Monday, January 08, 2007

Poor Pessimists + Publish or Perish

Just the other day I posted James Howard Kunstler's pessimistic criticism and referred, without specific sources, to the idea that pessimism is considered bad for your health. Lo and behold, in today's New York Times, Dr. Richard Friedman confirms this: Don't worry, be happy, or else. "Yet Another Worry for Those Who Believe the Glass is Half-Empty" describes a 10-year Dutch study showing that people who are temporary pessimists--temporary, mind you--are more likely to die of heart disease that people who are "by nature" optimists. Friedman explores the issue pessimism in relation to depression, and wonders if treating depression specifically might help to ensure longer lives, but his ultimate assessment, as I read it, is that while pharmacological and other forms of treatment probably won't change physiological outcomes, they may help depressed people be less depressed, which is to say, be a bit happier and more productive, even if they fall dead sooner than people who silver linings to every cloud and half-full glasses and a loss as just a transition to a new stage, etc. Depending upon how you look at it, it's enough to make one...


As for depression, at least for those in academe, here's a doozy, though not anything that anyone already teaching in the humanities didn't already know: either you publish books or you get to stepping. The Boston Globe's Christopher Shea reports in "Monographomania" that, according to a two-year study of English and foreign-language departments just issued by the Modern Language Association, younger professors have to produce books--and in many cases, not just one, which is to say, the dissertation as a book--if they want tenure. While the book requirement once was the case at research universities (and not even uniformly at all of these), it's increasingly the standard at other universities and colleges, including ones with teaching, advising and administrative duties that make publishing difficult to the point of nearly impossible. Whereas several published articles might have once sufficed, now junior professors coming up for tenure are expected to have published a book or secured a publishing contract at the very least, and at many universities, to have another one on the way, while also publishing scholarly articles. In most cases, people are expected to publish sooner rather than later, and more rather than fewer works are always better. The problem with this logic is that publishers are publishing fewer scholarly monographs rather than more--the article notes that sales for some have fallen to 250 copies sold in some cases, and since even university publishers are under a financial gun, they have cut back sharply--making it harder for many young scholars to secure publication. Additional issues include the fact that some books take years to write (to take only one example, I taught selections from Renato Poggioli's famous text, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, last quarter, and I believe this landmark work, now somewhat superannuated by later theorists, was a late career distillation of his ideas; perhaps he could have produced it earlier, but likely not, since it bears the hallmarks of years of learning and thought), and some works produced out of pressure aren't worth reading even a year later; and as Shea also states, many English and foreign language departments no longer consider other forms of scholarship--bibliographies, annotated texts, works for general audiences, translations, and so on, all of which are crucial to the life and development of the humanities--to suffice for untenured professors, at least in the absence of a book. (Depending upon your department, of course, that book must be published by one of the "top" university or trade presses, as well. It also helps if you're writing in a hot field, have a new or interesting methodology, are really smart or insightful, or all of these and more. Publishers tend to be more willing to look at books that satisfy most or all of these criteria, but there's still no guarantee.)

Shea notes that this has led some in the MLA to question what the effects are on younger scholars, on faculties, on the humanities, and on classroom teaching, but he also points out that few departments at schools that are strictly organized on teaching lines (and even some of those follow these same rules) want to step outside the corral, for obvious reasons. (There is the related issue of being promoted after tenure, which also requires books, awards, etc.--though books is the surest means in this pathway too.) For prior generations of humanities scholars--well, people who got jobs by the early 1980s, say, before the job market began to contract--this was less of an issue, but now that the situation has taken hold acrosss the board, Shea suggests that the MLA doesn't think things are going to get better anytime soon, though they've made some very good recommendations. I've heard the idea of electronic publications bandied about for several years, and I hope it takes off, especially given the situation in publishing (New Press publisher André Schiffrin talks about the shift in university publishing in his concise and informative The Business of Books), but I think it's going to take another (half?-)generation for this to fly, creating for far too many. In the meantime, I think of the friends I have who were or wanted to be humanities or social science scholars who ended up leaving academe because of their struggles first over their dissertations and later over their books, which led to other problems in their lives. Perhaps the MLA will pay for counseling, and work closely with universities, colleges, and rich foundations like Mellon (which has encouraged some excellent initiatives over the last decade in this area) to ensure that the situation changes, and sooner rather than later, for more rather than fewer.


  1. I have been trying to make sense of depression and its current place in the American imaginary. In the brief period I've been watching tv, anti-depression ads have multiplied and morphed and reproduced, which I take as a symptom of something, though what I'm not sure.

    A friend has described depression as a lack of imagination. I tend to think of it as the absence of futurity as goal or possibility. In conversation with my friend, I have asked how both of these ideas work against the very american idea of the pursuit of happiness. Must we cure depression, alleviate its symptoms, not only to maintain health but also to hold onto a certain idea of americanness. Might depression be the ultimate un-american symptom/trait?

  2. J,

    Thanks for the heads up on the Boston Globe article. There has been much chatter about the shrinking university job market and the increasingly market driven pace of once traditional publishing houses for some time. The MLA report will hopeful get the ball rolling on this median in the road where young academics must try to tread.

    Schiffrin's book is important in mapping out how the book business "was" vs. how it "is" now; but, unfortunately the problem is the lack of men like him found in the business. Bertlesmann's buy out of Random House was the piano that broke the camel's back. Schriffin's argument, let alone its implementation, may have ears and willing arms in the university, but in the corporate offices I am a little . . . excuse me . . . pessimistic.

    The true loss in this scenario may be the gems of scholarship that can't be birthed due to a lack of job stability. I have often felt a bit more comfortable freelancing, reading and writing outside of it all. But security is an important prize and so is community.

  3. Keguro, your take really made me think about the representation of depression and its effects, and the pharmaceutical industry's skill at capitalizing on it. I read somewhere that there probably aren't more depressed people in the US, but just better diagnoses of it. But I'm not so sure. What is depression, really? That is, what is it outside of a strict psychological and biochemical account? Philosophically what is it? I guess I'd agree with your suggestion, except that some depressives *do* have futurity as a goal, only they may not have any idea of how to get there, which exacerbates the depression. There is also physiologically induced depression, which is to say, chemical or other imbalances in the brain that can lead to depression. But accounting for this, your suggestion is catching; the widespread American ethos points to a kind of outwards happiness, so perhaps the mass medication to "cure" depression is in part a rescue and recuperation effort on behalf of one major notion of Americanness. Interestingly, I also recently saw "authoritarianism" described as a "failure of imagination," though I suppose that those failing the test were the people buying into the authoritarian system, and not the authorities themselves, whose visions are often rich and fanciful--fancifully terrifying and dangerous, that is.

    Littlemilk, you're so right about Schiffrin's book. It's now almost passé in some regards, especially on the topic of the people running publishing these days. It's a call from a very distant era which wasn't that long ago. The rise of JIT publishing and other mechanisms have altered his argument to a considerable degree, but he's still very apt for thinking about the main publishing conglomerates, the bookstores and the distribution companies.

    Lack of job stability does hurt the masses of potential scholars, though I remember hearing the exceptions, like Erich Auerbach, who wrote Mimesis while fleeing the Nazi and far away from all his sources, occasionally held up as a model of tenacity. Okay--few are the Auerbachs out there, granted. I don't think the increasingly business-oriented model of higher education, like the government and most other sectors of our society, is as concerned about those "lost gems," especially in the humanities. Everything has come down to $, and I don't things are going to change anytime soon.