say about most of the issues on which we’d written, sometimes at great length. Part of it was I think a kind of blogging fatigue.

I still find a lot of good things when looking back at those old posts of ours. But I also see how much we — and the world — seem to have changed in the last dozen years.

Our faltering blog was, of course, not alone. In general the great blog explosion of the 2000s gave way to other forms of social media. But they, to me anyway, are really inadequate in actually saying anything.

So it seemed time for a new beginning. In a new home.

But with the old name.

And the same crew.

It’ll no doubt take us a while to get back up to speed.

But you never know.

We’ll see.