Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Some more on universities, humanities, publishing, etc.

Related to recent discussions of Amazon as well as the non-renewal of Kenneth Howell's contract, I thought I'd mention a few items...
  • First, on Kenneth Howell.  I was asked elsewhere whether I thought the non-renewal of his contract (after an email concerning Catholic teaching on homosexuality came to light) was an isolated incident, or reflected a wider trend in the academy.  The answer to this depends very much upon one's perspective in asking.  If the question is whether Howell's firing represents a more pervasive intolerance to Catholic thought or certain stances of sexual ethics, then no, I don't think this is the case.  I doubt that even Howell's own situation involves such intolerance, much less acts as a representative of wider intolerance.  On the other hand, I do think that Howell's non-renewal of contract probably reflects the plight of contingent faculty more generally.  His story isn't at all unique-- indeed, I'm pretty confident that the only reason why it garnered so much attention and stirred up such opposition is because matters of religion were involved.  Other adjuncts, fired for reasons that are less interesting to the otherwise uninterested public, are not nearly so lucky as Dr. Howell.  Worth listening to on this are the thoughts of Cary Nelson from early 2008... Nelson is now the president of the AAUP, and is opposed to the action of UI despite also being quite opposed to Howell's doctrinal and ethical commitments.  The problem here is not one of any particular views being disallowed from academia; rather, the problem is controversy more generally, and a university's unwillingness to defend the freedom of its faculty to research and teach without constantly worrying about being fired the moment someone raises a petition against them.
  •  I ran across this through Jim West, and it's being re-posted all over the place today.  Eva von Dassow of the University of Minnesota offers a critique of administrative spending practices to the Board of Regents:
    • Thanks to Tim H. for passing on this article about university presses and the future of publishing, which highlights some discussions from the conference of the other AAUP... the Association of American University Presses.  Included is the usual fare of radical proposals and arguments for/against them, but I had a few random comments that I thought worth mentioning.  The article highlights the amount of disuse present in some university libraries:  
      "Publishers also experienced shock and awe at a session on demand-driven library acquisitions. Michael Levine-Clark,collections librarian at the University of Denver, reported that 47% of books acquired from 2000 to 2009 were never checked out, a phenomenon echoed by Stephen Bosch, in charge of budgets and procurement at the University of Arizona library, where over the past decade $19 million has been spent on books that were never used."
      While these numbers may seem shocking, I think a lot of caution is required in drawing policy implications from it.  In the context of a research library, at least, acquisition practices should have little to do with circulation statistics-- the whole point of a research library is that valuable resources are able to gather dust under the tender care of librarians, so that they are available for use perhaps only once every few decades.  If libraries begin to cut their collections based on usage, there will be no place to turn for obscure work that may be important to retrieve.  What's the point in putting effort into a library if it only amasses those books that everyone is already interested in?  Caveats are appropriate, of course- with limited budgets there is only so much that a library can buy, and cuts have to be made somewhere (although the best route would probably be to follow the lead of Eva von Dassow's speech above, and advocate for a larger library budget and a smaller football budget).  Also, this acquisitions strategy really only fits the research library.  A liberal arts library will have a much more restricted collection, directed towards the purposes of a four-year liberal arts education.  Such purposes may be just as much opposed to the usage-based model mentioned in the article, but it will be opposed in a very different way than research libraries.
      Another point on the article.  As much as I want to defend publishers, sometimes they are the problem.  Tim Barton of Oxford UP is featured heavily in the article, but the prices that companies like his set for books are part of the reason why libraries can't afford to maintain their collections.  Academic literature is always going to be more expensive than popular literature, but paperbacks over $40 and hardbacks over $100 begins to get rather excessive, and offer a difficult standard to ask our institutions to meet when they are charged with collecting hundreds of thousands of these books. 


      1. Agreed. Oxford's prices have been obscene for a long time. As a former employee of another press, I KNOW publishing can be done at a high quality without charging their ridiculous prices. They do a great job of representation internationally, requiring a great deal of funding, but they seem to me to be a dinosaur approach to pricing. The future is the Wipf and Stock version of in-house printing, short-run books.

      2. I had written a much more extensive rant against certain publishers for that paragraph, naming more names than Oxford UP, but I thought better of it and deleted before posting. All that's to say... yes. Agreed.

      3. I don't believe it is too controversial to argue that there are many reasons to be concerned about the way speech is dealt with by American universities.

      4. There have been some recent developments in the Howell case, BTW:

      5. Re: circulation, it's also important to realize how much books are used in-house, without being checked out. I'm constantly "item status"-checking books that aren't checked out, but just used for research and paper writing within the library -- or for making copies.

      6. Good point, Brad. There are simply too many reasons why this sort of metric isn't helpful... or rather, it's helpful in a limited way, but shouldn't be used to determine acquisition policy.

        Libraries will take usage statistics for in-house use at times, though... when they re-shelve periodicals, for instance, they'll often keep track of which ones are pulled off for reading.

        Patrons can always get creative, too. If your library insists on making usage counts a factor in acquisitions, just check out a hell of a lot of books. Go down the shelves indiscriminately, check out volumes, and return them the next day (or even put them in the drop-box as soon as you leave the building). The system isn't all that complex, and it's easy enough to game for those who take the time. You'll also be creating jobs for student workers who re-shelve the volumes!

        Not that I'd recommend making too much trouble for librarians in general, but if they insist on causing trouble for the health of scholarly inquiry, there are ways to take matters into one's own hands.