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Focused Discussion with Mid-Career and Senior Scholars

Module by: Lawrence McGill. E-mail the author

The focused discussion with mid-career and senior scholars in art and architectural history took place on Friday, November 18, 2005 at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Twelve scholars took part in the discussion. The demographic characteristics of the group were as follows:

  • Sex: 6 men, 6 women
  • Race: 12 white
  • Age: 2 ages 35-44, 7 ages 45-54, 2 ages 55-64, 1 age 65+

Specific subfields represented by the participants included art of the European Middle Ages, late 19th-century European art, modern and contemporary art, 17th-century Dutch art, history of Chinese art, 18th to 20th-century art, Roman art and architecture, early modern art history, Renaissance and Baroque architecture and art, American art, pre-Columbian art, and Islamic art and architecture.

The publishing-related concerns expressed by the mid-career and senior art history scholars clustered broadly into the following categories:

  1. Dissertations, articles, books, and the tenure process.
  2. Electronic publishing.
  3. Defining the problem of “art history publishing” in comprehensive terms and finding solutions.

(For purposes of readability, I will refer to mid-career and senior scholars simply as “mid-career scholars” for the remainder of this section.)

Dissertations, articles, books, and the tenure process

Mid-career scholars in art and architectural history are acutely aware of the publishing-related challenges facing younger scholars in the field. They observe that while opportunities to publish dissertations as books have noticeably declined during the past 10 to 20 years, tenure criteria have changed little, if at all. As a result, mid-career scholars are divided as to how best advise their graduate students in navigating these challenges.

For many, if not most, mid-career scholars, the operating model for career advancement in art history when they were graduate students was to write a dissertation and then work to turn it into a book following graduation. [Of course, the scholars who participated in this discussion are, by definition, successful in their fields (since they are now, in fact, mid-career art history scholars) and thus more likely than less successful members of their cohorts to report positive experiences in publishing their dissertations. Nevertheless, they spoke of conditions as having changed and that today’s younger scholars could no longer expect to follow the same paths to success in art and architectural history that they had.]

One scholar said, “I wrote a very long dissertation, which Cambridge commissioned. I thought it should be two books; they said fine. In 1989, such things could be dreamed of. When it finally came out in 2001, they weren’t even publishing art history books. It was probably an act of charity [that they went ahead and published it]. [If I had to do it all over today,] I would never write a 700-page dissertation and would advise my students not to do that.” Another scholar said, “In my class of ’94-’95, every one of twelve [Ph.D.s] did publish their dissertations as books.”

One scholar, who characterized her training and early career path as “completely canonical,” spoke of working actively with an editor to transform her dissertation into a book. “I spent a few years rewriting my dissertation with the help of an editor who turned it into something completely different.” (Not unimportantly, perhaps, she added, “My dissertation advisor had published with her.”) To this, another scholar added that “developmental editing [has] dropped out of academic publishing and largely of trade publishing, [as well].”

Speaking of her current students, one scholar said, “None has published. My very best has produced long and wonderful articles, but is having a very hard time getting promoted because she doesn’t have a book. I didn’t have any problems with my first two books.[But] now, I’m having mid-career trouble finding a publisher. Everyone loves [my topic] but no one knows the artist and publishers are afraid it won’t sell.”

This professor is not the only mid-career scholar having difficulties finding outlets for current work. Another noted, “My colleagues shopped their books extensively. Usually the topic was the issue. All three published abroad.”

In many cases, say mid-career scholars, dissertations are not suitable for turning into books and would be better off published in other formats. This may be due to conditions characteristic of a particular subfield in which a student is working, or to a mismatch between what is required of a dissertation and what is required of a publishable manuscript, or to lack of readiness on the part of the student to take a dissertation to the next level of expression as a book.

Sometimes the needs of a subfield dictate that dissertations take forms that do not easily lend themselves to subsequent publication as books. In the area of Islamic art, for example, one scholar noted that “dissertations far exceed book length. My dissertation was 1200 pages because the material had never been studied. Dissertations can rarely become books because the critical mass of scholarship is absent. My students’ dissertations are overbuilt because they have to make a strong argument for colleagues in other fields.”

A pre-Columbian scholar observed that her field “publishes general books and scholarly articles, little in between. Monographs are very few and are often written mid-career.” Another scholar noted that the possibilities for scholarly monograph publication “depend on the field. Certain fields are saturated. In the last 10 years, Latin American [art] was very big but now there’s a glut and students can’t publish. [You have to ask,] ‘Is there a need for a book in that area?’”

One scholar asserted that in modern art, “every dissertation can’t begin thinking it is going to be a book. Of the ten or fifteen of us who graduated with a Ph.D., I doubt that five of us succeeded in publishing our dissertations as books. For the others, there is a huge flow into museum work and curatorial work.” She continued, “There are students and then there are students. You want to encourage students [appropriately]. In modern, there are a lot of places to publish articles in electronic and print [formats]. It also helps to establish a student’s track record. Personally, I published 20 articles (many of them in exhibition catalogues), before publishing my first book. If you have a professor mentoring you and you’ve published articles, other people can write about what you’ve published.”

This sentiment was echoed by another scholar who said, “What is required [of a dissertation] is to master a body of material. Does this mean it should [necessarily] resolve into a book? It is essential that students put together an extensive argument with a range of ideas, but don’t assume that’s tantamount to a book. Now that the publishing situation has become so hard, the way we fetishize the book at the expense of articles has to be rethought. We may be sending our students off to their doom. I’ve read articles that were much more important than many books I’ve read; exhibit catalogues that were fabulous. We very much overvalue ‘the book.’”

Another scholar pointed out, “What strikes me is that some average talent is pushed toward publishing a book, when [it would be so much better] to have four sensible articles than this long crazy [tome].”

Of course, part of the problem in turning dissertations into books has to do with the understandable tendency of many students to focus not so much on what the dissertation may someday become, but rather upon just getting it done in the first place. Said one scholar, “I don’t think students think that far ahead. They are thinking of getting past the Ph.D. committee.” Another said, “Students are very concerned about getting a job and finishing their dissertation. They might think about [publication] down the line.”

Students, as not yet fully socialized members of their chosen profession, also tend to labor under odd assumptions about what is required of them in writing a dissertation. One scholar said, “The problem with graduate students is they have strange ideas about what a dissertation is about. You have to get them to understand what they should be doing, and it depends on how much time you are willing to give.”

Professors who advise students on their dissertations are torn between encouraging them to seek non-book outlets for their work or to think in terms of potential book publication throughout the dissertation process. One scholar said, “I talk to my students in the thesis stage about the possibility of publication.” Another said, “I call [the dissertation] a book because it’s a way of working it out. There is no time to write a ‘dissertation.’ If I talk about it as a book, they’ll organize it in a way they want to read. It’s different from when I was in grad school.”

An issue that students must confront regardless of the potential outcome of their dissertations is learning how to make strong arguments in their writing. “Students tend to labor between argument and information, long passages where things become purely informational. I try to counsel them that editors and publishers don’t want long passages of information. I do talk to them about the dissertation being published, as an ideal, a dream. The most important thing is that the screw should be turning on the argument the student wants to make.” Another scholar agreed that “the key thing is the quality of the argument and how compelling it is, not the length.”

Nevertheless, mid-career scholars were in general agreement that “all of our universities insist on a book” in order for a scholar to qualify for tenure. One scholar noted that an associate dean at his graduate school recently issued a directive that “no dissertation may be composed of chapters of separate articles. It must be a single argument. The dean is, in effect, telling us that students have to write [something that] could become a book and not a series of articles.”

Although some mid-career scholars argued that younger scholars (and the field as a whole) might be better served by writing articles than by writing books, they quickly pointed out that they do so “at their peril.” As one scholar put it, “The problem is how the tenure committee will evaluate shorter works. Although [such a piece] may seem brilliant to us, it may not to the committee, which is looking at weight.”

Finally (as younger scholars also mentioned in their discussion session), many deans are not from the field of art history and don’t understand why publishing in this field is “different.”

Electronic publishing

While mid-career scholars were unsure of the role electronic publications might play in the field of art and architectural history, most agreed that 1) electronic publications are likely to play an increasingly important role, and 2) the book will continue to be an important medium for art history scholarship. On balance, the sentiment in the group was that the electronic medium needed to be further exploited by art history scholars and that electronic publications, if properly vetted, ought to be taken more seriously as outlets for scholarship.

Scholars were particularly eager to discuss the possibilities of e-publication in relation to dissertations. Since few dissertations are published as dissertations (either because they are not published at all or because they have been so thoroughly revised that they only faintly resemble the dissertations they once were), it was suggested by one scholar that dissertations be considered for potential electronic publication as dissertations. A mechanism for vetting dissertations would have to be established to ensure that publication in this electronic format would carry some weight. “If one had a vetted process, outstanding dissertations would be as eligible [to be considered for tenure] as reworked dissertations that had made the transition [to print].”

Electronic publication might also be considered an option for books that might otherwise have smaller print runs of just 500 copies, which would allow such titles to be much more widely distributed than their printed versions could be. But the question to which scholars continued to return was the extent to which electronic publications (of any type) would be taken seriously by tenure committees.

One scholar put it this way: “There are two issues we can talk about: 1) the intrinsic merit of a product whether print or digital, and 2) how this product is used by the field as a means of promotion. It seems to me that there are so many books that shouldn’t have been published and could have been better with so little effort. [But they were pushed through anyway because] committees just won’t countenance a CV without a book.”

Another scholar noted that now “there are more venues for publishing because of digital publishing. But it’s not a happy outlook because digital publishing is not accepted. For every monograph publisher who is not accepting monographs, there are many forms [in which] to publish. But it’s not good for first-time authors who want to teach in the institutions such as we teach in.”

A number of scholars argued that the quality of a scholarly work is independent of the medium in which it is published. When asked whether printed books contribute something to scholarship that electronic publications cannot, one scholar replied, “Aside from [allowing you] to have your own book on the shelf with those of your predecessors, no. I’m sure we’re going to end up there [accepting electronic publishing as valid]. I think there is a reason to keep books. But it is about tradition, not practicality.”

But some still view the printed book as standing at the pinnacle of the scholarly publishing hierarchy. Said one scholar, “I still hold out for the artifact. It does constitute something more substantive. At the same time, for pragmatic reasons, I would support what you say [about the possibilities of electronic publishing].”

One reason the printed book is held in such high regard is due to the quality of illustrations it permits. “We want photographs to be rich and beautiful,” said one scholar. “Maybe you could have a hybrid of text and a web site with photographs for something that would be considered too scholarly for mass consumption. But would this be accepted and considered as prestigious [as an illustrated book]?”

In addition, the printed book “can have an intelligence as an artifact through its design,” pointed out another scholar. “When I got my last page proofs back for my book, I was astonishingly pleased at the groupings [of images and text].”

“But so can a digital book,” retorted another scholar. “It depends on how the platform works for delivering images.”

But before art and architectural history can take full advantage of any scholarly possibilities presented by digital publishing, it was pointed out that the field is going to have to address the issue of digital preservation. “It’s a conservation issue,” said one scholar. “If you have a hybrid text with adjunct photographs on a server somewhere, someone is going to have to maintain those images.”

A final caveat was offered by another scholar who reminded the group that all of the publishing-related issues facing the field of art and architectural history are not going to be solved just by moving more deeply into electronic publishing. “I wouldn’t want to put an electronic band-aid on the problems facing the field, which are copyright and reproduction fees and also the relationship of universities to their presses, now that [university] presses have to make money.”

Defining the problem of “art history publishing” in comprehensive terms and finding solutions

One of the dilemmas that emerged from the mid-career scholars’ discussion was the sense among many scholars that even as opportunities for publishing scholarly monographs are decreasing, the general quality of the books that are being published is declining as well. Some scholars believe that politics may play in a role in the publication of some manuscripts, noting that manuscripts they have been asked to review have been published despite objections raised during the review process. And because publishers are attempting to reach wider audiences, some manuscripts may appear to scholars to have been watered down or stripped of some of their most important scholarly contributions. In addition, there is a strong sense among scholars that many good manuscripts are going unpublished because they don’t match up well with what university presses are looking to publish.

One of the mid-career scholars characterized the current situation in art history publishing as like being “in a bit of a holding pattern. It’s a vicious circle: If opportunities [for publication] are so rare or the process is so difficult, it’s a bit discouraging for those who want to be first-time authors. If opportunities are of a particular nature, [scholars will] tailor their efforts to whatever the circumstances are. If we could pinpoint the interventions [that would allow greater opportunities for scholarly publication], we [the field] could have more book-length publications of higher quality.”

While publishers might appear to be at the epicenter of the “crisis in scholarly publication,” there was consensus among mid-career scholars that there was no single or primary cause which, if addressed, would solve the problem. Rather, said one scholar, “[publishing] is part of a bigger web that involves museums, university structures, assumptions on the part of administration, practices of advisors, etc. [Because of the complexity of the situation,] it might make more sense to ask what we’d ideally like to see and then ask ourselves, how do we get there? We need a multi-headed strategy. The products [of art history scholarship] would be heterogeneous, rather than thinking in terms of one [publishing] model like 20 years ago. Plus, we need to put pressure on museums to cut down fees for young scholars to get in there.

“We need to think in terms of at least three options: the traditional university press, trade publishers, and digital. All have problems of vetting and quality control. If there’s going to be an initiative, it needs to promote better standards all around. If it’s a multiformat initiative, it needs to address what would make it possible for a trade book or a digital publication that might be a dissertation, to be on the same level as a university press book. I think we need to create some venue between UMI/ProQuest [the Dissertation Abstracts database] and the published monograph that is prestigious. The only way to do this is through tight vetting, and I think the alternative is electronic publishing. This could only be good for the discipline.”

Another scholar said that “our primary objective should be to ensure top quality scholarship, its publication and its visibility. I think that’s a more productive way to characterize our challenge. Not only do we need to be concerned about how to get people through tenure review, but we also need to help younger authors publish their research because it helps to revive, refresh, and animate the subfield. And that, hopefully, will have larger ramifications for art history as a whole.”

The challenge of creating a scholarly publishing system that integrates electronic options with existing traditional options is tricky. Could such a system be “medium-blind”? Or would it become, in effect, a way of sorting students into tiers?

One scholar said, “If there is a third way to produce the equivalent of a first book, it won’t be pursued unless there is some indication that [universities] will respond positively. We can’t have two-tiered system where some people get to publish books and some do these other [digital] things. The problem is also that we don’t just want more books, but we want them to be better. If that means the timeframe [for tenure] has to change, that’s institutional.”

The same issue arises with journal publication, as well. The same scholar who earlier argued that “the way we fetishize the book at the expense of articles has to be rethought” also said, “What I would like for students is more options in journals, slightly longer articles and ones with illustrations. I would push very outstanding students to books; the next tier toward journals.” But if the system were to work this way, it might undermine the prospects for getting tenure committees to consider journal articles in their criteria for tenure.

An important element of the situation that calls for closer examination is the relationship between universities and university presses, which some scholars see as suffering from lack of coordination. The dilemma is summarized by one scholar who says, “[The administration] expects one book for tenure and two books for promotion. But, on the other hand, our own press doesn’t publish very much and our library is cutting back. So, how can these things mesh? They can’t; they are mutually exclusive policies. Most books need additional monies. One of the beneficiaries [of subvention monies] is our institution. We could argue for a policy that encourages modest subvention money that comes with research funds. And [this should be done] for all universities.”

Another scholar responded, however, that such a strategy “would not be practical. At small colleges teaching our subjects, will they pay to subvent their student’s books? Some are not in a position to do so. It would be a massive undertaking to persuade all universities to do so. I see it going another way – there are so many people and so few jobs, so we will hire those who have so many articles and so many books.”

A third scholar pointed out that scholarly books published by university presses are not just about disseminating scholarship, but “it’s also what we use to teach. We should all insist that universities put money behind [the promotion of academic knowledge]. A professorship is a million-dollar investment. What is a few thousand to make that function the way it should?”

Another aspect of the disconnect between universities and university presses has to do with the pricing of books. According to one scholar, “[My institution] is asking us to address the prices of books that we are asking students to buy, and while this is happening the prices of the books we are writing are climbing higher and higher! I have never asked any of my classes to buy a book that [Another (highly endowed)] University publishes because it doesn’t seem fair. We are also restricted by copyright law. [My institution] has a draconian policy about putting articles on the web without permission which makes the prices drastically disgusting. There seems to be a terrible collision of different policies that are not talking to each other.”

The issue of endowments being used to support university presses was also specifically raised. One scholar noted, “Harvard has a massively endowed fund. Somewhere, someone made the decision that the university can’t revoke the importance of the academic enterprise, and that includes the importance of publishing academic writing. I’m not willing to let universities off the hook on that.”

Some scholars argued that if university presses are making money by focusing more on publishing books that will reach wider (or larger) audiences, some of the proceeds from the sales of those books should be used to underwrite the costs of more traditional scholarly works. “Many of the big university publishers, like Cambridge, make their money doing medical and science volumes. The problem is that they are being run as businesses, and they want every division to make money and they are not willing to subsidize the humanities. They want your book to sell 4000 copies.”

Because of the perceived scope of the problem of “art history publishing” – involving not just publishers but museums, university structures, the heterogeneity of the field of art and architectural history, tenure criteria, and so on – one scholar opined, “I’m struck by the fact that this situation cries out for institutional leadership. We [art history scholars] can’t do what an institution along with other institutions can do ‘from on high’ to carry these concerns forward. We can’t go on the way we’ve been going, if our institutions want books for tenure but won’t help financially or won’t buy the books.”

A number of mid-career scholars suggested that a foundation such as Mellon (that is, one with a significant amount of influence in the art world) could play a crucial role in facilitating the kind of institutional change needed to meaningfully address the systemic issues underlying the art history publishing “crisis.” For example, it might be asked to support the convening of meetings among stakeholders in the scholarly publishing system in an effort to identify and enact appropriate institutional responses to the issues associated with art history publishing. A number of other supporting activities, such as underwriting the development of alternative electronic publishing venues, supporting key art history journals, and providing targeted subventions (especially for younger scholars), might also be critical elements of an effective intervention in this area.

One scholar put it this way: “I see the Mellon Foundation playing a leadership role to get all players to do their share. Whether it’s e-publishing or articles, outlets short of the book. We need to get senior people to roll back their expectations, and all of us need to continue to hold books to the highest standards without hurting first-time authors and those coming up for tenure. For example, a foundation like Mellon could be very helpful in supporting very good art history periodicals.”

Another scholar summed up the situation by saying, “We can’t just run to Mellon [to ask for more subvention monies]. But rather, the prestige of the Mellon Foundation could be used to [energize] a larger collective effort that would involve universities and art history departments, to put pressure on universities and on museums to make exemptions, provide subventions, coordinate resources out there, and perhaps contribute to subventions. It has to be a collective enterprise.”

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