Monday, September 07, 2015

Burn, baby, burn. Burn a few books!

In a hallway in the building where my office is located, the esteemed ladies and gentlemen who protect themselves with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees have display shelves that are, as I blogged earlier, a monument to faculty, by faculty, for faculty.  What are displayed there, you ask?  Grab a chair; this will take a while! ;)

You, dear reader, like reading.  You have a thirst for understanding.  You perhaps even checked out books from your local library.  But, there is a good chance that you never knew about a genre of books that go straight from the publisher to university libraries where they remain forever without ever being moved even once.  The complimentary copies that the authors receive sometimes end up in display shelves like the one in my office hallway.

Increasingly, academics write books that nobody ever reads.  They are weightier than the journal articles that academics write which nobody ever reads.  Most academic "research," especially outside of the "hard sciences" is not read by anybody it seems.  It was this revelation, even when I was in graduate school decades ago, that further convinced me that I didn't want to waste my time writing stuff that will be nothing but intellectual onanism.

I did write an essay about this, which was read by a few.  It was not a traditional journal article, however.  In that essay, which was published back in October 2001, I wrote about the "aha moment" when I read Chekov's Uncle Vanya (yes, those Russians have been constant companions in my life!):
Would people be disillusioned if they knew that only a few of professors' publications are ever read by more than a handful of other scholars? Would people be disappointed in higher education if they realized that most academics' publications would not sell even for a penny? Would people agree with Uncle Vanya that professors who write but are rarely read and cited are swindlers? Could it be that people already grasp the truth, and that their knowledge is one cause of the decline in the prestige our society accords to faculty members?
It is a racket. A scam.  A huge ripoff.  In The Guardian, an anonymous academic (no, not me--I love to say these in the open!) writes about his personal experience in this book-publishing scam:
A few months ago, an editor from an academic publisher got in touch to ask if I was interested in writing a book for them.
I’ve ignored these requests in the past. I know of too many colleagues who have responded to such invitations, only to see their books disappear on to a university library shelf in a distant corner of the world.
If someone tried to buy said book – I mean, like a real human being – they would have to pay the equivalent of a return ticket to a sunny destination or a month’s child benefit. These books start at around £60, but they can cost double that, or even more.
This time, however, I decided to play along.
 The entire essay (and the comments too) is worth reading, especially if you didn't know about such "scholarly" tomes that end up in the masturbatory display shelves or in the remote corners of university libraries.  The anonymous academic writes there:
These may sound like stories of concern to academics alone. But the problem is this: much of the time that goes into writing these books is made possible through taxpayers’ money. And who buys these books? Well, university libraries – and they, too, are paid for by taxpayers.
 No different a point about taxpayers from what I had written in 2001, right?

You might then wonder, as the rational thinking person that you are, why this ripoff continues even when academics know that most books are never ever read by anybody.  I will remind you about the name for this blog: Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.


Mike Hoth said...

The problem with the book-writing frenzy is that people are preprogrammed to think that certain actions prove intelligence. Went to Harvard? Smart. Have a doctorate? Smart. Wrote a nonfiction book? Smart! None of these things make you smart. I could've made it to MIT as an engineering student and been well on my way to my Master's degree. I also turned down an invitation from MENSA. Taking any or all of those options would not have magically made me smarter, but many people believe they would "prove" that I am smart.

In reality, I didn't go to MIT because I was too lazy to get my GPA that high, don't have head start on my Master's degree because I switched out of a dying field I wasn't happy with (housing, in 2009) and I find MENSA to be full of reprehensible people. I am in the minority on those, because those emblems work, especially on those who wear them.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, whether we like it or not, those emblems and feathers are what society looks at :( Which is the major reason why students rush to get a college degree anymore not because we now have a sudden surge in intellectual curiosity, which in turn makes intense the competition for the "brand value" emblems and feathers from Harvard and MIT and ...

Anne in Salem said...

I thought those dreadful tomes were the assigned reading in the professor's class?? It was such when I was in college.

Doesn't one have to be published to gain tenure? (Leaving aside the politics on this one, just a curiosity question.)

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, one of the strategies is to assign those books to classes that professors teach ;)

Ah, yes, tenure in higher education is tied to publishing. But, the amount and quality depends on the tier of the institution. Community colleges do not require any publishing. It used to be the case that teaching universities (like WOU) didn't push for publishing but wanted faculty to demonstrate that they were keeping up with advancements in their fields. And research universities were/are rigorous about publishing. To respond more will require a long, long, long post ;)

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