Wednesday, October 28, 2015

ProQuest: Not "empowering researchers," not for one minute*

Why, it seems like just yesterday that I was praising the Renaissance Society of America for providing access to the most important database for scholars of Early Modern England.

And in fact, it was almost yesterday--just under two years ago.

Today I learned that, despite the RSA's pioneering leadership and concern for the needs of scholars at under-resourced institutions (or those working without any institutional affiliation at all), ProQuest has decided to terminate the relationship with the RSA because it's concerned that it might--potentially, down the line--lose revenue as a result.

Here's the full text of the letter from the RSA's Executive Committee to its membership:

Dear RSA members,

The RSA Executive Committee regrets to announce that ProQuest has canceled our subscription to the Early English Books Online database (EEBO). The basis for the cancellation is that our members make such heavy use of the subscription, this is reducing ProQuest's potential revenue from library-based subscriptions. We are the only scholarly society that has a subscription to EEBO, and ProQuest is not willing to add more society-based subscriptions or to continue the RSA subscription. We hoped that our special arrangement, which lasted two years, would open the door to making more such arrangements possible, to serve the needs of students and scholars. But ProQuest has decided for the moment not to include any learned societies as subscribers. Our subscription will end a few days from now, on October 31. We realize this is very late notice, but the RSA staff have been engaged in discussions with ProQuest for some weeks, in the hope of negotiating a renewal. If they change their mind, we will be the first to re-subscribe.

Sincerely yours,

The RSA Executive Committee
Carla Zecher, Joseph Connors, James Grubb, Edward Muir, Pamela Smith

As the outrage on Twitter makes clear, this is an absurd concern. Most of us would love to have institutional subscriptions to EEBO, so that our students (undergraduate, M.A., and Ph.D.) could do their own research. The RSA's group subscription is no threat to that possibility; what is a threat is ProQuest's prohibitive subscription fees. Nowhere I've worked, apart from my doctoral institution, has had a subscription--and we've tried to get an institutional subscription in the past; several departments and the library were in full support, but it just wasn't financially feasible.

Until the RSA made EEBO access a perk of membership, I just used the login of a friend at a richer institution. And that's what I'll be doing, again, as will thousands of others. ProQuest will lose its revenue from the RSA and gain no additional institutional subscriptions.

If you want to tell ProQuest how you feel about this craven, mercenary move--well, I can't stop you. Twitter handle: @ProQuest

*Thus saith ProQuest's Twitter bio

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Differently smart

In high school, I was pretty sure there was only one kind of smart.

I mean, yes: I knew that people might be smart in different areas--a whiz at math wasn't always a great writer--but I still saw intelligence as a thing that one either had or did not have, or that one had to a greater or a lesser degree. In other words, I didn't have much of a "growth mindset." At most I had an "if I work really hard, I probably won't fail" mindset.

Even in college I tended to see my peers as belonging to one of basically three categories:
  1. REALLY smart (and therefore terrifying)
  2. normal
  3. pretentious poseur who's probably faking it.
In my first two years of grad school I further reduced the categories: everyone was either terrifying or a poseur.

Gradually, though, I started to realize that not everyone who was intimidatingly learned or articulate in seminar was equally good at other things. At first I could only flip the binary around (so-and-so must not really be smart at all!), but eventually I was able to accommodate the idea that people simply have different strengths. Some of my peers were miles ahead of me in certain areas, but that didn't mean I was doomed. On the other hand, the one or two things I turned out to be good at--even unusually good at--were hardly some secret key to success.

Maybe this is obvious to normal people. But the idea that being good at one thing doesn't make a person smart in some absolute and holistic way is still something I struggle with. I admire, excessively, those who have talents I don't--especially if they're ones I wish I had and feel self-conscious for not having--and then am sometimes confused and disappointed when they turn out not to be as good at things I consider easy and basic.

And when it comes to rarer and more extraordinary gifts, I'm often very slow to recognize them. It's easy to identify the good writer, the spell-binding speaker, and the person who seems to have read three hundred years' of scholarship in five languages; it's harder to identify those with a special knack for helping other people grow and make intellectual connections: the person able to completely restructure and revitalize a major, identify and nurture pathbreaking new work as a journal editor, or who can, in five minutes' conversation, transform your understanding of your own project for ever.

But though I resist it, I suppose it's comforting, too: if most people aren't good at everything, that means there are more cookies to go around.

And if there's one thing I believe in, it's more cookies.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

My friend, the author

Lately I've been having the same experience over and over--the surprising disorientation of reading terrific work by people whom I previously knew only socially. And each time I'm surprised to be surprised: these are friends! People I know are smart! People with whom I've discussed projects and presses and publication strategies. And yet the experience of reading their work is both strangely estranging and a bit like falling in love.

It is, I imagine, similar to the experience a child has upon realizing that her mom or dad isn't just her mom or dad, but is also a trial lawyer or VP for marketing, and thus has another life totally unlike the one the child sees and knows.

Maybe this response is unique to me--the result of not having had friends in grad school with whom I exchanged work, or of being in a niche sub-field. But I suspect it isn't, or isn't totally: our academic friends, the people we hang out with at the conference hotel bar or have over for dinner, are friends. We like them because we like them. Knowing what a person's vita looks like and complaining about work and swapping professional advice isn't the same thing as reading her prose. Even hearing a person deliver a conference paper isn't the same as reading the eventual article: the ideas may be the same, but even the strongest conference paper doesn't fully convey the writer's voice or the way her mind expresses itself in the silence of the printed page.

It would be going too far to say that reading a friend's work is like encountering a totally different person, but it's a bit like encountering your awesome friend's awesome sister: there's clearly a continuity between them, and as time goes on it will become impossible to think of the one without the other--but at first blush all you can see are the differences: this one has pink hair and used to be a professional archer; that one works for the State Department and collects netsuke.

(The opposite experience--finally meeting the real, live person who wrote a book or essay you admire--can also be disorienting, but it's somehow more expected. We know, at least intellectually, that an author is something other than the human being who walks around bearing that name, just as we know that the person we see on the screen would not be the person we'd meet in the street.)

As for discovering that someone I thought was awesome in person is actually a crappy or pedestrian writer. . . frankly, I've never had that experience. There are certainly people in the world who are smart and hilarious in person but who write abysmally flat prose--a phenomenon I truly didn't understand when I first encountered it in high school--but literary studies probably selects for those who are better than average at matching writing voice to personality; I know I select for it among my friends.

But if this is a surprise, it's unquestionably a pleasurable one. So friends-whose-work-I've-just-read: it's not that I didn't expect your work to be smart! I just didn't expect it to be smart like this.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Who gets hired when: the Chronicle is ON IT!*

Earlier this week the Chronicle published the first analysis of data from the 2013-2014 job market and made its JobTracker tool fully accessible and searchable (well, mostly: it's in beta, and I've run into a number of bugs and error messages). The data the authors have crunched so far are in the service of answering the question of whether waiting pays off, or, to put it more negatively, for how long one remains marketable post-PhD.

Since I'm in English literature, those figures interested me the most--and they suggest that hiring now is much the same as it was when I was first on the market ten years ago: just under 50% of the jobs went to those who were either ABD (usually, about to defend) or within one year of their degree conferral; almost 80% of the jobs went to those who were no more than three years post-degree.

A lot of caveats apply to the data the Chronicle team has assembled, some of which they acknowledge--the JobTracker, so far, contains only one year's worth of data, so it's hardly predicative--and some of which they don't: although only 2% of the positions listed in English literature in 2013 went to candidates whose degrees were eight years old, it's impossible to know how many candidates with eight-year-old PhDs were still in the applicant pool; a lot have surely left academia, so perhaps, percentage-wise, the remainder are doing quite well.

Moreover, in my discipline, they have data for only 73% of the job listings--which is a lot, but it's hard to say whether the other 27% might change the picture significantly. For instance, the position I'm currently holding is one of the "unknowns," presumably because I negotiated a year's delay and wasn't at this job when the data were collected. As it happens, since my degree was conferred in December 2005, I would have been another person in the "eight years post-degree" column. . . but as someone who got her first tenure-track job within a year of degree, I'm hardly proof of the proposition that waiting pays off.

And that's the other thing that the data don't reveal (although anyone interested could drill down and collect the information for herself): how many of the people three or four or five years post-degree who got jobs as assistant professors in 2013-14 are actually on their first tenure-track job and how many are on their second. The conventional wisdom is that it's easiest to switch TT jobs when you're between two and four years in, and at my previous job that did seem to be the sweet spot. Of the dozen or so TT hires we made in my time there, most were within three years of their PhD (though I believe we hired none who were ABD and none who hadn't had at least a year as a full-time lecturer or VAP), and several were lateral hires, with two years on the TT elsewhere.

There are other ways to crunch the data than age-of-degree: with a little hunting, you can see how many of the successful candidates in 2013-14 came from which schools (click on the school itself, and you'll see not just whom they hired, but which of their graduates got which jobs). Again, for a single year, this isn't proof of much, and you still have to disaggregate those just finding a first job from those on their second (or third); you also have no way of knowing how many of their students were on the market that year: a department might have, in absolute terms, a large number of successful candidates for 2013-14, while not having a particularly strong placement record overall.

Still, though the data are incomplete and imperfect, this is a terrific resource. I await next year's data, and the year after that, and I look forward to the day when we can claim to have a clearer picture of the trends.

*I mean that sincerely, though often I don't. (For reference, see here.)

Saturday, October 03, 2015

As order longs for chaos

We're a bit obsessed, in my household, with Dahlia Lithwick's "Muppet Theory": her tongue-in-cheek (but totally convincing!) assertion that the world can be divided into two kinds of people: Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets. Here's Lithwick's initial distinction:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and--paradigmatically--Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets--and I'm thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harrassed by Grover at restaurants...--tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. It's not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other. . . . It's simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.

(But really, if you haven't read the whole essay, you should do it now.)

There's no doubt that I'm an Order Muppet and Cosimo is a Chaos Muppet, but upon first reading Lithwick's article I did feel a bit of a pang when I realized that Miss Piggy--whom I adored so much as a child that I dressed up as her for two Halloweens in a row--was a Chaos Muppet and thus Not My Type At All. But since part of Lithwick's theory is that Order Muppets tend to pair off with Chaos Muppets, I rationalized my enthusiasm as just an early sign of my life-long attraction to Chaos Muppets.

Recently, though, we bought a few DVDs of the original Muppet Show. After watching some episodes and finding my love for Piggy undiminished, I came up with a new theory: just as Tolstoy, according to Isaiah Berlin, was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, so am I a Kermit who longs to be a Piggy.

So glad I could clear that up.