Scholarly Nightmares

About a year ago I stated that my professional career was at a crossroads, and indeed I think that in a way it still is. I repeatedly asked myself whether I would go the administrative route of plunge unapologetically into scholarship. After much thought and self-reflection, I’ve decided to devote the next five or so years to scholarship.

All of which presents a new question: at what point should a scholarly project be considered dead in the water? Off and on for the last eight years I have been co-editing a collection of critical essays on Paul Bowles. The project has been doomed from the start. Everything from health issues to death, from citations and formatting, through boredom (a very real symptom when it comes to scholarship, at least for me) to various technical and bureaucratic hurdles has plagued this project. Finally, last fall we submitted to a university press and hoped that we would finally be on our way.

At first the news seemed encouraging. The press accepted our proposal and passed the project on to an outside reader. About a month went by and I had all but forgotten the project and was on to new things. Then I received a voice message asking me to call the director of the university press. The news wasn’t good. The outside reader gave us some very negative comments, (two or three of the articles, including mine, received favorable reviews) but (and this is where things get really strange) recommended publication! Needless to say, the director and I agreed that it would not be a good idea to go ahead with the project until we could do some serious editorial revisions. The problem was one of structure and not scholarly merit.

Thankfully, I work at a university that does not require a book for promotion, so there is very little pressure on that point. Having said that, the pressure to publish is a completely personal with me. I am one of those professors who feel that one must publish in order to be considered “legitimate” in the world of higher education. Yet, when I read the scholarship that has been published I become very depressed and want to leave the whole business behind. I once wrote an extensive article on Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar using less than a dozen scholarly sources. This wasn’t because I was too lazy to do my homework; the lack of scholarly sources was because I thought the scholarship on that book (at least in English) was inadequate for my argument. That article was turned down flat by the PMLA due to “lack of scholarship” and I haven’t looked at it since. Gore Vidal’s NYRB essay on Calvino uses no sources and is still the single best piece of scholarship on Calvino and his work. Right now my own article is sitting on a thumb drive in a sort of purgatory. I have dozens of articles that share the same fate. But this is really my own fault, as the PMLA is the wrong sort of journal for the type of article I wanted to write. I had broken one of the golden rules: know your audience.

The “Bowles Project,” as I have liked to call it, was different. I wanted to join the conversation on Bowles, especially since his work means so much to me. The collapse of the project is one of the biggest disappointments of my professional career, but I refuse to stay silent on Bowles. Who knows, maybe something new will emerge from this stillborn project. I hope so. I have recently put together everything I have written on Bowles and to my great delight I’ve found a connection. It’s that connection that I have explored throughout my sabbatical this fall.

So, my professional career is at a crossroads. I refuse to compromise on my scholarship, and I refuse to submit scholarship that looks and sounds like arrogant grad student drivel. Scholarship should mean something for all audiences, not just the 10 or so people who will read your article in some obscure academic journal. It should be accessible and interesting. It should draw the attention of readers to new and exciting connections. Perhaps all scholars should be moving toward a more “public” conversation rather than the hyper-specialized.

Just a thought.

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3 thoughts on “Scholarly Nightmares

  1. Perhaps this is why many scholarly-capable authors turn to writing mainstream, popular material; accessibility of their work by a wider audience and of course, money. Is this right or wrong? I don’t know, but it’s a thought.

  2. I’ve been fixated of late on the notion of being a public intellectual–on what that might mean in our day. We can point to examples of public intellectuals in our fields from just about every age (just today I ran across a great picture of John Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) but as our disciplines became more diffuse and more specialized, the boundaries of scholarship hardened; the incentive to become a public anything in our fields evaporated and was replaced by the desire to become an expert in a field of one’s own making. This is what our professional merit system chose to reward for promotion and tenure. Indeed, in history there developed an almost allergic reaction to becoming too well admired by the public for one’s work, lest one become one of the insufferable types like Joseph Ellis. Professionally trained historians who have become talking heads on TV (as opposed to teacher-scholars) are usually met with eye rolls and sighs from those in the academy. Yet there must be a middle ground. I do think there is hope to reverse these trends, and the variety of media platforms (like this blog) point the way. Peer review need not take place behind some curtain or shielded by press editors; it can take place in the comments section of blogs and webpages. The question isn’t whether there are thoughtful intellectuals with provocative ideas and solutions willing to share them; instead, the questions is whether our system of rewarding ideas will move with the times.

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