Here we are, nearing the last week of July! Before we know it, classes will begin, and we’ll be struggling to make regular progress on those summer research projects that always take longer than we expected.
This week’s project is to clear a reference article off my plate. It is part of a massive reference work with a well-known, respected publisher. Contributors to this installment were solicited using social media, and, to be honest, I’m feeling pretty anxious about the results. When the editors approached me last year, I agreed. What could go wrong? They’re reputable scholars, and I’ve collaborated with them before on conferences and published projects. However, the current project is massive.
Before long, the editors opened it up on that F-word of a database that’s free to all only because it sells the information fools willingly provide to it. To keep up with the project, I was forced to join its closed online group, to learn that only a handful of the other contributors were known to me. In academia, where your reputation is your reality, the unfamiliarity of my potential co-contributors was a red flag. Random Googling (speaking of data-mining our free information) revealed that many, many of the other members, who may or may not be contributors, were students, some barely out of undergrad at places I’ve never heard of—and once you’ve been on the job market a few times, you will have heard of just about every place.
Let’s be clear. Reference articles are never stimulating research projects. In fact, I think of them (as I do book reviews) as service to the profession, rather than research per se. But the revelation of just how egalitarian this project had become changed my perception of it into a chore. Unlike Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary, this reference work of signed articles can’t rely on even crowd-sourcing for a modicum of quality control. The online group is closed, and I have no idea what the editors are doing for quality control. A quick scan of the group’s membership shows that some are going by nicknames like “Snookums ABD” (yet, for example, Salman Rushdie was forced to go by his birth name “Ahmed Rushdie” until he mobilized his Twitter army in protest), and many of these would-be contributors seem not to know how to navigate their (admittedly ever-changing) privacy settings. To be blunt: their self-presentation is unprofessional. If I ran into a job application from some of these folks, I’d hope not to remember them from this project.
I realize I’m coming across as a hardass snob, already inured to my privilege as a tenured faculty member at a garden-variety RU/VH institution. Brilliance is where you find it. Moreover, I routinely teach students I consider more intelligent than I am; it is my honor to push those intelligences to their limits. All they lack is experience. People like me have been studying this area almost as long as they have been alive.
Indeed, I’ve always been puzzled that grad students are so often encouraged to write book reviews and encyclopedia entries as apprentice work in scholarly publishing. Sure, these kinds of publications are shorter, but all they have to recommend them is brevity. Done well, they require context that most very junior apprentice scholars lack. Wouldn’t it be a better use of their effort and time to revise that seminar paper the professor gushed over, soliciting her help in preparing it for PMLA, whose high profile enables it to attract prompt, conscientious readers whose smart, if blunt, reports will teach apprentice scholars much more about academic publishing? And who knows? Maybe that essay will be accepted: no matter what one might think of PMLA, several people in my grad-school cohort managed just such a coup, which certainly commands attention on a CV.
As to lesser accomplishments on a CV, I actually contributed to the first installment of this massive reference work whose current assignment has become a chore. A well-liked human being as well as a remarkable scholar, the editor for that installment personally solicited contributions from his extensive network of colleagues happy to return a favor, and the resulting list of contributors reads like an international who’s who in the field. I mean, I’m staring at the spines of their books, just as they might be staring at mine. The reference work thus commands authority and will endure.
For the current project, those incoming MA students at East Southwest Somewhere State University-Satellite City who just graduated from Modest College may well write terrific essays, but they’re unknown quantities. The point of soliciting established scholars is that they’re, well, established. You already know their work and, in the insular groves of academe, their work habits. If the editors decided to not-quite crowd-source this project because doing so seemed easier than coaxing contributions out of their networks, they’ll probably wind up doing the bulk of their editorial work on the back end, once the contributions come in.
Of course, the most dismaying aspect of very early scholars seeking to publish is the ratcheting up of expectations, the hyperprofessionalization through publication of a profession that is being deprofessionalized by adjunctification. In that fabled age when academic hiring meant that one Old Boy called up another Old Boy to suggest the Promising Young Man he was advising, publications weren’t expected of candidates. (I suppose it could be argued that my whining about the need to recruit established scholars is analogous to reaffirming the Old Boy’s network, but what makes a scholar “established” is her work, not the nod of an Old Boy.) Now they’re not unusual among applicants to grad school. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those incoming MA students were looking to parlay this publication into a spot in the PhD program at Berkeley or Duke. In a moment of sincere excitement, I’ve even encouraged particularly accomplished undergrads to submit parts of their theses for publication. In the most instance, we’ve succeeded, and she’s off to the dark side, with a generous stipend. If only she were one of my co-contributors.