Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

The Academic Book as Expensive, Nihilistic Hobby

Full timeenoughatlast

Image: The Twilight Zone: “Time Enough at Last,” 1959

I just got word from my editor at Northwestern University Press that my first (and last) academic monograph, Kafka and Wittgenstein, has been sent to the printer. My feelings about this range from mild pride, to medium-grade nihilism, to wide-ranging annoyance at a publication model that still depends on a tenure system that is largely extinct.

It’s not that I don’t think what I did is commendable. Like all academic books, mine is the culmination of years of exacting work. And it’s not that I don’t think the thing is worth reading. For an academic book, it’s a pretty good time. (“For an academic book, it’s a pretty good time” is also the pull quote I would give to your academic book, just so you know.) It’s just that without a job search, a tenure portfolio, or any connection to German studies — apart from gadfly-on-call — working on Kafka and Wittgenstein amounted to a hobby. And thus I started to begrudge, to an absurdly irrational extent, the unavoidable practicalities of its publication process.

It started when I had to switch the manuscript from MLA into Chicago style, something I absolutely knew to expect. Still, the prospect of spending 90-bajillion hours on that kind of pedantic detail-work — and doing it on my own time, at the expense of the paid work I now do to support my family — made me a dead ringer for Paul Rudd super-reluctantly cleaning up after himself in this classic scene from Wet Hot American Summer.

So rather than subject my nearest and dearest to further teen rebelliousness, I paid a nice grad student $800 to do the style switch for me. Sure, because I was then able to spend my time writing and consulting, I didn’t really lose money, but I still couldn’t help adding that $800 to the $300 or so in printing and shipping costs I’d already incurred, during several years of institutionally unaffiliated research. Figuring that into what the Swiss author Robert Walser would call the “perfect, round, adorable zero” of my standard-issue academic-press advance, Kafka and Wittgenstein was turning into a very luxurious hobby indeed.

And that was before my very nice editor informed me that most authors hire a professional indexer! Even the “cheap” folks he recommended charged $3.75 per indexable page, which would have run me about $1,000. At that point — even with the proofs of my very first booky-wook in my hot little mitts — I would have rather killed the entire project than laid out what amounts to ten months’ worth of the “eco” diapers my daughter likes so damned much.

I informed my editor I’d be doing my own index, thank you very much. And I did, by which I mean I jotted down (on an actual sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper) a random assortment of important-sounding names as they came up while I was proofreading, an activity I also completed maximally put-upon. And when that incredibly scientific method backfired on me briefly, I went apoplectic. (Here are the details. It wasn’t my finest moment, in a life that consists of little more than thousands of not-fine moments strung together. Also, and possibly relatedly, my book has a pretty minimal index.)

Why was I so bent out of shape about this book, the publication of which should be a happy occasion? Well, from the second my fancy postdoc at Ohio State ended in 2013, Kafka and Wittgenstein was a vanity project. In my case, that’s not so bad — I have a new career as a writer and no need to do academic research ever again. (Also I’m incredibly vain.)

But what about the thousands of un- and underemployed Ph.D.s who are still trying to claw their way into academe, and believe (with increasing correctness), that far from being a slam-dunk for tenure, a reputable academic book in print is now a foregone conclusion in tenure-track job seekers, a new minimal qualification? Right this minute, as another sad little job market cycle gets under way, thousands of contingent faculty and “unaffiliated” scholars are expected to research and write books without a dime of institutional support — all while the current university press model assumes, incorrectly, that the majority of authors will have funds to hand over to a professional indexer, and salaries that cover hours of changing endnotes into footnotes.

Obviously there is little that can be done on the presses’ end. They are usually nonprofit entities so strapped for cash that they hit their own authors up for donations. (“We just accepted your book! Now please underwrite us!”)

But what is fully possible — indeed, I would say it is the moral imperative of those on hiring committees — is the de-escalation of the stratospheric qualifications that anyone unlucky enough not to get a job immediately out of grad school is expected to present. If someone hasn’t had the institutional support to write a book? Don’t expect a book. And don’t penalize the candidates who lack one. Ask for a writing sample. Judge it on its merits. If the work is good, assume that once this candidate gets an iota of research support, the publications will rain down. Assume that good academic publication is predicated upon good institutional support, and demand the end to unpaid freelance academic writing — by not requiring it anymore.

And what about those of us who find ourselves in the peculiar position of publishing an academic book whilst unaffiliated with the academy? What is supposed to be the point?

Undoubtedly several of you are just itching to tell me, dripping with sanctimony, that the beautiful intellectual payoff of writing Kafka and Wittgenstein should have been its own reward.

If you are a tenured or otherwise-supported academic and you think that, understand that your sincere belief that you do your research out of “love” is hopelessly adulterated with the privileges that come with your station: A community of scholars ready to (pretend to) read your work; fair remuneration; travel support to conferences where you get to feel important. If, on the other hand, you are an unsupported scholar and you still truly believe that your research is a labor of love — and that any worthy scholar must have similar love (or at least private wealth) — I suppose that’s great for you, but that kind of willful subjugation is nothing to aspire to.

Do I regret writing Kafka and Wittgenstein? I wish I could say I did, so as to align with my own ideology that I have just espoused with such confidence. But, I don’t, not completely. It started as my dissertation, and then became something far better and more readable afterward. It is the sum total of the contribution I will make to the academic “conversation,” and I believe that I was once worthy of a voice in that conversation (as are we all).

So I certainly hope that you order it for your library (or, god forbid, buy it for yourself), and that you enjoy it (especially any starry-eyed little establishment-placating grad students who think writing me a bad review will help you on the job market — anything’s worth a try!). Just don’t try to find yourself in the index. And while you’re at it, stop expecting books to precede jobs. It’s got to be the other way around.

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