Are Books Still Viable After REF?

TL;DR – I wonder whether REF should influence my research agenda.

An important task for early-career, tenure-track faculty in the Humanities is to develop a research plan for promotion and/or tenure. Karen Kelsky estimates “you’ll likely need something along the lines of five articles and a book for tenure” in most Humanities fields, some of which must include material from a post-dissertation project. Therefore, when we plan we must take these expectations into account, not just whether a project is substantial enough to merit writing a book. However, recent changes in how academics are assessed in the UK have disturbed my research plan and I am no longer confident that publishing a book is optimal or even necessary. Moreover, as expectations in the UK increasingly differ from those in North America, and given that my employer is hybridized from both regional models, I find myself a bit unsettled.

The UK government published its guidelines for REF 2021 late last year, which are used to determine university rankings that provide both funding and prestige. One of the more significant outcomes for Humanities faculty is that one scholarly monograph is still weighted the same as one journal article for assessment purposes. Scholarly associations have objected to this assessment on the basis of disciplinary standards. The British Academy sympathizes:

The Academy is concerned that the in-depth, innovative and disruptive research that is necessarily communicated through monographs is being discouraged by the REF process. For this reason, the double-weighting of monographs should be encouraged, but with essential regard for cross-panel consistency.

Double-weighted books are considered equivalent to two articles. Simon Tanner reports that only around 24% of books in Literary Studies were proposed for this alternative measure for REF 2014. Yet it seems to me the more important point is that it is still much easier and less time-consuming to write two articles than one book. Notwithstanding pleas to respect the monograph and critiques of the framework itself, it appears that English departments across the UK must prioritize REF requirements over other concerns, which means that Humanities faculty must do the same if they want to remain employed after 2021. Early-career scholars around the world must also conform if they want to be competitive for UK positions. Consequently, Glen Wright’s cynical observation in 2014 that “there is no incentive to undertake long-term projects” seems just as accurate in 2018.

My own predicament is that current tenure and promotion guidelines at UWI-St. Augustine are a curious mix of North American and UK standards, in addition to guidelines that are idiosyncratic to the UWI system. Several colleagues and me will submit our applications for contract renewal later this month, which are evaluated according to these standards. Similarly to the REF model, one book is equivalent to one article. For a few years now my faculty has considered changes to make these guidelines consistent with North American standards. If they were approved books would be weighted as equivalent to five articles and become an efficient method of output for promotion. However, these changes are not inevitable and it is possible that UWI administrators decide to adopt the UK model instead, which already resembles the current system. My existing research output is sufficient for contract renewal. I have reached a point where I need to decide whether to complete a book-length manuscript or continue writing journal articles for the next promotion. For the moment neither choice is self-evident.

Ishmael Beah promotes the German translation of his memoir. Image from New African Magazine: http://newafricanmagazine.com/sierra-leone-radiance-of-tomorrow/

Covering Child Soldiers: Representing Children Who Rape and Murder

TL;DR – I present a short essay about the aesthetic/thematic functions of book covers in the child soldier narrative genre.

Two-and-a-half years ago I wrote my first (and likely only) post on Medium.com. It is based on a talk I that gave at the 2014 MLA conference using the PechaKucha format, in which speakers present a talk using 20 slides that appear for 20 seconds each. Initially I thought the format was a gimmick, but I came to appreciate its emphasis on brevity. I spoke about the functions of book covers in the child soldier narrative genre and my talk was well received. But after hearing from a colleague about the hassle and expense of securing permissions for images used in academic essays I doubted I could do anything more with the project. Rather than abandon it entirely, I converted the talk to a blog post protected by fair use doctrine. It begins as follows:

One of the most surprising literary trends of the past decade has been the proliferation of stories about child soldiers in Africa. Ishmael Beah’s 2007 memoir A Long Way Gone is the best-known example, but other works have achieved modest success in Western book markets as well. They include memoirs by other former child soldiers, as well as novels by well-known African writers like Chris Abani and Ahmadou Kourouma. At least one first-time author launched his career with a child soldier story: Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of No Nation was not only both a commercial and critical success when it was first published in 2005, but it has also recently been adapted into a feature film that received largely positive reviews upon its release last month.

One of the reasons why child soldier stories are so compelling is that their protagonists are both the victims of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and also the perpetrators of violence. This tension between vulnerability and brutality presents a challenge to the people who are responsible for marketing books to readers and retailers. And because book covers have such a significant and lasting impression on potential buyers, this issue is of particular importance for the graphic designers, art directors, and marketers who decide how a child soldier story appears on the bookshelf or among the pages of online retailers.

So: how do you visually represent the vulnerability of a child who is also a murderer or a rapist?

The problem is that even the most brilliant essays on Medium will go unnoticed, notwithstanding the public tagging system, unless/until the author cultivates an audience. My failure to do so relegated the post (and consequently the ideas) to obscurity. Now that I have decided to blog more frequently, albeit on a different platform, I thought it appropriate to begin with my one previous failed attempt. I link to the original post, rather than convert it, because I cannot easily reproduce Medium’s image-friend format here on WordPress.

I hope you enjoy it.

Joining the Humanities Commons

TL;DR – In this inaugural post I explain why I subscribed to Humanities Commons and created this site.

I have had vague notions of creating an academic website since graduate school, but I reasoned that to justify the work I must have enough ‘content’ — published articles, professional responsibilities, and so on. In the interim a number of academic repositories emerged that satisfied my needs. I created an academia.edu account to make my research available to everyone. However, over the past few years academia.edu has paywalled most of its useful services, dividing (and monetizing) its membership. I also found its social networking options lacking. Colleagues might follow each other and bookmark essays, but I did not see much evidence of collaboration among its members. Maybe I did not make enough of an effort … I have never felt comfortable networking with other academics.

In any event, the MLA and allied organizations announced last year the expansion of its Humanities Commons network. Among the many new features (most notably the open access CORE repository) is the option to create a free WordPress website. Humanities Commons markets itself as an academic social network, which means that I face the same challenges re: fostering meaningful academic relationships. However, I feel relatively confident that the MLA’s Humanities Commons will not adopt the subscription/premium model that will ultimately doom academia.edu in the next few years.

These services are especially attractive to academics from/in the developing world. It frequently more difficult to network with Western academics due to lack of regular direct contact. Moreover, we face severe foreign currency restrictions in Trinidad and Tobago that often make it difficult to manage the payments required for domain registration, web hosting, and other services associated with building a website. Ironically, now that I can theoretically afford to pay for such services I am unable to do so. Humanities Commons offers me solutions to both problems, for which I am genuinely grateful.

Now the hard part: maintain the blog, update the website, and make my best effort to network.