The Chronicle Review

Academe’s Prestige Problem

We’re all complicit in perpetuating a rigged system

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 12, 2017

As an elementary-school student, I learned never to judge a book by its cover. As a professional academic, I’ve learned the opposite. What’s worse, I’ve learned to judge people by the covers (and colophons) of their books.

"The university is a technology," Andrew Piper and Chad Wellmon write in their recent essay on academic publishing. "Let’s treat it like one." This is an intriguing point. The university and its daily operations certainly do function techno-logically: They are and they perform well-defined means for achieving certain ends. What these ends are, as Piper and Wellmon point out, depends on the specific nature of the apparatus itself, as well as the ways it functions with the broader machinery of society.

Yet, while stressing the need to think of the deliberate ways the university and academic publishing function as technologies, Piper and Wellmon stop short of the obvious question: What do they function for?

The biggest obstacle to democratizing production of academic knowledge: Many academics don't actually want this to happen.
They argue that academic publishing has exacerbated "epistemic inequality," and that all attempts in publishing "to undo the effects of patronage and cultural capital" in academic knowledge production have failed. A realist might bluntly retort that this is because the scholarly publishing apparatus is operating as intended. Providing a handful of elite institutions with a monopoly on "what counts as knowledge" is not an unfortunate side effect of the current academic system — it is exactly what this system, in its current form, is supposed to do. Making minor adjustments to one arm of such a system, such as integrating the digital tools Piper and Wellmon propose, is like sticking a flower on a tank and calling it a vase.

The biggest obstacle to democratizing access to and production of academic knowledge is the reality that many academics and academics-in-training don’t actually want this to happen. The university currently provides incentives for knowledge producers (greater prestige, salary bumps, more freedom with reduced teaching loads) that make it altogether undesirable for those in elite institutions — and those who desperately want to join them — to reject the system of privileges from which they benefit, or hope to someday.

What are the book publishers and journals for which we write and from which we draw material to assign in our courses? What kind of publications do we value, and how do we show it? Do we passively accept what constitutes "value" in this lopsided system? Or do we redefine those terms when it comes time to write book reviews and letters of recommendation, to serve on search committees, to evaluate colleagues who are up for tenure?

These are the questions to ask if we’re to truly understand the academic publishing industry, which works to ensure that scholars’ attempts to democratize academic knowledge will be undercut by eroding their desire to democratize it in the first place.

Our scholarly imaginations are forcefully limited by a system that concentrates prestige, cultural capital, financial rewards, and knowledge-defining power at "the top," a system that makes professional life at "the bottom" not only invisible but economically unbearable. This is to say that academe’s inequality problem is not just epistemic. It is interwoven with socioeconomic inequalities in admissions and hiring that are deeply racialized, gendered, etc., and that supplement epistemic dominance within universities by diverting more teaching duties to a growing underclass whose members can barely make ends meet, let alone produce scholarship that senior faculty take seriously. It is not just cold careerists at Princeton or Chicago holding everyone down by happily hoarding all the prestige; we are all complicit, more or less, and many of us are complicit out of necessity, which isn’t an accident. This is a system functioning "as it should."

This system’s standards for career advancement put our livelihoods at risk if we don’t become rugged individualists, and so discourages us from breaking with, in the words of the media scholar Gary Hall, "the traditional liberal humanist model that comes replete with clichéd, ready-made (some would even say cowardly) ideas of proprietorial authorship, the book, originality, fixity, and the finished object."

Any attempt to change academic publishing, no matter how gradual, needs to be made with the revolutionary, even quixotic, intention of short-circuiting the larger system to which it’s attached. Supply-side adjustments won’t suffice without some plan to erode the professional logic that keeps bringing us back to the idea that we should pursue limited types of scholarship published in a limited selection of venues in the hopes of achieving narrowly defined professional goals.

The metrics of academic publishing reinforce our careerist desires to be lords of our personal scholarly fiefdoms.
The journals Piper and Wellmon focused on may not be capable or willing to execute such plans, but some renegades out there are doing just that. Open-access (OA) publishers like Open Humanities Press and punctum books have marshaled nigh-heroic efforts to hack the university’s technological systems of patronage and inequality. This is not to say, though, that OA publishers are the only agents behind such assaults (take, just for one example, the broad, intra-institutional efforts to incentivize open-access publishing in the University of California library system).

Our current mainstream, collective publishing habits reinforce systemic confidence that our desire for personal prestige will always outweigh the cost of epistemic inequality. Open Humanities Press and punctum books operate by coaxing us into wanting to publish differently, under the premise that academic knowledge should be openly and freely accessible. They do this by, among other things: breaking traditional, for-profit funding structures that limit possibilities for creativity and access; giving their platforms more "street cred" by drawing works from star academics (Brian Massumi, Lauren Berlant, Dominic Pettman, etc.) while also committing to publishing scholars outside the academy, graduate students, artists, and the nontenured; producing high-quality printed and digital objects; publishing scholarly work that is refreshingly different in its scope, style, and approach.

But, again, the larger plan here is more subversive. The standards and metrics of academic publishing serve to reinforce our technologically routed, careerist desires to be lords of our personal scholarly fiefdoms. If different publishing practices can lead more scholars to reward each other (and feel more rewarded) for wanting and doing scholarship differently, though, this may spawn stronger incentives for senior and rising scholars alike to cite more (or only) OA works in their scholarship, to assign them in classes, to demand that OA become the professional standard. Open-access publishers know that once we collectively start seeking other, fairer ways of doing and disseminating scholarship, we’ll want more.

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the departments of history and comparative literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.