Monday, December 14, 2009

Academic Publishing...

During the AAA conference last week, I spent a ton of time in the Book Exhibit. But I wasn't just checking out the newest anthro-titles, which can be its own small joy, especially when friends and mentors have new offerings to share. I was actually walking the exhibit with students, trying to introduce several current dissertation writers (and a few newly minted PhDs) to editors at academic presses. I don't know many editors, but one or two introductions are better than none.

Every introduction won't turn into a publishing match-made-in-heaven, but it is important to grease the wheel for students as they attempt to clear that important hurdle. Indeed, it is an advisor's job.

When I was writing my dissertation, my advisor told me to "write a book," which is something I also ask of my current students. I realize that that isn't an uncontroversial position, and it is far from self-evident what the call to "write a book" even means. When you haven't even successfully written a dissertation yet (let alone a publishable manuscript), the suggestion can feel like replacing one opacity with another.

One of the things it means, I think, is to write with readers in mind, to make your claims with attention to the dramas, tensions, and storylines that will keep audiences oriented and invested. It need not mean sacrificing rigor for readability. It just asks for a little attention to storytelling (along with argumentation).

After I had defended my dissertation, my advisor made it her job to introduce me to several university press editors. In fact, she spent a lot of time helping me to think through my pitch, boiling my arguments down to their most interesting (and publishable) permutations.

My advisor made a point of saying that graduate students aren't "islands" isolated in some academic sea all by themselves. As most academics know, if the process works the way it is supposed to work, a dissertation advisor takes on a career-long role. And one part of the job description entails de-mystifying academia's backstage, helping students as they (i) prepare for "the market," (ii) negotiate job offers, (iii) deal with the challenges of post-doctoral life (committees, new colleagues, more demands, etc.), and (iv) publish their research.

In terms of the publishing maze, things are changing quite a bit. There used to be a time when it was roundly frowned upon to submit manuscripts to several academic publishers at once. That is increasingly becoming less true. Indeed, the only bit of leverage that a junior faculty member might have these days (vis-a-vis potential publishers) is the threat of going with another press that is equally invested (and also pressuring reviewers for reader reports). Again, this isn't uncontroversial, but there is a lot to recommend such multiple submissions, as long as you are up front with editors about it. For one, if an editor is really interested, he or she might promise to expedite the review process (pushing readers even more adamantly) to avoid competition. Indeed, I only submitted my first manuscript to one publisher, but only if they promised to expedite the process (not leaving one waiting around for months and months without word).

The other benefit of multiple submissions is the fact that you get more critical feedback. If Publisher 1 sends it to three anonymous reviewers and Publisher 2 sends it to three more, you can feel much more confident about the coverage your material is getting. There is less likelihood that you have missed a key critique.

Academic journals still routinely disqualify articles that have been submitted to several places at once. Book publishers are becoming more amenable to that idea, even if they aren't all happy with it. At the end of the day, a good relationship with an academic press is about a good relationship with an editor. So, whatever you do, make sure you are up front, honest, and straightforward. Editors will tell you where they stand, what they will stand for, and you all can both make informed decisions about how to proceed from there.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Why publish "Obama's mama's book" at all?

Why publish “Obama’s mama’s book” at all?

That’s probably one of the most dismissive and derogatory ways of phrasing a question that at least a few anthropologists are asking at this year’s AAA conference, and in just such disparaging terms. I know that some of my colleagues won’t agree, but I can’t help but think about such a query (even in its less choleric/unflattering registers) as a somewhat non-anthropological way of framing the issue.

Duke University Press officially launched S. Ann Dunham’s Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia yesterday, which included a noontime press conference where the only question posed actually pivoted on a differently pitched version of the same theme music: Is Duke University Press only publishing this book because it was written by the President’s mother?

I received a similar e-query over the summer from a colleague, a sociologist, responding to my post about what other anthropologists had been describing, optimistically, as President Obama’s potentially anthropological sensibilities (as a function of being an “anthropologist’s son”). The sociologist started with an excerpt from my posting and then succinctly offered his rejoinder.

I wrote the following, which he cited:

Anthropologists often get lampooned and dismissed by other social scientists (and by those outside of the academy) for their (our) assumed epistemological and presentational excesses: opaque jargon, solipsistic navel gawking, the politicization of research, and on and on. But even though she didn’t raise Obama for the entirety of his childhood, his mother seems to have imparted in him a degree of thoughtfulness and genuine appreciation for cultural differences (as partially manifested in his campaign’s inclusively “multiracial” ground game) that I want to embrace as the best of what the discipline of anthropology can share with the rest of the academy and beyond.

He responded: I agree with John L. Jackson! (But would you go as far as to publish her unpublished dissertation as Duke is doing?)

Why not publish it?

I can understand some of the skepticism behind the sociologist's question. If it wasn’t published before Barack Obama became President Obama, it probably isn’t worthy of publication. It probably isn’t very good. So, why pander to the depravities of the market?

Deborah Thomas and I had a different thought. We were gearing up for last year’s AAA conference, and we heard that Dunham’s colleagues at the University of Hawaii (including Alice G. Dewey and Nancy I. Cooper) were already in the process of trying to get the dissertation published. The research was based on fieldwork in Kajar, a blacksmithing village in Indonesia, and we thought that it might be interesting to have a panel on the work (and the book) at this year’s AAA meeting.

Deborah called up the folks at Hawaii, and she found out that they’d been working to get this dissertation turned into a book for quite a long time, almost since Dunham’s death. Deb also discovered that although a few publishers had shown interest, they were dragging their feet. So, we started to read through bits of the dissertation. It is super long (in the general vicinity of 1,000 pages), and we didn’t get through all of it. But it seemed like an intriguing mix of old-school ethnographic holism and a relatively newfangled analysis of a rural Indonesian industry that Dunham characterized as "surviving," despite some anthropological predictions of its inevitable demise. She also placed her study (an “ethnography of microfinance” before microfinance was cool) within robustly historical, analytical, regulatory, and cultural contexts, which accounted for her manuscript’s daunting length.

If anyone was going to consider publishing the manuscript, it would have to be edited substantially, cut by more than half. That’s when we went to Ken Wissoker at Duke. We asked him to look at the manuscript, to talk to Dunham’s colleagues at Hawaii, and to consider publishing the work. And we wanted him to do all of that quickly enough so that it might be out and available in time for this year’s conference.

Duke was interested in publishing the book because it was written by President Obama’s mother. That is also why Deb and I were interested in it. We had even thought that President Obama might be willing to attend this year's conference and talk about his mother’s ethnographic research and its impact (if any) on his own politico-cultural outlook. He didn’t take us up on that invitation, but Dunham’s daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, graciously agreed to talk about her mother’s anthropological exploits.

But this idea that Dunham’s publication should be marked with a scarlet letter because its relevance is inflected by the fame and significance of her progeny seems strange to me.

Don’t all publishers weigh the merits of the books they produce with recourse to the potential audiences they might entice, especially university publishers increasingly being asked (by central administrations) to pay their own way? It was published because she is our President’s mother. And because that means that more readers might be interested in reading it. And because it is a bold critique of a certain Geertzian spin on the region. And because the stars aligned in just such a way that a stalled publication process got re-energized by some outside interlopers. And because it is a very solid manuscript.

The implicit presumption that that latter fact alone (or something close to it) ostensibly explains why more “legitimate” manuscripts are published by academic presses seems like an unproductive and disingenuous fiction to me, a scholarly fairy tale of Santa Clausian proportions.

This book should have been published before Obama moved into the White House. If Dunham hadn’t died prematurely, maybe it would have been. To dismiss it out of hand because it is being published now, so long after she completed the dissertation, as a function of its situated-ness at the trickster-haunted crossroads where scholarship meets “politics” (in many senses of that latter term) is, I think, a tough position to hold. Without such “from the ashes” reclamations (political and intellectual in the selfsame instant), Zora Neale Hurston, for one, wouldn’t be on any anthropological syllabi either.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Day One at the AAAs

The anthropologists are finally here!

Philadelphia's Downtown Marriott is housing the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, which started last night, and The Chronicle of Higher Education has already run a story on one of Wednesday night's panels.

"A Critical History of the Darkness in El Dorado Controversy" was organized around Alice Dreger's scathing critique of Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, which was equally scathing in its criticism of how Napoleon A. Chagnon (author of, amongst other things, Yanomamo: A Fierce People) and geneticist James Neel conducted their research in the region. According to Tierney, they actually exacerbated a measles problem, failed to acquire true "informed consent" for research, and even (in Chagnon's case) allegedly fomented violent conflicts among community members. I remember the AAA meetings in 2000, 2001, and 2002 when the book's accusations first surfaced.

Conducting research for a book that she is currently writing, Dreger revisited Tierney's assertions. Not only does she claim that Tierney's work was sloppy and inaccurate (his accusations mostly flat wrong), but she also criticizes the AAA for throwing Chagnon and Neel under the bus in its 2002 report about the matter. I missed the session, but I'm sure that I'll hear anthropologists talking about it for the rest of the week.

I missed that particular panel because I was teaching my grad class yesterday afternoon (goxewu will appreciate that). And then I stayed on Penn's campus for two AAA-affiliated events.

Penn's Anthropology Department joined forces with two AAA journals (Anthropology and Education Quarterly and Transforming Anthropology) to throw an opening-night reception in the Penn Museum's Chinese Rotunda. 90-feet high, it is one of the largest unsupported masonry domes in the entire country. One of the most amazingly breathtaking interiors that any college campus can boast, it was a spectacular setting for the fete.

I left that reception early enough to attend an intimate performance of Pouring Tea, a one-man show by ethnographer E. Patrick Johnson (also, like Dreger, from Northwestern University). The performance took place at Penn's LGBT Center in The Carriage House. Vocalist Joya Jones and poets Nina Harris and Joshua Bennett (of HBO's Def Poetry fame) sanctified the space with three blistering performances. Then Johnson spent the next 40 minutes performing excerpts from interviews he conducted for his most recent book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay men of the South. He has played much larger venues with this show (and is currently preparing a more expansive stage version for a May opening in Chicago), but this tiny, cozy space was a perfect way start to a week that will be chock full of ethnographically inflected conversations. As Johnson himself described the event in his post-performance Q&A session, "it felt like I was bringing you all back with me into those small and intimate living rooms where I conducted the interviews."