Here’s a PDF of an important article by Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper, soon to be published in Critical Inquiry. And here’s what the journos call the nut graf:

Historically, university reformers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century have touted publication as a corrective to concentrations of power and patronage networks. An increased emphasis on more purportedly transparent or objective measures provided by publication have long been cast as an antidote to cronyism and connections. As we will show, however, current data suggest that publication patterns largely reproduce significant power imbalances within the system of academic publishing. Systems of academic patronage as well as those of cultural and social capital seem not only to have survived but flourished in the modern bureaucratic university, even if in different form. When, as our data show, Harvard and Yale exercise such a disproportionate influence on both hiring and publishing patterns, academic publishing seems less a democratic marketplace of ideas and more a tightly-controlled network of patronage and cultural capital. Just as output-focused advancement is older than we might expect, patronage-based advancement is more persistent than we might like to acknowledge.

And then Wellmon and Piper bring the data that show just how institutionally concentrated academic publishing is. After they had “surveyed over 45 years (1969–2015) of publication data from four leading journals in the humanities — Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, PMLA, and Representations,” they discovered, among other things, that “authors with PhDs from just two universities, Yale and Harvard, accounted for one-fifth (19.95%) of all articles.” (Just for the record, Chad’s PhD is from Berkeley, Andrew’s from Columbia, mine from UVA.)

There are many ways one might explain this state of affairs, and, especially if you’re associated with Harvard or Yale, you might want to start by pointing out that the graduate programs of those schools have their pick of the most talented student applicants, so therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that those students go on to be productive professionals, some of whom then return to Harvard and Yale and select the next generation of graduate students — it’s a kind of circle, yes, but not all such circles are vicious ones. So the argument might go. And we can grant a measure, and even a large measure, of truth to those claims and still be concerned for the various results of such a system.

Among those various results, the ones that Wellmon and Piper are most interested in — and not just in this article, but in the larger project of which this article is merely the first installment — may be seen in this sentence: “The broader question we want to ask, which we can only begin to raise in this essay, is: What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” (Emphasis mine.) Yes, there are social and political effects, but tangled up with those and never fully extricable from them are surely epistemic consequences: a kind of scholarly Overton window of acceptable topics of study, methods, conclusions, all monitored and disciplined by a clerisy that doesn’t acknowledge its own power or interests. A fascinating element of the essay is its brief history of how the whole endeavor of academic publishing arose largely in order to provide an “objective” discursive arena in which the intrinsic merit of scholarly work could be properly assessed — which, however well or badly it served its announced purpose, enforced a system that valued writing above speaking: “advocates of a new university model assumed that written and, most importantly, published material had a higher value than oral exchange or other less broadly public media.” That this system of value concentrates the power of the clerisy may well be, as the Marxists like to say, no accident.

I am very eager to see where Wellmon and Piper go with further research along these lines. Here are a couple of questions I am mulling over and that I would love to see them consider:

1) I wonder if the prestige-distribution system in the publishing of academic books works in the same way that it does within the network of academic journals. My own experience suggests otherwise. Fairly early in my career I discovered that it was far easier and more rewarding to write and publish books than to go through the endless rigmarole of trying to get journal articles published — so I stopped doing the latter. My suspicion is that, unlike journals, university presses need to make money, or at least to avoid losing much money, which gives them a rather different set of priorities. That’s just a suspicion, and one derived from only one person’s experience; but still, I wonder.

2) One of the responses to Wellmon and Piper’s work will surely be that they have exposed a false meritocracy and we therefore need to come up with some way to create and sustain a true meritocracy. Perhaps some will insist that places in graduate programs be determined by GRE scores, or by some imagined replacement for the GRE that more objectively determines merit. To which others will reply that the concepts of “objectivity” and “merit” are and will always be ideological tools by which the entrenched clerisy will sustain itself. Thus the academic profession’s old oscillation between the political and transcendent will simply be renewed.

I take my framing of that opposition from an essay that Stanley Fish wrote in 1979 and published nine years later, “No Bias, No Merit: The Case Against Blind Submission”:

The true and proper view of literature and literary studies defines itself against academic politics, which are seen by the aestheticians as being too much like the politics of “actual life” and by the new historicists as being not enough like the politics of “actual life.” The complaint is different, but its target – the procedures and urgencies of professional activity – is the same, and so is the opposition underlying the different complaints, the opposition between an activity in touch with higher values and an activity that has abandoned those values for something base and philistine. Whether the values are generality, detachment, disembodied vision, and moral unity on the one hand or discontinuity, rupture, disintegration, and engagement on the other, the fear is that they will be compromised by the demands that issue from the pressures of careerism, the pressure to publish, to say something new, to get a job, to get promoted, to get recognized, to get famous, and so on. In the context of the aesthetic vision, these pressures are destructive of everything that is truly intellectual; in the context of the historicist vision, they are destructive of everything that is truly (as opposed to merely institutionally) political. Not only do the two visions share an enemy, they share a vocabulary, the vocabulary of transcendence, for in the discourses of both we are urged to free ourselves from parochial imperatives, to realize the true nature of our calling, to participate in that which is really and abidingly important. It is just that in one case the important thing is the life of the poetic mind, while in the other it is the struggle against repression and totalization; but that is finally only the difference between two differently pure acts, both of which are pure (or so is the claim) by not being the acts of an embedded professional.

Fish is playing the provocateur here, of course, as always, but I think he has rightly identified the constant temptation of the reformer, whether academic or religious or any other kind, which is to seek a purity of purpose and action that escapes the downward-dragging gravity of the grossly political. For Fish, it seems, there are three options for organizing the prestige-conferring, patronage-distributing system of the academic humanities: a falsely-pure aestheticism, a falsely-pure revolutionary politics, and a cheerfully impure intra-profession politics.

Now, even if we agree with Fish that we need to avoid the sham purities, the simulacra of transcendence, that our profession tends to embrace, and accept instead the inevitably political character of our profession, that doesn’t get us very far. In fact, by arguing that we should all just accept and work within professional norms without claiming that they are anchored in transcendent values, Fish simply avoids asking questions about how those norms are created and perpetuated: to Wellmon and Piper’s point about how our models of scholarship ground value in national and international publishing rather than in oral and local engagements, Fish could reply only with a Wittgensteinian shrug. But his warnings against utopian illusions should be noted and heeded by all would-be reformers.

(more forthcoming in another post)


  1. Purdue is a fine institution that's produced a lot of great scholars, but at no time during my doctoral education was I under the impression that I could climb to the really high echelons of academia, my own bad behaviors aside. The sense that your status in the pecking order was set long ago is really hard to avoid in graduate education, which only makes it more dispiriting.

  2. Freddie, I'm afraid you're right. But it starts earlier: I'm sure my B.A. from the University of Alabama meant that some doors were always going to be closed to me. Perhaps at each step of education and employment the options, for most of us, are reduced….

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