Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Book Review Essay: Lindsay Waters' Enemies of Promise

Assignment: An eight- to ten-page critical book review. Write an essay, for an audience of other graduate students/teachers of literature, that unpacks a problem, then talk about how the book you've read speaks to that problem (but doesn't necessarily need to solve it).

My book: Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship by Lindsay Waters (Prickly Paradigm Press: 2004)

Stifling New Growth in Academia:
Enemies of Promise

A tremor is going through academia, a pang felt mainly in the humanities: the boding feeling that something is very wrong with our current system and needs to be put aright so universities may flourish with ideas once more. It’s enough to make a young academic break out in cold sweats and cross herself lest the demons prevent her access to the ivory tower. For one seeking to enter the hallowed halls as a Ph.D. in English, the increased demands of gaining tenure (and job security) and the decreased availability of tenured positions are compelling reasons for one to flee to the corporate world. The call to participate in literary studies—or any of the humanities—is not for the faint of heart.

As an English M.A. student looking to also pursue a Ph.D., I have already begun to feel the pressures of the academic life. Tenured positions—even at smaller universities—are often contingent on receiving a doctoral degree from a highly ranked institution with a well-established, reputable English program. However, in order to be accepted to one such Ph.D. program, I need to have written papers for publication and conferences, attended conferences, and often be willing to teach as an underpaid GA. If I were so lucky as to be hired into a tenure-track position with my newly minted Ph.D., I would still have to undergo the tenure process: publishing, publishing, and publishing. Not only would I need to be published to get into my first choice Ph.D. program, but I would need to continue publishing to be hired and eventually promoted at a university lest I be banished to the fringes of adjunct-hood. Based on a market economy where one provides goods for another to buy, the hiring and promotion system in the humanities is ultimately self-destructive and stifling. Academics no longer can pursue knowledge for the joy of learning; we must pursue knowledge for the drudgery of publishing something that most likely will go unread and unloved by any, even ourselves.

The market approach to academics is one that is wreaking havoc on the once flourishing world of the humanities. We are in the business of truth and truth is not a tangible product that college presidents and deans can sell. While the engineering and science disciplines are able to bring in research funding each year and producing advances in technology and patents that they can sell, administrators and students alike are starting to turn a critical eye to the humanities and wondering what our purpose is, besides teaching freshman composition. The pressures of the job market cause students to shy away from literature: a degree in English landed me a underpaid secretary position at the university, the human resources staff counting my English degree as clerical experience. Whereas a student with an undergraduate degree in engineering usually has a job lined up before they even graduate, the English major faces uncertain job prospects. The only way to get paid to do what I love to do—study and teach literature—was to pursue higher education. But there, my prospects are still not shining, and I will have to overcome obstacles and learn to navigate the system itself in order to have a chance at success.

With genuine concern and stinging criticism, Lindsay Waters addresses one symptom of the problems plaguing academia and the humanities—publication—in his lively and riveting book Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship. Like Robert Scholes, who argues in The Rise and Fall of English that English must discover itself as a discipline or meet the fate of its predecessors Rhetoric and Oratory, and Terry Eagleton, who in After Theory defends the current need for theory over the protests of those who would declare its end, Waters too recognizes the urgent need for change in the humanities. He asserts that the current application of the market economy within the academy is harmful, stifling, and self-destructive to the quest for truth, declaring, “It is harder for the truth to submit to the market than for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle” (9).

Waters, the Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press, is an insider to the publication system, and he feels the urgent need to be one of the critical voices: “I say it’s upon the shoulders of the insiders that the duty to speak up falls first” (4). He begins his work with a warning that the end of the era of high production from university presses is near. He then asks, “What good are books? What are publications for?” (3). He explains his own interest in books:

The reason I am here, suppliant before you, is my immoderate love of books, which I love nearly as much as I love people. If this be fetishism or idolatry, I am guilty. We may be—as Marshall McLuhan suggested years ago—collectively on the eve of exiting from the time when the book was central to human flourishing. We owe it to ourselves, then to figure out what it was we most valued about the book so we can try to preserve it. (3-4)

Books matter. We in literary studies understand this; we devote our time and energies to books. We read books, we love books, we teach books, we seek to understand books. We write books about our most beloved books, and we read what others have to say about them. Books show our achievements; they can be the happy products of our studies and passions. However, books and publications have become the currency of academia as markers of achievement and paths to promotion. Waters points out that the problem of over-publication is an academic cooking of the books: “My guess, then, is that the phony profits of Enron are like the false achievements of academia, represented by mountains of unloved and unread publications” (7).

If no one is actually reading these books, then why are they still being published? The trouble lies in the blending of capitalism and intellectualism, the application of the market economy to the marketplace of ideas. Waters wryly comments: “I think that we scholars and publishers have allowed the moneychangers to enter the temple” (5). In the post-World War II era, funding suddenly poured into colleges to fund research and technological advances, and the structure of the university administration changed to manage the influx of cash. Administrators and deans began to put pressure on university publishing houses to produce more, earn more, and do more and began raising the bar on standards of promotion and tenure. Production and profit, not scholarship, became a driving force in the academy. Waters remarks, “Modern, highly sophisticated accounting methods have been brought to bear on the work of the scholarly community and are having the unintended consequence of hollowing out the work of the academy” (8).

Capitalism and academia do not work well with one another if the goal of academics is the pursuit of truth and the examination of ideas. The two cannot co-exist in the same system if we stand by the traditional role of scholars as social critics, slightly out of step with their society. (Eagleton too makes a similar argument about the loss of the power of cultural critique as scholarship and pop culture begin to merge). “The so-called free market—which is anything but free—is not a concept that should be considered the ultimate framework for the free play of ideas” Waters maintains (9). As the humanities cannot offer up profit-making patents and advances in science and medicine, publication becomes the mark of achievement in the market-driven university—to the detriment of both books and the study of literature.

Thus, as the humanities are required to produce more, then scholars must find “new” things to write about. Suddenly, fashion is introduced to literary studies: if you have an interest in the DWMs (Dead White Males) of years past, it had better be because you are examining their possible homosexual tendencies or the hidden eroticism of their work, even if none exists. Terry Eagleton, in After Theory, sums up the current trends in literary scholarship:

On the wilder shores of academia, an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing. In some cultural circles, the politics of masturbation exert far more fascination than the politics of the Middle East. Socialism has lost out to sado-masochism. Among students of culture, the body is an immensely fashionable topic, but it is usually the erotic body, not the famished one. There is a keen interest in coupling bodies, but not in labouring ones. Quietly-spoken middle-class students huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subjects like vampirism and eye-gouging, cyborgs and porno movies. (2-3)

Eagleton is obviously critical of these new fashionable approaches that Waters would assert are a product of the application of capitalism to the university system. It becomes a world where anything goes, and submitting an article that is racy and lurid (with a clever and catchy title) rather than a carefully thought out and contemplative work is a quick way to get published and add lines to one’s CV. Those outside literary studies look at the titles of papers presented at an MLA conference and wonder what those crazy kids are up to and how we are able defend what we do. Robert Scholes would argue that they have every right to demand that we do so.

As a woman entering academia, I often am asked if I’m planning to go into women’s studies or if I want to be a feminist or gender critic—that’s the fashionable thing for women to do in literature (and the humanities as a whole) after all. As a woman, I should be looking for signs of the oppression of women in all texts, or seeking feminist interpretations—even when they are not the most interesting parts of a work of literature. It’s intellectually worthwhile to look at the issue of motherhood in Shelley’s Frankenstein; examining the possible lesbian aspects of the work—because Shelley’s mother may have a lesbian—is not. Feminism and feminist readings can be extremely fascinating and bear important cultural implications, but I don’t like feeling forced into an interpretive mode simply because of my gender. I want to be able to study what I want to study, for the sake of knowledge and the joy of learning.

But let’s be practical here. As a professor has pointed out to me recently, you’ve got to think about scholarship in terms of publication. Is studying Tolkien’s hobbit-heroes likely to get me published? Quite possibly not, at least not in a reputable journal. Will exploring the possibility that Jane Austen was a lesbian and that her work was all about women desiring one another earn me a spot at a conference? More likely, considering the sensationalist nature of such a topic. However, is it true scholarship? I think not, especially if it is born out of the desire to earn a coveted publication that will grant assurance of tenure and promotion. Waters declares, “We have entered the Twilight Zone of academic research, and now the demands for productivity are leading to the production of much more nonsense” (22).

Another result of allowing capitalism to be the gatekeeper of the ivory tower is the increasing compartmentalization of ideas and concentrations. Suddenly instead of studying English, I’m forced to choose a specialization in a specific area. African American Studies are separated from Southern Literature and the two no longer speak, though they might have much to offer one another. And we should forget about incorporating History, Literature, and Philosophy—heaven forbid they intermingle. The humanities are slowly being divided and conquered, split into squabbling groups who only look at the small picture. We cannot critique one another because they are outside our field of specialization. By focusing on the small picture, ideas have stopped trickling out of universities; everyone complains that there is nothing new to say. As someone who’s interested in a wide range of ideas, subjects, and areas of study, the specialization approach is stifling and frustrating. I want to study what I love and love what I study, and I want the freedom to look at a range of subjects and ideas and allow them to illuminate each other. One of the achievements of literary theory has been to prove the New Critics wrong—literature does not occur in isolation. Why should scholarship be any different?

Another problem stemming from the emphasis placed on publication is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the new academics to find a place among the tenured faculty at a university. My fellow graduate students speak with a note of despair in their joking tones about being forever an adjunct or the possibility of obtaining a tenure-track position. “The academic life is a calling, not a job” Waters states, and we’re all certainly not here for the lucrative salary, but we’d still like to have bread for our stomachs and a roof over our heads. However, a production-based tenure system creates a form of censorship, according to Waters. A generation gap has formed between the old and the young, and the old are blocking progress and refusing to lend a helping hand. They assist in increasing the demands for tenure and promotion that prevent young professors from moving up. A form of censorship has emerged within the academy, linked to the increase in publishing. Waters asks, “Why does the rise in demands for productivity come along with a seeming prohibition upon innovation?” (53). He blames it on the reluctance of individual scholars to be critical, to take a stand for any idea. He blames it on Last Men (as he terms them) like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish who laud the end of inquiry and triumphantly proclaim the death of theory. (Interestingly, Scholes and Eagleton also argue against Rorty and Fish). This becomes a form of censorship to young academics: “The motto over the door of this academy would best be Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate [Renounce all hope you who enter]. No wonder the young who aspire to scholarly careers are playing it safe or abandoning ship” (66). Waters calls the approach of the Last Men like Fish timidity masquerading as boldness:

And so narrow-minded professionalism rules the roost, because the God of Small Minds loves a blinkered intelligence that flatters itself in its timidity about dangerous ideas by telling itself that ideas have no consequences. It all adds up a defense of the status quo. You have to grant the captains of the industry this: They do not conceal their animosity to ideas, to the foreign, to the new, to change. (67)

You have to hand it to Waters; he is brilliant writer who is able to deliver stinging criticism in a way that makes aspiring academics like me raise a fist in the air and shout “hoorah!”.

Waters’ goal is to point out the damage that both the market-driven publication systems and the attitudes of critics have done to the free play of ideas and the growth of scholarship in the universities. His solution to these problems is for us to return to prizing books, not hurrying along their end as Fish would have us do. Enemies of Promise is a call for the humanities to come together, take back their own from college administrators and journal editors. Like Scholes, Waters asserts that we need to explain our purpose; we need to become a true discipline. “We have to embrace art once again and show how the interaction of readers, viewers, and listeners can precipitate the sorts of experiences that allow our souls to spring forth into momentary glory” (86-7). Quality, not quantity, needs to be the goal of publications.

Waters seeks to provide hope and to encourage his readers to strive for change in the humanities, to save scholarship from the timid and the mundane. This is a matter of utmost importance to fledgling academics and tenured professors alike, and is a concern expressed in multiple pages written by numerous scholars who don’t want to see our profession and our disciplines die away or be reduced to arguing the “small stuff”. Waters is another iteration of the truly bold—such as Scholes and Eagleton—who are sounding the call to fight the Last Men and revive scholarship. Waters may not give a plan, exactly, but his words are strong and stirring and give me hope that my path into the academy is not doomed, though it may be lined with pitfalls and barriers along the way. He tries to shine a light into the darkness and divert humanities from its self-destructive course and rally academics young and old alike in the fight to save the promise of the future.

1 comment:

the secret knitter said...

Excellent work.

What you have to say about coming up with more attention-grabbing ideas is a problem with creative pursuits in general, I think. Contrarianism for the sake of it or "edginess" injected into something to stand out from the crowd...I won't say that it plagues films, books, and music, but I think there's a lot of this inauthentic tactic being employed because of the signal-to-noise ratio with the amount of product being released.

It's disheartening that colleges and universities often value the degree over knowledge, especially as more schools insist upon doctorates for any new professorial hires. The kind of publishing you're talking about goes unread or is used as a platform for other academics. The ideas sit imprisoned in books and bandied about by those interested in saying something provocative rather than substantive.