Friday, July 26, 2013

Ladders, Builders, and the AHA

'Ladder to Somewhere' by Corey Templeton
If you've ever watched Chappelle Show, then you probably know the series of skits titled, 'When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong'. If you're an academic historian, or a graduate student in history, then you've probably read the recent AHA recommendation to have institutions embargo completed dissertations from digital release for up to six years. There's been a lot of responses, both pro and con, about the issue, but for me all I can think is that the AHA might be the most recent candidate for another episode of 'When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong'.

Why do I feel this way? A few reasons below:

  1. I have no doubt that the AHA, in its own mind, has the best interest of junior scholars in focus when they grapple with and think about policies to pursue in protecting nascent scholar's interests. Junior scholars represent the future of the profession, and it makes absolute sense for the AHA to deal with professional issues in a way that makes life for junior scholars better, not worse.
  2. That being said, I also have no doubt that the committee behind the 'Embargo' policy tried to 'Keep it Real' by framing their appeal as a means to protect future junior scholars' access to monograph publishing. But in many ways, trying to equate protection of junior scholars through tacit support of a notion that accessibility is detrimental to their career is where 'Keeping it Real Goes Wrong'. 
  3. One word never mentioned in either the AHA proposal, or William Cronon's recent support of this proposal, is prestige- and if you are talking about monograph publishing being related to tenure or advancement in the profession without also acknowledging the linkage this process has to prestige, then you're missing a very crucial part of the entire process. 
I've seen the responses, on Twitter and in the comments field for both the AHA announcement and Cronon's support piece, and they essentially fall into two camps. The first camp, what I would term the 'Ladder' group, may feel that the entire publishing system is misguided or essentially enforcing a protectionist scheme on academic work, but they are on the ladder of either a tenure track job or current book deal. (Or they are of a group that hopes to one day be on the ladder) A lot of them sympathize with issues in the system, but for them to get ahead they have to follow the current system's rules- they have to climb the ladder. Why? Because in order to get promotion at a Division I school or seek recognition by their older, tenured peers who often sit on Tenure and Promotion Committees, they feel they have to publish a book.

The second camp, what I would term the 'Builder' group, feel that new digital paradigms are providing increased opportunities for scholars to share their works with wider audiences and this means that several cherished notions of 'scholarly work' need to be rebuilt, or remodeled, in order to accommodate the profession to changing standards. Some of the 'builders' have tenure, while others do not. Some of them are in the academy, others are not. Many of them have personal academic blogs, or perform work that is very public in its outreach and scope. Why? Because for them, the idea that one's work should be hidden behind paywalls, or made to be consumed by only a small subset of the academy, is anathema to their desire to build new structures. For the builders, publishing a book is okay- but so is sharing your work online. They see OA ideals as a blueprint for what their building should look like, what the future of a digital profession could look like.

But- and this alters what I said above- there is also an amorphous third camp, those who are feeling out whether they should be on the ladder or helping the builders. Some of them want to be in the academy, and that means they need to start climbing the ladder. Some of them want to build a new academy, and that means eschewing the ladder not because it is bad but because it takes energy away from building. There's even a fourth camp, those with tenure- but they are largely immune to the direct implications of this debate, even though their voices carry weight for how those implications play out.

What every camp is concerned about, except for those who already have it, is prestige. The ladder folks want to climb towards it. The builder folks want to build new conceptions of it. The rest of us are wondering if we can ever have it at all.

My sympathies lie with the builder group, because I come from a niche area of history that the ladder does not often reach. I study Russian history, and my dissertation focuses on Old Believers. In my department, many, many students enter to study American history. A smaller subset come to study Western European history. An even smaller subset, far smaller than the other groups, come to study East Europe/Russian/African/Asian history. Although I have not made efforts to shop it, I'm under no illusions that publishers are clamoring to take my dissertation manuscript and shepherd it through to monograph form. I'm not Robert Crummey, or Roy Robson. I'm just Jeremy Antley, a guy who is tackling a small portion of the work those two, comparative giants also discuss. (If you don't know who I'm talking about, then I've sort of made my point already) What publisher wants to invest 20k or more in a book that, literally, a few dozen will find serious interest, with the added possibility that a few hundred more might have casual interest, in reading?

I don't have a track record. I don't have enough prestige to get noticed by large publishers right off the bat. I'm not attending Yale, or Columbia, or Harvard, or Princeton. I'm a product of a less prestigious state school, which I think is a fine institutions with good quality professors in a variety of fields. While I have no doubt that I can climb the tenure ladder of academia if given the chance, I also know that those kind of opportunities, especially in my chosen field of Russian history, are few and far between- especially if I'm competing against other candidates from top flight institutions. If I don't have sufficient personal prestige when applying for jobs, those jobs will default to looking at the prestige of my institution or the prestige of those under which I've studied. There's a little joke I tell folks who ask me what I study- I tell them it's 'Russia+', as in 'Russia + American History' or 'Russia + Women's Studies' or 'Russia + Insert Field Here'. For me to have a realistic chance of getting a tenure track job, I can't just be a Russia guy. I have to build a broader base. As Kurtis Blow once said, 'these are the breaks.'

Here's another rub; I also tackle the subject of games in an academic way. While some have given me praise for the work I do, I've also had some measure of scorn applied as well. Trust me, I would love to write a paper concerned with the intersection of history and games like Twilight Struggle, 1989, and Andean Abyss. But the momentum isn't there yet- the ladder just does not extend that far.

So, for me, any policy that endorses a view of hiding my work just so it will be more attractive to publishers feels a bit absurd. If I had a firm grasp on the ladder, perhaps I would feel differently. But I don't, and I don't see many willing to extend that ladder for someone they don't know who researches in fields not widely accessible or even considered legitimate at all. That's why I sympathize with the builders, because I've achieved a modicum of success in following their path. My two published articles, one on History embracing games and the other on Textual Dualism in Russian history, both came about because I was willing to publish early versions of my thoughts in blog form. I received feedback from these public outings that, in turn, helped shape my larger, revised arguments that were peer reviewed and published in journals embracing an open access ethic. I've been able to attend conferences outside the strict purview of History because others read my publicly shared work and thought it worth supporting. I've been given the opportunity to write for Play the Past and have essays published on The New Inquiry website because my work was open and accessible.

I built my reputation in public view, because to do so in private would have given me none of the opportunities above. I'm a builder because that's the only way someone like me can gain an audience and, subsequently, gain prestige.

I could have hidden my work, could have silently chipped away at it until it was fully baked and ready to be consumed. I could have done all of this in the hopes that the final unveiling would grant me the prestige I rightfully believe should be awarded. I could have outstretched my hands in the hopes that when I opened my eyes the ladder would be there for the climbing. Maybe that's the best way to keep it real. But my gut tells me that if I did those things, my keeping it real would go wrong.

As a final note, in what has been an already rambling post, I want to say that just because I'm for the builders doesn't mean I'm against those who climb the ladder. I don't want to force my ideas on anybody. To be fair, this is an extremely tough time for academics and it's hard to tell someone to suffer for principles I believe in that may cost them a job, especially if that person has a family or other obligations they need to support. Everything I've said above is, in the words of Royal Tenenbaum, 'just one man's opinion'.

I think Dan Cohen is right in that what people are reacting to is the fact that the AHA made their policy with little discussion involved. Now we are discussing it, and that's definitely when keeping it real can't go wrong.


  1. The AHA's (new found) concern for grad students is for a very particular type of student: Students at R1s, working with famous mentors, on their seventh fully-funded year, working on some great doorstop of a diss that will supposedly change the field.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I agree, and I think this is another source of the dismay many have with the stated policy. It seeks to serve a very select subset of potential junior scholars currently being trained at universities across the nation. That's why I tackled this issue through a discussion of prestige. If you come from a prestigious institution, worked under prestigious advisors or instructors, and have a topic that is of wide applicability, then it makes sense to be concerned about managing your dissertation's digital distribution.

      But this is a myopic view, and one that does not address concerns for a vast majority of potential junior scholars. For myself, the only way to compete with candidates from more prestigious institutions is to be open with my work and build and audience for that work. I can't take it for granted that Russian history alone will net me a job in academia. That's why I have to be open and work on subjects outside my traditional field. Being open gives me the best opportunity to secure meaningful employment- employment that doesn't necessarily entail working at a R1 institution.

    2. Very interesting post. What I have not understood is the opposition to people being able to choose whether to embargo or not. The one size fits all view does not take account of individual differences and preferences. The names you give your groups betray your preferences -- "builders" suggests that these are the positive do-good people, as if they are not climbing in their own way. But why should not the "ladders" do what is comfortable to them and "builders" do what is comfortable to them?

    3. Thanks for the comment- I have no issue with people deciding to embargo. I make this clear towards the end when I say that I have no desire to push my views on others making these decisions. The issue underlying my dichotomy of 'ladders' and 'builders' is one of culture. In my opinion, the AHA policy essentially serves a very narrow portion of future junior scholars- namely, those who seek tenure track jobs at R1 institutions. However, as many in the discipline know, these jobs are growing fewer every year and prove quite elusive for most to acquire.

      Embargoing your work in the hopes you will be more attractive to future publishers is a tacit acknowledgement that other factors- such as the prestige of your institution, prestige of your advisor or instructors, or the wide applicability of your dissertation research- will be the guiding force in getting hired for tenure track jobs. Yet this ignores that fact that many potential scholars do not come from the best schools, nor does their work serve a broad audience. These scholars will be a deficit when competing with those from institutions like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. One has only to acknowledge the adjunctification of our profession to realize the impact of these factors.

      I'm fine with people choosing to do what they want, but I also recognize that people in my position- studying a field that is shrinking in terms of employment, writing a dissertation that, while important, will still be cast in much narrower terms than most publishers would like- simply don't have the luxury of being anonymous with our work because we have few opportunities to build a name for ourselves in a meaningful way. Additionally, I think it's rather short-sighted to think that tenure track jobs will employ all junior scholars. There is almost zero acknowledgement by the AHA policy that some of us will lead Alt-AC careers. Since the links between the discipline and those professions outside of academia are tenuous at best, one of the best ways for someone to make a name for themselves is through open sharing of their work.

      Are the builders also climbing the ladder? Sure. But if the AHA is throwing its weight behind publishers and not trying to acknowledge that other avenues exist- other ways to gain prestige- then the culture will be inherently against those of us who want to be more open with our work. We need to broaden the argument and realize that scholarship comes in many forms- and not exclusively in the form of a book.