• October 25, 2014

The Rise of the Mini-Monograph

Is it senior professors, rather than administrators, who are most reluctant to embrace midlength e-books for tenure?

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

Eleven eventful years have passed since Stephen Greenblatt, during his term as president of the Modern Language Association, wrote to the membership about "a serious problem in the publishing of scholarly books." The problem, he said, was simply that most departments of language and literature required a book for tenure, but scholarly presses were publishing fewer and fewer of them.

Greenblatt's shot across the humanistic bow inspired a lot of salutary activity. Scholarly-press editors, long tired of their position as de facto arbiters of tenure cases, added their voices to the conversation, and the MLA sponsored a task force that produced a set of recommendations for personnel decisions.

The results have been palpable. Many departments have revised their tenure-and-promotion demands. Fewer advisers now imagine their graduate students' dissertations necessarily as books in the making. While the book still remains the absolute standard in many departments, the group that thinks that way is getting smaller. A new realism prevails, along with a new awareness that the game has changed. The digital revolution has driven those changes, and it's affecting the meaning of the book itself.

Now a growing number of scholarly presses are experimenting with shorter formats, questioning and extending the definition of "book." So far, most of those ventures involve detaching segments of successful books and selling them separately as short e-books. But some presses are using this new category to acquire and market original work.

Consider the "Palgrave Pivot," a new e-book format recently introduced by Palgrave Macmillan. At 30,000 to 50,000 words, it's longer than a journal article but shorter than a traditional monograph. The Palgrave Pivot, said Hazel Newton, head of digital publishing, in an e-mail, "fills the space in the middle."

Palgrave promises a quick review process for these midlength titles—just 12 weeks to publication—and expects a large and brisk business. The press inaugurated the format last year with an initial offering of 21 titles, has now published 82, and hopes to reach 100 by October.

Stanford University Press has also begun to release new material in the form of midlength e-books. "Stanford Briefs" will run 20,000 to 40,000 words in length. The press began the imprint last year, with six titles. Kate Wahl, publishing director and editor in chief, reports that three more are in production for the fall. Stanford Briefs, she emphasized, undergo "the same level of scholarly vetting as any other Stanford book."

Stanford is fitting its Briefs to fill a fairly specific rhetorical space. They are, said Wahl, "not brief books but a new style of book," based on the classic "essay format." Stanford seeks "an open argument" for the imprint, not an incremental addition to a long conversation, she said. Standard Briefs are accordingly aimed at a broad audience, one that might reach outside of academe.

"We work closely with the authors," Wahl said, to develop the Briefs with an accessible, argument-driven style in mind.

Palgrave, said Newton, aims to "meet the needs of academics" with the Palgrave Pivot series.

But what are those needs, exactly? They depend on experience and seniority. A full professor has different goals in mind when she publishes than a graduate student does.

So who should publish in the midlength format? At this early stage, that's a difficult question to answer.

In interviews via e-mail, I sounded out a number of senior professors in the traditionally book-driven fields of English and history about the new publishing possibilities. All of them work in departments that normally require a book for tenure. Almost all were glad to see midlength alternatives enter the publishing world, but most wanted to see what kind of niche the new formats would occupy.

Most of the senior professors I contacted were happy to consider this middle length for themselves. Indeed, the initial Palgrave and Stanford rollouts of these in-between formats featured rosters of nearly all full professors. That makes sense.

In fact, there's already a certain senior precedent for the "hybrid short book," as Susan Koshy, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pointed out. High-profile intellectuals like Georg Lukacs and J.L. Austin have published successful midlength works in the past, but the form, said Koshy, has mainly been "a privilege reserved largely for celebrity scholars." Making it widely available, she said, "might actually prompt us to rethink some of the fundamental assumptions about productivity and achievement" in the academic workplace.

"We need a greater variety of acceptable formats for our scholarly work," said Elizabeth Renker, an English professor at Ohio State University. Like many full professors, she's working on multiple projects, and would like to place some of them on a "faster timeline."

Scholarly-press editors are ready to meet that need. Other presses also have in-between options in development. An acquisitions editor at a well known state-university press reported in an e-mail that he sees "a strong groundswell of interest from prospective authors who are drawn to this 'in between' length and format." Some see these books as potentially valuable in the classroom.

But the real question for senior faculty members centers on reaching the intended audience. Once published, how will these midlength works find readers?

As with full-length books, reviews will have to play an important role. The journal editors I spoke with (again via e-mail interviews) are anticipating that. Up to now, there has been "little room" in academic writing "for much flexibility in form at all," observed Alan Lessoff, editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Colleen O'Neill, co-editor of the Western Historical Quarterly, said her journal "would certainly review such publications," as long as they're peer-reviewed and scholarly.

Doing so will require a certain adjustment, said Gordon Hutner, editor of American Literary History. "In time," he said, journals will review these works, but "we'll have to learn to measure what we should expect to be accomplished in a work of this scope and scale" compared with a traditional monograph, "and that will take a little doing." It's a responsibility that can and should be met.

For graduate students and junior faculty members, though, the question of whether to publish a mini-monograph is more crucial. Put simply, in what ways will these e-books count? Will they help a graduate student get hired? How much help will they give an assistant professor seeking reappointment or tenure?

Senior professors—the ones advising young scholars—became notably more circumspect when they contemplated such scenarios. An English-department head at a state university admitted that "I don't think we're quite prepared to evaluate that kind of work yet." His best guess, he said, "is that we'd end up treating it as something more than an article and something less than a book"—a less than desirable outcome if a book is the measure of success.

Renker, of Ohio State, advises junior faculty members to be cautious and not undertake the "'short' model as the 'book for tenure' unless the home institution offers clear institutional precedent or explicit tenure guidelines that allow it." Another English professor at a state university was similarly hesitant: "My sense would be that established scholars will have to give these new kinds of venues credibility first before more vulnerable younger ones can risk counting on them," she wrote. "That's just pragmatism speaking."

A history professor at a state university whose department ordinarily requires a book for tenure was more skeptical. "Established standards" still obtain, he said, and the tenure requirement in many humanities departments is still a book. If a graduate student has a 30,000-word manuscript, he advises carving a 15,000-word article out of it, and then aiming for a "fully realized monograph."

But just how established are those prevailing standards?

"Committees, deans, and provosts are all much more flexible than most faculty assume," said one dean at a private university in an e-mail. "The real conservatism on these questions comes from faculty who are afraid of looking too different from their peers."

Some of them admit as much. "I know my department well enough," said a historian at a private university, "to say with total confidence that we will not be early adopters of this kind of format," even though he himself sees value in it and believes that it will become more and more widespread. He advises his own graduate students not to be "the test case" of something new "if you can avoid it."

On the other hand, the aforementioned dean (who is also an English professor) said he would "absolutely recommend" the midlength form to graduate students. He described it as "quite wonderful" and a wished-for alternative to some books "that should have been shorter."

All of which suggests that the new, midsized kid on the block has a future, but that it's not yet clear how long it will take to gain full welcome on the playground. Academe is conservative (with a small "c"). Such conservatism may guard against fads, but it may also slow change that can be necessary.

Stephen Greenblatt warned over a decade ago against forcing the most vulnerable members of the academic community—that is, graduate students and junior faculty members—to fulfill outmoded requirements. One way to usher in new practices is to step forward and endorse them. It will take us too long to get where we need to go if we always wait for our neighbors to take the first step.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com.

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