Blog Post

What’s in a Monograph?

In the past weeks, there’s been a flurry of activity—articles, online posts and blogs, etc.—discussing the future of the monograph. 

Of course, discussions around the crises in scholarship and criticism and the need to reconsider expanded forms of scholarship aren’t new.  But perhaps a host of new developments, new technologies, and the emergence of new groups like Anvil Academic raise new, more pointed questions and offer clearer answers and less muddied pathways to this problem.

The monograph was among the subjects targeted in the 2006 MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion and has been a topic of interest in The Chronicle of Higher Education for well over a decade. (The essay that keeps coming back for me is Lindsay Waters’ “Rescue Tenure from the Tyranny of the Monograph”.)

Prof Hacker has posted a number of articles worth reading including Anastasia Salter’s “Expanding out definitions of scholarly forms” and Adeline Koh’s conversation with Anvil Academic on the idea of the “post-monograph.”

Frank Donoghue’s two-part essay on the role of the university press and the consequences of the recent closings of presses including Rice University Press and the University of Missouri Press serves as a good place to begin. 

What is the role of the university press?  What’s in a monograph?  In Donoghue’s own words: “Have those various intellectual communities become too splintered, specialized and small? Have the monographs that university presses produce become so costly that individual scholars can’t purchase them? And, thus, have university presses outlived their time?”

The most recent article from the Chronicle is Jennifer Howard’s piece “Ditch the Monograph.”  Howard sees at the limited budgets and spaces available for monographs in libraries, in particular, and looks at Kindle Singles  as a possible model…Of course, we need to ask why the Kindle and not iBooks?  Why the Kindle and not the Web? 

How does the university press fit into this?  Well, Howard shifts gears away from technology and builds in Daniel Cohen’s concept of “right sizing scholarship.”  She cites Princeton University Press’s Short Series  and Stanford Briefs from Stanford University Press.  Both are digital and both are much shorter in length than the standard monograph.

I love the idea of shorter, compact works.  There’s something intimate about them.  I’m looking at one shelf right now:  a political pamphlet that dates back to the 1880s; a Dover edition of Wilde’s De Profundis; poetry chapbooks that date from the 1930s to last year; dj readies’ Intimate Bureaucracies (Punctum Books, 2012) and, interestingly, two literary criticisms published by university presses.  The first is Avrom Fleishman’s A Reading of Mansfield Park: A Essay in Critical Synthesis (Johns Hopkins Press, 1967) about 100 pages in length; the latter is Karl Shapiro’s three-essay set A Primer for Poets (University of Nebraska Press, 1953), measuring in at about seventy pages.

The point is that I am in favor of publishing these “little” works, but the fact is there’s nothing new about them.  While promotion and tenure committees might be persuaded to re-examine just what these smaller works “mean,” this doesn’t really change the conversation, or add to it.  And the university press will not survive with this narrow-minded thinking.  They need to think big.  They need to go beyond this digital reformatting of analog materials.  There are high risks, of course, but there are high rewards as well.  And digitally-born materials need to brought into the conversation if scholarship is to escape itself.  Who is willing to start?

Howard quotes from Margret Grebowicz, a professor at Goucher College, who speaks to the “credibility” of “longer books” and of the horrified reaction some of her colleagues to shorter works.  Are shorter works really the horror? We all know what the real worry is . . . the disruption of the status quo and of a medieval system that has since evolved and left scholars and institutions behind to merely “perform” a series of mythologized codes that really only matter to those part of the spectacle. At some point, the synthetic shell of the monograph model of scholarly publishing is going to collapse. 

I don’t argue for the “ditching” of the monograph altogether, but I do argue that we re-examine its place and its purpose and ask that we reconsider “what else is there” and “how can we begin to incorporate these alternatives” into the classroom and into the conversation happening at promotion committee tables. 

We don’t see the amount of power publishers actually have.  (We are often too worried about our own work, our own tenure, or about this battlefield-like struggle we create between faculty and admin or between departments.)  I agree with Howard that publishers “will have to lead the way.”  What they publish (and how they publish) will dictate policies and performances in and out of the classroom.

The university press needs to look at its future and ask, “What’s in a monograph?”







thanks for this marvelous and timely post, and herewith my quite belated response! First, thanks for mentioning punctum books's "Intimate Bureacracies" [by dj readies, aka Craig Saper, a media theorist at University of Maryland, Baltimore County]: punctum books is indeed interested in publishing smaller works [that's partly why we launched our Dead Letter Office imprint series:], but the reason I am responding to your post is to essentially agree with everything you say here and to also note these 2 [what I believe are] important and much-neglected points:

1. First, I am really disappointed that in her article in the Chronicle, Jennifer Howard completely overlooked and/or neglected the very important presence right now of what I will call completely independent or semi-independent [non-single-university press affiliated and non-commercial academic publisher affiliated] academic and para-academic presses, such as Zer0 Books [in the UK], [Australia], Sequence Press [NYC], and punctum books [NYC], among others [and I would throw in here Open Humanities Press as well, although they are partnered with University of Michigan Press, and in somewhat traditional fashion, although I also see OHP pushing the envelope in important, innovative ways: their Living Books About Life series is one great example:], who I really believe are shaping the future of what is possible, and permissible, in intellectual-humanities publishing. The key now, in my mind, is for academics to take over the reins of the production and publication of their own intellectual products and projects, and to do so in a mode that is as separate as possible from established presses, university-based and commercial. This is not to say that new publisher models would not be commercial, nor have no university/institutional support whatsoever, because I also believe that for academic publishing to have a future, new creative partnerships that cut across institutional and corporate and private foundation entities will be required; we have to ditch the competitive models of publishing and also the idea that everything can be funded [at great losses] into the future for perpetuity by universities and aim for something like a sustenance/solvency model. But in any case, that Howard's article only looked at things like Stanford's and Princeton's new shorter works series + Kindle's "Singles," etc. just tells me, once again, that the academic journalistic press is almost always behind the curve.

2. Second, I think the way forward now [and this is -- shameless plug here -- punctum's model] is for new, independent presses [run and managed by academics with institutional support in partnership with intellectuals, technologists, and creative artists situated in contingent or non-relation to universities and retaining "independent" status, financial and otherwise] that would foster EVERY possible genre, style, and form of para-academic writing imaginable, from the 1,000+-page monograph to the scholarly novella to the picture-book to the post-card to the web-based platform work [that is NOT something you read on a Kindle or Nook] that takes unique advantage of non-traditional-book-based delivery formats. punctum books will be releasing on Dec. 4th Making the Geologic Now, which will be available for FREE as a downloadable PDF, for purchase as a print edition, and also for FREE [again] in a specially-designed interactive web-based environment: So, let's go for broke and foster every possible type of work. This is not just decadence for decadence's sake but actually a model that would help, I really believe, to enlarge the domain(s) of what it is possible to THINK and to DO within intellectual life: we need to foster new thinking, not just "products" that count in tenure dossiers.

3. Third, and even though I said I had TWO points [haha]: ACCESS is important, and we need to increase the access that is available to more persons who want to "count" within what we call "intellectual life," which is not just bounded by the university, and who are potential writers-producers as well as potential readers. Open Access isn't free, though, and we have to work harder, and collectively, to increase and guarantee this access, while also fostering the abilty of scholars and ara-academics to have the time and resources they need to produce more innovative work. COLLABORATION is key here.

Cheers, Eileen Joy



Thanks for the post, and, thank you, punctum books for your fine work!

I couldn’t agree more with your post:  Collaboration is key.  We need new (business) models that are based on new, creative partnerships and that both offer accessibility and promise long-term sustainability.

I appreciate, admire, your publishing model “run and managed by academics with institutional support in partnership with intellectuals, technologists, and creative artists situated in contingent or non-relation to universities and retaining ‘independent’ status, financial and otherwise.”  And I appreciate the list of publishers you provide above. 

One of my chief concerns in publishing is the polarization of presses: we have these incredibly large houses, the small press, and very little in the middle of things.  How do we balance this spectrum?  How can we embrace, support, and further develop the endeavors of publishers like punctum?  And how should we re-think the missions and models the university press?


Thinking further:

As a graduate student, I am being trained for the “intellectual life”, to discover my place, to maneuver through a variety of realms, problems, that I might encounter.  But there’s also this conflict (contradiction?) of the practical, of working within the system, in the institution.  “You’re supposed to be doing this, to publish here.”  So, in addition, to our training, we are also being prepared for what is expected (which hurries us, limits us) . . . The academy (and tenure committees) demand more and more from scholars at younger ages.  (Lindsay Waters’ essay (noted above) touches on this, a world that “pushes young scholars to go on record earlier and earlier, with less and less to say…”)  

I support your idea of a publishing model that is detached from the established press (yet still supported from the university).  The university could show support for projects beyond the university press monograph model in a variety ways besides financial backing.  But allocating financial assistance would reveal administrators’ understanding/cooperation in producing innovated scholarship (and what this means) and, I think, this is what is needed to create real change in tenure committees’ criteria and in graduate school’s foci (and curricula).   

With tightening budgets and increased competition within and across the university for funding, how do we convince these parties that support for these projects is really supporting the mission (and future) of the university itself?