Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A bookseller's response to the MLA recommendations for doctoral programs, and some counter recommendations

I spent a good part of the last week “doing bibliography” (which is sung, in my head, in Danny Kaye’s voice, to the tune of the White Christmas number, “Choreography”). The specific issue I was trying to track down had to do with Kenneth Patchen’s An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air, a book I’d never heard of until I acquired a copy in a recent batch of books I bought.
It turns out that Patchen was, as I learned, America’s most well-known anti-war poet during World War II, and the book was printed in 1945 by a tiny press based in an Oregon camp for conscientious objectors. In my copy, the title page is printed in error three or four leaves from the end of the book. I was having trouble identifying it, because the information about the publication of this book available on the internet was vague, obscure, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes apparently wrong, even when when some of that information apparently came from Patchen himself. Authors, it pays to recall, are not always fully informed about the publication and printing process for their own books.

Title page text printed over poem 32

Eventually, I think I tracked down the story: my copy is one of fifty or fewer (out of an edition limited to 1,950), marred by a printing error involving one sheet--that is, four leaves or eight pages. William Everson, the printer (and a poet in his own right), described in an interview some of the difficulties involved in the printing, in which “the project broke down halfway through. I tried to get more paper for it” (Imprint: Oregon 5, nos. 1-2 [1978-79]: 19). 

In the bibliography Everson prepared to accompany this interview in Imprint: Oregon, he describes the paper used in An Astonished Eye in these terms: “25 x 38 - 100 M Gabardine Book paper (Carter, Rice & Co.); all but 50 copies have one sheet (8 pp.) of 26 x 40 - 100 M Hadley Deckle, necessitated by having to discard one sheet because of an error & being unable to secure Gabardine” (38). 

In his remarks on the edition, Everson writes of one of the lessons (hopefully) learned in printing this book: “for small editions, two up is as good as four” (38): in other words, the error in question derives from setting and printing four pages at once, rather than two, with the problems of  arrangement and inversion that the “four up” layout involves.  Since the printing error in my copy affects just one sheet, and manifestly involves having mismatched content on the rectos and versos of individual pages, it is presumably an early copy marred by the very error Everson noted, this copy having gone so far as to be bound before the folding, trimming, and binding revealed the error.
I tell this story of bibliographic detective work simply to note that the work of book collectors, dealers, and sellers is, often enough, contributory to the academic enterprise itself. Bookselling, at least at the rare book level, is a knowledge-generating discipline, as thoroughly and as necessarily as is academic teaching and research. It seems important for me to note this now, especially in relation to the recent flurry of Facebook and blog posts I’ve seen crossing my (electronic) desktop in response to the Modern Language Association’s (the MLA’s, that is) recently released report on rethinking how we might better prepare doctoral students for “alt-ac” or “non-academic” careers. As a member in good standing of the MLA, as well as someone who has a "non-academic" career, I feel I have a voice in these matters that might usefully be heard.
Strikingly, the MLA report seems to suggest that its members can address the difficulty new doctoral graduates often have in finding good teaching jobs by somehow preparing graduate students better or more broadly: their recommendations tend to focus on various kinds of professionalization during doctoral work. 

But what it seems to me is needed is a much wider response, one in which working academics make a commitment to recognize (publicly and vocally and repeatedly) the degree to which the very things they teach to their doctoral (and other) students are already contributory to the knowledge-generating and knowledge-sharing disciplines and professions that lie outside of English and language and literature departments.
 At the very heart of the issue, I think, is the central claim that these other careers are not "academic." My work on the Patchen book depended heavily upon the very skills and knowledge I learned in my academic training and in my academic career. Likewise, the experience of tracking down all this information taught me a great deal, and what I discovered could probably be reformatted into a short academic bibliographic essay or note. I may even write that note at some point and try to publish it. But whether I do or not, the example serves to remind me (and others, I hope) that bookselling at this level is already an academic enterprise in a very meaningful sense, supported by academic knowledge and generative of insights and knowledge that should be valued by academic readers. As is also true, of course, of museum and curatorial work, librarianship and archival work, public sector history and folklore, and so on.
What I would like to see the MLA and its members do is to reach out to these related disciplines, honor them, incorporate their efforts at knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing into the MLA’s sense of what academic work is. Surely a doctoral student who takes a job with Sotheby’s in the rare book department would be a success story for any doctoral program in the country: but that student’s teachers will need to honor and respect such work before they could see such a placement in those terms. And that job at Sotheby’s may even pay better than many teaching jobs, too.
 So: my utopian plea to any MLA members in my audience is to not wait. Do this yourselves and do it now. 

Embrace the already-existing diversity of work and careers which engage with knowledge-making and -sharing in your field, whether those careers involve booksellers, public historians, art printers, archivists, publishers, museum professionals, folklorists, or even other professions I haven’t yet considered. 

Make sure to include papers from these folks in your conference panels (especially at the MLA), in your volumes of collected essays, in readings for your courses; make sure to listen to these people as valued voices of diversity—that rarest commodity in the academic world, diversity of experience and profession; make sure to understand what these people do as well as you understand the collegiate enterprise. 

Go to their conferences and their panels; try to contribute to what they value, too. And think clearly and openly and publicly about what price is being paid if you—as an individual, as a department, as a discipline, as the MLA itself—choose not to do this work of inclusion.
Ostensible title page, printed with title of poem 34
Speaking with a new acquaintance at the big medieval conference in Kalamazoo this past May, I described what I have found interesting and rewarding about bookselling. This person, who has worked both as a librarian and as an academic in the UK, described bookselling as “a more noble profession” than academic teaching, and I am not too proud to say that I treasured that perspective. 

Working as a bookseller has given me a fascinating new insight into the (sometimes literal, monetary) value of books and texts and even knowledge; academics in the language and literature fields would do well, I think, to think more clearly about how they "value" the work they do, and the work of those who are already in the academic orbit. And they would do well to recognize that that orbit is already much wider than college teaching alone, and that their students can remain scholars, teachers, and learners, even outside their teachers’ traditional and narrow vision of the academy.