A few months ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Suhi Choi’s recent book about the Korean War and how it has been remembered in both the United States and (South) Korea. Choi, a communications professor at the University of Utah, employs public history techniques throughout the book to analyze oral histories she conducted with victims of the No Gun Ri massacre, media accounts of the massacre, and various monuments that have been erected in both countries to commemorate the war as a whole. I enjoyed reading the book for its content and arguments, but what I enjoyed the most was its brevity. Clocking in at 115 pages of main text and five chapters, the book was a quick read (with the exception of some jargon-y passages throughout) yet thoroughly researched and intellectually stimulating. The book’s shortness reminded me of the Southern Illinois University Press “Concise Lincoln Library” series that has published numerous short studies on various aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life that are typically between 100 and 150 pages long.
While I acknowledge that different historical topics require studies of varying length and depth (I currently have one book on my nightstand that is more than 800 pages long), I find myself increasingly supportive of the idea that academic histories, generally speaking, should be shorter and more concise than what they typically are now. I am no expert on publishing books with an academic press, but I’ve been told by those who’ve been through the process that they normally don’t accept anything less than 75,000 words, or roughly 250 to 300 pages. That makes sense because most PhD dissertations end up being about that length, but I think there should be some sort of system in place to encourage and publish more scholarship that would be more appropriately covered in a study between 100 and 150 pages.
As a scholar who regularly reads books from academic publishers, I crave the analysis, interpretation, and detailed research that such books offer to their readers. As a reader, however, I am more likely to go back to a short book and read it again in the future, whereas with a longer book I feel less inclined to read it in full or go back to read it a second time. It’s important for me to read as many print books as possible to get a more comprehensive understanding of historical topics that fascinate me, but the presence of thoughtful online essays and history blogs has changed how I read and reduced the amount of time I dedicate to reading full-length print books. I admit that nowadays page length plays an extremely important role in determining what I read next. 150 pages is more often compelling to me than 500 pages.
Here is a compilation of good reads and newsworthy events I’ve recently come across:
- The Americanist Independent: Independent historian and fellow Grand Army of the Republic scholar Keith Harris started his own peer-reviewed journal of U.S. history a few months ago. He is currently offering one week of complimentary access to his journal, which you can find here. I signed up and am liking what I’ve seen so far.
- References, Please: Tim Parks makes a compelling argument for reforming standard scholarly practices for referencing citations and footnotes. “In the age of the Internet, do we really need footnotes to reference quotations we have made in the text? For a book to be taken seriously, does it have to take us right to the yellowing page of some crumbling edition guarded in the depths of an austere library, if the material could equally well be found through a Google search? Has an element of fetishism perhaps crept into what was once a necessary academic practice?”
- The Importance of Historical Thinking: Historian and education professor Sam Wineburg’s seminal essay “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” was liberated from its academic paywalls. If you’re looking to learn about or teach others about historical thinking, start with this essay. It’s here.
- Don’t Throw the Bums Out: Historian Jon Grinspan argues in the New York Times that claiming that all politicians are bums “makes it harder to throw out the real bums.” Grinspan dives into Gilded Age political culture in this delightful essay.
- A Nation of Readers: Brandeis University history Ph.D. candidate Yoni Appelbaum writes about the efforts of book publishers to distribute free literature to U.S. soldiers during World War II. Appelbaum finds that a stunning 122,951,031 books were given away during WWII.
- How Slavery Haunts Today’s America: On September 4th, a British publication called The Economist published a book review of Cornell University history professor Edward Baptist’s new book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The book review was offensive, even racist, and The Economist later issued an apology. Baptist wrote a thoughtful response to the review for CNN and asserted that slavery’s legacy is still a part of American society today.
- Addressing Brazil’s Complicated History of Slavery: Brazil has a complex and troubling history of slavery. The slave trade from African to Brazil was ten times the size of the slave trade in the United States, and the institution was not abolished until 1888, twenty-three years after the U.S. abolished it. “For the last century Brazil has tried to forget its past, refusing to accept the legacy of the slave trade. It has sought to project the image of a country of mixed descent, where the colour of a person’s skin does not count, a land unfettered by racism where cordial relations reign between citizens of Indian, European and African descent.” Enter ‘United States’ where Brazil is located in that last sentence and you’ve got the views of many Americans towards the legacies of race and slavery today, unfortunately.
- The Scourge of “Relatability”: The New Yorker writer Rebecca Meade suggests that judging “good” art, music, and theater by its “relatability” reflects our lack of willingness to patronize artistic endeavors that challenge us to ask new questions and think differently about the world: “to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” This essay isn’t really history related, but I found it thought-provoking.
- The Academic Job Market for Historians is Terrible: Just look at the data.
- Finding Ways to Defeat Art Apathy and Museum Misery: Daily Californian writer Sahil Chinoy visited eighteen different art galleries and museums around the world this past summer. He left the experience unimpressed with the way Art Museums interpret and present their collections to audiences and criticized exhibit label writers for writing bland, uninformative labels that did little to enhance the museum experience. “The problem is that museum captions are unequivocally boring, yet they’re the only lens through which most visitors see art. Historical context is fascinating for some pieces, but for many, information like the place where the artist was born simply does not matter.”
A few days ago Al-Jazeera English columnist Sarah Kendzior wrote a thoughtful essay in which she asks, “What’s the point of academic publishing?”
The question is an important one to ask. Prior to starting graduate school in 2012 I had little idea how much criticism traditional academic publishing ventures–more specifically, peer-reviewed scholarly journals–have received over the past few years. Although my interests are mainly focused on teaching history to a public audience outside the academic classroom, I still have an interest in working with an academic publisher someday. Back in 2012 I figured that getting articles published in journals was a great starting point for getting one’s name out in scholarly circles and, if I decided to continue my education and pursue my doctorate in the future, I’d be in a position to have strong credentials for possibly pursuing a career in academia. I love the capacity for intellectual growth that academia provides, and I would love to someday teach my own college courses, whether that be next year or thirty years from now. The point of academic publishing, I believed, served a dual purpose of boosting one’s credentials in academic circles and disseminating knowledge to non-academic audiences.
Unfortunately, the actual reality of academic publishing is not that simple. Kendzior’s article is one of many that has been published in the past year and a half calling out the practices of academic universities and their publishing wings. For one, the idea of publishing as an avenue to academic employment is a myth. According to Kendzior, “the harsh truth is that many scholars with multiple journal articles —and even multiple books—still do not find full-time employment.” More and more tenure-track positions require a hefty track record of publishing endeavors, but the number of available full-time, tenured positions in academia has gone down tremendously. In 1975, 45% of all professorial positions were tenured or tenure-track. By 2009, that number dropped more than twenty percent, and the New York Times published a report last April pointing out that 76% of all professorial positions today are filled by contingent adjunct faculty. The amount of academic scholarship being produced today is unprecedented in quantity, but the number of available positions for the people who produce that scholarship is diminishing.
Adjunct faculty in colleges and universities around the country teach in absolutely horrible conditions. They are essentially contract labor, jumping from school to school looking for courses to teach. If they’re lucky, they get paid around $3,500-$4,000 per three credit course and they teach somewhere around five to eight classes a semester (most tenured professors teach between one and three classes per semester). They receive no health benefits and pretty much no chance for tenure, and what I’ve just described is actually ideal for a contingent faculty member. The situation is usually worse. An adjunct whose resignation letter from a Pennsylvania college was published online yesterday was making $3,150 per three-credit course and restricted to a maximum of four classes per semester, which equates to $25,200 per year before taxes. Another Pennsylvania adjunct professor died last year at the age of 83 after years of working as an adjunct. She had been receiving cancer treatment (and remember, adjuncts get no insurance) and was struggling to pay her house bills. The university she worked for had recently ended their contract with her, and she died penniless.
The second issue with academic publishing is that much of the scholarship that is being published today is not getting into the hands of those outside academia who want to learn from it. As Kendzior remarks, “with the odds of finding a tenure-track job against them, graduate students are told to plan for a backup career, while simultaneously being told to publish jargon-filled research in paywalled journals.” Paywalled, subscription-based services like ProQuest and JSTOR charge exorbitant fees for access to scholarly books, articles, Ph.D. dissertations, and other content that is already funded in part by taxpayers who fund the public universities that contribute much of this academic content. While students and faculty in academia have access to this content, it is difficult and expensive for those outside of academia to access it, even though their tax dollars have gone towards it production.
So, in sum, it seems as if academics are producing content for themselves first and foremost, which is extremely unfortunate. I believe the ultimate goal of academic publishing should be to disseminate knowledge to those who want to learn from it, regardless of their job title or financial resources. I am proud of the fact that the IUPUI University Library has committed itself to open access scholarship, and my master’s thesis will be freely available for download to anyone when it is completed later this year. I am also working on writing an article for a scholarly journal that will ideally be published within the next year or so. I hope this proposed article is made open access as well.
When I think about the point of academic publishing, four questions emerge in my mind:
1. What’s the point of academic publishing if your work is locked behind a paywall?
2. If I want to connect with an audience beyond the ivory tower, what mediums give me the best opportunity to do so?
3. What’s the point of academic publishing if it’s being demanded as a job requirement for a field I most likely can’t break into?
4. How do I make academic publishing work for my interests and not the other way around?
Academic publishing is important to me as student and a scholar. I rely on academic publishing to provide me the latest and best scholarship on topics that interest me as a reader and as a researcher, and I believe society benefits immensely from the work of academic scholars. If scholars hope to reach an audience beyond the academy in the future, however, I believe the purpose of academic publishing needs to be redefined in ways that encourage access for all, not paywalls for most. It would also help if we started paying Ph.D. professors enough money to not have to rely on food stamps to get by.