Should some published works perish?

Jenna Ashley Robinson Campus Outreach Coordinator, John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
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The “publish or perish” imperative is a hallmark of U.S. academic life.

If you want to become a tenured professor, you must conduct research and get it published in a peer-reviewed academic journal and by an academic book publisher.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Generations of scholars have mined most of the easy ore in their fields; new material is increasingly hard to find. As a result, many academics are forced to investigate extremely narrow and trivial niche topics. Their work may add to knowledge, but that knowledge often interests only a few other scholars.

As a result, most academic books sell only a tiny number of copies, mainly to college libraries, where they gather dust, to students, who are forced to read them as part of their coursework, and to colleagues, who will expect the favor returned when their own books are published.

Below are several recent examples, listed in alphabetical order, with summaries paraphrased from publishers’ descriptions. Which ones do you think could get published without university funding? Which, if any, would you consider buying?

Africa in the American Imagination: Popular Culture, Racialized Identities, and African Visual Culture,” by Carol Magee. This book is described as a study of pop culture’s representation of the visual traditions of the African continent — particularly the representation of “black and white racialized identities.” Their words, not mine.

Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary,” by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward. This book, based on field studies, shows how blue jeans represent “the ordinary” to both immigrants and suburbanites — and what jeans say about our individual and social lives.

Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World,” by Aaron Herald Skabelund. Here we have an examination of the history and cultural significance of dogs in 19th- and 20th-century Japan, “beginning with the arrival of Western dog breeds, which spread throughout the world with Western imperialism.” Leave it to the imperialists.

Ethnicity in Ancient Amazonia: Reconstructing Past Identities from Archaeology, Linguistics, and Ethnohistory,” by Alf Hornborg (Editor) and Jonathan D. Hill (Editor). This book makes the important argument that “the tendency to link language, culture, and biology — essentialist notions of ethnic identities — is a Eurocentric bias.” Imperialists are probably involved as well, but the publisher doesn’t say so.

Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology,” by Alex Loftus. Here we have “a conversation between Marxist theories of everyday life and recent work in urban political ecology,” arguing that world-changing ideas emerge from the acts of everyday people.

Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan,” by Andrew Gordon. Back at the Land of the Rising Sun we have an exploration of how the introduction of the sewing machine (a tool of Yankee imperialists, no doubt) transformed manners of dress, patterns of daily life, class structure, and the role of women in Japan.

The Kings of Casino Park: Black Baseball in the Lost Season of 1932,” by Thomas Aiello. This book, which my husband might like, tells how the Monarchs, a Negro League baseball team from Monroe, Louisiana, were denied the 1932 league championship in order to save the league from bankruptcy.

Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America,” by Jo B. Paoletti, answers the burning question: Why do we dress boys in blue and girls in pink? If you’re wondering about the “origins of today’s highly gender-specific baby and toddler clothing,” this is a must-read.

Poker: The Parody of Capitalism,” by Ole Bjerg, provides a theoretical and empirical study of the history of poker, comparing the evolution of the card game to the development of capitalism.

And “Silent Hill: The Terror Engine,” by Bernard Perron, offers a close analysis of the first three “Silent Hill” video games — one of the most influential of the horror video game series — “from a player-centric point of view.”

To be fair, of course, many academics engage in serious and broad scholarship: on business, the economy, the physical and social sciences, and — yes — even popular culture.

But shouldn’t the bar be set extremely high, especially when federal taxpayers are investing more than $30 billion a year in university research — and state taxpayers are spending untold millions as well?

Jenna Ashley Robinson is campus outreach coordinator for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, NC.

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Jenna Ashley Robinson