Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why PMLA should become PLotMLA; or, Using your powers for good

I'm not really a PMLA-hater in the way that so many seem to be. I feel that I've read many a good article in it, and one of the great things about PMLA is that it's ubiquitous and covers a lot of scholarly terrain that I forget that I give a crap about when not reminded from time to time. PMLA is the irregularly-appearing, late-arriving, flimsily bound, comically hyperprofessionalized flagship publication of our field. From where I stand it would be a little hard not to love it.*

But I think PMLA should fold.

Think about it. The MLA is forever passing resolutions, which are well-intentioned, controversial only to a limited subset of nerds, and nonbinding. A statement from the MLA on the ethical treatment of adjuncts is a welcome thing, but it isn't likely hiring practices or people's life situations all that much. I actually think the most awesome thing the MLA has done in recent years is open a Twitter account for Rosemary Feal.** (The MLA: it's friendly!) Prestige only gets you so far. (Please correct me if I'm wrong; I'd love to hear that the MLA made some department start adding tenure lines.)

It's a different matter, though, when it comes to publishing. The MLA does actually put out its own publications, and they're some of the most useful and central to the profession, much as we love to affectionately deride PMLA and compare the MLA Handbook unfavorably to the magisterial CMoS. As slow to update as the MLA Bibliography is, as prone to crashing as the JIL is, where would we be without these things?

The greatest virtue of being the center of the profession is being the center of the profession. Suppose PMLA were to move entirely to open peer review and open access, reconstituting itself as a Public Library of the MLA (on the model of PLoS), perhaps with the help of an NEH grant. Would its prestige disappear? I doubt it. Its reputation for stodginess might, though.

Unlike those resolutions, the move to open peer review and open access would amount to an action, not just a recommendation. Because PMLA comes with a boatload of prestige, it would solve one problem that open peer review projects often face: fear among contributors that their work won't count toward promotion and tenure. It could be a decisive move to open up the acceptance of open peer review in the humanities, and make it easier for other journals to move to such models.

I am, of course, leaving aside the logistical complications, which are legion. And in a way, I understand the value of PMLA behaving like the most conservative journal of all time. It can't really afford to make sudden moves, precisely because it's big and central and purports to represent such a broad range of scholars.*** Any move PMLA makes is likely to be consequential, whether or not it's where we want the profession to be. But that's what drives so many people nuts about it now, and that's why the switch could effect a powerful change in how we handle scholarly publication.

*One of the most regularly made criticisms of PMLA (which Gregory Jusdanis, for example, makes) is that it is insufficiently "cutting-edge" or "revolutionary." I'm already on record as being against innovation, so it will come as no surprise that I think this desideratum is misguided. This topic is worth more than a footnote, but for now I'll just say that, first, newness is not self-evidently a good, and second, that to reserve approval for that scholarship which thoroughly changes our thinking is analogous to a capitalist logic of production, in which only "growth" counts.

**I genuinely think this is awesome.

***I grant that the committee-driven compromise that could easily come out of such a proposal would probably be something like a pilot program that effectively creates two tiers: "real" PMLA and "experimental" (perhaps all-online, perhaps less valuable toward t&p) PMLA. And that would never do.


Roland Greene said...

I have to disagree with you on at least one point. The MLA does a lot of good for people in our profession who are, in various ways, vulnerable. Its annual recommendation of a minimum per-course wage for part-time faculty has helped many people to negotiate fair compensation; likewise the recommendation of a minimum salary for full-time faculty has made it easier to hold institutions to their obligations. There are many other influential things, of course--guidelines on staffing and extramural evaluations, useful books on pedagogy, and so on--but these two alone are a credit to the association because not many learned societies have done as much.

Natalia said...

Hi Roland! I'm definitely happy to hear that those recommendations are making their way into actual salary negotiations. Mightn't this mean that a PLotMLA would be all the more powerful, though?