This semester, in my senior capstone, I've been having my students choose most of the scholarship we read. We spent a few weeks reading and collectively working through essays that I'd assigned, but then they were loosed upon the MLA database to find their own.
It's been working well--better than some of my past strategies for acquainting undergraduates with academic prose--and I'll be reprising it for future classes. Still, I've noticed something curious: 80% of the articles my students have chosen have come from the same journal. Since I gave them a list of 10 possible journals, the reliability of this one isn't an issue; it's a solid publication, if not the most high-powered. If you'd asked me to rank those ten journals, back in August, I'd have placed it at maybe #8 or #9.
Having now read a whole slew of recent articles from that journal, I can't say I'd change its ranking--but I do have a new appreciation for what it does well.
First, it publishes shorter pieces, on the order of 15 printed pages of text, not counting notes, and they're usually well-structured and tightly argued. (I suspect the relative brevity of its articles is part of what attracts my students to this journal.) Second, its articles are surprisingly good models for advanced undergraduate and M.A. students: they demonstrate mastery of existing criticism; familiarity with the author's larger body of work (and/or the work's genre and/or its time period); facility in close reading; the ability to apply a useful theoretical framework where called for. And they generally do all those things both efficiently and explicitly, with every movement clearly signposted.
Indeed, reading this group of articles made me reflect on how tough scholarly articles can be for undergraduates and even many M.A. students, and how quickly they get lost in the weeds: they just can't figure out why the author is suddenly spending 10 pages talking about some minor historical event or track the way she's positioning herself within an existing critical tradition. That's not necessarily the author's fault, or at least not in the kind of articles I usually select; it's just that scholars write for other specialists and assume lots of prior knowledge. And over the course of a longer essay the big-picture argument and how its component pieces fit together can be harder to see.
But although I liked a lot of things about the articles my students found, even the most interesting and persuasive usually came up short. The best way I can describe it is to say that they lacked the final "turn": the explanation for why all this matters in some bigger way. In several cases I could see quite clearly what that turn might be--the dots were all in place, waiting to be connected--but the author declined to do so.
From a pedagogical perspective this isn't a crushing weakness, since it's an opportunity to talk about what more an author might have done to improve an already good piece of writing. And in the future, I can open the semester with essays from this particular journal as a way of introducing my students to the kinds of moves that academic prose makes before progressing to more sophisticated examples.
But I admit I find it odd that this journal publishes work that is so good in so many ways while mostly failing to rise to the next level. Maybe it's about length--a short essay can do a lot of things well, but it's not usually the place for a big claim--or maybe it's about the journal's place in the food chain: it gets tidy little essays that the authors either never wished to be bigger or that they tried and failed to get published elsewhere.
It's nice knowing that there are venues that publish modest but reliably good work, and a useful reminder that not every contribution to scholarship needs to rock the foundations.
Still, in the future, I'm imposing some quotas.