Why don’t we see any headhunters in higher ed?

Steve Fuller posted the below the other day, and it put to words a problem I’ve been thinking about for quite some time (being on the job market myself the last two years).

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For the record, I agree with Steve (as I do in most instances) a hundred percent about recommendation letters being a waste of time and energy. I can’t believe they’re still used. Thankfully, I’m seeing a dip over the last two years from position searches requiring them on the front end. Hallelujah.

But the search process (at the university level) itself is a unique animal. Let’s recap quickly. The landscape of the job market is a tangled mess: it’s a draining, Sisyphean task to comb through one or two or three hundred applications and pick ten to interview on the phone, and I don’t think it’s a controversial position to say that many, many qualified, good-fit candidates get lost in the shuffle. And it’s a problem compounded by two pretty obvious realities–the aforementioned volume of applicants, and, equally important, the fact that different types of institutions (both structurally and culturally) are looking for different types of candidates. Ivy-league schools want hyper-productive researchers who can also teach and bring in grant money. SLACs want regionally-aware faculty with strong teaching records who understand that sixty percent of their student body are first-generation students, or ethnic minorities, or come from within (and stay within after) a hundred miles of the campus. Community Colleges want candidates who have experience managing sixty-student sections and online surveys and can engage them in meaningful ways, twice each fall, spring, and summer. These needs obviously overlap in many instances.

Yet without a doubt each of the institutions above has some significantly different items on the checklist. The problem is that grad students never get to take a class called HIST 565: What Different Types of Schools Want From You As A Faculty Member. This is, of course, further complicated by the fact that schools themselves sometimes (often?) don’t know or are unwilling to admit that what makes a successful, collegial hire for them as a STEM-focused campus of twenty-seven hundred in a town of ten thousand in rural Georgia doesn’t look the same as a successful hire as UC-Santa Barbara or Valencia Community College. This is bad for both new hires and schools, evidenced (in part) by the fact that so many of the former move on to another school after two or three or four years, forcing another exhausting search.

But I’m not convinced departmental hiring committees can fix this problem without both big money investments from administration and attitudinal changes at the department level, neither of which are likely. Maybe the real question we should be asking is: should they?

There’s a case to be made, I think, that such entities are not, in fact, what we need to find the best candidate to fit for the job–if that is our collective goal. After all, most only do it once every five or ten years. And academics are notoriously terrible at honest self-evaluation–a fact that is, again, not entirely their fault–which means undertaking a search requires identifying, ranking, and assessing skills in a potential colleague is not something they are really built to do.

So, to the point of this post: What about hiring a consulting firm to do the job? As far as I know, job placement works well for other teachers. Why doesn’t it exist for post-secondary institutions? Feel free to correct me here, but I certainly don’t know of any that exist. Seems like a win-win-win. Hypothetical Placement Firm is staffed by individuals with an intimate understanding of what academic disciplines look like from the inside; there is certainly no shortage of them running around. It establishes a network of contacts at the departmental level, so it can have short (and ongoing) conversations about needs, past experience, and successes and failures. It sends someone to major conferences who meets with ABDs and recent grads for thirty minutes to talk CVs, research, teaching experience, and get a sense of interpersonal skills. It builds and retains a portfolio of applications. University of X, Department of Y pays a small yearly fee to Hypothetical Placement Firm and then, when it wants to run a search, it pays a lump sum to get a group of candidates from the firm which spends literally all of its time gauging not only what departments like them needs, but what the market looks like in a given year. The service is free to prospective hires, as is (almost astonishingly) both equitable and economical.

This headhunter model seems like it would work infinitely better to me. Departments spend a little money and save a bunch of humanpower. Faculty don’t have to waste dozens or hundreds of hours–collectively tens of thousands of dollars–that they could put towards, you know, research, curriculum development, fighting the reactionary agendas of legislators and judges, etc. Candidates get more detailed examination of their application portfolios–more than a hundred and twenty seconds in any case. And the most toxic, terrible part of becoming an academic–the job market–gets a little better.

Because here’s the thing that you learn very quickly serving on a search committee–though many candidates look the same on paper, in person they quickly distinguish themselves from one another. This is why job candidates spend roughly four hundred hours being evaluated at a campus visit. Small-group conversation, research presentation, teaching presentation, one-on-one interviews; grad student meetings, faculty meetings, administration meetings. Because when you get right down to it, selecting for the strength of a CV (mostly) and then a cover letter (some smaller remainder) nets you a group that might be academically accomplished but is mostly comprised of inarticulate weirdos, arrogant pricks, misogynists, or slabs of wet cardboard. This is why so many times the person who gets selected as the department’s top choice has so much bargaining power–because the committee has no acceptable backup, as members have vetoed for one reason or another everyone else’s candidacy. The kicker is that the vast majority of the time you can weed out the chaff with a fifteen minute conversation, so long as the interviewer has a plan. Tell me I’m wrong.

In a perfect world Steve is right. But (being familiar with his writing on topics like this) I think he’s being disingenuous about the larger picture in service to his position on university governance and Humboldtian reform. The reality is that the hiring process is mess and the third-party solution offers a viable, and most importantly better, alternative. Persuading faculty of this, however, is different task.

 

 

My Love-Hate Relationship With TurnItIn

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I’ve fully embraced the benefits and strictures of being a professor in the digital age. In both my online courses and live ones, I have come to rely upon our online classroom portal to disseminate course information, post reminders, log grades, and to serve as the primary method by which students turn in their papers. It lets me engage in a variation of the minimal marking I find pedagogically useful, and at the same time avoid the detrimental effects of showering student papers in red. I don’t know if it is necessarily sounder on the balance to do it this way, but it’s a system that’s been honed course after course and seems to work well for both sides of the lectern. No doubt everyone has her/his own preferences and experiences, and certainly the online classroom has fueled plenty of conferences on teaching method since its inception some fifteen years ago. For better or worse, it’s here to stay. For me, at least, and for now.

It’s the last item on the list above that serves as occasion for this piece, for every paper turned into my class dropbox gets automatically run against TurnItIn.com’s plagiarism detection tool. No doubt many of you use TurnItIn, and have for years. I detest purposive plagiarists. They are, for me and no doubt for many of you, the bane of my professional existence. Like so many others, I’ve done my best to stamp it out with anti-formulaic assignment prompts, rotating exams, and gentle reminders through the semester that committing plagiarism invites the devil into your soul. I still get students who, with Machiavellian overconfidence and through abject laziness, plagiarize.

And so if asked, I’ll not pretend otherwise—I love TurnItIn. It’s painless, in my experience effective, and just as importantly, already there for me to use. It saves me some relatively significant number of hours each term, agonizingly Google-searching the paper of a student who has suddenly turned into David Foster Wallace on the final exam. And when I am forced to pursue an instance of academic dishonesty, it provides a nice, tidy, official-looking report that tends to convince students of the authority and weight behind the meeting we are currently having. So I use it, happily.

But recently I got an email from a student concerned about TurnItIn on dual grounds that I’ve assumed would surface at some point. The student was nontraditional, and this was her/his first college course in some years. Having read the paragraph above, s/he was concerned first about accidentally plagiarizing, and wondered (naively, but completely understandably) if TurnItIn let students run their work through for free to make sure this didn’t happen. Secondly, the student (in so many words) didn’t like the idea of being forced to surrender her/his work to a company that would make money off of it. S/he was articulate, respectful, and tentative.

My knee-jerk reaction, which thankfully lasted only a minute or so, was to throw up shields. Tell the student such anti-plagiarism tools were clearly spelled out on our syllabus, and that by staying in the course each student was assenting to such measure in the name of academic integrity. But in typing this into Outlook I decided I should probably be sure this was actually the case, and so I called up our university’s Academic Integrity Coordinator. Funnily (or sadly?) enough, the first thing our coordinator said was she’d been expecting a question like this for some time, but hadn’t gotten it yet (TurnItIn, by the way, has been around since 1997). In the end, the above position was confirmed: so long as it was in my syllabus, I could do what I wanted. I went back to click “send,” and discovered I was ambivalent about it. It must have taken some guts to send that email to one’s professor, and at the very beginning of the semester no less. Plus, the fact that there was no standing university policy pertaining to what was a potentially explosive issue—the “it’s in the syllabus argument” seemed astoundingly soft, in that it relies on student ignorance rather than legal standing—made me curious if anyone had challenged it.

A little searching turned up surprisingly few lawsuits brought against iParadigms, the parent company of TurnItIn. As it turned out, someone had issued a challenge. Six years ago a court weighed in, and the judge ruled in the favor of iParadigms on four grounds:

“1) Commercial use can be fair use, and, citing Perfect 10 Inc. v. Amazon.com Inc., use can be transformative ‘in function or purpose without altering or actually adding to the original work.’ TurnItIn transformed the work by using the papers to prevent plagiarism and not for factual knowledge; 2) The website’s use does not diminish or discourage the author’s creativity or supplant the students’ rights to first publication; 3) Using the entirety of the papers did not preclude fair use; and 4) TurnItIn’s use does not affect marketability.”[1]

I’m not a lawyer. I’m a history professor. But I don’t really buy the “highly transformative” argument (the ruling itself admits they don’t actually change the documents at all but merely “use” the papers in a different way. Probably Derrida would award me a demerit for saying this); nor do I really accept uncritically the “does not diminish or discourage creativity” one. Point four I’ll also take issue with. It completely misses the premise that one doesn’t have to be motivated by market value to produce an original written work (and so that shouldn’t be the standard to retaining full and exclusive copyright). But even acceding to the premise, on TurnItIn’s own terms, should a student want to start up her or his own plagiarism-detection company and use the corpus of her or his own work as a starting point, s/he’d immediately run into the fact that TurnItIn can claim (rightfully) that they already have not only this student’s body of papers but 336 million and change of other student papers. Talk about David vs. Goliath.

No doubt someone will come along and tell me this is a settled issue, legally speaking, which is fine but also not really the larger point of this essay. At this stage, all I’m left with significant questions. Do I keep feeding the beast, or try some alternative? To what extent, if at all, have we as professors crossed an ethical line by blithely  becoming complicit in this model over the last decade—such that TurnItIn is the only name in the game—and we’re now beholden to them in every practical way? It’s the flagship service of what is almost a billion-dollar company, after all, with annual earnings of fifty million a year. Do plagiarism detection services in and of themselves contribute to a fallacious notion of original authorship when in fact the whole endeavor is much more complicated than we’d like to admit when marking first-year student papers?

It also made me wonder how many other concerned students there were peppered among the undergraduate body, and how professors engaged them. Why hadn’t the university’s academic integrity coordinator ever run into this issue before? If we’re supposed to be fostering the next generation of critical, engaged citizenry not only able but willing to step up to bat for themselves on issues such as these, we must be failing in some sense or another.

These are all questions everyone who has either taken or taught a class which used TurnItIn has no doubt wrestled with at some point. In the end, I told the student I was sympathetic to the argument, and if s/he wanted to send me her/his papers instead of uploading them (since I can’t individually turn the detection function off) I’d take them that way. I’d have to check them manually still, I wrote, but it was a time investment I was willing to make given when I now knew. But this avenue won’t work as soon as two or five or ten more students email me with the same concerns, and so it’s not a long-term solution. It’s Band-Aid, and a relatively weak one. It won’t stick for very long. Eventually, I’ll have to decide which is more important: my time, or any overriding philosophical concerns. And I know which one gets rewarded on a daily basis, and that leaves me uneasy, to say the least.

This essay originally published at the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 8, 2015.

[1] Hakimi, Sharona. “To Students’ Dismay, Plagiarism Detection Website Protected by ‘Fair Use,’” Harvard Journal of Technology and Law, April 25, 2009. http://jolt.law.harvard.edu/digest/copyright/av-v-iparadigms-llc

The Signal and the Noise on Dissertation Embargoes

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Audrey Truschke over at Dissertation Reviews recently posted up a lengthy essay to junior scholars worried about the impact of letting their dissertations roam about, unfettered, in the wild. And various people seem to think it’s something we should all pay attention to. Well-written it is, and chock-full of data as well. The crux of Truscke’s argument (though you should go read it yourself): newly minted PhDs who worry about letting their research live in open-access land while they furiously try to turn their dissertation into a first book are wasting their mental time and energy. There’s no reason to worry. Unfortunately, little persuasive proof is marshaled in defense of this position, while simultaneously–and here’s the kicker–nothing is done whatsoever to show that embargoing one’s dissertation is detrimental to one’s status as a junior scholar.

Much of her discussion will be familiar to those of us who follow this topic with some measure of regularity. Truschke’s ace-in-the-hole here is that she spoke to “university press editors” themselves to ascertain how they operate–both in theory and praxis–from first books. To be fair she manages to glean some useful information from pressing her interviewees. We discover, for instance, that this lingering sense of “it’s already out there so folks won’t buy it” plagues university press editors just like the rest of us dialed into this conversation. This itself remains a potent data point. We learn some specific bits about how the dissertation and first book are very different animals (“cut the literature review, reduce the notes by one-third, spend less time directly quoting other scholars, write better, have a punchier and broader argument, and make the introduction and conclusion more dynamic”). We learn also a little about the behind-the-scenes operations of the book contract itself, which is interesting but really not all that relevant.

The problem with Truschke’s piece is that she manages to minimize those data that are cause for concern, ignore any kind of cost-benefit analysis, fails to critically analyze the other side of the equation, and in general mucks up this conversation further with a bunch of white noise.

For instance, she cites a 2011 study:

“a mere seven percent of university press editors said they would refuse to consider a book based on a thesis that had been made previously available in an electronic repository . . . [though] there is good reason to question whether even that seven percent actually act as they claim.”

I disagree vehemently with the word “mere” in there. 7% is plenty high enough in this current academic climate (just as it was when I first read this study three years ago) to be worried about, acted upon or not. If I can do something as little as click a button and dramatically increase my chances at a book contract with 7% of editors with nothing on the debit side of that balance sheet, and you think I won’t do it, you have an ill-informed sense of the pressures I currently face in the academic job market. But let’s go along with Truschke for a moment, and entertain her larger point: that even if these editors say they don’t consider open-access dissertations for first books, in practice they often won’t look for it/compare them. At this moment, even if I concede she’s right in ninety percent of cases, that still means I can increase my chances with .7% very easily. I’ve done a lot more for a lot less.

Secondly, her evidence to the contrary ends up boiling down to: these editors told me they don’t bother looking at the online version of a then-dissertation and now-manuscript, because it would be a waste of time. They’d rather trust their own judgment that what sits in front of them remains substantially changed from its original form. Something about years of experience that the revision process from both ends will substantially change any work (certainly true to an extent, I’m sure). But that’s where Truschke stops, and ultimately its what’s left unsaid that jumps off the page. There’s a prominent negative space which puts the reader in the difficult position of concluding either dissertations and first books actually are so dissimilar that it really would be a waste of time (something in History, especially, we pretty much know not to be true in a significant enough percentage to make this claim), or that university press editors are too [insert uncomfortable adjective here] to make use of a resource that would directly and without question assist them in their job of sifting through stacks of book proposals (the preponderance of) which have all been polished enough to get the job done (something I refuse to believe).

Truschke goes on to offer a couple other reasons embargoing your dissertation is a waste of time.

There’s something in here about a two-year embargo being the norm anyway which isn’t enough time to produce a monograph so why bother? To which I say “Interesting. Love to see your data there.” My university allowed any period you could name, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an historian who wants to go up for a TT position unable/unwilling to revise and submit a proposal in four to six years (which is the real norm in practice, as far as I am aware). Plus, you can always extend the embargo.

There’s a long tangential section about the current economic climate of library acquisitions, which doesn’t share anything new until it gets to Truschke’s discussion of a company called YPB which apparently flags first books that began their lives as dissertations. We don’t really get any of the data required to assess just how significant this is, however: not how prevalent YPB’s presence is in the total academic publishing pie, not how they know a book is a revised dissertation, not how many university libraries use/know about/care about their existence. This is a throwaway section for me (though it’s also important, I think, to note that Wikipedia lists a hundred and two university presses in the United States, eight of which serve as the basis for her article. Truschke says she interviewed big ones. Considering the difference between Duke UP (120 titles and 40 journals annually) and Kent State UP (30-35 titles annually) is so disparate, I might expect market forces to act on them differently: this study has some data on p. 372 regarding this).

Equally unhelpful is this little gem towards the end:

“[S]ome university press editors that are concerned with an online dissertation adversely affecting book sales favor takedowns over embargoes . . . Ten years ago, Harvey said, taking down the dissertation from ProQuest was required for authors publishing with Stanford University Press . . .  I wonder, however, if many junior scholars underestimate their ability to disagree with the press publishing their book and perhaps feel pressured to take down the dissertation when they would prefer not to do so.”

The issue here isn’t what to do once you’ve got a UP book contract. Embargoes are enacted to increase our chances on the front end–to get the offer in the first place. Plus, if Harvey wants to publish my first book but our dealbreaker is that I want my dissertation to remain online, I’m not going to be all that concerned about finding another home for the manuscript in the near future. Which Harvey clearly understands: “These days, however, the press concedes that authors hold varying views, and they will not insist on a takedown.”

The larger problem here, of course, is the murkiness of the whole enterprise of academic publishing. There has yet to be (to my knowledge) any robust statistical evaluation of the interaction between the open-access phenomenon and university press contracts that moves beyond “lets talk to the UP editors/directors/someone ‘in the know.'” Let alone one that is able to account for all the other forces acting in the field (which Truschke mentions at different times)–the contraction of library budgets, the reductions in and changing criteria for TT hirings at universities, piracy, etc., etc.

In the end, then, here’s the clearest formulation of Truschke’s argument: embargoing your dissertation doesn’t seem, in most of the cases university press editors were willing to share with me so I could write this piece about a practice that directly comments upon their access to the very material that would allow them to do their job to its fullest, to have any negative or positive benefits. Because even when seven percent tell you it matters whether your dissertation is freely available, their not really telling the truth. Except for right now, to me.

What we are left with is either a) statistical evidence like the kind Truschke (or this study she cites) is using, which mostly doesn’t tell us anything all that useful for those considering embargoing their dissertations, and b) anecdotal evidence like the kind Truschke offers which says not to worry. Well, you have your anecdotal evidence. I have my own. And until someone comes along with some more persuasive data I’ll keep my embargo, thank you very much.

 

 

On One Instance Where Open-Access Stinks, and Digitally Embargoing Humanities Dissertations

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Rarely will you find me on the side of the fence that argues against open-access. In fact, during the course of my long and illustrious life, this is the first. And yet it’s an excellent example of how anyone who argues for the wholesale beneficence (or maleficence) of something or another is completely full of crap or woefully misinformed. Which until recently included me when it came to mandated digital publication of and open-access to dissertations.

But let’s back up a second.

What is this crazy penmonkey talking about so early on a Tuesday morning and shouldn’t he better get to it in the first paragraph if he doesn’t want to lose my interest? What’s that?! A Buzzfeed article on the 38 Things You Need to Know Right Now Oh God Please Click Me Fulfillment Lies Beyond?

Let’s start with a basic proposition.  PhD students (and newly minted PhDs) in the humanities already live a precarious existence. They are easily one of the most vulnerable populations to have gotten a four-year degree, for many, manymany reasons, despite the hard work they do.

In the good ole’ days, before the interwebz, PhD and MA students finishing their theses and dissertations printed out a couple copies and physically plunked them on the desk of some graduate college librarian, where they were then filed away for eternity. You wanted to read it, you had to physically go to that university library, or request a photocopy. That required time and effort, and it effectively meant that even though anyone could theoretically get ahold of anyone else’s work, in practice it was embargoed by geography and opportunity-cost. Today, the majority of graduate schools prefer (or require) the thesis or dissertation in digital form, and as part of the spirit of open-access, it has evolved to the point where as soon as you upload your work it gets sent off to UMI or someone and, shortly thereafter, made freely available to the rest of the world of scholars. If all this meant was that your brilliance and eloquence would be more easily discoverable by the walled garden of tenure-track academia to which you were trying to gain entry, there’d be no problem. But the reality is that, for those of us in the humanities (especially, though in other realms as well), the fact that your completed work sits out in the wild has increasingly meant that journal editors (less) and university press acquisitions editors (much more) have become increasingly unwilling to pick up contracts for monographs or accept articles for publication.

Why? Because as library costs become increasingly strained, library acquisitions folk themselves (the people who buy the books from the presses, and serve as the majority of the latter’s market base), already able to access your work via the subscription to the dissertation/thesis index they already pay for, have become increasingly unlikely to purchase the book unless it seems to deviate significantly from the original dissertation and/or appears highly original or significant to the discipline. Scholars (the other primary market for academic publishing) act the same way. Why pay twice for something when you can pay once?

The consequences of this process have become worrying enough that the American Historical Association stepped in last summer and strongly suggested all universities adopt a policy that allows graduate students to digitally embargo their work for a certain amount of time. Most TT (tenure-track) positions will require a new faculty member to publish a book within the first 6 years in order to go from Assistant to Associate Prof., and so the knowledge that while you go through the necessary process of revising, rewriting, and adding research your work is protected is not only crucial to a state of mind, but a job. How crucial?

Here’s a good piece from Bill Cronon, former president of the AHA, on the ramifications of mandated open-access of PhD dissertations the humanities:

My graduate students typically spend 5–8 years working on book-length manuscripts that will hopefully get them their first academic job (if that is their goal), and, when published, justify their getting tenure (assuming tenure survives all these changes—a whole different set of questions). My students’ work is very much their own. Unlike the sciences, they are not employed by me to work on grant-funded projects that I oversee as principal investigator. The vast majority never receive federal money, and most never even receive grant support beyond graduate fellowships (mainly for serving as TAs) that generally fall short of meeting basic living requirements. They support themselves mainly by teaching, which is one reason they take longer to complete their degrees than is typically true in the sciences . . . I can’t believe we would ever pass a law requiring nonacademic writers to post online the first draft of their book manuscripts; why would we demand this of newly minted PhDs even before their careers are properly launched?

The evidence is mounting that mandating open-access to dissertations is devastating to new PhDs leaving school with mountains of debt, and their job security is being further threatened by this trend in publishing. Some have argued, weakly as far as I’m concerned, that mandated open-access isn’t all that bad for book contract-seeking scholars. The majority, however, has engaged with the issue cognizant of the real-world ramifications that exist. Cronon, if I may go to him once more, offers the best summation of the range and depth of the problem and the squawks of the naysayers:

This isn’t remotely about dissing online scholarship or defending the book-length monograph as the only legitimate form of historical scholarship. It quite emphatically is not about refusing to share the fruits of historical scholarship for all time to come. It’s about preserving the full range of publishing options for early-career historians and giving them some measure of control over when and how they release their work to the world. As a practicing historian who has worked closely with a fair number of publishers for more than three decades, I can testify that concerns about online dissertations competing with books are very real. Indeed, I’ve had at least one former graduate student whose publisher refused to permit publication of an article in one of our discipline’s most prestigious journals for fear that it might undermine sales of his soon-to-be-published book. Since the publisher threatened to cancel the book contract if the article appeared, I can only imagine what it would have done had the entire dissertation been available online. In another instance, I had to intervene with a government agency to request the removal of an online version of one of my students’ dissertations that had been posted without the student’s permission and that the publisher said would likely jeopardize the book contract if it remained available for free download. I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.

There are also many who have taken this as an opportunity to decry the tenure assessment system and agitate for changes in that arena as a solution to the larger problem (of recently minted PhDs as the profession’s most vulnerable population), of which mandatory open-access is but one of many contributing symptoms (though no doubt a significant one). It’s true, the system generally sucks, and more every year. At the same time, while I’m generally for agitation of any kind at any time, in this case it misses the point at the same time it obfuscates the battlefield for those of us who have years of grinding work invested in our monograph. The reality of the matter is that History Departments, representative of others in the Humanities or not, are slow-moving beasts. Whine and complain all you want, but bucking the tenure system in pursuit of some altruistic desire to level the playing field for new PhDs is not how they were built,  nor how they are maintained. Further, experimentation (as any of the proposed plans I’ve seen to shifting to new criteria by which a department can grant tenure will require) requires imagination, flexibility, a willingness to be wrong, and a certain bold come-what-may insouciance that, while demonstrated with flair and joie de vivre in the writing of many, doesn’t really personally describe many historians I’ve ever met. So suggesting change to the tenure-granting process amounts, in the end (to me, at least) like a magnificently naive way to seem to be for our cause whilst at the same time remaining spectacularly and embarrassingly standing on the sidelines.

Unlike my post last week asking the humanities to get their collective shit together, I end this one with some legitimate advice. Check with both your graduate college and department, and see if they require online publishing of the dissertation. If they don’t, great! If they do, get someone on the phone and ask why. And unless that reason’s “Because we offer all graduating PhDs a tenured position at $100,000 a year, with your very own parking spot and rhesus monkey-butler to boot!”, it’s not good enough. Use the literature here to organize a petition in your department and challenge the prevailing ignorance behind the open-access policy for theses and dissertations.

At Oklahoma State University (where I skulk the halls) all theses and dissertations are required to be submitted electronically, after which they are usually released into the wild. A digital embargo is allowed, but requires consent from one’s committee chair, and while the standard options allowed are 6 months to 2 years anecdotal evidence given to me says no requests up to 5 years have been denied. All of this is good news, except the last bit here. Awareness of this problem is so abysmal that the graduate college representative I spoke to said s/he saw only 2 requests this past spring out of 700 applications for graduation. A third of a percent.

Speak with your committee chair and get her or his advice. If s/he doesn’t have a strong opinion, maybe that’s your signal right there to pick a new mentor. Because this is obviously not an issue that’s going to go away, and it’s having a significant enough impact to reverberate across the collective arenas where such issues get discussed on a regular basis. Consider carefully what it means for your job prospects over the next decade before you decide to digitally embargo your dissertation or not. I know I will.