Carl Gelderloos (Binghamton University)
Contribution to a Roundtable on “Research, Publishing, Professionalization”
Thanks first of all to Patrizia McBride and Paul Fleming for organizing this event and facilitating these important conversations. To begin with, this has actually been a hard topic to think about. I have thoughts on virtually every other topic we’ve covered, many of them in response to the talks and discussions held over the past couple days, but thinking about this topic, “Research, Publishing, Professionalization,” has left me somewhat stymied. So while I’ve been asked to share my experience with writing and being on the tenure track (and I will do so), I first want to think a little bit about why I find this an elusive topic. To steal a line from Döblin, I’ll hang the very small basket of my actual remarks today from the Riesenballon of some prefatory speculations.
I think two factors—one a structural change and one a curious observation—make it difficult to approach this topic, since every time I’ve tried to think about it I am confronted by the fact that I am not sure whether to take the three terms—research, publishing, professionalization—as additive, contiguous, even synonymous, or rather as internally contradictory and mutually undermining.
First, the structural change. We all know that the academic job market is awful, and I thank Patrizia for foregrounding in her opening remarks yesterday the precarity and “casual” academic employment that many of us here have been fortunate to avoid. Yet I’m not sure that the extent of this loss has become fully clear to those of us who have dodged it, especially in terms of what it means for the contours of research as scholarly communication in the humanities and German studies. I can think, for example, of close friends in temporary academic positions, whose work will get the chance to develop into important, field-changing monographs—if they find the stability and support of a tenure track job. If they don’t, it likely will not. You can multiply my few examples dozens of times over, I am sure. Much brilliant and original research is increasingly ending its life as a dissertation, rather than starting there, a record of work done and buried, rather than the entrance of new voices into an ongoing conversation. What kind of conversation is it when most of the voices have been pushed out before they could really articulate what they were trying to say?
On a somewhat lighter note, my original impulse for this panel was that I wanted to ask, tongue-in-cheek and definitely indicting my own work as well, why it is that we in German studies don’t produce more interesting writing? Why, compared to colleagues in English, politics, art history, Africana and African American studies, law, philosophy, and history, for example, are Germanists almost entirely absent from the rigorous and pressing conversations happening in journals like the Los Angeles Review of Books, London Review of Books, Boston Review, n+1, Viewpoint, Commune, Jacobin, and others? Why is the advice that feels most helpful for people on the academic job market or the tenure track so at odds with the advice that would produce the kind of writing that seems most exciting and relevant? To what extent, in other words, do research, publishing, and professionalization as they exist in our field at this time actually interfere with and constrain each other?
That was the Riesenballon, here’s the basket. What I would say to colleagues for whom this might be relevant is that the constraints of the process aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The fact that a dissertation is a certain form that needs to be produced in a couple-few years for a specific purpose, and that the subsequent monograph needs to be produced in three or four or five years—these can be seen not as defects of the forms but as generative limits. Something Franziska Schweiger said yesterday really resonated with me, that more attention might be paid in graduate school to the process and craft of producing academic writing. The timelines of tenure and grad school, heteronomous as they are to our intellectual objects, also establish some useful parameters. Keith Hjortshoj’s text on dissertation-writing, Writing from A to B helped me finish my own dissertation by underscoring that it was just a dissertation. A year or two later I got some similar and excellent advice from a mentor who reminded me that a first book is “just” a book, not one’s final word on a topic, and that it is important—both for one’s intellectual development and for the demands of the tenure track and the job market—to get it out into the world in a timely way. This advice helps because, in reminding me of the constraints set by genre, institution, bureaucracy, and timeline, it also helped me set limits to what is, like any research project, in itself potentially infinite.
And finally, to people still in grad school or just starting on the tenure track, I’d just say to keep in mind how much arbitrariness and contingency there can be in academic publishing. In my own experience, the time it takes from first submission of an article to a journal to the article appearing in print has ranged from 1 year to 3 years. A piece that gets a harsh response from one venue might then be published quickly in another respectable journal. A book proposal that is turned down or ignored by one press may find a speedy and hospitable reception at another. And some of the most rewarding pieces I’ve written, that have helped me branch out and develop as a writer, were occasioned by chance encounters and conversations at conferences and colloquia. Remembering the randomness involved in publishing, being open to possibilities for research, writing, and publishing that come from unexpected places, and finding interlocutors, readers, and intellectual community across German studies and—crucially—across the humanities more generally can be really valuable, especially for early-career scholars. Thank you.
Döblin, Alfred. Introduction. Antlitz der Zeit: Sechzig Aufnahmen deutscher Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts. By August Sander. 1929. Schirmer/Mosel, 2003, pp. 7–15.
Hjortshoj, Keith. Writing from A to Z: A Guide to Completing the Dissertation Phase of Doctoral Studies. Cornell U, 2010, https://gradschool.cornell.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/WritingAB_WEB-VD.pdf. Accessed 2 December 2019.