composing snow globes (and dissertations)

From the Chronicle, William Germano writes on the staid nature of monographs, particularly first books.

The academic book—especially that first academic book—is often conceived of as a snow globe. It’s carefully constructed to be a perfect little world, its main purpose to be admired. There’s a glass wall that separates the contents from the reader. That construction is not accident.

Within the realm of the snow globe, every authority on the subject has been cited or pacified. Look inside and find a perfect, tidy, improbable world where no questions are asked, or invited. Scholarly books, especially first ones, are a paranoid genre—their structure assumes that someone is always watching, eager to find fault. And they take every precaution against criticism.

Germano proposes the book as machine: “The book-as-machine should trouble or excite or inspire or even confuse. (Sowing confusion is, within a limited compass, a reasonable goal for a writer, just as long as it isn’t the only goal.) The book-as-machine requires that the scholarly writer imagine a problem or concern that will engage the reader, making the investment of reading time worthwhile.”

While Germano doesn’t really raise dissertations in this context, in my view the problem begins there. Certainly one could say the problem lies with the conservative nature of the humanities. Or with the uncomfortable fact Ian Bogost observes in Alien Phenomenology: academics, on the whole, aren’t good writers. Writing that doesn’t follow the pedantic plodding of convention is treated as suspect (unless, of course, one is speaking about French theorists who are permitted to be wholly inscrutable). Graduate students acquire this view early on in their careers. In some ways I think it insulates academics from the expectation that their writing really have an audience. It is as if academic freedom should protect one from the requirement that others find one’s work valuable.

But here’s the most interesting thing to me about Germano’s comparison: snow globes.

 

This is probably the most famous snow globe scene. 1941, the year of Citizen Kane, was around the time when snow globes (an invention of the 19th century) were reaching their height of popularity. Certainly by the late sixties interest in snow globes had waned and now they are really only of interest to the collector. Perhaps they are much like monographs in that respect: a curiosity from another time. In other words, the snow globe is not just an overwrought confection; they are an antiquated one as well.

I like Germano’s idea of the book-as-machine, though I might want to take that more literally than he and imagine a different kind of technology than the print book. But in this post, I’m going to set aside the technology question and point to the preparation of academics to publish their research. The insanity of this whole business, as everyone knows, is that graduate students, on average, take more than 9 years to get doctorates in the humanities. This means they are spending more than five years writing dissertations: book-length texts that are, almost by definition, unpublishable. And if we follow Germano, after writing that unpublishable dissertation, we follow that with an unreadable monograph, which clearly one would only be prepared to write after spending five years writing unpublishable prose. After all, one doesn’t learn to produce unreadable prose over night.

So how about a dissertation project that can be completed in less time and results in a text that at least attempts to be readable and publishable, that looks to excite or inspire readers. Why should book length texts be written for narrow audiences of specialists, a maximum of a couple hundred readers? We don’t have to jump to a “general readership.” We can find plenty of middle ground there: the thousands in one’s general field or the tens of thousands in one’s discipline. Sure that’s a challenge, but at least it’s one worth taking up, a challenge that, if met, would mean having some impact. Maybe one doesn’t pull this off in a dissertation, but the attempt lays the groundwork for moving forward in this vein. By the way, this task doesn’t need to take five years either.

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