K. A. Wisniewski

What’s in a Monograph?

In the past weeks, there’s been a flurry of activity—articles, online posts and blogs, etc.—discussing the future of the monograph.

Of course, discussions around the crises in scholarship and criticism and the need to reconsider expanded forms of scholarship aren’t new.  But perhaps a host of new developments, new technologies, and the emergence of new groups like Anvil Academic raise new, more pointed questions and offer clearer answers and less muddied pathways to this problem.

The monograph was among the subjects targeted in the 2006 MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion and has been a topic of interest in The Chronicle of Higher Education for well over a decade. (The essay that keeps coming back for me is Lindsay Waters’ “Rescue Tenure from the Tyranny of the Monograph”.)

Prof Hacker has posted a number of articles worth reading including Anastasia Salter’s “Expanding out definitions of scholarly forms” and Adeline Koh’s conversation with Anvil Academic on the idea of the “post-monograph.”

Frank Donoghue’s two-part essay on the role of the university press and the consequences of the recent closings of presses including Rice University Press and the University of Missouri Press serves as a good place to begin.

What is the role of the university press?  What’s in a monograph?  In Donoghue’s own words: “Have those various intellectual communities become too splintered, specialized and small? Have the monographs that university presses produce become so costly that individual scholars can’t purchase them? And, thus, have university presses outlived their time?”

The most recent article from the Chronicle is Jennifer Howard’s piece “Ditch the Monograph.”  Howard sees at the limited budgets and spaces available for monographs in libraries, in particular, and looks at Kindle Singles  as a possible model…Of course, we need to ask why the Kindle and not iBooks?  Why the Kindle and not the Web?

How does the university press fit into this?  Well, Howard shifts gears away from technology and builds in Daniel Cohen’s concept of “right sizing scholarship.”  She cites Princeton University Press’s Short Series  and Stanford Briefs from Stanford University Press.  Both are digital and both are much shorter in length than the standard monograph.

I love the idea of shorter, compact works.  There’s something intimate about them.  I’m looking at one shelf right now:  a political pamphlet that dates back to the 1880s; a Dover edition of Wilde’s De Profundis; poetry chapbooks that date from the 1930s to last year; dj readies’ Intimate Bureaucracies (Punctum Books, 2012) and, interestingly, two literary criticisms published by university presses.  The first is Avrom Fleishman’s A Reading of Mansfield Park: A Essay in Critical Synthesis (Johns Hopkins Press, 1967) about 100 pages in length; the latter is Karl Shapiro’s three-essay set A Primer for Poets (University of Nebraska Press, 1953), measuring in at about seventy pages.

The point is that I am in favor of publishing these “little” works, but the fact is there’s nothing new about them.  While promotion and tenure committees might be persuaded to re-examine just what these smaller works “mean,” this doesn’t really change the conversation, or add to it.  And the university press will not survive with this narrow-minded thinking.  They need to think big.  They need to go beyond this digital reformatting of analog materials.  There are high risks, of course, but there are high rewards as well.  And digitally-born materials need to brought into the conversation if scholarship is to escape itself.  Who is willing to start?

Howard quotes from Margret Grebowicz, a professor at Goucher College, who speaks to the “credibility” of “longer books” and of the horrified reaction some of her colleagues to shorter works.  Are shorter works really the horror? We all know what the real worry is . . . the disruption of the status quo and of a medieval system that has since evolved and left scholars and institutions behind to merely “perform” a series of mythologized codes that really only matter to those part of the spectacle. At some point, the synthetic shell of the monograph model of scholarly publishing is going to collapse.

I don’t argue for the “ditching” of the monograph altogether, but I do argue that we re-examine its place and its purpose and ask that we reconsider “what else is there” and “how can we begin to incorporate these alternatives” into the classroom and into the conversation happening at promotion committee tables.

We don’t see the amount of power publishers actually have.  (We are often too worried about our own work, our own tenure, or about this battlefield-like struggle we create between faculty and admin or between departments.)  I agree with Howard that publishers “will have to lead the way.”  What they publish (and how they publish) will dictate policies and performances in and out of the classroom.

The university press needs to look at its future and ask, “What’s in a monograph?”

*Originally posted in October on the Digital Scholarship forum at HASTAC.

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2013 by in Digital Humanities, Writing/Publishing and tagged , , .
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