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.’ This 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?
- 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
- 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.’
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:
- 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.