For the uninitiated, this article from an old issue of The Believer is a great description of MLA. Especially this bit about publishing and tenure:

The upshot: university presses, once institutions of gentlemanly loss in the service of niche scholarship, have been forced to reorient themselves toward the bottom line. Scholarly criteria—most notably the process of peer review, whereby potential titles are sent out to experts in the field for vetting purposes—have ceded to market criteria. So the whole affair, especially the spending of lavish amounts of money on corporate-funded science journals, underlines the general fear about the steady encroachment of commercial interests into the sanctum of the university.

And there’s a flipside: university presses are simply putting out too many titles. The number of scholarly monographs (book-length treatments of one subject, as opposed to collections or anthologies) in MLA-related fields in the year 2000 was twice what it was in 1989, though by most accounts the achievements of scholarship in that time have probably not doubled. This is where the publishing crisis and the tenure crisis bleed together. Most schools require one book for tenure, which usually means one book within the first five or six years out of grad school—the same years that assistant professors have the biggest teaching loads and the smallest salaries (not to mention that they’re often new parents, as Charlie is). To fulfill this book requirement, most young professors go one of two routes: they either rewrite their dissertations for publication, or they puff up one substantial journal article with some bibliographical essays and call it a book. But a dissertation is a dissertation and an article is an article and neither is a book, so their publication waters down the whole field and leads right back to the publishing crisis outlined above.

“Vicious cycle” doesn’t even begin to describe it. First, it means that the presses have become the de facto site of tenure evaluation, because the people who work there are the ones who decide which books to publish. This is an unwelcome responsibility for institutions that are already overtaxed and underfunded and thus teetering on the brink of collapse, not to mention pressured into bottom-line considerations and thus less inclined to put out abstruse monographs in the first place. Second—and this is where the whole thing goes from merely unfortunate to genuinely catastrophic, and where audience members gag, actually gag—everyone knows that first books are either revised dissertations or fattened-up journal articles, so there’s talk at some universities about a second book for tenure. The second book was originally the basis for promotion to full professor, so now we’re talking about three books for the ultimate promotion—three books for increasingly market-driven presses in an increasingly hostile market. Which means not only three books, but three books that might sell, which is hard enough for people who are trying to write for a general audience.

And this small appreciation of the “purpose” of humanities scholars:

“So now I can defend you guys by saying you do some obscure niche-work and write for your own community and it’s not necessarily relevant and it’s not really useful, but there’s a kind of beauty to it anyway and we’re probably all better off that at least someone is living the life of the mind, even if it seems like outer space sometimes. But it’s punctured all kinds of mythologies I once had about academia as this sublime place.”

The game cuts to a commercial and Charlie turns to me. “Well, I don’t know, it’s like caring about PAC-10 basketball. They don’t really stack up with the rest of the country, they usually don’t do that well in March, it’s kind of its own universe, but it’s still awesome. You’re better off taking the shots you can make, you know?”

There have been a number of panels on translation at this year’s MLA, including ones featuring both Suzanne Jill Levine and Michael Henry Heim (unfortunately, I only made it to one, thanks to a 7-1/2 hour layover in Las Vegas, which may well be the antithesis of MLA), and next year’s “Presidential Forum” is on translation, which bodes well. (All of which is a great opportunity to spread the word about the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation Studies, which is in process of being approved by the State of New York.)

I have to admit though, aside from the wonderful conversations with publishers and booksellers (like Peggy Fox and Declan Spring from New Directions, Paul Yamazaki from City Light, Sara Kramer from NYRB, David Kipen from NEA), I’d rather be reading the 25 Best Translated Books longlist, and am really looking forward to having time to start writing about these again . . .

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