What I Did On My Summer Vacation Parts II & III or, Oh, the Humanities

Last week I got a little more talking to people in before I settle down to a long stretch of writing, which involves more talking to myself than to people, though I guess I am technically a person. (I gave a talk on rock music and revolution at the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy/Missouri Humanities Council-sponsored Missouri Summer Teachers Academy and I gave a talk on William Wells Brown, Mark Twain, the Missouri Constitution’s Exclusion Clause, and the long arc of Missouri’s history concerning race at the Henry County Museum, as part of the Missouri Humanities Council/State Historical Society of Missouri speakers bureau series, Show Me Missouri). I wanted to mention these talks briefly here because I’ve started trying to so some of this kind of thing, and I think it’s worth putting down a few words about why.

People are arguing a fair amount these days about the fate of the humanities in the face of shrinking enrollments (the subject of a workshop I helped moderate at an Association of Departments of English Summer Seminar a couple of weeks ago with Lori Askeland). Some say the trend can be reversed by our getting out in public and demonstrating the usefulness of what we do. Others say that we are at the mercy of demographic trends and cultural shifts that we can do little to stem (as it were), with some going so far as to say that the shift away from the study of our subjects aren’t even necessarily bad in the long run. (An example.)

I don’t know who’s right. I’m not as skeptical as some of my colleagues about the value of the study of literature. I understand that we should separate our concerns about the dip in the number of majors and the practical ramifications of that dip from the question of the value of the disciplines themselves. I do think that there’s a favoring of science and technology in upper administration and state houses that reflects larger cultural trends I’m unable to see as positive. And I do believe that it can’t hurt for the people who vote for the people who make the laws (and the budgets) to see us doing what we do (and, in the case of my university, to not think of us as the place where the protests happen). So I talked to some high school teachers who came to my campus and I talked to some people a couple of hours away from my campus and who knows if it was worth all the preparing and the driving and maybe I’m kidding myself.

On the other hand, maybe there could be value to talking with people who aren’t students or other professors about the connections between a punk band’s embrace of international sounds and their skepticism about Cold War adventurism, or about the connections between the work of some long-dead writers from their home state and the way that state entered the union. It’s possible that the value might lie in my providing new information or a new way of seeing something. It’s possible that it might lie in giving someone a nudge in the direction of greater support of universities generally or the humanities in particular. Or the value might just be that it gives me the chance to drive on roads I don’t usually see, to towns I don’t know, filled with humans I’ve never met. The Vandalia Area Historical Society wants me to come talk to them about Missouri Writers, and I’ve only been through there once or twice, and never at slower than twenty-five miles per hour, so I’m going. See you soon, Vandalians. 


I found out recently that next academic year I’ll be chair of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities. We had our last Skype meeting of the year the other day, and talked about the things we usually talk about, which amount to different ways we’re trying to help the MLA help people working in modern language departments. In addition to reminding me how weird Skype (technically, Zoom) meetings can be, like when you knock your chair against your desk and the mic picks it up and all of the sudden it’s your backlit head filling everybody’s screen as if you had a point to make when you might only be thinking about lunch, say, the meeting also led me to think about associations like the MLA.

Video telephony predicted to be in use by the year 2000, as envisioned in 1910.
Video telephony predicted to be in use by the year 2000, as envisioned in 1910

That meeting also leads me to want to hear from you, Imagined Reader, about what you think the committee should be focusing on. We get inquiries throughout the year from people reporting on specific situations (e.g., hiring practices, departmental governance), and we try to tackle larger issues concerning academic freedom and the rights and responsibilities of people working in higher education, ultimately to see if there’s anything the MLA can do to help.

Academic freedom has been an urgent issue lately (urgent AF, you might say, but unlike me would then think better of it). There’s a good interview with political scientist Jeffrey Sachs up on the Chronicle on the subject, particularly on the way certain kinds of incidents involving speech on campus can get blown out of proportion and on whose interests are served when that happens. And CAFPRR will keep talking about this, and sponsoring panels and roundtables at the MLA convention about how to think about and deal with these situations. But I’d like to invite suggestions of other related and unrelated topics. As Sachs points out, the speech of non-tenured instructors, both intramural and extramural, is afforded less or not protection at many institutions, so the question of academic freedom becomes also a question about the effects of the casualization of academic labor. What other questions do you want us to address? Please comment here or send me or anybody on the committee an email if you’ve got ideas.


Associations are getting bad press lately, as in the recent Chronicle piece on the American Historical Association, most of it unfair (as these two responses argue). But I’m proud to be again taking part in the joint Association of Departments of English / Association of Departments of Foreign Languages Summer Seminar in Pittsburgh this year. This will be my tenth of these, my CV tells me. When I became Director of Graduate Studies in 2010, my chair sent me, and it was incredibly helpful, especially the Pre-Seminar Workshop for Directors of Graduate Study. I ended up going to the seminar and the workshop the first three years of my tenure as DGS and co-moderating the DGS workshop for the next three years; after a year in which I co-moderated a discussion on bullying on campus and of campus, I became Director of Undergraduate Studies last year and co-moderated a workshop, “Responding to the Decline in English Majors and Enrollments,” which I’ll be doing again this summer.

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I can’t recommend these things highly enough. I’ve met people through the workshops and seminars who I’ve been able to rely on, who have helped me in my career and who I’ve been able to help in return, who have made my work easier and better in more ways than I can probably even remember. I can’t help but remember that it’s the ADE and the MLA that have made it possible.

When I came up through graduate school, things similar to those being said about the AHA were being said about the MLA: for some critics, it was uninterested in confronting the employment crisis, or too slow to do so. While I never think it’s out of bounds to criticize a professional organization, which are big ships and slow to turn, my experience with ADE (and in the work I’ve done as part of MLA and MMLA) has shown me that these associations are what their roots say they are, the joining together of companions. They’re not unions, and can’t force upper administration to stop balancing budgets on the backs of instructional labor, but they can help people share knowledge about how to do the best they can under sometimes very difficult circumstances and how to work to help those who circumstances effect most. And if they need to change course, their members have joined together to form them and, if necessary, can redirect them.

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On Value

In the days after news broke of the decision by Provost and Oedipa Maas school chum Persis Drell to not renew the subsidy for Stanford University Press, those who value SUP and university press publishing responded by writing on social media, signing petitions, and muttering to themselves in their cars. The decision was apparently sort of reversed this afternoon. An unintended consequence: the event provided an occasion to examine the differences between the ways people think of university presses.

Remedios Varo, “Bordando el Manto Terrestre”

Many people wrote about the importance of university presses to higher learning, so obvious to them but seemingly forgotten or never learned by so many of the people who control the purse strings. But while this message–that the value of university scholarly publishing lies not in its ability to turn a profit or even stay afloat but rather in its ability to enable the creation and sharing of knowledge–was the dominant note in criticisms of the provost’s decision, a few commenters sang a different tune. It’s not that there were (reasonable) people saying Good, shut that thing down; it’s that there were people saying this regrettable situation could be avoided if these presses would just straighten up and make enough money to not require subsidies, the implication being that those who are upset that a university as prestigious and well-endowed as Stanford could decide to no longer fund its press are being emotional rather than realistic.

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As Joe Esposito wrote over at The Scholarly Kitchen, “The unfortunate truth is that indignation is not a business strategy.” The rest of Esposito’s argument is two-pronged: university presses need to make enough money to be self-sustaining, and they need to make themselves indispensable by tying themselves to other units, departments, &c., that are priorities for those who draw up the budgets. The title of Esposito’s essay–“Where Does a University Press Sit in its Parent’s Priorities?”–is worth noting here. While I get that “parent institution” is a term of art, with repetition, the metaphorical weight is hard to ignore: “When university presses work on their strategic plans, that is what they have to do: ask first how to become more important to the parent, and then ask how to become financially independent of the parent.” There’s practical wisdom here, but the underlying assumption is that the university is right to cut you off if you’re still living at home and if it loves your sister more.

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O. Von Corven, “The Great Library of Alexandria”

Taking about all of this yesterday, a colleague drew an analogy to the ancient world, where the great libraries were a point of pride for their cities. The libraries required huge investment, of course, but the advances in knowledge made by the scholars attracted to them (knowledge sometimes useful to the rulers who built them) and the prestige accrued were considered to be of great value. The idea that knowledge might be useful for governing might seem quaint these days, and it seems harder than ever in administration buildings to get non-economic forms of value recognized, but the administrators who run our universities need to be shown that they should see university presses as Ptolemy saw the library in Alexandria: as things of value whose ROI has to be measured differently.

(Also, I learned yesterday that the Great Library of Alexandria was stocked with originals seized from ships that came into port, copied, and kept, the copies given back instead, and I’m now wondering if there’s the seed of a business model there.)

It’s excellent news that Stanford’s provost has at least temporarily reversed herself. It also would be good if the episode reminded people that there are other ways to think about the relationship between universities and their presses than the parental and that presses aren’t at fault if they’re not profitable. One thing I’m learning about from writing about the history of university presses is the impressive variety of ways they have tried to reach profitability, move closer to being self-sustaining, or lessen the degree to which they rely on funding from their university or outside benefactors. But it would be good for everyone to remember that university presses exist historically because trade houses wouldn’t and couldn’t publish monographs, and they still won’t. Presses have found many ways to stay afloat, but the core mission of spreading knowledge, without regard to profit, is supposed to be the university’s mission too.



And I Was Worried About Kentucky

Today’s news includes a story from The Stanford Daily about the fallout from this year’s lower-than-expected endowment payout. Speaking to the Faculty Senate, Pynchon character Provost Persis Drell discussed the university’s decision not to continue the $1.7M annual subsidy of Stanford University Press, saying that budget constraints led the university to reject the press’s request for five more years of support at this level.

The Stanford Quad. Photo by Hannah Ronca
Printed 10/11/17

Last spring, when I started writing and talking about the lack of support for university presses and what that lack said about the priorities in university administration, state houses, and the culture, I was talking about public universities, not Stanford. As reaction on Twitter today shows, it’s scary when the presses housed at universities with $26.5B endowments (Stanford’s, last year) are effected by constricted funding environments–or, in plain English, when Pynchon characters provosts of major research universities with 125-year-old presses don’t seem to get why those presses are important and worth preserving. I’m hoping one effect of the book I’m writing on the history of American university presses will be to explain this to people who don’t get it. I’m also going to need to talk about why it is that they don’t. Stanford’s provost rejected the request for continued funding because when it was first given, “The assurance from the Press was that this would be a bridge to a more self-sustaining future.” One of the things the people running universities these days need to be reminded of is that “self-sustaining” is not necessarily the most important feature of a university unit. The production and dissemination of learning, for example, the credentialing and promotion of academics, the contribution to local and national culture: these are also worth something still. Aren’t they?

Guns. On campus.

Today the Missouri Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety committee voted HB575 out of committee. This is a bill that would force the state’s public universities to allow concealed carry of loaded firearms on their campuses, against the wishes of the people actually responsible for the welfare of the students (and staff, and faculty) who are there every day and against the overwhelming evidence that it will make campus less safe, not more safe. The vote on the committee was 5-0. Democrats, who were outnumbered on the committee, were absent. It heads now to the Senate floor.

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I testified the other day in front of the committee in opposition to this bill, and talked about my time as Director of Graduate Studies and, currently, Director of Undergraduate Studies for my department, and how I’ve learned a lot about the stress that students are under these days, about the jobs they’re working while taking a full load of classes, about the emotional and mental health issues they’re dealing with. I talked about how maybe introducing firearms into this mix was a bad idea. Other people talked about the rising rates of depression and the far higher rates of “success” when suicide attempts involve firearms; still others talked about the chilling effect on classroom discussion the mere possibility of the presence of concealed weapon would have.

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Senator Brian Williams spoke out strongly against the bill for this last reason, saying that it was in classes in college that he learned how to get along with people who hold different ideas than he holds, which lessons made possible his ability to work with people like the Senators from the opposing party. That the MO GOP continues, every year, to try to ram legislation like this through, is incredibly frustrating to those of us who work on these campuses, send our children to them, want to be part of the life of higher education in our state.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 3.31.14 PMToday and tomorrow my campus is filled with high school band students from around the state (and many of their families), here for their annual competition. I can hear them practicing outside my window right now. They are in black tie and they are nervous and goofy and very teenaged. Every year they descend on Tate Hall and other buildings, clogging up the hallways, making beautiful noise, honking and bleating and warming up, excited to be on the campus of their state university. I wonder if they’ll want to come back next year.

Mother of the West

Minor in Missouri Studies

Some developments in the new minor in Missouri Studies: new catalog copy describing the requirements for the minor is in the works; a new course in Health Sciences is being added to the list of electives and others are being developed; the email address I made up for the above slide for the A&S screens now exists; there is now a Twitter account,  @missouristudies (now that I’ve managed to convince Twitter that I am in fact human); I have learned that one of the old nicknames of the state was Mother of the West. I’m on research leave next year (working on this), but I’ll keep working on the minor and will find someone to teach the Missouri Writers course in the spring.

Other Missouriana: I had a fantastic time in February giving a paper at the Kinder Institute conference on the Missouri Crisis. I talked about race in Missouri–since before it was Missouri, during the Missouri Crisis, and today–and as it appears in two novels by William Wells Brown and Mark Twain, and I learned a ton from the actual historians (including that mentions of DeWitt Clinton are sure to get a laugh among diplomatic historians, for some reason). I am available, as one of the speakers at the Missouri Humanities Council/State Historical Society of Missouri Show Me Missouri: Conversations about Missouri’s Past, Present, and Future Speakers Bureau, to give a public version of this talk (enriched by things I learned in February) and a talk on Missouri writers. I can also now speak at some length about the history of the term doughface, should anyone be interested. There’s one taker so far, in a town (and county) I’ve never been to, so here’s hoping we can figure out the scheduling.

Writing News

An update to my first post on this mostly neglected blog on this here website: I’ve signed a contract with Princeton University Press to write a book on the history of the American university press. A non-comprehensive but wide-ranging look at the history, value, and difficulties of university press publishing in the U.S. with the extremely working title Higher Learning By the Book: A History of the American University Press (I’ll optimistically italicize, since it’s not even a manuscript yet so why bother with quotation marks), it’s still just getting underway. I’ll be visiting archives and interviewing people and reading everything I can find on the subject, which is both a lot and not much–that is, there’s a lot on individual presses and issues and trends but not a lot on the subject as a whole.

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Chester Karr’s 1949 AAUP-commissioned study (above) isn’t the last book to tackle the whole subject, but there haven’t been many since. It’s my hope that my book will be the first to tell the story in a way that shows how the history of the institution reflects and influences the history of the modern U.S. and so that argues for its value.

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That value is one of the central values of the research university. One of the responses to my essay in the Chronicle last year argued that the big presses were enough–why does every research university need one? The report of the 1957 committee to explore starting one at the University of Missouri (above) contains one good answer. Another good answer is the value of these presses to the knowledge and culture of their state and region, something I didn’t know enough about at the time I wrote that essay–I learned about it from responses on Twitter to my own tweets and responses to the essay. I hope in the next year or so to learn a lot more from the people who work at these presses and from the people who value that work, and to use that knowledge to more fully answer this question. Like the universities and the country in which they thrive and struggle, we do need them, and also like those institutions, we need them to do their best for all of us.

P.S. I’ve just submitted a roundtable proposal for the next MLA called “The Uses of the University Press” on this very subject. I’m hoping it gets accepted and people come and help me write my book  share their thoughts about this question.


This semester, I’ve been procrastinating working to improve the department’s profile by posting department news and other things on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. One thing that’s gotten some attention has been the posts of pictures I’ve asked instructors to send me from their classes, of whiteboards, blackboards, slides, &c. Today the journalism school’s daily paper, the Missourian, ran a story on my procrastination very productive new sideline. It’s better than wallowing in the slough of low enrollment despond, I suppose, and as I’m quoted as saying, it’s fun to see what people are doing in their classrooms. Story here.

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