Publish a Book, Eat Cake

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

September 10, 2013

A group of junior faculty members at my university has taken to marking the publication of our books by feting the author with a cake decorated with an image of the book's cover.

The friendships among members of our circle were forged through mutual support of our work (we're all engaged in similar types of research) and through a shared commitment to helping one another navigate the profession.

No one wants to claim credit for the idea to celebrate with a book cake. Everybody graciously attributes it to someone else. In time, we began to think of it as our collective idea, in the way that research findings take on a life of their own among colleagues who talk over coffee, dinner, drinks, and baby showers—sometimes for years—before anyone commits thought to paper.

My cake was an imposing gluten-free chocolate half sheet, almost as dark and dense as a brownie but still moist, with coconut-flavored frosting. The sheer volume of cake far surpassed what the number of people at the party could ingest so that night, my friends sent me home with most of the cake still intact.

For about a week, I carved a piece from the giant likeness of my book for breakfast and washed it down with green tea. Sometimes, I had seconds. Each day, the cake became a bit drier and the icing a bit stiffer. When I could no longer continue, the bakery box along with its contents, went out to the dumpster.

I realized later that the excess of our ritual was the point rather than its unintended consequence. In these book parties, we toss concerns about spending and waste to the wind on a small but symbolic scale. All of this—the presentation, consumption, and destruction of the cake—is a confectionary potlatch meant to mitigate the corporatization so familiar to university life today. The surfeit of an item of dubious nutritional value when universities are skimping on the meat-and-potatoes of teaching and research gives us a moment of escape, even if it is as fleeting as a sugar rush.

What we have is a grown-up smash cake. Instead of toddlers at their first birthday party, think of assistant professors after publishing their first book.

At universities nationwide, we are seeing growth in the upper administration, a decrease in ladder-rank faculty, and attacks on labor unions. With every slice of cake, we savor what the forces behind those changes can't quantify: he intellectual culture, networks of emotional care, and sense of fun this group of colleagues has created. Those things are both limitless and priceless at the same time.

However, our book parties might also risk suspending action on the crisis in academic publishing as defined by the continued primacy of the monograph (or two) in tenure and promotion, the decline in library acquisitions budgets, and the shrinking subsidies for university presses. As numerous editors and scholars have told us, the path we are on is not sustainable. We need to recognize other forms of work.

At times, all that buttercream makes us feel like we're part of the problem, valorizing and assimilating a relic that should probably go the way of old-boy networks and other elitist entities sooner rather than later.

Yet marking this rite of passage feels tremendously important. As we move onto the next stage of our careers at an institution that requires the monograph for continued employment, we understand its significance. We celebrate the arrival of books not because of an uncritical embrace of the past but because of our optimism for a colleague's future.

Given the uncertain future of higher education as we know it, perhaps optimism is misguided. Anyone who has kept abreast of news about the academy in recent years knows its grim prognosis. Budget cuts in the name of austerity are common. The reliance on adjunct labor has grown. The advent of MOOCs means that full-time, tenure-track faculty members may become extinct or seriously endangered in my lifetime. Departments are shuttering. State legislatures are singling out their university systems. Institutions, be they public or private, are becoming more tuition dependent. Meanwhile, the middle classes are rethinking the necessity of a college degree.

In the midst of this doom and gloom, we as faculty members attempt to undo the damage caused to students by the years they have spent in a climate of high-stakes elementary and secondary-school testing. We teach labor-intensive skills like reading, writing, and critical thinking despite the growing size of our classes. We try to model intellectual curiosity in a society that actively discourages it. Those are the things that are not so easily documented in the language of cost-benefit analysis or student-learning outcomes.

So far, one member of our book-cake group has earned tenure. Another has left the university for a different job. Several others have manuscripts in various stages of completion, which we eagerly await with dessert fork in hand.

We don't know when we will next receive research money. We don't know whether senior professors who retire will be replaced. We fear the possibility of more furloughs. We can't be certain that our department will continue to exist.

However, there is one thing we know for sure. If you publish a book, there will be cake.

Cynthia Wu is an assistant professor of American studies in the department of transnational studies at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of "Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture" (Temple University Press, 2012).