Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 195-196
A recent issue of Lingua Franca, "The Review of Academic Life," cites the editor of PMLA as noting that the most widely known of academic journals has experienced a reduction in submissions from a high of 660 in 1977 to a low in 2000 of 191. My initial reaction to this shocking report is personal--and perhaps trivial: JML, itself down from a high of 300 or so submissions a decade ago, appears to receive nearly as many submissions as PMLA and does so without the institutional connection that is key to that journal's existence. More significantly, the Lingua Franca article points to changes in the profession, not all of which, I suspect, either the author of the article or his sources appreciate fully.
It is a truism by now to comment that teaching in American universities--especially in the humanities, especially in English departments--is profoundly different from what it was in 1960, when I gave up forever my childhood desire for the Law and became an English instructor. My European teaching friends assure me that they are encountering a similar malaise, but my own experience teaching at universities in Portugal, Spain, the former Yugoslavia, and on both Canadian coasts, suggests that North American affairs are infinitely worse. This is not the time to comment in detail on the causes: the foolishly applied industrial model to university life; the failure to recognize that the quality of the product should matter as much for universities as for industries; the evident belief that it is possible to have a university without a faculty; the sense in some places that it is impossible to maintain both a football team and a faculty and that the former is obviously preferable. But we all know the flaws of university administrators and trustees; we might profitably consider as well our own role in creating the current, sad condition of our profession. The PMLA experience may prove instructive here.
The Lingua Franca article 1 emphasizes the dilatory and sometimes perverse publishing decisions made by some academic journals. This is a genuine issue, to be sure, and I'm pleased to note that JML as a general rule is among those journals which respond promptly to submissions--especially when our decision is not to publish. We do so by following the practice, applauded in the article, of having the essay read in-house before sending it out for expert opinions. We do so, however, not for the sake of speed, but because it enables me to exercise editorial control from the very beginning of the process: all initial in-house readings are my responsibility. (And, in truth, when I'm traveling or recuperating from major surgery, as I was this past spring, this may slow down our review process.) But just as speed is not our primary concern in reviewing submissions, so it is not, I believe, the major issue raised by the article. It is not so much, I suspect, that scholars are sending their essays to journals other than PMLA, or than JML for that matter: I suspect that a systematic survey of all academic journals would reveal that the entire community is suffering from the same perceived weakness.
There are some ironies here, not least among them the fact that, for JML at least, this has been a beneficial change. We receive far fewer essays that are obviously unsuited to our announced interests, but that I've usually felt obliged to read in any event. (On the principle that every one of us is entitled to a professional response to our professional acts, a principle that I assume will be applied as well to the essays which I send out to other journals.) Of the essays that we do receive today, a much greater percentage consists of work that is at least [End Page 195] potentially suited to our interests. I would like to believe--and I have sometimes been told--that this is because we have made clear both our traditional interests and our openness to certain new subjects and...