Publishing While Contingent

Earlier this month at the annual SCS meeting I attended a roundtable on the future of academic publishing. The conversation ranged widely, from the relative lack of opportunities to receive comments on written work before it is published to discipline-specific series adjusting to meet interdisciplinary work to the need both to teach reviewers how to give useful reviews and teach young academics how to receive feedback productively.

I found the discussion stimulating. But I also kept coming back to what I thought was an elephant in the room.

The panelists had brought contingent faculty up in passing, talking about the systems for compensating the unpaid labor of reviewing that goes into academic publishing. Most journals simply don’t have the money to pay reviewers and one of the challenges facing the field at the moment is the diminishing pool of people who can provide feedback. The panelists were (rightly) wary of exploiting junior colleagues with limited resources by asking them to commit large amounts of time for which they cannot be paid. I appreciated this sentiment, but I was also thinking about how simply excluding this potential pool of reviewers also creates a two-tiered system that requires more and more out of a smaller and smaller set of people while leaving other people outside of potential opportunities that could be found by this sort of networking.

Now, reviewing is not a silver bullet. To this point in my career, I have had one opportunity to review a manuscript (I was paid a small sum to review a book manuscript for a book being rereleased and is due out this summer) and it did not magically open any doors for me. Rather, in this context, reviewing seemed to me to be a microcosm of a larger issue where if people in editorial positions (here I was particularly thinking of scholars who edit journals) routinely don’t incorporate people in contingent positions into these processes and networks of academic publishing even out of reasonable concerns over unpaid labor, will this in time lead to a comparable shrinkage of people who are offered opportunities to participate in edited volumes, curated collections, and the like?

I don’t have an answer. Asking for labor from people who receive no tangible benefit for doing it isn’t the answer, but neither is simply cutting them out of the process.

In truth, very few scholars intend to stay contingent. There are scholars who publish brilliant work while working outside of academia and there are those in secure positions. Being between those two poles is a temporary limbo with few of the opportunities of either—except that the current state of higher education has turned it into the new normal, and you can’t publish your way out of that. To my mind, this makes it even more imperative to at least invite contingent faculty members into these systems of academic publishing. Many might decline the invitation, but choosing not even to extend it simply reifies the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Part of the solution, I think, has to be advocating for improved working conditions for all faculty. Not only would this add to the pool of people who would be able to contribute to these forms of academic labor, but it could also help open space for different types of academic writing since there is some truth to the idea that contingency offers a perverse freedom to one’s writing since you are not judged on the same standards and schedules as tenure-line faculty.

(I have maundered a bit on this topic in the past, most notably when considering what I would write if I stopped pursuing academic employment.)

I have been thinking about this panel again recently while working on the preface for my first book. A preface is supposed to tell the story of the book and offer some reflection on those people and institutions who helped you create the finished product. I have always had a strange affection for prefaces and usually at least skim them because this is where the formal academic tone drops and the person comes through, at least to an extent. I had fun with the acknowledgements and bio for my dissertation, mostly because nobody told me that I couldn’t, but I am finding this part of the book harder to write.

Many first books follow a common template in their acknowledgements:

This is a revised version of my dissertation. Revisions began at X post-doctoral fellowship [or visiting assistant professorship] and completed with the generous support of Y current, full time job that awarded me a research leave and paid for travel, etc, etc.

Not all of these steps are equal, of course. Most post-doctoral positions offer more support than most VAPs, but it is easy to thank either of them when they were a stepping-stone to a tenure-line position.

I am extremely grateful for the support of my colleagues at my current job, but an unvarnished recounting of the conditions that birthed this book would be quite a bit different. Revisions started during two years of a half-time position (no benefits) that provided a standard amount of research funding for the department that was enough to go to a conference each year, but too little for a major research trip and with too little pay to do much more than survive. Plenty of time to write and access to a library, but not much else. They continued during a year of cobbling together employment from different sources, teaching five or six courses at a time (no benefits, no research funds, little time to write). Then during the pandemic, which left me temporarily unemployed, followed by a semester where I taught five classes (four entirely new preps) at three institutions and another semester of four classes at two institutions (no research funds, limited library access, benefits from my partner’s job).

I also found a lot of this employment isolating in the sense that I was often teaching far outside my field and without colleagues in any meaningful sense. The internet helps bridge some of the geographic distance, of course, but it cannot replace physical contact, particularly when you are starting from the outside. Of course, I am hardly the first person to face this challenge. In the preface to his Conquest and Empire (1988), the historian Brian Bosworth wrote:

My obligations are few and many…I have been forced to work in geographical isolation, and my physical contacts with other scholars have been confined to brief periods of leave. That means that my writing is perhaps more personally oriented than it might have been, and I cannot make acknowledgements of direct assistance.

He then goes on to name a series of eminent historians who influenced his thinking and thanks his institution for their support.

I don’t want to put any of my past employers on blast. I took the one course from a local community college, for instance, because I thought that it might help land a full-time job teaching at a community college down the line, not because I expected that it would help me finish my book. At the same time, it has not been an easy road to get to this place. I did it because I wanted to write this book and I am proud of the work I have done, but I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t have been easier with more time and resources.

I am finding this a difficult thing to balance. I have people I want and need to thank, but I also don’t want to white-wash the experience of writing this book with some trite pablum about my tenuous academic employment. A discussion like this might lack for social grace, but at least it would be honest.

Publication Wrap 2020

I had a slow-ish publishing year in 2020, making this a second consecutive year of big plans and limited outcomes, but at least this year I had an excuse!

That is not to say that I didn’t have any progress; quite the opposite, in fact.

I had four short pieces come out this year. Two of these were book reviews:

  1. of Rosalind Thomas’ Polis Histories, which came out in CJ-Reviews online over the summer and was chosen to appear in the print version of the journal.
  2. of a recent translation of Jacqueline de Romilly’s Alcibiades, which came out in The New England Classical Journal this fall.

Two more were interview pieces:

  1. I talked about an inscription thanking immigrants to Athens for their service fighting against a tyrannical government in Athens for the Comfort Classics series run by Cora Beth Knowles.
  2. For the Society for Classical Studies blog I wrote about being a contingent faculty member in higher education and how the current situation is unsustainable.

I didn’t have any original research come out, but I did make headway on several projects. I effectively finished a chapter on the Athenian conquest of the island of Samos in 366 BCE for inclusion in a volume on the Athenian orators and their use of recent history and completed an article on fourth century Ephesus and its relationship to Alexander the Great for which I am looking for a home.

I also buried the lede to this post.

Back in October, I signed an advance contract with University of Michigan Press to publish a book tentatively titled Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE. This book is a heavily revised version of my dissertation so while I have quite a lot of work between now and when I’m supposed to submit the manuscript, let alone see the book come out, I am also very excited to have taken a very real step toward one of my professional ambitions.

For a full list of my publications, with links to everything available online, visit this page. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, please contact me.

Assorted Links

  1. Are You Smarter Than Your Grandfather– An article in the Smithsonian magazine that examines the rise in IQ scores over the last hundred years. The argument is largely that the environmental factors surrounding linguistic and scientific development of young people has led to a rise in IQ scores without necessarily an actual increase in “intelligence.”
  2. Istanbul’s Heritage: Under Attack– An article in the Economist about Istanbul’s world heritage status as there are plans for a suspension bridge across the Gold Horn that would obscure the skyline of the city and plans for a mosque in Taksim Square–facing the monument to Ataturk and the revolutionaries.
  3. Norwegian Fox Lured by Dying Rabbit App Steals PhoneA smartphone app summons foxes. When you leave the phone unattended, the fox will steal the phone…and evidently answer it when you call.
  4. Searching For Doggerland– A feature in National Geographic this month about relics and finds from Doggerland, the lowlying plains, once connecting Britain to Europe, but now covered by a shallow sea.
  5. Amherst College to launch the first open-access, digital academic press– A librarian at Amherst College is attempting to launch an all-digital, open access, peer reviewed academic press dedicated to the humanities. His stated purpose is to change the academic publishing industry in order to reduce costs and pressures on university libraries in tough fiscal times. Despite the limitations and hurdles to be cleared one school is taking action against the problems in academic publishing in the humanities. Hopefully the press will flourish–and that other like presses spring up elsewhere.
  6. A map…of every brothel, saloon, bar, and casino in the Levee District in Chicago from 1870-1905. Some of the highlights include “Satan’s Mile,” “Street of Whores,” and “W. 18th St. ( Wickedest Place in the USA)”

Assorted Links

  1. The Writing Revolution– From the Atlantic, this information that every educator, particularly those in the humanities, should take to heart. In short, it is the realization that schools have been failing to teach students how to logically compose their thoughts and use their own native language. Once the problem is identified, educators have begun to systematically teach language and writing composition from a young age. This is something I very much support since I often feel the need to teach this information to my students who have reached college without being able to write. Likewise, I feel that teaching these underlying skills will best prepare students for life.
  2. Anti-Japan protests: Outrage to a point– An article in the economist about a series of protests in China about Japan. Some of the people involved suspect that mixed in with the ever-present and historic tension between Japan and China is suppressed social unrest in China.
  3. Minnesota Twins Joe Mauer-A rosy account of the catcher Joe Mauer and his efforts to overcome injuries.
  4. Western Lifestyle Leading to Dangerous Bacterial Imbalances– An article in Spiegel suggesting that western lifestyles are leading to a number of health issues because essential bacteria transfers and growths are not taking place.
  5. Want to Change Academic Publishing?– An article in the Chronicle suggesting that academics should stop giving away labor to for-profit publishers on behalf of peer reviewed journals. The author’s idea is that work done for journals put out by non-profit presses could be considered pro bono, but if the press is in the business of making money (and limiting access to articles), then doing the work pro bono is absurd. Publishing peer reviewed writing is the toughest publishing job by academics and is done without immediate financial reward. I am not sure that a change is viable, at least in the short term, because articles help earn jobs so there is a sort of financial gain obliquely.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism-A piece run in the Guardian about how food and water shortages as the human population grows and environment becomes more volatile, people will have to drastically reduce the amount of animal products they consume (20% down to 5%, according the article).
  2. “We’re Not Going to Let Our Campaign Be Dictated by Fact-Checkers”-A story in the Atlantic that builds on a quote given by one of Romney’s political aids about facts, the media and politics. The articles concludes that the press (who he seems to think should be able “to stand above the fray”) is becoming bogged down in politics and the truth is reduced to something debatable. The gist of the argument I agree with, but the particulars I do not. Sometimes the truth is based on our own point of view, and the press is not a neutral arbiter.
  3. Bomb from World War II Detonated in MunichFrom Spiegel, a bomb from World War Two that authorities were unable to disarm was detonated in Munich.
  4. Self-published authors react with anger to ‘laziness’ charge-Sue Grafton described self-published authors as “too lazy to do the hard work” in an interview with her local newspaper. Independent publishers are less than pleased, and have responded to her charges that most of their work is amateurish.
  5. How Fighting Fantasy beat traditional games-A story in the Guardian that talks about Fighting Fantasy, role-playing games, and how the book market is increasingly responding to a cultural desire for competition and games.
  6. Mitt Romney, Business Thinking, and the Failure of Civilization– An excellent blog post about humanities and business, and why the liberal arts matter for a civilization. Hint: the author claims that it is because civilization can’t exist without the liberal arts, which constitute the defining elements of the culture and how it perceives itself.
  7. The Destruction of Krak des Chevaliers-Some embedded videos of the damage to Krak des Chevaliers, the crusader fortress in Syria. The fortress has been damaged in the fighting. For what it is worth, the blurb for the Wikipedia page calls it “one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world.”
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Academics

An academic books I read the other day had the word “Crepuscular” in the very last sentence of a chapter. After puzzling at the sentence for a minute without knowing the definition, I decided that it made no sense and looked up the definition. It means “dim” or “of or like twilight.” Suddenly, the entire sentence made sense…and it turned out that the author was trying to say that without that particular historian, we would know little of the time period because no other sources survive. That’s it. Instead he had to write a sentence about how the knowledge of the time period would be crepuscular.1 It was reminiscent of a line from The Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss) wherein Kvothe, the main character, comments that a particular philosopher writes as though he is afraid someone might understand what he is saying.

A day later, another academic book went on an extended lament about how the publishing industry does not particularly like academic books because they do not sell well, and, in instructions for a textbook he was writing, the publisher had recommended a causal tone, short sentences, small words, and that he not use foreign phrases in order that the students who would have to use the book would find it approachable.3 This seemed to be a sign that the academy was losing in a larger culture war, overtaken by transient fads and (shock!) the unwashed masses.2 Moreover, he claimed that this attack on intellect has breached the bastion that are academic journals. Suffice to say that I was not sympathetic to his lament.4

Somewhere along the line developed the notion that for something to be “smart” (in all its ambiguity), it must also be all but unintelligible. After all, if just anyone could understand your point, how would we know that you are smart? Sometimes books are difficult to understand because they are presenting really difficult ideas and topics, but more often they are merely jargon-y and obtuse for no particular reason–something that the previous author seemed to regard as a virtue. I venture that it is not, particularly in a field that is designed to educate people. Have a good vocabulary is a virtue, but so too the ability to convey information clearly and concisely.

The glorification of obtuse writing is something that is bought into by both the initiated academics and the lay-person. Several months ago a smart person who is not in graduate school asked me what I study, adding a request as an afterthought that I use words that he is capable of understanding. During the conversation he asked good questions and then, after I had finished, he remarked “I understood all those words!”

This was meant partly in jest and certainly not as a slight or even really praise toward me, but it was telling that after a short conversation with an academic that phrase was at all relevant. At the same time, I often feel that academics are defensive about their position in the world and therefore worship complex writing because it “proves” that we are smarter and better than other people. The need to cater to people who are not readily versed in a battery of French phrases and Latin terms offends the sensibilities because those people are forcing us to stoop to the level of everyone else. I think, though, that this says a lot more about our insecurities than it does about our intellect. It is perfectly acceptable to have a level of assumed knowledge as a prerequisite for academic work, but the idea that the ability to explain your ideas diminishes their intelligence is false. If anything, the ability to explain a complex or new idea in such a way that is intelligible makes that idea smarter.

I think that we would be better served working on our ability to explain our ideas than on writing another essay that is only comprehensible to insiders or (worse) complaining that the real world is cramping our style.5 This does not mean that there should not be books about the musicality of Theocritus, the poetics of Homer, or other obscure topics. These books should exist, but they should also be written in such a way that the uninitiated do not get a headache trying to read the title.6 Hoarded knowledge, hidden knowledge is of no use to anyone.


1 Later in the book he used “vertebrate” as a verb, in that “x vertebrated y with z.” The meaning of this was easy to come by, but I rolled my eyes at it nonetheless.
2 Okay, fine, he doesn’t actually seem worried about the non-bathers taking over the academy, so much as the people who do bathe, but who would rather watch the movie version, read Twilight, and get drunk while they stumble toward a degree and a mid-level bureaucracy position for a career.
3 I refer everyone to Orwell’s rules for writing at the end of Politics and the English Language, with particular emphasis on numbers two and five.
4 I have actually surprised people by supporting the publishing of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey because from a business perspective, the return on those books keeps companies in business and able to publish academic books. There is not a 1:1 correlation, but there is some.
5 I do not agree with them entirely, but Hanson and Heath in Who Killed Homer? are populists in this respect, too.
6 The Violent Body: Marxist Roots of Postmodern Homoerotic Mysticism and the Feminine Form in St. Augustine’s Confessions is actually a relatively benign example of this type of book.