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Art History Scholarship, Publishing, and Tenure

Module by: Lawrence McGill. E-mail the author

From the perspective of editors and others invested in art history publishing, the field of art history is not doing much to help itself insofar as the current publishing crisis is concerned. Much recent scholarship comes across as "narrow," "impenetrable," "unreadable," and "obscure." Emerging scholars in the field are viewed as incapable of communicating with audiences broader than dissertation committees. A point echoed by several sources is that art history dissertations and art history books are two very different things and very hard to reconcile.

"Lots of art history today is unreadable," said one source. "The focus of scholarship has narrowed too far, and art historians are not as broadly literate as they used to be. At places like Columbia and Yale," she says, "hard-core art history is virtually inaccessible." The problem, she fears, is that training in the discipline has been worsening over time, and that authors are not getting the writing and editing support needed to make their books accessible. Scholars, she says, need to be disciplined into writing for full-length books or articles. The academy does not teach what the "real world" wants in terms of works in art history, and for this, professors need to take more responsibility.

Another source said that if art history is simply going to speak to itself subfield by subfield, then 600 copies is going to be a top limit to sales. She wonders when art history will begin to think about crossing boundaries and writing across genres. She fears that the reaction by art history scholars to such a suggestion, though, would be, "That’s not art history."

The problem with most scholarly monographs, said another source, is that they were originally written for an audience of five people, namely, a student’s dissertation committee. Or, they were written with a tenure committee in mind. As one person put it, "Authors can’t seem to get themselves out of scholarly article mode." None of these approaches positions a manuscript very well for the wider audience sought by most presses.

One source said that she would be terrified if she were a younger academic today. Her press, she says, rarely publishes dissertations in art history and does not encourage the submission of unsolicited dissertation manuscripts. She says that as long as dissertations are done in the same way they have traditionally been done, they will not be publishable as books (at least not at her press).

Another person suggested that dissertation topics need to be conceived from the very beginning as possible books, or else it will be too difficult to broaden them into publishable books. More thought needs to be given to what is or is not an appropriate topic.

But one source believes that dissertations should be dissertations, and that scholarship and published books don’t have to be identical to each other. Maybe books, he suggests, should be thought of instead as summations of scholarship. "Everything should be shorter," he says. "Shorter is friendlier to the reader. Younger scholars have a compulsion to put into a manuscript everything they know. Shorter books would help publishers keep costs down as well." Furthermore, he asserts, scholarship would not suffer if length is curtailed, because readers simply won’t read long pieces. If a scholar can’t say what needs to be said in a reasonably concise fashion, it is a failure of communication on the part of the author.

Because "the era of cranking out books to support the tenure system is gone," as one source puts it, publishers are eager to encourage scholars to find alternative outlets for publication of scholarly works, and to encourage tenure committees to expand the range of publications considered acceptable for tenure. One source believes that there should be more long articles in art history, as well as additional venues for those articles. Some books, she notes, really should have been articles in the first place.

According to another source, some museum catalogues are also good matches for serious scholarly work, even if a scholar is not the sole author of the museum publication. Some of these catalogues, she says, are foundational books, even if they are written by 25 people. Such publications, she argues, need to be taken more seriously by tenure committees.

The challenge, as summed up by one person, is "trying to convince universities to recognize that significant scholarly works in art history are being published outside of university presses." Like the previous source, she notes that museum publications are rarely counted toward tenure. Further, "that textbooks don’t count for tenure is insane," as far as she is concerned. "They are the basis for teaching in the field."

A look back at the not-too-distant past also helps to put the current emphasis on publishing a book early in one’s career into a broader perspective. Said one source, "It used to be, not long ago, that a couple of significant articles were expected in order to receive tenure. But pressures to make art history commensurate with other humanities changed that. As a result, certain presses saw the increasing interest in art history titles and recognized this as an area for increased focus." In addition, he noted, "lower tier" universities that desire to ratchet up their scholarly image are now encouraging the production of more books through stricter tenure requirements.

A final concern has to do with the time economy under which art history scholars must operate as they try to achieve tenure within the current system, given current conditions in the world of scholarly publishing. Thinking of what scholars might be accomplishing otherwise, one source asks, "How much potentially productive time is lost due to the time spent trying to get published?"

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