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Focused Discussion With Younger Scholars

Module by: Lawrence McGill. E-mail the author

The focused discussion with younger scholars in art and architectural history took place on Friday, October 28, 2005 at Columbia University. Twelve scholars took part in the discussion. The demographic characteristics of the group were as follows:

  • Sex: 6 men, 6 women
  • Race: 9 white, 2 African American, 1 Asian-American
  • Age: 2 ages 35-39, 7 ages 40-44, 2 ages 45-49, 1 age 50+

Eight members of the group had published at least one book; four were tenured. Specific subfields represented by the participants included medieval art, modern and contemporary art, pre-modern Japanese art and culture, 17th-century art and architecture, 20th-century American art, African art and architecture, Eastern Mediterranean art and archaeology, Islamic art and architecture, Greek art and architecture, history of Chinese art, and 19th & 20th-century architectural history.

The publishing-related concerns expressed by the younger art history scholars clustered broadly into the following categories:

  1. Tension between the requirements of scholarship and the requirements of publishers
  2. The relative “value” of different types of scholarly work, with respect to both advancing the field and tenure and promotion
  3. The costs of publication in the field of art and architectural history

Tension between the requirements of scholarship and the requirements of publishers

Younger scholars in art and architectural history perceive a serious disconnect between the types of scholarly monographs being produced by the field and the types of books publishers are looking to publish. Scholars say that the presses they’ve worked with already have “an idea of what they want” in terms of the manuscripts they publish. That is, they either publish in specific subfields and not others, and/or they are looking for manuscripts that will reach the broadest possible audience.

In many cases, scholars reported being told by publishers that the subjects of their manuscripts were too narrow. One scholar was surprised to hear his manuscript characterized this way since the time period covered in his book was several centuries. The issue, as scholars describe it, is that publishers are seeking to broaden the appeal of the books they publish, either to non-specialist audiences or to scholars in adjacent specialties.

For younger scholars, who must demonstrate with their first book-length work (typically their dissertation) their competence as a specialist in their area, this poses a dilemma. How does one write both for an audience of substantive specialists (one’s peers), as well as for a more general readership? If both scholarship and reaching a wider audience are important, does that mean having to write and publish on two different tracks at once?

Scholars facing this dilemma may undertake extensive revisions of their manuscript to try to make it more generally appealing. Often, say scholars, this leads to the dilution or excision of important original ideas from the manuscript. Rewriting a manuscript also takes a significant amount of time, a scarce commodity for an assistant professor with heavy teaching and administrative responsibilities and one eye on the tenure-clock. And sometimes the revised work ends up satisfying neither scholars nor general readers. An important question this raises is whether dissertations can continue to serve the dual purposes they have served for many scholars in the past – as both a demonstration of one’s competence as a substantive specialist and as a potential first book to be listed on one’s CV.

Another question this raises is how advisors should guide students with respect to choosing a dissertation topic. One scholar said that she would be hard pressed to advise students to do a dissertation on a topic that she knows publishers won’t be interested in publishing.

This is a particularly vexing problem in the field of art history, which, over time, has become increasingly specialized. For emerging subfields to move forward, important scholarly work in these areas (the audience for which will, by definition, be limited), must find an outlet for publication. One scholar, working in an important emerging subfield of art history, was told by publishers that his topic was “outside of our list.” He realized that, for his work to be published, some publisher somewhere would have to be convinced to begin publishing in this subfield. He and several colleagues (also working in this area) collectively approached an editor at a university press who was willing to consider publishing in this subfield. The key to making this happen, though, was applying for funding from a large arts-oriented foundation to underwrite the costs of publishing an initial wave of titles in this area. Now, most scholars working in this subfield are sending their manuscripts to this publisher.

To reach broader audiences, scholars say that publishers are increasingly interested in publishing interdisciplinary work, which to some is not necessarily a bad thing. As one scholar put it, “The market is driving the emergence of cross-disciplinary books and books that cut across the traditional sub-disciplines of art history. It’s market driven, but it’s very much in keeping with the mood of the moment [in art history scholarship].”

The relative “value” of different types of scholarly work, in relation to advancing the field and to tenure and promotion

Virtually all of the younger scholars agreed that publishing monographs in book form is indispensable to the field of art history. As one person put it, “[In a comprehensive work of art history scholarship,] there are hundreds of pages and hundreds of footnotes all with pictures that cannot simply be put into a journal article.” Add to this the importance of high quality reproduction of visual images for art history scholarship and it is clear that the monograph remains an essential vehicle for disseminating scholarship in the field.

Moreover, at most institutions of higher education, art history scholars are expected to produce single-author monographs in order to be considered for tenure and promotion. Single-author monographs tend to far outweigh all other forms of scholarship insofar as criteria for advancement are concerned. Comments such as the following were typical:

“When it comes to measuring your scholarship, [review committees] still talk about your first book, your second book – these are the big milestones. It doesn’t matter whether you have 30 articles or 3 articles, people don’t measure it that way even though the amount of effort you’ve put into four articles can equal one book.”

“Full professors [have told me that] they could never come up for promotion until they had that next single-authored volume, no matter how many catalogue essays or how many exhibitions they had curated, or even if they wrote a substantial part of the catalogue. And the department chairs [told them] they could not put them up [for promotion].”

Younger scholars feel that the criteria for tenure in art history are out of step with changing times, having been shaped many years ago when the field was “not facing the issues we are facing now,” e.g., the high costs of reproductions, changing priorities at scholarly presses, etc. A key part of the problem, say scholars, is that the tenure review committees above the departmental level typically do not have art historians on them, who would have a better understanding of the difficulties associated with publishing monographs in the field.

Making matters more difficult is the perception among scholars that only those monographs published by key publishers in the field are considered “countable” towards tenure and promotion. Most scholars agreed that to be considered for tenure, a book needs to be published by an academic press. With academic presses focusing more now on reaching wider audiences, the range of “acceptable” publishing options available to art history scholars seeking to publish highly specialized single-author monographs appears to be narrowing. While a few commercial presses are seen by some scholars as viable options for publishing scholarly monographs (insofar as counting towards tenure is concerned), most agreed that opportunities for publishing with commercial presses were limited as well.

While acknowledging the importance of single-author monographs in terms of advancing the field, younger scholars were unanimous in their opinion that other forms of scholarship should also be considered for tenure. One scholar argued that in archaeology, for example, there are several forms of scholarship that ought to be counted: doing fieldwork, being invited to give foreign lectures, curating shows, and writing in exhibition catalogues. She suggested that activities such as these need to be recognized as being scholarly contributions in a way that isn’t the case for text-based fields. Another pointed out that, in some subfields, most publications are exhibition catalogues, implying that such works are the primary vehicles by which scholarship is advanced in those fields.

Most importantly, said scholars, journal articles should be considered when evaluating candidates for tenure. One scholar argued that the same level of scholarship goes into the writing of journal articles as into the writing of monographs. Another said, “Journal articles are essential. The language and length are good. Articles are highly regarded as long as they are peer reviewed.” Indeed, some scholars suggested that the peer review process for journal articles was much more rigorous than it is for books.

In some subfields, opportunities to publish books are limited. “I would like to see universities be more reasonable about what they expect from scholars who choose to work in areas that perhaps might not [support the publication of] a book,” said one scholar. “I wrote a book, but I’m coming to find out that my book is [actually] a bunch of articles, in terms of the [overall level of] interest in the area I’ve spent my career working in. Many of us have a small sphere of interest. So, we need to reconsider how to evaluate scholarship in terms of how well it has been done, regardless of who publishes it.”

The tension between writing for potential book publication (to enhance one’s prospects for tenure) versus writing in a format that allows one’s current scholarship to be disseminated effectively is acutely felt by many art and architectural historians. As one scholar put it, “I try not to think about the tenure process because then I don’t write what I want to.”

A number of scholars also noted the value of journal articles for teaching purposes, pointing out that they are often more useful than monographs for introducing students to key ideas in the field. Said one scholar: “The research is newer, you can get them from J-STOR and put them on the syllabus, and assign them to graduate students.” Another noted that with respect to peripheral subfields, “articles may be the only way to give students a taste of that field.” Because of their potential utility for teaching purposes, scholars argued that they should be given greater weight insofar as tenure decisions are concerned.

At the least, younger scholars in the field seek acknowledgement from deans and provosts concerning the difficulties associated with publishing in art and architectural history. Some see signs that greater understanding of the situation is emerging. In one case, a dean was willing to consider book chapters and articles in anthologies as counting towards tenure. Unfortunately, the dean left the department before the faculty member came up for tenure.

One scholar suggested that copies of rejection letters from publishers should be included as part of one’s tenure review, to show that a manuscript had been written and submitted for consideration for publication. Another encouraged all faculty members who write dossier letters for other scholars to include at least a couple of sentences about “the crisis in art history publishing,” in order to educate tenure committees about the situation facing younger scholars in the field.

The danger facing art history scholarship, said one scholar, is that “publishing is so closely linked to tenure that we are losing sight of what makes a good scholarly book and what are the qualities that make a good faculty member. What happens if we restructure [things] so that what needs to be published for the field is published, but doesn’t translate into everybody getting tenure?” Although it is not likely that the publication process could be completely divorced from tenure considerations, the fact that such a sentiment is being expressed is reflective of the tensions felt by scholars at the present time.

The younger scholars briefly discussed the possibility of electronic publishing as a way of addressing some of the publication issues in the field. At present, a significant drawback to e-publishing is that traditional publications are reviewed and cited far more often than e-publications. Further, the prices of CDs (included in hybrid publications) are out of reach for most students. Often, in fact, when students buy used copies of hybrid texts, the CDs are missing. In addition, many scholars do not care for e-books, finding them cumbersome to read, and print-on-demand was criticized by some as little better than a “photocopy.”

There was general agreement, however, that the electronic article is a useful format, especially when users are able to browse and search e-articles interactively. But younger scholars were also quick to point out that “the medium must add value to the scholarship,” otherwise it represents little more than a replacement for print, rather than an expansion of scholarly possibilities.

The costs of publication in the field of art and architectural history

Because art history-related texts require illustrations, they are more costly to produce than books in other scholarly fields and require more time and labor, as well. As one scholar said, “You have to be a good financial manager in addition to being a scholar. The amount of energy is doubled in this field: production costs for images, along with permission rights.”

While images are an issue even for journal articles in the field, the discussion among younger scholars focused mostly on the challenges of book publishing. Scholars expressed concerns about both the quality of editing and the quality of reproductions in art history-related publications. More than one person noted that books that are highly specialized (read: scholarly) often wind up being published by outlets that give little attention either to editing or to the quality of reproductions. In some cases, said scholars, manuscripts may be published virtually “as is,” with little or no editing. And while the publisher may bear the brunt of blame initially for poor quality reproductions, authors are adversely impacted as well. Once, when in competition with others for a project, a scholar had to show an example of what he had done in the past and needed to have good pictures to show. Although he had a book with images in it, it made a poor impression due to the low production values employed by the press.

Younger scholars are under the impression that publishers are more willing to publish if subventions are available to support the costs of publication. (Interviews with art history editors, however, suggest that this is not necessarily the case, indicating a point of disconnect between the perceptions of scholars and those of publishers.) As a result, many scholars suggested that both their home institutions and foundations should do more to underwrite the publication costs associated with art history publishing. One scholar put the matter bluntly, saying that “either foundations should sponsor academic presses or they should cancel the distinction between [scholarly and trade] presses.”

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