Enemies of Promise

Lindsay Waters is the humanities editor at Harvard University Press, and his new book Enemies of Promise is a jeremiad about troubles in the world of academia and academic publishing. Waters says that too many academic books are being published, books that sell poorly for the most part, and that this situation is not sustainable either economically or intellectually.
Waters’ polemic is rather scattershot, and sometimes over-the-top rhetorically, but he makes a number of important points.
A lot of academic books get written, and then published, because they are necessary for tenure. If tenure weren’t so closely tied to publication, then this situation wouldn’t exist. This makes a great deal of sense to me; it’s often a waste of time and effort for a newly minted PhD to turn her/his dissertation into a first book, instead of moving on to a new project. (I was lucky that I had the time — partly because I was in limbo several years between finishing my PhD and getting my first job, and partly because I got generous time off as a junior professor — to write something new as my tenure book, and let my dissertation slip into deserved oblivion).
The requirement of a book for tenure is something of a bottleneck. It leads people to inflate good articles into lots-of-wasted-space books, which sell almost no copies. And in any case this way of doing things is not likely to remain sustainable, as university presses get underfunded and forced to cut back.
Waters recommends that faculties and tenure committees exercise more critical judgment when deliberating on tenure, instead of (in effect) offloading the work onto the university presses’ review processes. While this is admirable in principle, I am dubious as to whether it could actually be made to work. Less reliance on publication records would most likely mean, not more critical judgment, but more arbitrariness and more personal spite on the part of departments and tenure committees. Having an “objective” requirement for tenure, lame as it often is, protects professors from getting denied tenure simply because they are offbeat in their sensibilities, or insufficiently “collegial.”
So this is still a problem for which there is no good solution.
In the second half of his book, Waters makes some crucial points about the current hyper-professionalization of humanities departments and humanities publications. Junior scholars face “increasingly rigid norms for publication” (82). “The modern university takes the present organization of knowledge into separate disciplines, all those gated communities, as inevitable and as natural as the categories of niche-marketing. The blinkered professional who has become the norm is not an intellectual who reads promiscuously in the hope he or she might come upon a book that will change his or her life” (72). Instead, scholars are encouraged to master a very narrow field of study in depth, to embed him/herself in minutiae of the field, and above all, not to stray to other realms or make outside connections. The result is a “crisis of the monograph” (78), the waste of energy upon trivialities in specialist books that rehearse, but do not dare to step beyond, the prevailing focus of the author’s sub-discipline. Waters rightly excoriates Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty, among others, as senior scholars who are responsible for this closing down of any broader intellectual discourse.
Though the media often mock academic writing in the humanities for being abstruse to the point of utter incommunicability, they generally blame “theory” or “cultural studies” or an abandonment of close reading and the traditional canon as the culprit. Waters rightly points out that, contrary to this picture, over-professionalized academic writing today is anything but theoretical and anything but anti-canonical. It may use theory words, but it refuses to think theoretically. (Fish and Rorty condemn theoretical thinking tout court). And it may discuss horror films or romance novels instead of Shakespeare or Dickens, but it narrows its focus in the same way that the worst old-fashioned scholarship of the canon did. Academic norms today make it hard to say anything new or interesting about either Shakespeare or Herschell Gordon Lewis.
There are all sorts of policing mechanisms that promote this hyperprofessionalization: tenure committees, to be sure, but also — quite notably — outside reviewers for academic presses. I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard of people whose writing was rejected by presses or journals because outside reviewers didn’t find it disciplinarily normative enough. (I have never published with Harvard University Press, but from what I can tell, it is far less guilty of this under Waters than are most other presses I know about).
Most importantly, the way we train graduate students is the main culprit in creating this situation.
Waters hits the nail on the head as regards the problem with academic discourse today, but I am not sure he provides any sort of solution. (Which is not really a criticism; obviously I don’t have any solutions either). At the end of the book, Waters praises silence; “it is possible to be a great thinker and not publish anything” (78), he writes, citing the obvious example of Socrates. Water urges scholars and critics to hold back, to publish less, to give their ideas more breathing space to develop.
This is a beautiful idealization, but I am not sure it is anything more than that. We don’t have anything like the Athenian agora today — unless it is the Internet, a possibility that Waters rejects.
I’d make a counter-suggestion: that rather than valuing silence, today’s critics learn to value writing. Most academic writing today is execrably written: something that goes along with being hyperprofessionalized. I don’t mean, of course, that academic writing should become as “transparent” as, say, articles in Newsweek or The New York Times. Great style means Proust or Faulkner or Pynchon, as well as late Beckett or Dashiell Hammett or Hunter Thompson. But the convoluted sentences of most academic discourse, filled with hyperspecialized qualifications and subordinate clauses, bespeak a mentality that sees written language as merely instrumental, merely a tool for getting certain pre-existing facts or ideas across. It ignores the importance of style, voice, mode of expression, affect, etc, in all of culture, popular as well as “high.” It’s particularly ironic, of course, that literature professors would view writing this way. But until academics think about writing style as well as content, we will never break through the wall of hyperprofessionalization.

3 Responses to “Enemies of Promise”

  1. academicky discourse

    Steven Shaviro’s got a nice entry about Lindsay Waters’ new book Enemies of Promise, which SS describes as “a jeremiad about troubles in the world of academia and academic publishing. Waters says that too many academic books are being published,…

  2. digital digs says:

    Publishing and tenure

    Stephen Shaviro discusses Lindsay Waters’ new book Enemies of Promise, which brings up key points regarding the troubling state of publication in the humanities. In essence, Shaviro notes two interlocking problems: the first being increasing pressure f…

  3. bonfire of the humanities

    Don’t know who this slipped past me (and all but 4 bloggers, according to Technorati), but the excellent HUP editor and philosopher (and Sleater-Kinney fan, and a million other things) Lindsay Waters wrote an article called ‘Bonfire of the Humanities…