Academic Freedom and the Digital Revolution

By Ashley Dawson

In spring 2009, the University of Michigan Press sent out a letter by e-mail to its authors announcing the end of business as usual at the press. Having entered into an agreement with the university library at Michigan, UM Press, the letter stated, had initiated “a transformative scholarly publishing model” in which all publications are to be made available primarily in digital format, with print-on-demand versions of texts available to bookstores, institutions, and individuals (Pochoda, letter). Long-term plans outlined by editor Philip Pochoda call for books to be “digitized and available to libraries and customers world-wide through an affordable sitelicense program,” as most academic journals currently are. The announcement stressed the revolutionary potential inherent in the shift online by suggesting that digital publications will be “candidates for a wide range of audio and visual digital enhancements—including hot links, graphics, interactive tables, sound files, 3D animation, and video.” This is not, in other words, simply a change in models of distribution, but also potentially a radical metamorphosis in modes of scholarship in the humanities.

Over the last thirty years, university presses such as Michigan have been pushed by academic administrators to act increasingly as for-profit publishing ventures rather than like the promoters of heterodox scholarly inquiry that they were originally intended to be (Waters 5). This is but one aspect of a multifaceted transformation of the university that critics such as Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades have termed academic capitalism. As universities have cut back funding for both publishers and tenure-stream faculty appointments, turning steadily more to the precarious labor of graduate students and adjuncts to staff their core courses, the academic presses have become the de facto arbiters of hiring, tenure, and promotion in the increasingly pinched world of the humanities and social sciences. The result, as a well-known letter published by Stephen Greenblatt during his tenure as president of the Modern Language Association in 2002 attests, is a crisis in scholarly publishing. As Greenblatt put it, many junior faculty members “find themselves in a maddening double bind. They face a challenge—under inflexible time constraints and with very high stakes—that many of them may be unable to meet successfully, no matter how strong or serious their scholarly achievement, because academic presses simply cannot afford to publish their books.” As Greenblatt’s letter suggested, it has become harder to publish in general, and it is particularly difficult for junior faculty members to find publishers for their manuscripts. At the same time, the remorseless creep towards informal labor in both private and public institutions of higher education in the United States has made it increasingly necessary to crank out books in order to find and keep a job.

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