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Meeting with Art History Chairs

Module by: Lawrence McGill. E-mail the author

The conversation with chairs of graduate art history departments in the northeastern United States took place on Friday, December 2, 2005 at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Seventeen chairs took part in the discussion.

Among art history chairs, there was general consensus that tenure requirements in the field of art history do not square with the realities of current practices in art history publishing. At most institutions, tenure review committees still require the publication of a book in order to qualify for tenure, even as opportunities to publish in art history are seen as diminishing. Art history chairs feel that presses publishing in art history are increasingly out of step with the field and more concerned with reaching wider audiences than with advancing scholarship.

While some art history departments are exceptions to the “book required for tenure” rule, most insist upon the publication of a book to be considered for tenure. Articles are generally not substitutable for books, and at some universities books must have received reviews in order to be considered. Dissertations, no matter how distinguished, are also not substitutable for books.

While one chair characterized the current situation facing younger art history scholars as the “age-old issue of wanting a recipe for how to achieve tenure,” most of the chairs described a number of ways in which the current tenure system is, in effect, breaking down. Changes in publishing practices at scholarly presses have made it harder for younger scholars, in particular, to find outlets for scholarly monographs, while universities have been slow to accommodate these new realities.

One art history chair put it this way, “As we push our departments toward the idea of the ‘transformative work,’ at the same time we want the time [it takes for students to achieve a] degree to be reduced.” Another chair nodded in agreement, and said that she was hoping to have a discussion at her institution regarding the expected length of time students should be taking prior to exams, as well as other aspects of the program.

One chair said that more postdoctoral opportunities are needed so that young scholars will have time to create better manuscripts for potential publication. A couple of chairs said that their institutions had begun to implement new policies allowing younger scholars to have time off or possibilities for extending the time to tenure. One spoke of a humanities foundation that guarantees a year off with pay to all junior faculty at a particular institution in order to work on a book. Another said that policies such as this are very helpful in attracting both students and younger faculty to an institution.

The pressure to publish a book early in one’s career has resulted in “terrible manuscripts” being submitted to university presses, because insufficient time has been allowed to let manuscripts grow and develop into serious larger works. Needless to say, publishers are not happy with the situation either. One chair was told by the head of an academic press, “Tell your committees to stop requiring a first book! University presses feel like they are sacrificing quality in order to publish books for tenure purposes.” He went on to say that this comment was meant not only for first books in art history, but for first books published across all fields, in general.

According to art history chairs, there are a number of reasons why publishers’ preferences are not matching up well with the manuscripts the field is seeking to publish. There is a greater concern on the part of publishers to reach wider audiences, said one chair. Another said, “The presses are out of step with where subareas in the field are growing. Publishers will say, ‘We don’t publish Asian [art] or pre-Colombian, etc.’ So, art history fields are opening up, but presses are not following along.”

One chair said that part of the blame lies within the field itself. “Art history, as a discipline, is somewhat unfocused. In many cases, we are trying to sell a product to an audience that really doesn’t understand what that product is.”

Regardless of the reasons, even as the disconnect between what publishers want to publish and what the field needs to be published grows wider, tenure committees still require the publication of a book for tenure. What this means, said one chair, is that “we have dumped our tenure decisions onto the publishers.”

So, what ought to be done? One chair said, “If publishers can’t publish things that won’t make money, then we have to turn this around and say that our tenure rules are too strict. But tenure rules can only be changed if institutions like Harvard and Princeton take the lead.” Another echoed this by saying, “At places where keeping good assistant professors is a problem (such as at a ‘second-tier institution’), we need to modify our tenure expectations. [But] there is a strong sense that we have to do what the big dogs do (Harvard, Yale, etc.). We can’t get the ball rolling; that’s up to the Harvards, etc.”

In discussing alternative criteria that might be used in judging candidates for tenure, chairs offered the following suggestions:

  • “What’s important is the impact of the writing (in either books or articles), although a certain quantity [of output] is also important.”
  • “If respected experts in the field say that this is a respected work, then so be it, regardless of where it is published.”
  • “What is key are the letters coming from outside [in support of a candidate’s work].”

One of the chairs pointed out that it wasn’t always the case that books were the gold standard for scholarship in the field. “I am amazed at the quality of some of the older journal articles,” he said, suggesting that the mode of publication need not be linked so closely to the notion of scholarly worth. One person said, though, that there are not enough journals available for publishing scholarship in “art history” per se. Related to this, another person noted how difficult it was to find articles in little-known journals.

One chair advocated moving more towards the “science model” of publishing and tenure review. That is, art history scholars should be encouraged to focus more on publishing articles and advancing the field incrementally, rather than through exhaustive monographs. Another noted that many tenure committees are increasingly made up of scholars from the sciences, who are used to evaluating scholarly credentials in such a fashion, through examining “webs of citations,” and the like.

Although there was little time available during this meeting to discuss the possibilities of electronic publication, there was a sense among two or three of the chairs (though by no means a consensus) that “the book problem will go away” because the book will go away. “I see more and more citations of URLs in papers,” noted one chair. Another said, “Low-cost electronic publication will resolve some of these issues, such as textual books and CDs with images.” A third wondered, given the unfolding possibilities of working in the digital medium, “Will the next generation even want a physical book?”

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