- The Book in the Age of Academic Anxiety
We are living in the age of academic anxiety. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed are peppered with articles that signal declining respect for higher education, and tenure-track numbers, as we know, are dropping precipitously while states are defunding higher education, asking that we do more with less. Politicians tell us we are to blame for increasing educational costs and unaffordable tuition. And, as we also know, as support constricts, technology is being touted as a means to bring greater efficiency to academia. We are asked to implement online courses, use digital processes, streamline our time to publication through technological functions, and produce more and more. Increasingly seen as part of the neoliberal university, technology has come to represent a mechanism being used to dismantle the modern university, a false utopian scheme to remake a system that, while not broken, is neither valued nor funded.
For faculty, neoliberal techno-utopianism has encroached on one of the most central expressions of academia, the book. Scholarly books are increasingly purchased by university libraries as digital forms, rather than the more comfortable print version, and digital databases have replaced both primary and secondary texts. Libraries are moving print books to offsite locations or culling books at alarming rates while also removing bookshelves to make way for gathering spaces and cafes. As libraries move toward digital resources, publishers explore the means of production, spurred on by declining support for academic presses and the growth of initiatives by granting agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The latter, for example, has funded a number of fellowships for academics interested in [End Page 394] experimenting with forms of the book in the digital environment, grants to model digital publishing contracts, as well as grants for the digital publication of African American studies scholarship—all important projects. The leadership of Mellon and NEH is crucial as we turn more and more to digital scholarly production, but the push for digital publishing leaves some academics skeptical, a skepticism largely centered on the digital ties to economics. Mellon notes, in its description of the electronic publishing grants, that one of three goals of their program is to focus on "those publishing projects that experiment with new business models that promise to make academic publishing in the humanities more sustainable" ("Electronic Publishing"). There is no doubt that academic publishing has been otherwise defunded, but many in academia resist a technological solution to what seems to be the capitalist narrative that challenges many underlying assumptions about academic research.
The print book is, in part, the fetishized symbol representing an increased anxiety about academia. The mechanisms of knowledge production and the values assigned to that production are increasingly represented as merely economic, with certain types of monographs losing ground due to marketability. It is increasingly difficult to place scholarly monographs that are geared to a small audience, such as the noncanonical, single-author-focused analysis, leaving certain types of scholarship locked out of publication. This is a growing problem, and as Jerome McGann argued in 2005,
most university presses are running at increasingly sharp deficits. Given the current model of academic publishing, this trend will not be reversed, as everyone inside the university publishing network knows. We scholars are producing larger and larger amounts of scholarship and passing it to a delivery system with diminishing capacities to sustain its publication.(76)
When a faculty member goes to the library and finds that the desired scholarly book is not on the shelf and only available through an online checkout system that will deliver to a tablet or phone, a system that may be difficult for them to engage with close reading, they are reminded that old systems of knowledge...