All this week the Association of American University Presses has been marking its 75th anniversary by highlighting the work of university presses and their many contributions to culture, the academy, and society. One really wonderful element of the celebration was the unveiling of “Fine Print*,” an online gallery presenting a single representative work from each of scores of American university presses. Do go have a look.
The week also featured a tour of university press blogs, with each stop along the way drawing out another element of the importance of the work we do. We were lucky to serve as the tour’s trailhead on Monday, when we heard from Anthony Grafton on the role that UPs have—and will keep—in the process of “dazzling and seducing” new generations of thinkers, scholars, and writers.
Below, we’ve collected short excerpts from just a handful of the many other terrific stops on the tour.
Over the past decades, university presses have sponsored scholarly work in areas that in many cases were discouraged or actively disparaged by university departments themselves—areas such as feminist studies, Chicano Studies, GLBT Studies, emerging areas of inquiry such as work on tourism, sports, and video games. Literary theory as a method flourished on the lists of university presses long before it had more than a toe-hold in language departments, presses focused on African-American history while vestiges of segregation still existed in universities themselves, even areas of science such as human genetics and cognitive science, once both thought of as marginal, were aided by the recognition provided by the presses at Johns Hopkins and MIT. Sometimes accused of rushing to "trendy" areas of scholarship, university presses at their best provide an alternate locus of accreditation for emerging areas of scholarship and scholarly method and, by working across institutional boundaries, help to correct for localized pockets of conservatism. As universities now address their budget crises by combining departments, shuttering interdisciplinary centers, and tightening tenure opportunities, university press imprints will be even more important to innovative and boundary-challenging scholars.
If we are living at a time of crisis, and we obviously are, a crisis that has been manufactured by the overwhelming emphasis placed in our culture on money, the economy, work and business, then this is not the time to mount an elite defense of learning, genius and expertise, nor is it a time to emphasize a canon or to dig into idealizations of the book and print culture and excoriations of the screen and digital culture. Instead, our current crisis affords an opportunity to rethink the ways in which all of our forms of cultural media—print, visual and digital—work together and are interdependent. As books go electronic and can be carried around as part of a massive archive on a hand held device, new understandings of the library, of reading and of researching emerge. Now is the time for more not less products, more not fewer ideas, more range, more depth, more clarity and higher degrees of difficulty.
Until recently, reality was understood through the model of the book, which provided a template for understanding government, politics, industry, and the academy as integrated, top-down assemblies of isolatable elements, as managerially hierarchical, conceptually compartmentalized, and stable. The model the new technical system has generated is heterogeneous and mutable institution, where meaning is continually novel, created through the interaction between an individual and the protean institution with which he or she has a fleeting relation. Under this model, standards of scholarship that were once universally endorsed (the notion of objectivity and the concomitant separation of facts and values) are abjured in favour of a more ecological conception of learning. In the midst of this transition, history has dispossessed us of the means for finding our bearings, and the resulting alarm has hardly been helpful.
Sheldon Pollock, Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University and general editor of the South Asia across the Disciplines series (as well as our own forthcoming Murty Classical Library of India):
I was convinced then [at the founding of SAAD four years ago] and remain no less convinced today that university presses deserve vastly more support than they are receiving from their universities. Few university presses receive support from their universities, and even that has in many cases been steadily declining. But although it is easy to forget in the era of mass corporatization, the purpose of the university is to create and transmit knowledge, and transmission must include publication. Publication is the hemoglobin of scholarly life, and academic publishers are and will remain central to scholarly publication even as we supplement print with electronic books. The presses and their faculty boards endeavor to provide serious peer review and editing, and thus ensure that we make available to the public readable, responsible scholarship and not the mere piles of data that most dissertations represent.
As commercial publishers become bigger, their appetites and minimum requirements for a book’s success become concurrently larger. This trend (which has been underway since the recession started and arguably for much longer) is now accelerating and creating an environment in which it is more and more difficult to take chances on books unless they are transparently capable of yielding a significant financial return. Instead of nurturing new novelists over multiple books, or supporting journalists and academics as they research and follow a story and struggle with the best way to tell it, many commercial publishers now usually perceive “taking a chance” to mean rolling the dice and making the highest advance offer for a potentially lucrative project. That sets up a scenario where these projects are expected to become a major success, and anything short of that is perceived as failure.
When a university press “takes a chance,” it is to publish something that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been published at all. That has always been true, but in this new environment, it matters more than ever. The singular act of introducing a scholar’s work to the world becomes the reward. If the book goes on to become a critical and commercial success, then it’s a very good day for the press. If the book simply sells a few copies and furthers the scholarship in its field and helps a young scholar navigate the complex waters of book publication, it’s still a good day.
And, finally, there’s MIT Press Editorial Director Gita Manaktala, whose “Thoughts for the Day after University Press Week,” a partial list of the major shifts that UPs must navigate to remain vital, may be the week’s most important post:
Final form knowledge is just one form of knowledge that we value. Open ended, dynamic forms are a crucial part of the way research and scholarship are done today. The polished jewels of scholarship—meticulously reviewed, revised, and edited books and articles—are being jostled by these more open forms of knowledge: the scholarly archive of working papers, the blog with extensive commentary and responses, and the wiki with its updates and overwrites. The emergence of such forms is indeed disruptive, but it helps to clarify the business university presses are in. Our job is to identify, develop, and encircle those ideas and arguments that deserve to persist over time.
Her call to balance this week’s warm and welcome celebration against the challenging work required to ensure another 75 years is well-taken, and—if nothing else—this week has reminded us why our meeting those challenges is so crucial to the world of ideas.