The Myth and Mystery of Scholarly “Value”

bookI mentioned in my last post that I had recently read a new academic book that I ultimately decided not to review, partly because I didn’t want to scapegoat the author for my alienation from the genre it belongs to. I’m still not going to name it (and that’s my own book pictured at left, just so there’s no confusion), not just because I’ve made that ungenerous mistake before but because I have had the same question about a lot of academic books lately. This is just the most recent one to leave me wondering: what is this book worth?

That’s the kind of question that clearly requires better, more precise, framing to answer. Worth in what sense, and to whom? Forget financial considerations: I could look up its list price, but even to the author (perhaps especially to the author) a book of this kind is not a money-making venture, except indirectly in that it is almost certainly crucial to the author’s professional success. My guess is, in fact, that it is the author’s “tenure book,” so obviously that has significant economic implications, as well as a crucial payoff for the author’s career. For the author, this is a very valuable book, even if it generates no royalties at all.

For me, on the other hand, the book has no particular value. I don’t mean that unkindly: it’s just that it doesn’t change anything for me, even though it is a work of scholarship in my area of specialization. I suppose I could keep working with it until it does make a difference to me: I could wrestle with its fairly abstract vocabulary and arguments and then with its readings of its examples until my own account of the Victorian novels it addresses incorporates its insights. But there really is no need for me to do that: it’s not as if my own readings of those books have been rendered incorrect or even incomplete by the work done in this book. The book gives me something else I could think about while reading (some) 19th-century novels, but there’s no obligation for me to do so — there really can’t be, unless I’m obligated to do the same with the many, many other scholarly books coming out all the time, and the surfeit of material makes selectivity a principled, not just pragmatic, choice. If I decided to write a specialized paper on a topic that’s over in the author’s corner, I’d be remiss not to notice the book — but I mostly work in other corners, where other books are more pertinent, and that’s how we all get by, consulting other people’s scholarship on an occasional basis — that is, as the occasion arises, and even then with no expectation that our pool of references will be exhaustive.

victorianstudiesIf there were such an expectation and people routinely met it or else paid a professional price, my own monograph would be cited more often than it is! And yet I’ve peered in the bibliographies of enough books and articles on related topics to know that sometimes it comes up, and sometimes it doesn’t. The essay in Victorian Studies that became a chapter of that book gets more consistent attention, no doubt because of its greater discoverability, its online availability, and the tendency of things that get cited once to get cited again. It’s quite possible that, as a contribution to my discipline, the article is genuinely more valuable than the book — that it informed more people, generated more ideas, supported or contradicted more arguments. I wouldn’t actually argue very hard against the notion that the book’s value lies almost entirely in what it did for my career (first as a dissertation, then, revised and expanded, as my “tenure book”). I’m not saying it’s a bad or uninteresting book, and it certainly contains a lot more material than the article does, but on the whole it mostly wasn’t (isn’t) really necessary, except professionally. I wish more people would cite my chapter on needlework and Victorian historiography — or, for that matter, my concluding discussion about the contemporary resonance of some of the Victorian themes I studied — but that’s mostly my ego talking. I’m honestly not sure if that reflects badly on me, on the profession — or just on my book! But the truth is, if only pragmatically, that what is supposedly the real value of either my book or this other book — that it is a contribution to scholarship, that it advances our knowledge and understanding — is not self-evidently present, if it’s not much needed and won’t be much noticed.

In his inaugural post for The Valve, back in 2005, John Holbo raised some related questions about why we do what we do in the way that we do it:

How many members of the MLA? 30,000? That a nation can support a standing army of literary critics is a wondrous fact, and quite explicable with reference to the volume of freshman papers, etc. that must be marked. The number is inexplicable with reference to any critical project. Yes, we need new scholarship (don’t bother me with more false dichotomies, please.) The point is: no one has a clear (or even unclear) sense of what work in the humanities presently needs approximately 30,000 hands to complete. I don’t mean we should therefore hang our heads in shame, although being a member of a standing army of literary critics must be a semi-comic fate, at least on occasion. But the utter lack of any justification for 30,000 literary critics assiduously beavering away explicating, interpreting, erecting new frameworks, interrogating the boundaries, etc., has consequences. Notably, when a book or article is up for publication and the hurdle is set, ‘if it has real scholarly value’, we discover this condition is just not as intelligible as we would like, conditions being what they are. It isn’t true that literary scholars value the output of 30,000 other literary scholars. They just don’t, and that is quite sensible of them, really.

“If ‘scholarly value’ output can’t be optimally pegged to some sense of how much will be truly valued,” he continues,

(since patently the output of 30,000 is going to be on the heavy side), the level will be de facto set as some awkward equilibrium point between forces of economic and administrative necessity (budgeting and tenure). But this is no way to run the life of the mind. Neither economic nor administrative considerations should dictate the diameter of the sphere of scholarship.

Holbo is talking about all forms of scholarship, but the problems he’s thinking about are most conspicuous with books because they represent the largest investment of our time and resources. I’ve written before here about reasons to resist the assumption that books are always our best option, even for disseminating specialized scholarship to other scholars. Certainly “a book” should not be the default demand for any professional step: surely it would be better for all of us if we wrote books when the project demanded investigation and explanation on that scale, not because we “need a book to get tenure” or because “a second monograph is the usual standard” for promotion to Professor. The MLA has urged us to decenter the monograph and accept “multiple pathways” to tenure and promotion. This is right, because for pragmatic reasons scholars can’t publish books on demand, and for principled ones, they shouldn’t. But it also makes sense because there are so many other valuable — maybe more valuable — things we can do with our expertise. I actually applaud my own department, and my own Faculty, for developing tenure and promotion guidelines that recognize a wide range of legitimate “contributions to a discipline” as worthy of professional advancement. (Whether, in practice, our institutional culture has caught up with those forward-thinking guidelines is another question. Ahem.)

I would never dismiss the book I just read, never argue that it is not a legitimate scholarly contribution, just because I personally didn’t find any value in it. Who knows how many other scholars (or just other readers — though given the nature and style of the book, I can’t imagine it would engage very many of those) might find in it something truly exciting, paradigm-changing, or just useful? And as I’ve said before, though I often look at individual trees with puzzlement, I am a big believer in the overall value of the scholarly forest — precisely because things like value are so hard to measure, and because the kinds of transformations that we all eventually feel and react to in our work accumulate incrementally at first. Also, that we have trouble getting the most value out of our work is at least in part a systemic and logistical problem — not a reason to stop doing the work itself. But I do wish we would stop conflating value with form (as in “you need a book,” or “only peer-reviewed scholarly articles are valuable”), or pretending that it’s self-evident why some kinds of work are worth more than others, professionally or otherwise.

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