Saturday, March 15, 2008

On Placement of Scholarship

Dr. Virago posted earlier this week, and Horace followed up, in a discussion about publication and making one's work visible, within one's field, in terms of tenure prospects, etc. I thought about commenting to both posts, but the discussion is pretty narrowly happening among Medievalists over at Virago's and so I wasn't sure how much I could say that would be of use there, and I felt like I wanted to go off on a tangent about what Horace posted, and so here I am, posting about this here.

Now, I'm a weird case. Of all my publications (appearing in collections, conference proceedings, journal articles, a review, the book), only one - a weirdo article in a collection that is outside my field of specialization and that is an edited version of a seminar paper that I wrote in graduate school - happened out of me sending off something cold, with no professional contact in place to get the work a special look. I've never just sent an article off to a journal and had it accepted. Even the book manuscript ultimately found a home based on some correspondence I had with an editor. (Or perhaps not based on, but I do believe that having the contact helped.) So at least in my publication history, getting my work an audience has had everything to do with other kinds of visibility that I've cultivated, particularly through the work that I've done at conferences (presenting my work but also networking).

Now, I'm not saying that this is how people should go about conducting their research agendas. In fact, it's probably sort of a stupid way to go about it. I should probably be more calculated about things like where I'd like to "place" my work and about thinking of what I'd like to publish and when. One of the luxuries of being at a university where research expectations are very low is that I haven't had any pressure to do that. But I suppose that's also a pitfall, as it means that I've not been very conscious of how to get my work seen, or about where and how it gets seen.

BUT, and this is important, however one gets one's work seen, once the ball gets rolling, more people want to see your work. And so it's a circular process, in which if you just keep taking the opportunities that fall into your lap, at a certain point it's not really work to get more opportunities. This is sort of the position that I'm in now, or at least it's beginning to be my position.

And this is where I diverge from Horace in his discussion of how he values certain kinds of publication venues, and where I diverge from the discussion at Virago's about aiming for a Trifecta of Journals that are the gold standard in a specialization. (Obviously my specialization is not Medieval lit, and so my 3 would be different, but if I wanted I could probably list off 3 journals that would be most advantageous in which to publish.) See, the thing is, at least in my experience, publishing in less advantageous venues (or presenting at less advantageous conferences) can lead to other, bigger things, and often it can forge a path to those other, bigger things that takes a lot less effort if - and this is key - you make sure that even the less advantageous placement is, although this may seem counterintuitive, advantageous.

What do I mean? Well, let's say that you lock into a professional network of people who are all intensely interested in Star Trek. You attend the Star Trek Conference regularly, and you make a name for yourself in the community of Star-Trekians. This then leads to a small publication in the Annual Star Trek conference proceedings when you are in graduate school, which establishes you as a Star Trek scholar. Then, later down the road, a colleague who knows you as a Star Trekian invites you to participate in a panel on Star Trek and Lost in Space at the Lost in Space conference. Now, you've never worked on Lost in Space, so you decide to do a paper just on Lost in Space at another less focused conference first to get your feet wet. Because the person who founded the Star Trek conference knows you from Star Trek Studies, he shows up at your panel and asks some tough questions, which you answer with aplomb and your ability to do so makes you look like you're really cool. Also in the audience at that panel is the President of the Lost in Space society, who, impressed with your performance, suggests that you submit a proposal for the Lost in Space Society's MLA panel. You do, and you are accepted for that panel. In the meantime, you present on the Star-Trek-Lost-in-Space panel, and your paper is well received, and that then is accepted for a collection on Lost in Space which promises to be very important and which will include all of the top Lost in Space people. Then, you give your MLA paper and it just so happens that an editor of a prominent journal has been a Lost in Space person in the past and so was at your panel and invites you to submit the full-length version of your conference paper or that prominent journal, and it is accepted.

To make a long story short, what happens out of all of the professional networking is two publications, one in a top journal and one in what will be a great collection (if it ever comes out). This then establishes you as a Lost in Space scholar, and it also raises your profile in the Star Trek community. You get 3 more publications in smaller venues, as well as the chance to co-edit a special issue of a smaller, very specialized mini-journal. And you get the chance to chair two MLA panels, one of which then results in another invitation to submit to another prominent journal. Also, the CFP for one of the MLA panels generated interest from a publisher, which you then parlayed into a book contract or your unrelated book project on Star Trek, Battlestar Gallactica, and Heroes. And in the meantime, somebody you don't know read the article in the first prominent journal and became aware of your work and invited you to put together a panel for another big conference in your specialization.

So why do I tell this convoluted tale of networking and publication? Well, because technically only one of my articles is particularly well placed. And yet, people are seeing my work, and my stature in my field is improving. This isn't because I've been terribly conscious of where I'm placing my work or because I've had a concrete agenda about what to publish and where. Instead, I started with the network and have taken opportunities when they've arisen.

Now, would this work if I were at a university with more stringent tenure requirements? Probably not, or if it would, it would not work as well. But this has worked particularly well for me in my current situation, in part because it has meant that I have managed to keep a really active scholarly agenda without a lot of anxiety, and anxiety is often very time-consuming. Also, and this is important, even my less advantageous placements of my work tend to be very focused in my specific area, so all of the people who are interested in the things that I work on specifically see those things. So I'm not publishing in minor venues that are so general as to do nothing for my status (online journals without a strong reputation, for example, or random conference proceedings) but rather in minor venues that get an audience that matters in terms of my specialization. If the 200 people reading your work are the 200 people that count, that can count more than if you have 200 people reading your work who don't count and/or who don't care about what they're reading.

It's funny, though, because I often feel a little bit fraudulent because this is how my publication history has gone. I have moments where I feel like a paradigmatic example of the ways in which this profession is not at all a meritocracy and in which it's not about what you know but about who you know. But then I think about some of the scholars whom I respect most and who are most prominent in my field, and I think about the fact that part of the reason that they publish so much is because they've built a name for themselves and so they are invited to publish to increase the status of whatever journal or collection or publication list. Is that really so different? And if the work weren't good, my connections wouldn't matter a hill of beans. I suppose what I'm saying is that in part I do feel like some of this is about playing the game well, and not so much about where one's work is placed, at least not initially. I think, at least in my experience, that the strong placement follows from the other stuff, or that it can, at any rate. It's sort of like how entry level jobs require experience, but how do you get experience if you can't get the entry level job? It's about getting one's foot in the door, and probably it doesn't make sense to beat oneself up for how one manages to do that.

And a final thought: a lot of how one proceeds with this sort of thing also depends on what one values and what one's ambitions are. I've realized that I don't care terribly much about being at a different kind of university or about jumping through certain hoops in this profession. I care a lot about how I'm regarded by the people whom I respect and know, but I don't care really at all about achieving certain kinds of status. I'm ambitious, but that ambition is very internally driven and isn't terribly competitive. It's really about doing the work that I want to do and about exploring the ideas that I want to explore. And with some of the stuff I work on, I'm only going to be able to do that in smaller venues. So getting some magical trifecta of publications isn't really high on my priority list. If it happens, great, but what I care about isn't that. Just like I don't care terribly much about lengthening my CV with a certain number of publications a year. I care about being an active scholar, and an interested and interesting scholar, but I don't care much about the measuring of that. Again, this is both a luxury of where I work and a potential pitfall in my marketability if I ever want to leave for another kind of institution.

But so anyway, I'll conclude with this about collections and smaller publication venues: I've come to regard these as serving a dual role, in which only one part of it is about getting an audience or my scholarship. The other part of it is really professional service. That collection essay that languishes - the primary value of that collection is that it invigorates the tiny little field that it explores. It's good for Lost in Space Studies as a whole - much better for it than it will be for my own professional development. The journal articles are good for Lost in Space Studies, too, but they are much better for me than the collection will be, in terms of how I'm evaluated for tenure and by those people who regard scholarship more competitively than I tend to do. And so do I see myself seeking out a lot more opportunities to publish in collections? No. But am I sure that I'll do so again? Well, yeah, but not because it's terribly beneficial to me personally at this point in my career. In fact, the more "minor" journal publications are more beneficial and less time-consuming.

So this was a long and winding post, and for that I apologize. But it's felt good to reflect on this stuff, especially as I am about to head back into the article I'm working on throughout the day today. It's rare that I think about the broader context of my scholarly activity, given the way that I sort of flit from thing to thing that just happens to fall into my lap. To put it into context reminds me both of how lucky I've been, and also how good I've been about taking lucky breaks and turning them into something tangible. That's a good way to start a day of drafting.


Hilaire said...

Thank you for posting this, Dr. Crazy. It is really very relevant to my current anxiety about publishing. It helps me think through some thing! Thank you.

Dr. Virago said...

Ooh, thanks for picking up the thread, Crazy, and for alerting me that Horace had done so as well. And thanks for the hilarious sci fi tv analogy so that this becomes a broader discussion. I didn't really mean for it to be a medievalist-only discussion, but it became that because of my real-life examples. I also didn't mean it to be a discussion of whether the journals I mentioned should be or are the "right" trifecta or not, and it kind of became that in part of the discussion. What I was really thinking about was journal vs. collections and just used that comment from JJC as a jumping off point. Ah well, that's how blogs work sometimes. But anyway, your contribution is super helpful! Thanks!!!

Susan said...

I suspect your history is more common than most. Especially because my work is always a little to the side (or an unconventional take) in my field, networking has been invaluable. Either the journal knows me, or someone editing a collection wants something I can give them. It works much better than sending something out cold.

Maude Lebowski said...

this is great to know. it's actually due to my conversations with you at MLA that i decided to send my proposal to an author society's CFP for ALA rather than just send it to the general ALA call for papers. the chair of the panel had immediately seemed impressed with my idea and the abstract, so taking a page out of your book, i thought it might be good to present myself, at least for now, as a scholar of this particular author.

i imagine in my head that this is something my diss chair would advise against, that he would consider it "pigeonholing."

but can i say that the "mentoring" you do on your blog has been more valuable to me than his six years of advising? you remind me a lot of my original chair who moved and what one of my readers could be if she weren't such a basket case.

thanks again, crazy.


p.s. there may be a melville chapter coming your way late tomorrow night, if the offer is still available.



gwinne said...

Interesting to read your history. It's pretty much the opposite of mine, as I send out virtually everything "cold" to journals (I have one thing in a forthcoming collection based on networking via my diss director). Of course, each of my publications has been very different from the others (different authors, different critical approaches, etc). I suspect that will change, as I'm focusing on one major book project now.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hilaire: You're welcome :) I'm glad that something in what I wrote spoke to your situation and helped to alleviate some anxiety.

Virago:You're welcome, but thank you for starting the conversation! I know that you didn't intentionally limit the discussion to medievalists, and for what it's worth, I didn't actually think that you intended to make it about the "right" trifecta of journals. Indeed, sometimes conversations go in ways that we can't anticipate when we post something :) But I like that this conversation is happening, and it really *isn't* intuitive, although it is something we all think about and try to negotiate. Hurrah for blogs for serving as spaces where these conversations can happen!

Susan: I don't think it's terribly atypical, but as Gwinne's comment shows, it's also not necessarily the norm. I suppose when I posted I wanted to be careful that I didn't present it as such. But I agree: publication has been easier for me because it's been aided by strong professional networks.

Gwinne: Thanks for your comment! I was hoping somebody would leave such a one that shows that my experience isn't the only one.

Maude: Feel free to send the chapter along if you want me to look at it. Again, I probably won't know much about the specifics of what you're writing about, but it can help to have some neutral eyes to look at a thing in any case (advice I should take more myself, honestly).

As for the "pigeonholing" thing... it's a danger, I think, but only if you're not also working on other stuff. One thing I've found from my involvement in author societies is that a lot of people are involved in a number of them, and so by hooking into one professional network serves to hook you into a bunch of other ones. Now, I do know people who've suffered because of the pigeonholing thing, but these are also the people who typically write single-author dissertations. Also, beware of the fact that author society people are always wicked excited about fresh blood, and so they may try to monopolize you just because they're so excited that you like what they like. So don't hide your interest in other stuff under a bushel with them, or they'll suck you in and it's hard to break free once that happens :) (Which is why I ended up an officer in a society, actually, when I'd not really intended to be a major player in the work on the Lost in Space stuff.)

Funny thing: I don't even like sci-fi stuff. The analogy actually happened because two of the shows I referenced had links in my head to the author societies in which I'm involved. It really did work, though, didn't it? :)

Doctor Pion said...

Wow. That was enlightening.

Your world of professional publishing is *so* far removed from the norm in physics that I think it is a miracle that university-wide tenure review committees can ever function at all.

You probably can't even imagine a field where someone might have 50 refereed publications and never had a paper not get published, just as I cannot imagine yours. Talk about C. P. Snow's two cultures!