The Underquestioned Assumption at the Heart of #AHAgate

AHA logoIf you’re not a member of the American Historical Association (AHA), you might not have heard that our guild is in the middle of a fracas heated enough to have generated its own hashtag: #AHAgate. Or perhaps you have, since it attracted the attention of the New York Times on Monday.

Quick version: nine days ago the AHA called on graduate programs and university libraries to allow grad students up to six years before they had to make their dissertations available online. Here’s the crux of the AHA argument in favor of such an “embargo,” as laid out in AHA Today:

Because many universities no longer keep hard copies of dissertations deposited in their libraries, more and more institutions are requiring that all successfully defended dissertations be posted online, so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them.  At the same time, however, an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources.  Presumably, online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available.  As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published; it is not unusual for an early-career historian to spend five or six years revising a dissertation and preparing the manuscript for submission to a press for consideration. During that period, the scholar typically builds on the raw material presented in the dissertation, refines the argument, and improves the presentation itself. Thus, although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees.

To dive headfirst into the debate that this statement precipitated, read the comments at the AHA Today post or look up the hashtag on Twitter.

One popular theme among critics was to characterize the embargo as the fearful, wrongheaded response of an antiquated body unable to adapt to the open source era: e.g., from public historian Larry Cebula, commenting on the AHA post: “The AHA was founded in the 19th century [1884, to be exact] and is determined to remain there.” Professing himself “disheartened” by such responses, former AHA president William Cronon (not exactly a luddite, he) published his own defense of the embargo:

This isn’t remotely about dissing online scholarship or defending the book-length monograph as the only legitimate form of historical scholarship. It quite emphatically is not about refusing to share the fruits of historical scholarship for all time to come.

It’s about preserving the full range of publishing options for early-career historians and giving them some measure of control over when and how they release their work to the world.

Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a DayThe Times article started from the perspective of one such early-career historian, Michael D. Hattem, a graduate student at my alma mater who had been one of the first to comment on the AHA post:

“Ideally, I would want all of our work freely available,” Mr. Hattem said in a telephone interview, “but we have to deal with the way things are.”

And the way things are, he said, is that university presses are known to be skeptical about agreeing to publish a book when the Ph.D dissertation it is based on is readily available online.

“If you want tenure at a university, you have to publish a book,” he said. “It’s professional currency.”

Much of the debate seems to turn on whether or not publishers are actually willing to put out a revised dissertation when the original is available online. The Times quoted the head of the Association of American University Presses, claiming that he couldn’t find one member “who has said if it is available open access, we won’t publish it,” but a recent study found that 54% of university press directors would consider dissertations already available electronically.

But I’m much more interested in Hattem’s last sentence: “If you want tenure at a university, you have to publish a book.”

So was Alan Jacobs, who tweeted this morning that that assumption ought to be questioned more than it has been:

Jacobs (who added that none of his dozen books had been published when he received tenure at a liberal arts college) asked “what if young scholars make their dissertations available online and then are allowed different ways to contribute to their field?”

I want to shout Amen! to this, but I also want to be careful not to put words in Jacobs’ mouth: we might not mean the same thing when we propose that academic guilds value “different ways to contribute.” For example, one response to Jacobs’ tweet pointed to a post by Stephen Ramsay questioning the primacy of the book. For me, it’s not really about whether the book ought to remain “the coin of the realm,” but whether research ought to.

Stacks in the New Orleans City Archives
Stacks in the New Orleans City Archives – Creative Commons (ALA TechSource)

At least, as that word has been understood throughout much of the 129-year life of the AHA. The 19th century problem here is not the nature of pre-digital publishing, but the triumph of a model of scholarship that privileged the production of knowledge as the measure of scholarly achievement, rather than the transmission of knowledge — and even that only as part of the larger project of forming minds, hearts, hands, and souls.

I don’t want to belabor that point, so I’ll primarily point interested readers back to my series on “The Vocation of a Christian Historian,” in particular the posts on “Seeking and Telling Truth” and “Profession vs. Calling.”

But I never did get around to completing that series. So here’s one more salient quotation from the promotion essay that inspired it, the conclusion of my passage arguing for the centrality of teaching — and that not simply as a means to fill minds with knowledge, but to help students think historically and cultivate virtues like empathy and hospitality:

This is one version of the older understanding of the purposes of education (as the formation or cultivation of character — Bildung, in German) that Max Weber sought to supplant as he called scholars to focus solely on the production, rather than transmission, of knowledge (Wissenschaft). If Peter Stearns is right that history, of all disciplines, best equips its practitioners to understand change over time, then historians, of all people, should be able to see that the way they’ve understood their vocation in recent decades is not the same as it has always been. The model of a “scholar for scholars” is a recent innovation, bound up primarily with two related phenomena of the late 1800s and early 1900s: the changes in the influential German university system championed by Weber and like-minded reformers, and the professionalization of history and other academic disciplines in this country. Earlier types of scholar did not draw such rigid distinctions as amateur and professional, formation and information, and Church and Academy. The scholar-monks of late antiquity, the “schoolmen” of the High Middle Ages, the cosmopolitan humanists of the Renaissance, Christian pioneers of modern education like J.A. Comenius and A.H. Francke… There are older models we would do well to revisit, particularly if we are to take as our call both halves of the Great Commandment.

(This last theme from Tracy McKenzie and his 2012 presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History.)

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