The first contribution to our theme of Publication comes from Derek Attig, who recently defended his doctoral dissertation in History at the University of Illinois. His invited post explores different practices of writing and publishing. —bM
Earlier this year, I had an idea for an article. So I sat down, did some research, started writing, and within two hours had a draft. I submitted it to an editor, who published it the next day. In the first twenty-four hours, over a thousand people read the article. In the subsequent months, thousands more people read and shared it. At the end of the quarter, I received twenty percent of the revenue the article had generated.
At this point, you could probably guess I’m not talking about an academic article. And you’d be right. The article I just described—“Scandalous Works of Library Art”—was published by the website Book Riot, which employs me as a contributor.
How did you know I wasn’t talking about an article in an academic journal? Well, there was the sheer speed of it all: hours to write, days to publish. There was the relatively large audience. There was the fact that I, the author, got a cut of the revenue—hell, there was the fact that there was revenue at all to cut. Indeed, pretty much every part of that first paragraph (at least after “I had an idea”) is at odds with how academic publishing usually works in the humanities.
And how does academic publishing in the humanities usually seem to work?
It takes a long time. And sometimes a really long time. There’s the weeks, months, years poured into researching and writing books and articles. And then there’s the waiting. A couple of years ago, I submitted an article to a prominent journal in one of my fields. It was a long shot, but I figured I’d give it a whirl. And so I whirled. And whirled. And whirled. It was a year later—a year!—that I heard back (“No, thanks,” alas).
It usually doesn’t reach very many readers. There are the limitations of specialized language in specialized contexts (understandable if not exactly a recipe for popularity). And, at this point, the sheer volume of publish-or-perish writing lessens the impact of all of it.
It’s not exactly a moneymaker. With their paucity of readers, most humanities journals aren’t exactly swimming in cash. What money they make is usually from being packaged in a database, access to which is sold at epic cost to academic libraries.
Don’t worry. This isn’t some polemical call to destroy academic publishing in its entirety. No, even as I bang out posts for Book Riot, I work on academic writing. Indeed, just this week I’ve been pounding my poor, abused brain against an article draft. It’s taking a lot of time to get it right. I won’t get paid for it. It probably won’t be read by more than a few hundred people, if I’m very lucky and place it well. But I think it’s worth it. Because—to state the obvious—not all writing needs to be quick, popular, or lucrative.
But training academics to write (and evaluating them on the writing of) only traditional academic prose? That depends on a frail and perhaps already-dead way of thinking about the academy, scholarship, and academic labor.
Very few graduate students in the humanities will ever end up tenured professors of anything, anywhere. The rest do other things, often awesome things, which they discover and pursue more or less easily. Those who find them more easily do so because they’ve figured out how to take the skills they’ve developed as graduate students and scholars—how to think carefully, analyze thoroughly, write incisively—and apply them in other contexts. This is something most have to learn how to do on their own, though, since alternatives tend to be mentioned (if at all), in embarrassed whispers, as a Plan B.
When it comes to writing and publishing, part of the problem, I think, is that a bright line that ends up separating the academic from the nonacademic. The former gets jobs and tenure; the latter gets a pat on the head (or, worse, a curled lip). But, as experiments like Scalar make clear, the line between old and new, between scholarly and popular, can be—should be—a blurry, messy, contingent one.
Over the past year or two, staring into the yawning abyss of the History job market, I’ve been trying to blur that line in my own practice. To that end, I’ve been developing a portfolio of different kinds of writing and the different voices that make them work. Online, I have quick, fun posts for Book Riot (“Turning Classic Novels into Video Games,” “Which DOCTOR WHO Library Is the Best DOCTOR WHO Library?”); quirky, informative pieces for the Boing Boing Library Lab (“Spark Truck: Taking Making on the Road,” “Time-Traveling Librarians from Outer Spa…from Texas”); and all sorts of posts on Bookmobility, my blog. I recently took a short online class about pitching articles, taught by a professor-turned-freelancer, and I plan to keep expanding this body of non-academic work for web and print. Also outside of academia proper is my work as an advocate and policy researcher. As Google Policy Fellow and Research Associate at the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy, I’ve drafted a report helping libraries adapt to new technologies. And in the academy? I have book reviews, articles—and, oh yeah, that whole dissertation thing I wrote.
The relationships between these different sorts of writing have been surprising and surprisingly interdependent. My online work (yes, even the post about bookish lamps) is shaped by my training in the humanities. And, from the other direction, the quick turnaround and lively conversations that result from my online publishing helps recharge my batteries for the longer labor of academic work.
It would be incredibly worthwhile to make this sort of portfolio-building, this purposeful breadth of styles and audiences, an important part of academic training and academic life. It enriches scholarly work. It broadens job prospects. It trains scholars to clearly and powerfully articulate the value of humanistic inquiry. And, of course, this switching back and forth between voices, between analyzing Supreme Court decisions and cataloging literary pet names, between different kinds of publishing—well, it’s a whole lot of fun.
Derek Attig is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation is a history of the bookmobile as a tool for imagining, building, and contesting communities in the twentieth-century United States. He is a regular contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, and his work has also appeared on Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere.