A recent posting at the Harvard University Press’s blog poses the intriguing, timely, and perhaps disturbing question “What is a scholarly book?” Its author, Jeffrey Schnapp, is not exactly a disinterested party: in addition to being a professor of Romance languages and literature at Harvard he also serves as faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard (about which more below), and as faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He has, in other words, a dog or two in this fight—which may mean he has a bias but also suggests that he (unlike some who are pleased to weigh in on this and related issues) has some idea what he’s talking about.
Schnapp is general editor of the metaLABprojects series, a project of Harvard University Press, which, according to his posting, intends to create
a distinctive genre of scholarly publication endowed with the sort of curb appeal usually restricted to books found on the tables at architecture bookshops… the dream here is to forge a new genre of scholarly book that plays even as it engages in deep forms of historically informed argument: a genre whose natural home is university publishing even as it appeals to extramural audiences.
It’s interesting to note that each of the three books currently slated for release in the series is something of a meta-treatment: each of them appears to focus primarily on the emerging trend of which it is a part, rather than on a traditional scholarly discipline: one is about the future of libraries in a world where the definition of a book is no longer unambiguous; another fuses “digital humanities with media studies and graphic design history”; the third is “a digital platform transmogrified into a book” that examines the ethics of mapmaking in a hyperlinked information environment.
Some observers might see all this as a natural step in the emergence of a new scholarly dynamic—of course the first thing to do is interrogate and define the field, its tools, and its context. Others might see it as evidence that these new transdisciplinary, transformat, transwhatever scholarly products are not suited to traditional (or maybe even serious) scholarship at all. Still others will see it as evidence for the emergence of a new field of legitimate and rigorous scholarly investigation: the nature of scholarship itself in a radically different new world of communication.
This may seem trivially obvious, but I think it’s worth noting that there are at least two very distinct dimensions of newness here: new kinds of scholarship, and new kinds of scholarly products. Now, I realize that it’s not entirely uncontroversial to suggest a line of demarcation between the scholarship and its product—to do so is to raise the possibility that publishing is something other than “an integral part of the research process“—but I don’t think there’s any question that these two dimensions reward separate consideration of some kind.
Here’s another question that may seem banal but is, I think, actually fairly urgent: when it comes to the scholarly monograph, are we, in fact, worrying too much about how to keep things as they are?
Consider this further quote from Schnapp’s blog posting:
All three [of the books in the metaLABprojects series] converge upon questions of emerging knowledge forms and the future of institutions of learning in ways that are rooted in traditional humanistic questions of historical inquiry, interpretation, and critical analysis but that extend a friendly hand to an expanded reading public. ‘Friendly’ here means the tendering of invitations to skim as well as to read in depth.
In research libraries (and I suspect, in scholarly publishing circles) it is a rarely—and only grumpily—acknowledged truth that even in the print era, scholarly monographs were very often skimmed and searched rather than deeply read. By acknowledging and welcoming such an approach, the books in question break a taboo. Should it be broken? The author’s cheerful invocation of “bright colors and visual riches” will not comfort those inclined to suspect that all of this will lead to a lack of rigor—but surely it doesn’t have to.
So one question being asked by Schnapp and his colleagues is: what are some new and innovative ways that we can create and present scholarship to the world? Here’s another question, one that I think has to follow from that one: can we figure out a way to ensure the rigor of such products, and having done so, can we get the academy to acknowledge the scholarly legitimacy of these unconventionally-rigorous products—and if so, how quickly? Because I don’t see junior faculty jumping onboard the train of newness-and-innovation (let alone brightly colored and playful innovation with lots of, er, curb appeal) unless that train is very clearly on a track that leads to Tenureville. Should such scholarly outputs be considered valid tenure-leading products? For the sake of argument, let’s all agree that the answer is “yes.” Ah, but will they? That’s a tougher one. We in academia love, love, love to talk about the importance of change, but when change threatens our own comfortable structures and routines, we tend to change the subject to time-honored values.
For some additional interesting thoughts, observations, and questions about the future of the scholarly monograph, I recommend Roger Schonfeld’s very recently-published white paper titled “Stop the Presses: Is the Monograph Headed Toward an E-only Future?” (the fourth entry in Ithaka S&R’s Issue Briefs series, to which—full disclosure—I have also contributed).
Schonfeld’s paper does much more than just consider the likelihood and the implications of a massive shift of scholarly monograph publishing from print to online; he also hypothesizes about a future in which readers are connected directly with primary sources from within the secondary sources that cite them, considers what current trends suggest for the future of the dissertation, and poses a set of challenging questions—not just about the future of the monograph, but (as Schnapp and his colleagues do, though somewhat differently) of scholarship itself.