This week is the first week of classes at Potsdam, and that means a week of chaotic energy. Students rushing around making scheduling changes, administrators and staff dealing with everyone’s sudden emergencies, and faculty throwing new ideas at students still recovering from time with family and travel fatigue. Needless to say, I love the first week of class. I love chaos.
It also means, unfortunately, that my many research projects take a backseat for the time being, until things settle down and I am able to get into the rhythm of the semester. I’m very lucky that I’m able to offer classes that work directly with my research, and that makes it somewhat easier to keep an active research agenda while teaching 4 courses every semester. It also means that I often think about my research in terms of my teaching: I test out ideas in the classroom, I wonder if students will read my work in their own research, and I sometimes wonder how the act of producing research both directly and indirectly impacts my teaching. And every now and then, I sometimes come to understand something. And this week has been one of those times. (Please bear with me; this will get long.)
The research project I have devoted the most time to recently is a co-edited collection on Post-Soul African American satire. Collecting essays addressing literature, film, television, comix, stand up comedy, theater, painting, installation art, and the internet, my colleague Derek C. Maus and I are hoping that this volume continues the very interesting discussions taking place in journals, art galleries, and classrooms. And we also hope that people use this in the classroom. (Derek is currently teaching a class that draws from this research, and we’re curious to see how things play with the students.) We’ve worked very hard, and we’re proud of the collection. Just as importantly, the press we have a contract with is excited about the collection. Needless to say, I feel pretty satisfied with my work.
Then a good friend linked me to a blog post by Karen Kelsky, and I was instantly deflated. For those who don’t know her, Dr. Kelsky blogs as “The Professor Is In,” and appears to advise people about the academy. Her post about edited collections can be found here: http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/07/24/should-i-do-an-edited-collection/. At first, I was disappointed. Then I was angry. Then I remembered that I think Dr. Kelsky is an idiot, and I felt much better. The rest of this post explains why.
Dr. Kelsky seems pretty set against working on an edited collection. And her advice is based on some very real concerns that some academics may face. It is true that some departments will not consider edited collections as sufficient progress toward tenure. (Luckily, I don’t work at such an institution.) Yes, the work is hard. (Though that’s part of the fun.*) However, telling people not to do it, not even considering why such work might be valuable, is one reason Dr. Kelsky is an idiot. (Yes, I’m going to use that phrase a few times.) The problem I have with Dr. Kelsky is that instead of explaining why people shouldn’t do the work, she should be explaining why people should; she should be explaining to people why the bias against edited collections for tenure needs to change. Because it does. And here’s why.
Edited collections being together the work of many people. In the case of my own current work, my co-editor and I are working with contributors from a wide variety of academic disciplines, who work with a diverse array of materials from many methodologies. As well-read as Derek and I are, the two of us discovered how litte we knew about this area; we know so much more now than we did when we started working on this project. But more importantly, this collection will do more work, better work, than a single-authored book either of us could write would ever do. The diversity inherent with an edited collection could very well draw a larger audience, which in turn will help bring more people into the subsequent discussion. There is also a better chance this work could be used in the classroom. It’s highly unlikely that even a graduate class would have students order a single-authored book; at best, it might be on the reserved shelf at the library, where graduate students would read selections. But an edited collection could be used in a classroom, undergraduate as well as graduate. Or not. But at least it’s possible. And this isn’t just me guessing; people who know things seem to believe it could happen. Our editor thinks it could happen, and he has experience in this area.
In short, edited collections have the chance of reaching more readers (at differing levels of education) than single-authored books might. Presses love books that address multiple audiences, and faculty love works that address a variety of works from an array of perspectives. Edited collections, when done right, are diverse, and intellectual diversity is the backbone of a liberal arts education.
But it’s more than that. Edited collections are physical manifestations of professional networking. Just as I have learned more from doing this work, I have met so many wonderful people in the process, people whose work has challenged and inspired me, people with whom I will continue to work in the future. (I am presenting on a panel later this year with one contributor. Another has come to speak at my campus. A third works in an area I am interested in and we have shared ideas over a series of emails.) As a result of this work, I have also been introduced to other people, been linked to other work, and have put other people in contact with my contributors and their colleagues. A good edited collection, in other words, can spark something else, and what that something else is can’t quite be known ahead of time.**
But perhaps most importantly, edited collections model what we should be doing in the classroom. (Yes, I will finally get to the idea of creativity in the classroom.) In the classes I teach, students do individual research projects. I earlier posted about my inability to foster good group work, and so I try to avoid it. And I do so knowing full well that one reason I think Dr. Kelsky is an idiot is because her post on edited collections suggests that group work among professional academics is to be avoided.*** We are hired, reappointed, and tenured based on our individual work, and as such, group work should be avoided. And I can point to the state of the field in English and justify my pedagogy by noting that it’s standard practice. But more and more, I find myself trying to get my students to share their work with each other. In upper-division classes, I try to have students present their research to the class (when time permits). I encourage students to share drafts of their work. Sometimes, I require students to share annotated bibliographies of their work so that others may get some help with their own research. And the more I do this, the more the students work together; and the more they work together, the better their work becomes. (I have been thinking about how I might make such work more solidly a part of my pedagogy. Any ideas are welcome.)
And then it hit me. One of my colleagues, who teaches creative writing, sometimes collects her student writing and publishes a small run of chapbooks. The students see their work in print, have something on hand to give to family and friends, and get a real taste of what it means to publish their work. Often, those students work on the department’s creative writing journal. Some have gone on to publish their own work elsewhere or seek employment in publishing. In short: this works. And so I now find myself wondering, why can’t this work for academic writing by undergraduates? My colleagues in creative writing do a wonderful job of putting together student readings. Some people attend out of interest; others are given class credit to attend. But the end result is always the same: students enjoy each other’s work and something is always sparked. What it is we don’t know; sometimes a student is inspired to write, to take a creative writing class, or to get up and read her own work. So why can’t we do this with academic work? And why can’t we start doing this work in the classroom?
The more people like Dr. Kelsky badmouth edited collections, and the more we – and as a result, the more our students – listen to her, the more we deemphasize the value of collaboration. But ask anyone who has studied good teaching practices, and you will find that collaboration is a key component to student learning.
What we should be doing is explaining why edited collections are valuable. Why they should count more toward tenure (at least at those schools where it doesn’t****). Why they are exemplars of the kind of work we should be modeling for our students.
Good co-edited collections reflect the very best of what a liberal arts education was designed to do. And anyone who doesn’t see that should spend more time working on one. It’s valuable work, and I hope that anyone considering such work will do it.
*As the philosopher once said, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”
**In large part due to the fun I had with the Post-Soul collection, I have begun work on a second co-edited collection. I am working with Jennifer Ho and Shaun Morgan to collect essays that adress the intersection of narrative theories, race, and ethnicity in the Americas. Here’s our CFP: http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/49200.
***At least in the humanities. But look to the sciences and you will see that group work – co-authored, co-edited, joint research projects – is the norm. There’s good reason for this, and we in the humanities should take note.
****I’m very lucky that such work is valued, even prized, at my university.