Thursday, May 11, 2006

Sage advice

This today from Steven Johnson with regard to the continuing significance of the book as a medium for influencign opinion.

"[If] you're trying to change the way people think about a complicated issue, the advice is the same as it was two hundred years ago: write a book."

As with a lot that Johnson writes, I am in full agreement.

I would go even further so far as academics, especially early career academics are concerned. Taking liberties with Johnson I would say: 'If you are wanting to build an academic career in which you can get opportunities to influence the way people think about a complicated issue, the advice is the same as it was 30 years ago: write a book".

One of the things that eats me up more than just about anything else so far as contemporary careers in universities are concerned has been the way the institutions can chew early career academics up having them chase refereed articles in top tier journals and highly competitive externally funded research grants as sine qua nons for tenure and promotion. I am not saying these things aren't important, or even necessary, because they are. By the same token, they can and do burn up a lot of people who are spent before they get to influence people widely on complicated issues.

By contrast, a book can reach diverse people very quickly and open up a LOT of opportunities, notwithstanding the relatively low status accorded books in the currently faddish bean counts that masquerade as measures of Research Quality. Moreover, getting ideas out there in books can be a pretty nifty way of making oneself competitive for the very things universities want to push early career academics into before they even finish their higher degrees.

Put it this way. Right here and now, can you name 10 books that impacted way you think about complicated issues?

I thought so.

Now, can you name 10 research reports funded by competitive research granting bodies that impacted way you think about complicated issues?


Now, can you name 10 journal articles in top tier journals?

Uh, huh.

This is not to say that one's writing a book will have that change effect. (Sadly, I know.) But my guess is that it puts folk in with a better chance than most of the other options going, including the options we are often most intensely pressured as academics to take (and it can certainly open up great possibilities for expansive and rewarding careers).

Strange that.

i wonder if we might that extend that a bit to critique the overreliance on print that persists. that is, i agree books have had, and continue to have, a profound impact on social life. however, some of the most moving texts i've experienced in last year include Echoes of Brown and Country Boys.

is there space in the academy for books of a third kind...?
Thanks for that - as someone who feels in danger if burn out it was a great post to read!
Books win!
or even better
installation art!
easy to say when you're a series editor etc etc ... ;)
The Echoes example is a goodie -- we certainly do need to expand the concept beyond print per se. I read Johnson as being on about developing an argument in the length it takes to do the job well. And, yes, Scott, there was a pretty transparent call lurking in there for people to submit proposals for the "New Literacies" and "Interventions" series.
Thanks for your advice. I will try to keep that in mind. Hope it will be useful at least for me.
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