Quadrivium XI: Identity, Use, and Creation of Academic ‘Books’ for Medievalists

Continuing the Project’s emphasis on working with specialist academic disciplines, on 25-26 February 2016 the Project consulted with medievalist Early Career Researchers, sponsoring this year’s Quadrivium, with the theme: ‘The Academic Book of the Future: Identity, Use, and Creation of Academic “Books” for Medievalists.’ QuadriviumThis scholarly group has a very specialist set of research requirements – often studying content that can only be found in ancient manuscripts, or in archaic languages such as Latin or Old English. This specialism raises specific issues around the academic book, which the Project is keen to investigate. Quadrivium is an annual research, careers, and skills training event for postgraduates and ECRs of medieval and early modern textual studies. The two-day event took place at De Montfort University, Leicester.

 

Dr Takako Kato, organiser of this year’s Quadrivium, began by asking the following questions:

When you finish your PhD, will you want to write an academic book?

If so, what sort of academic book would you want to create?

The resulting discussion revealed the complexity inherent in these seemingly simple questions.

What is an academic book?

The first response was: what IS an academic book? The ECRs set about trying to define it what an academic book is, so that they could decide whether or not they would like to write one. Upon discussion, the following were agreed as some (although not all) of the indicators of an academic book:

Audience and authors – who reads academic books, and who writes them?

  • Academics
  • Researchers of all kinds
  • ‘Mad people who do this for pleasure’
  • ‘My grandparents read academic books’
  • Policy-makers, government departments
  • The queen?
  • Written for academics, by academics
  • Books for students by academics
  • BUT – academic books not just for people in the ‘ivory tower’ – Vera Wang was apparently reading an academic book when inspired to create some of her famous designs
  • Assume a certain level of knowledge and interest

Function and tone:

  • Transmission of knowledge
  • Must be part of a conversation – unlike books for general reading, which may not refer to previous scholarship
  • Didactic/instructional
  • Heavily researched
  • Specific academic ‘tone’
  • Peer review – must be vetted by others in the field

For medievalists academic books may also include the actual manuscripts, as well as their critical editions

The important question was also raised: What IS an academic? This was highlighted as requiring definition too, but was outside of the scope of this conversation.

How do you feel about making an academic book?

The ECRs stated their awareness that the monograph still commands huge respect, and is also expected in terms of research output and evaluation purposes, such as the REF. However, it was suggested by some that in the future it would be good to have the option of the academic book in other forms, such as a portfolio of work.

Dr Ryan Perry (Uni. of Kent) suggested that research output could take the form of a collection of case studies, without the enforced requirement to be synthesised into a central thesis.

How do medieval scholars use academic books?

This suggestion connected to notions of reading methods. Prof. Andrew Prescott (Uni. of Glasgow) for instance, stated that he usually reads monographs from cover to cover, whereas Dr Perry tends to dip in and out of them, using the index to navigate to required material: ‘There’s something beautiful about a well-constructed monograph, but I most often enter them from the index, rather than reading them from cover to cover.

Prof. Prescott replied, ‘That would worry me – because it’s very easy to miss connections… Perhaps it’s a disciplinary thing – in history so many things are interconnected, it’s not just discrete blocks of information.’

Quadrivium

Credit: Hollie Morgan/Quadrivium

The ECRs engaged in this debate, with some suggesting that entering into an academic book via the index can be problematic – headwords can be quite arbitrary, and indices can be put together hastily, or inconsistently. One ECR claimed: ‘Reading a long book from start to finish is important for concentration, and for the practice of our discipline. If we carry on with this bite-sized attitude, only entering into the book in chunks from the index, we will lose a lot of the capacity of our discipline.’ Another suggested that this attitude might be ‘ableist’, as not everyone can undertake research in that way. She went on: ‘I don’t always have time to read around a topic in an academic book, especially depending on the language – if it’s an academic book in antiquated language, I am not encouraged to read further, especially as I am dyslexic.’

This, the group concluded, is why readable/searchable digital academic books are so important – offering the choice of deep reading from start to finish, as well as meaningful possibilities to search effectively; to dip in and out as required, depending on the scholar’s requirements and preferred reading style.

What do (medieval) scholars want from academic books?

The group listed their basic requirements as:

  • Information
  • If a physical book, then a free digital copy should be made available, too
  • Useful publishing apparatus: functional contents pages, introductions, prefaces, chapter titles, page numbers, index
  • Bibliography and further reading
  • Should look good on the shelf – aesthetic appeal
  • An order and structure that makes content and knowledge easily accessible
  • Linearity of argument – should be easy to follow

With the following requests for books specifically for medievalists:

  • Translations of primary sources
  • Videos and enriched content – such an animated marginalia!
  • Access to things that are lost or endangered – for instance digitised versions of rare or delicate manuscripts

What can technology do to help make academic books more accessible for medievalists?

The medievalist ECRs were asked to consider ways in which technology does, or should, make their research life easier. Having an electronic copy of an academic book or a digitised manuscript allows for a more global scholarship on that material, eliminating the requirement of being in the physical vicinity of that book. However, the pitfalls of digital versions include the possibility of being locked behind a paywall if your institution does not subscribe or if you are an independent scholar. It also excludes scholars with technological impairments – such as those living in areas without consistent Internet connections. It also means that undigitised books or manuscripts may be neglected, with a glut of scholarship being written on manuscripts that are available online.

The group emphasised the following technological features for enhancing general accessibility to academic books:

  • Catering for different types of learners – e.g. providing content that is useful to those with auditory or visual learning styles, or as already discussed, for those readers with varying abilities or impairments, or for deep readers as well as those who like to dip in and out of content
  • Discoverability: finding books easily enables scholars to read them, rather than waste time hunting one book down

Medievalists have specialist requirements, so further suggestions specific to this group of researchers included:

  • Clarify specialist content – e.g. recordings of pronunciations of difficult/specialist/dead words
  • A database of ALL medieval manuscripts – and digitised versions, if possible

After this group discussion, Michael Pidd (Sheffield), Dr Ryan Perry (Kent), and Dr Hollie Morgan (Lincoln) presented their own experiences and thoughts around the academic book using case studies of innovative research and outputs that they have produced, as well as other ongoing work – followed by a fantastic plenary talk by Professor Andrew Prescott, and a second day of workshops and discussions. This part of Quadrivium will be discussed in a separate blog post.

 

A Storify of the discussion, and the rest of the two-day event, is available here: https://storify.com/Codicologist/quadrivium-xi

Huge thanks to Dr Takako Kato for organising this fantastic event, and to all of the speakers and participants for attending and contributing.

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Towards an Ethics of Circulation: A Manifesto in Tweets

On 19 June 2015 a group of anthropologists and ethnographers met at RMIT Europe in Barcelona to discuss The Academic Book of the Future project. The aim of the workshop was to situate the future of the book in the context of broader anthropological engagements with how knowledge circulates, the form knowledge takes, and the ethical questions that these engagements raise. What follows is a series of principles designed to engage with the Project, composed by the anthropologists and ethnographers that took part in the workshop: it is their manifesto (with a twist).

The principles are written for Twitter-friendly dissemination (under 140-characters) in order to maximise their circulation and impact within the world of publishing and academia. Our manifesto highlights our dissatisfaction with the contemporary climate in the UK (and other national contexts) for Open Access, and acknowledges the limitations and closed nature of many of our conversations about the circulation of academic texts, which all too often do not really take into account our obligations to readers. In an era of ‘Impact’, we seek to re-centre our focus upon engaging in conversations with the people we work with, the public and other academics, challenging assumptions about why they may not be understood as one and the same.

  1. UK defined Gold+Green #OA support the status quo of commercial publishing. Both are inadequate responses to our ethical responsibilities.

  1. Readers matter most! Who are our readers? Who should be our readers?

  1. Do not fetishise the digital. We need a mixed media ecology in order to disseminate our work smartly.

  1. Practice Slow Publishing. The academic book’s greatest threat is denial of the time it takes to produce truly insightful and enduring work.

  1. Dismantle the academy’s fetish for individual authorship in favour of a recognition of the value of collaboration across all levels.

  1. Metrics cannot measure our full value. We also need to acknowledge value through ethical and human principles.

  1. A publication is not simply a closed and bounded object or commodity. It lives on and proceeds into an uncertain world.

 

signed Haidy Geismar (@haidygeismar), Heather Horst (@hahhh), Daniel Miller (@DannyAnth), Sarah Pink (@pinkydigital), Mary Murrell (@M_Murrell), Elisenda Ardevol (@Mediacciones), and Christiane Brosius.

 

This manifesto is intended to be thought-provoking, and to prompt further conversation. Do you agree or disagree with any parts of it, or have any questions? Get in touch!

 

The full programme, along with abstracts and speaker bios from the workshop are available here.

 

 

The Academic Book in Sudan

One of the sub-projects that is being carried out as part of The Academic Book of the Future is a piece of research into the academic book in the geographical south, in particular in Africa and India.  The researchers on this project are Dr Caroline Davis of Oxford Brookes University and Professor Marilyn Deegan of King’s College London. In this week’s post, Prof. Deegan talks about their recent trip to Sudan to discuss the Project.

I made a visit to Sudan in February 2015 as part of an ongoing project to digitise Sudanese cultural resources held in libraries, archives, museums and private collections throughout the country: Digital Sudan.  This is something I have been working for the last two years with a Sudanese cultural NGO: SUDAAK, the Sudanese Association for Archiving Knowledge.  My visit to Sudan seemed an ideal opportunity to connect with colleagues for discussions on the academic book in the region, and so I was invited to give a paper on the project at Alzaim Alzazhari University in Khartoum North, organized by the Sudanese Library Association.

Pyramids at Meroc

Pyramids at Meroc (Credit: Marilyn Deegan)

The lecture was attended by around 70 librarians and academics, and they could not have been more enthusiastic about the project.  There was a lively debate after the presentation, and they expressed a willingness to be involved in the project.  They are planning to set up a local Academic Book committee, co-ordinated by Fawzia Galeledin on behalf of SUDAAK, and they will contact local publishers and academics and organise joint events.  Most academic publishing in Sudan is in Arabic, but Sudanese scholars would like their work to be more widely known and accessible, so the possibility of being translated into English was discussed.  They have access to online books and journals in English through various international initiatives, but they were very interested in the possibility of a more two-way dialogue which would only be possible if their work were more widely accessible—which means it being in English. 

The committee will organise focus groups to debate a range of research questions that we can supply, though they will probably need to be amended for local use.  They were also extremely excited at the idea of Academic Book Week and will arrange some events to correspond with this.  We also discussed the possibility of an exchange in Academic Book Week: perhaps someone from Sudan could come to London, and I could  go to Sudan.

The reception of the project in a country far removed from us was astonishing, and the opportunities our Sudanese colleagues could see in discussing the future of academic publishing with us was heartening. 

Welcoming Wales to the Project

Principal Investigator Dr Sam Rayner has been busy meeting with people and organisations about The Academic Book of the Future. Here she writes about her recent trip to North Wales, and some of the ways that researchers, publishers, students, and libraries in Wales are getting involved with the Project.

Bangor University

Bangor University

Last week I set off for Project meetings with some of our Welsh partners at Bangor UniversityProfessor Tom Corns from the School of English sits on our Advisory Board, and is keen to see the Project address the challenges around Welsh-medium research outputs, and those on Welsh-focussed topics. I talked with Dr Eben Muse, head of the School for Creative Studies and Media, about the best ways forwards with this, so watch this space for more news on that soon!  In addition, given Eben’s interest in bookselling, both new and secondhand, we talked about ways of linking his research on this into our work with the Booksellers Association, and possible connections and events as part of our Academic Book Week in November.  We are also planning a summer school/ workshop series on publishing academic books in Wales, so any publishers or editors that might be able to help us with that, please get in touch.

While in Bangor, I gave a seminar to some of the MA students in the School of English as part of their Editing Texts module.  Convened by Professor Helen Wilcox and Dr Sue Niebrzydowski, this turned into a very lively discussion about some of the issues around copyright and Open Access, linked to the Crossick Report, and the Academic Book of the Future’s aims and plans.  Thanks to all for making it such a productive session!   Given that the School of English at Bangor has such a rich tradition of scholarly textual editing (Peter Field’s new edition of Malory, Tom Corns’s involvement in the multi-volume edition of Milton’s works, and his edition of Gerrard Winstanley,  and Helen Wilcox’s edition of George Herbert are just some of the recent examples), we are looking at holding an event in the Autumn that celebrates this, and the scholarly and publishing expertise that goes into making editions of literary works.

Professor Astrid Ensslin is working on another AHRC Project, Reading Digital Fiction with Dr Alice Bell from Sheffield University.  There are strong connections between the two projects – both engaging with the nature of the book – as well as Astrid’s expertise in digital narrative more generally, through gaming and language ideaologies. A chance to brainstorm some ideas with Astrid means we have some exciting cross-over activities and events to consolidate in coming weeks.

Dr Maggie Parke, whose PhD research used blogging and fansites to help crowdsource the data she used,  is going to work with the Project and any interested publishers on looking at ways to help researchers such as herself publish outputs that don’t fit the traditional monograph model.   This could be a chance to flip the current publishing proposal model, by getting together some other new types of research  and asking publishers to pitch to the researchers how they might best add value to that material.  A Dragon’s Den seemed a very appropriate idea to bring away from Wales!

I’ve come back to base with plenty of new perspectives for the Project (some I can’t announce yet), and links to connect with the National Library of Wales and the University of Wales Press.  If you are part of a Welsh university, or are a Welsh bookseller or publisher who deals in academic books and you have ideas to add into the Welsh part of this Project, please do get in touch with either me (s.rayner@ucl.ac.uk) or Rebecca Lyons, our Project Manager (rebecca.lyons@ucl.ac.uk).

We look forward to hearing from you!