changing the ends of scholarship

A continuation of the last post on graduate education…

As I think more about it, it’s fairly obvious that this is all part of a larger system with graduate curriculum as the obvious start point. Graduate coursework is also folded into later parts of the process from the perspective of the faculty (who teach their research). I’ll take it as a given that the production of scholarship is a necessary feature of the academy, though it should be clear that the relationship between faculty and research is a historical one that could, in theory, change. Obviously the demands on faculty to produce scholarship vary by institution and over time. That variation comes in terms of content and method, not just in amount. It also varies in terms of genre, which makes sense as genre would be interwoven with content and method. These variations occur natureculturally (to coin an obnoxious adverb).

I’ve written about this matter many times. It’s one of the primary themes of this blog and my scholarship. In English Studies, really across the humanities, our research practices are woven in tight and specific ways with 20th-century print culture and technologies, as well as persistent values about symbolic behavior and cognition stemming from the modern world. Put as a question: why do we write single-author monographs? Answer: cuz. There’s no real reason other than the cybernetic, territorializing forces of institution and history, which admittedly are quite powerful. Lord knows no one really wants to read them. But we believe in the totemic power of the monograph. It is undoubtedly a particular kind of scholarly experience. It has heft, or something. It represents long hours of sustained, focused, introspective and productive thought, and that is what we value I think: a particular model of the “life of the mind.”

It’s not possible to snap one’s fingers and change these things, but things have been shifting for a long time, at least 30 years. Funding for higher education, the availability of tenure-track positions, the popularity of the humanities, the viability of the academic publishing marketplace, the changing demographics of student populations, the emergence of digital media: yes, things have been changing for a while, and that doesn’t even begin to address changes within disciplines. Those are extra-disciplinary drivers.

So let me just offer a hypothetical. Let’s say we worked in small groups and published research collectively. No doubt it would be painful initially. Then in the future we hired faculty on the basis of joining one of these groups and we admitted graduate students to participate in these groups. Those students wouldn’t need to produce single-author dissertations because that’s not the kind of work any of us would be doing. Instead, after being trained, they’d go off and join similar research groups elsewhere as professors. If you don’t like that hypothetical, that’s fine. It isn’t meant as a serious proposal. Instead it’s meant to illustrate the ways in which the problems we have with graduate education are interwoven with the larger activity systems of humanities research. We don’t have to be what we are. We certainly don’t have to be what our academic predecessors were.

 

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One thought on “changing the ends of scholarship

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  1. Let’s say we worked in small groups and published research collectively. No doubt it would be painful initially. Then in the future we hired faculty on the basis of joining one of these groups and we admitted graduate students to participate in these groups. Those students wouldn’t need to produce single-author dissertations because that’s not the kind of work any of us would be doing.

    I like that idea. Certain kinds of research questions would absolutely benefit from that model, particularly DH work of the Matt Jockers or Franco Moretti type. The project I’d like to do on the fourth canon is going to take an entire career if it’s just me. Distributed research, just like they do in the sciences, makes sense for some of us. Of course, it makes no sense at all for other kinds of research.

    Multi-authored research is already published in Karios and other born-digital journals, so I think a precedent for the model is there. A next step would be collections of half a dozen to a dozen scholars starting labs, like Moretti’s Lit Lab, that publish collectively and hire grad students to assist in their work.

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