In praise of the edited collection

[A post first published at On History, the blog of the Institute of Historical Research.]

As a publishing format, the edited collection of essays has had a bad press. Collections are widely supposed to contain lesser work than scholarly journals; to be incoherent as volumes, no more than the sum of their parts; and to be less visible to potential readers once published. It’s often claimed that those who make decisions in relation to hiring, promotion, tenure and funding also share this opinion. To publish in or edit an essay collection is thought to risk being penalised for the format, before even a word is read.

But is this a fair assessment?

In my new book, The Edited Collection: pasts, present and futures (Cambridge University Press, £9.99), I attempt a defence of the format. I explore the modern history of the edited collection and the particular roles it has played. I then examine each component part of the critique, showing either that they’re largely unfounded or (if they are of real substance) that they may be resolved.

Though suspicion of the edited collection is found across the disciplines, it’s most trenchantly expressed from within the hard sciences in which both book chapters and indeed monographs figure little. (In 2014, 99.5% of submissions to REF Main Panel A — for medicine and biological sciences — were journal articles, leaving almost no space for alternative formats such as essays or monographs.)

In the arts and humanities, however, the picture is quite different. Here freestanding edited collections remain a far more significant publishing format, and one — moreover — that’s holding its own in relation to the alternatives.

Data from the Bibliography of British and Irish History shows that, as the scale of history publishing has grown, the relative proportions of monographs, journal articles and book chapters remained all but unchanged between 1996 and 2015. In the 2014 REF, for History, one book chapter was submitted for every 1.7 journal articles. As well as individual chapters, editors also submitted whole edited volumes for assessment as a unit; in the same REF one in five of the books submitted to Main Panel D was an edited volume.

But for historians, as for many across the humanities and social sciences, it’s not just a question of numbers.

In my book I adopt a case study approach to demonstrate the creative potential of the edited collection. The studies I explore show a rich interplay in such volumes, as scholars are brought together to add to—and to assess the state of—an issue, or indeed the current state and purpose of a discipline. On occasions this conversation has been confined within the academy; at other times it’s engaged other professionals outside with particular stakes in the matter under investigation. It has proved a natural vehicle for interdisciplinary enquiry. Such collections may either be the natural outgrowth of an existing group of scholars or the creation by an editor or publisher, sometimes bringing together those with opposing views. What emerges overall, however, is a profoundly communal and conversational endeavour.

One of my case studies is of a form of edited collection that is peculiar to history: the institutional history, and within this the histories of cathedrals in particular.

Several of the English cathedral churches date their foundation, or at least the building of their current structures, to the Anglo-Norman period. Consequently, as the end of the twentieth century approached, there was a series of cathedral histories, some of them tied to nine-hundredth or other anniversary commemorations. First off the mark was York Minster, with a volume of essays published in 1977 by the Clarendon Press. The initiative had come from the dean and chapter (the governing body of the minster), against a background of growing interest in its archaeology and its monuments.

An initial editorial committee included Owen Chadwick, regius professor of modern history at Cambridge (and also a priest and person of some influence within the Church of England), who also contributed a chapter. But the volume was also a local affair—edited by Gerald Aylmer, the first professor of history in the still young University of York, and Reginald Cant, canon chancellor of the minster. Most of the other contributors were university-based scholars connected either with Cambridge or York, but the early architecture was covered by Eric A. Gee of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, which was based in the city; the chapter on the minster library was by C. B. L. Barr, of the university library, in the custody of which the minster library was kept.

Since then, there has been a crop of similar volumes as the other ancient cathedrals have followed suit. Most of these volumes had some sort of connection with a local university, and involvement from writers associated with the cathedral itself. They have tended to encompass several disciplinary perspectives: national and local history, musicology, archaeology, bibliography and the history of art and architecture.

Chichester cathedral from the west. Image: Peter Webster.

The combination of these perspectives has varied, however, as has the relative weight of contributions from the city in question and from the wider university sector. Oxford University Press published the volume for Canterbury Cathedral, the principal church in England, in 1995. More than a decade in the planning, the impetus had come both from the Press and from Donald Coggan, archbishop of Canterbury until 1980. All three editors were connected with Canterbury, including Patrick Collinson, regius professor in Cambridge but formerly professor at the University of Kent. However, the team of contributors was overwhelmingly academic and drawn from the universities.

By contrast, the 1994 volume for Chichester was composed of work from a more diverse and locally focused group. It was edited by the cathedral archivist, Mary Hobbs, with the assistance of a historian at the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now the University of Chichester), Andrew Foster. The deputy county archivist (in whose care much of the historic archive rests) dealt with the cathedral’s archives and its antiquaries, and Hobbs herself with the library. The chapters on the medieval and early modern cathedral were from specialists, as were those on the architecture and on the cathedral’s art. The twentieth-century chapters, in contrast, were by clergy with a connection with the cathedral.

The cathedral history, then, has been a meeting point of institutional and local history with religious history more broadly, and the concerns of historians of architecture, music, art and of the book. The edited volume has been found to be a useful — indeed, probably the only — means of brokering that interchange.

On joining the crowdfunding revolution

A question often asked in the ongoing argument about Open Access and academic publishing is ‘what value do publishers add, exactly?’ I want to add one more element to the mix: academic publishers do a valuable service in protecting authors from the embarrassment of thinking and talking about money.

What do I mean by this? The business of researching and writing is an individual one, about as individual as they come. ‘I’ve got important things to say, that no-one else knows, and I’m really good at saying them’ we in effect say: ‘read my work’. And were academics not employed by universities, but were instead personal trainers, or management consultants, then day in, day out, they would be saying that very directly, to known individuals or organisations. ‘Hire me, and not the other guy; I’m really good. And these are my prices.’

But for scholars employed by universities, this relationship is diffused, and this direct transaction largely avoided. Although the ‘product’ is a unique one, it is produced for distribution to a larger group. Though one may know very well the small knot of readers who will most obviously want to read it (the people we’ve met at conferences), we assume that there is a larger reading public out there for our work, and it is for the publisher to manage that relationship for us.

Even those who have overcome the reticence about “blowing one’s own trumpet” on social media are shielded from the full knowledge of how their work is valued. Yes, tweets and posts are liked and shared, and replies and comments (good or bad) can come, but the medium does not force a translation of that attention into economic terms. If one publishes in a learned journal, as an author one receives no price feedback whatever, and in the case of books (and the royalty statements that come with them), it is often difficult to distinguish between library sales and sales to individuals. One would never know which individuals had bought a book unless they chose to tell us so.

And so I’m trying something new, something that feels both creative but also potentially very embarrassing. Over on the Patreon platform, it is now possible to sign up as a supporter of my work, at a princely sum of £2 per month. For this, supporters get advance access to some of the long-form writing that ends up on this blog (the length of time involved will vary from post to post). In time, I may well add more expensive tiers of membership that give access to work in progress, online events, competitions and the like.

But I hope to convince potential patrons that the main reason to sign up is to help support the provision of new writing to anyone and everyone, free of charge. The costs of the work are not vast, but they are not negligible either, and have to be covered somehow.

One of the strongest arguments for Open Access is that research that is funded from the public purse should be freely available to the public. I have never been in that position; not a word of my published work has been directly supported by the state. And so this experiment is one in an older way of funding creative work (and, yes, I would place humanities scholarship in that category). Rather than depending on a single aristocratic (or public) patron, artists and writers can now build dispersed communities of many patrons each making a small contribution. How such a community might shape the work itself remains to be seen. But first I’d like to see whether that community exists.

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The fame of C.S. Lewis: a review

Stephanie L. Derrick
The fame of C.S. Lewis. A controversialist’s reception in Britain and America
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
978-0-19-881944-8

[A review to be published in Reading Religion.]

Readers might be forgiven for asking how much more there is to be known about C.S. Lewis. The biographical materials for Lewis’ life are relatively small in bulk, and well known, and the published writings are also easily accessible. And scholars have come at the canon itself – the apologetics and the fiction in particular – from every conceivable angle. (There were more than 160 books published on Lewis in the decade after 2000). Alister McGrath, in the final chapter of his 2013 biography (reviewed here), briefly indicated a new direction of travel for Lewis studies, that paid attention not so much to the man and to the works, but to their reception. Stephanie L. Derrick has now given us the first extended essay in the subject, which will shape work on Lewis for perhaps a generation. Her scope is the UK and the United States as two analytic units treated as whole, and the works of Lewis in question are the Narnia stories and the most well-known apologetic works (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others).

The first chapter outlines Lewis’ conscious fashioning of his literary self as a kind of ‘Ulster contrarian’, a ‘Christian dinosaur’ with a vocation to reach popular audiences with his rejection of modernism in both literature and (in a wider sense) theology and society. Chapter 2 sets out Lewis’ reputation with his peers in the UK, and in particularly in Oxford. These two chapters will not surprise specialist readers in matters of detail to any great extent, but they frame the main burden of the book: that there were radically different trajectories in Lewis’ reception in the USA and in the UK, which are to be explained both by specific religious and cultural conditions, but also by the degree to which Lewis was known as an individual alongside his writings. In the UK, academic readers and others in the literary and journalistic fields knew, or thought they knew, a Lewis who was tricksy, unreliable, an invented literary persona; it was unclear where the posture ended and the man began. (Significantly, reference was often made to his Irishness, which meant different things to an English audience than it did in the USA).

Readers in the USA, by contrast, reacted rather more to what Derrick calls a ‘Platonic Lewis’, found in the writings alone, detached from the very specific literary and cultural context into which he intended to speak. Free to shape an idea of Lewis to their own purposes, American readers’ engagement with Lewis had a ubiquity and intensity that far outstripped that in the UK, where there remained a persistent unease with Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of fiction. Derrick’s exposition of these contrasting national reactions is acute and convincing, although there of course remains room for further refinement within each story, both chronologically and sociologically.

In all this, Derrick’s reading of Lewis’ fame against the religious context in which he was read is fresh and invigorating. The most innovative aspect of the study, however, is in chapter 4, where Derrick examines Lewis and the ‘mechanisms of mass culture’. Religious historians of the twentieth century have not always paid sufficient attention to the means by which religious ideas are communicated. Derrick’s achievement is to direct attention not just away from the man to the reader, but also to the sheer contingency of his fame. Lewis’ reputation was shaped not so much by the intrinsic appeal of the work as the fact that it coincided with particular moments in technological history. Radio broadcasting in the UK during the 1940s; the peculiar liveliness of learned periodical culture after the war; the development of a market for paperback children’s fiction (and marketing devices such as the Puffin Club); patterns in library acquisition; the decisions of the Lewis estate; the control of his works as it passed from publisher to publisher; the internal dynamics of media conglomerates with interests in film as well as print: Lewis’ fame is inexplicable without considering the interactions of all these parts of the broad ecosystem of ideas.

Given this sensitivity to technological and economic context, one curious – and explicit – omission is the impact of Lewis online, especially as Derrick draws attention in her conclusion to the dependence of British evangelicals on American resources, which is surely in part a function of the Internet. This leaves open a significant gap to be filled by other scholars, as there is also for a history of Lewis’ books as designed objects, and of their illustrations in particular.

These cavils aside, Dr Derrick has given us a striking and important study. It should find a wide readership among historians of Christianity and of twentieth century literature, as well as those interested in the history of the media. Well written, generously produced and reasonably priced, it deserves an audience outside the academy.

Conversations in print: Anglican theology and the edited collection

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Liberty and community, risk and trust: a plea for the edited collection

Edited collections of essays are widely supposed to contain lesser work than scholarly journals; to be incoherent as volumes, no more than the sum of their parts; and to be less visible once published. It is also often assumed that those who make decisions in relation to hiring, promotion, tenure and funding think the same. To publish in or edit an essay collection is thought to risk being penalised for the format before even a word is read.

In my forthcoming short book on the edited collection, I examine each component part of this critique, showing that each objection either is largely unfounded or could be met. While edited collection chapters have been less visible than journal articles, the problem is one of information systems rather than anything fundamental to the format; the situation has improved and is likely to continue to improve. In spite of scholars’ perceptions, it is not clear that there has been a generalised loss of confidence in the format amongst publishers. Without much more further research, it is also hard to say that there is any universal citation deficit when chapters are compared to journal articles. And though the systems of quality control commonly used for collections may be different to those for journals, it is not clear that they are any less robust. Much depends on the editor(s).

Despite the lack of empirical evidence, however, this suspicion of the format remains strong, both in the perceptions of scholars and in the way those perceptions are tacitly or openly embedded in systems of research assessment. There is a persistent misalignment between (on the one hand) what scholars believe is in the best interest of their discipline and (on the other) their sense of the professional incentives under which they must work. And such perceptions tend to be self-fulfilling, since a maligned publishing format will attract lesser work from scholars less committed to the task, and thus suffer in terms of quality, significance and impact.

The story of the edited collection in the last three decades is a story of the interplay of technological change, economics, public policy and the changing nature of the scholarly enterprise, where none is wholly cause or wholly effect. But unease with the format predates the disruptions of the last few years; fundamental factors of motivation and personality are in play, as is the relation of individual and collective in academic life. I want to explore these here.

The idea of academic freedom generally comes into view only when it is threatened in a direct way: by the compulsion, whether by governments or indeed universities, to publish certain things and not others, in certain venues and not in others, and at a certain rate. To transpose Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between two kinds of liberty out of its original context, the freedom from direction or constraint in this way is a form of negative liberty.

The second of Berlin’s two ideas, is that of positive liberty: the freedom not so much from direct constraint as ‘to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.’ One critic of the edited collection used a highly revealing phrase. To publish one’s work in a edited collection, he argued, is to allow oneself to be distracted by the thematic priorities of others: to divert time and effort into publishing work that, left to one’s own devices, one might not have pursued. Instead, scholars should pursue their own ‘sovereignly set research agenda’. Positive academic liberty, in this sense, is the freedom to take sole control of one’s work, to pursue one’s fundamental intellectual purpose solely in accordance with its own logic.

In an earlier essay Berlin made another distinction, between two kinds of intellectual personality, the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing whereas the fox knows something about many things; the hedgehog’s instinct is to relate all things to a single, coherent vision; the fox’s thought is centrifugal, operating on many levels, ‘scattered or diffused.’ The scholarly hedgehog, then, is likely to value his or her academic sovereignty – or, his positive liberty – to a greater extent than does the fox; better to pursue one’s singular vision than to be waylaid by contributing to a project conceived by others.

Berlin published both essays long before many of the contemporary pressures of publishing culture and academic assessment came to bear. However, it may be that, for some scholars, the edited collection will always remain uncongenial for the constraints it must involve and for the distraction it may prove to be from their sovereign research agenda: an infringement of their positive academic liberty.

But the state of the edited collection is an indication of the health of a certain idea of scholarly community, which persists still, though in inhospitable conditions. It may be that the internalisation (in universities) of an imperative of competitiveness that Kathleen Fitzpatrick has outlined – connected to a wider stress on the ‘creative’ marketing of the self – has dulled the inclination to co-operate. Be that as it may, I suspect (although I could not prove) that most scholars, though both ambitious and rightly proud of their work, would aspire to a more generous mode of academic relationship, if the conditions allowed it. The edited collection at its best offers a model of that community.

One’s life in any community involves the acceptance of some mutual obligation, and a realisation that the interests of the whole are sometimes best served by the constraint of one’s own. As a contributor, I may have to accept some shaping of my work as I collaborate with an editor to turn my contribution into something that is in dialogue with the other chapters, and helps the whole collection amount to more than the sum of its parts. This may sometimes be an agreeable intrusion, and one that in fact improves my work in ways in which I did not expect; at other times it may be less welcome, but still necessary. Though perhaps not all would accept it, I would argue that as a contributor I have also an obligation to the other contributors to the book to commit the time and energy required to produce work of the required standard at the times laid down, or to withdraw in good time if I cannot so commit.

At the same time, these obligations are mutual, or ought to be, but without some level of trust between those involved, such a system is bound to fail. As I recognise my obligation to the other contributors, I am required to take a risk: to trust the other contributors similarly to commit themselves. Just as the editor takes a risk to his or her reputation in trusting me to contribute, so I must trust the editor to complete their work in a similar fashion. I trust them also to intervene to create the most coherent and impactful work that there can be, even if it involves rejecting the work of others (or even mine).

And it is here that the misalignment of academic and institutional interests is most obvious. For a university with one eye on its finances and the other on the capriciousness of government policy, to seek to minimise any perceived risk when dealing with centrally-administered research assessment is a rational response. Scholars, competing to secure an academic job, or promotion, or tenure, may also be forgiven for trimming their sails to the wind: for aligning their published work with what are thought to be the criteria on which it will be judged. Again, the attempt to mitigate risk is entirely rational. The suspicion of the edited collection is surely due in part to this risk-averseness. Even if individual works are ostensibly assessed on their own merits, and scholars continue to regard these works as among their best, an ill-defined perception of risk attachs to the format as a whole. The irony is that to dispel that perception, scholars and editors will need to embrace that risk and commit, together, to making the unsuccessful edited collection a thing of the past.