You know, a while back ---- ok, like approaching years ago now ---- I made my students do book reviews in one of the courses I taught. I had stayed away from them, because "book report" just screams high school to me: not only can they encourage simplistic thinking and summary rather than an actual disciplined engagement, but my friends and I used to compete for who could get an A with having read as little of the book as possible. Jason won the entire campaign by inventing a book on WWI out of whole cloth. He included maps of the Somme. I gave up at that point, knowing I was outclassed.
But on the other hand, some of my grad profs have made me do book reivews of recent stuff to get a sense of "coverage" of the field being taught in that class. (Someone carped that this was how Prof So-and-So was staying current in the field, but I did learn a lot from the process.) And since I had just read a bunch of books directly in my field if not quite on my topic, I made up a list of about 20 or so and sent my students off into the stacks. I tried to make a very specific, difficult assignment asking them to find the overarching argument of the book and critique it.
It had mixed results. The students didn't know how to deal with an argument when a chapter covered an author we had not read or an author we had read but not that specific work in that chapter. (Yes, a lot of these were dissertations-into-books.) They also found the academic "voice" difficult, contentious, and completely boring. (I like to think that I put a bunch of smart but lazy students off of applying to grad school, as many who had been asking me questions about that whole process came back all huffy that the books were "boring." Well, yeah! My job is to instill an appreciation of literature into you undergraduates. That is nothing like what you would do as a grad student.)
And the whole exercise also made me think about why we ---- literature scholars ---- actually publish books. Especially because none of the students had ever done this or been asked to do this before ---- they could not fulfill the assignment without walking into the stacks. I know lots of people have assigned research projects here, but undergrads generally go to journal articles and can do just fine, or find single pages of books through google books and not do well at all. This helps explain why I pull so many books from a couple years ago off the shelves only to discover that I will be the first person checking it out.
So why is literature a "book field," considering that our undergrads are, I'm pretty sure, only coming in contact with the article portion of our field?
Furthermore, compare literature classes to history classes. Historians assign scholarly books in their courses ---- sometimes more textbooks in the lower divisions, perhaps more "accessible" or trade books in their upper division classes than the latest scholarly monograph, but I have taken history courses and women's studies courses at the graduate level, and it was all about reading the latest stuff to be published or win some prestigious prize, with the occasional "foundational" text or "great classic everybody's gotta read" thrown in.
(and then --- to make things even weirder --- these seminars would sit around and make all these general statements about the book! It was so confusing to me. We could go for 30 minutes with no one pointing us to a specific page, and that confused the hell out of me. Don't even get me started on the class I took that was half sociologists and half lit students, where people constantly were applying what Fanon said to contemporary events in some far-removed place, and I had to stop myself from killing someone! Look, I don't believe you or any of your claims ---- by definition. You have to source everything you say in the text. How can I believe what you say about oppression in East Timor, Mr. Leftier-Than-Thou, when Fanon says nothing about it and you are not bringing any other texts, news reports, or first-hand experience to the table? Gah! Ok, I'll stop ranting.)
But in contrast to my history and ws classes, in my lit classes we read articles, or occasionally book introductions. Or some big classic theory treatise (well, usually we'd have entire classes on _____ theory, of whatever type.) More often it would be a couple theory articles and a couple critical articles each week. And of course, lots of primary texts. I don't think anybody assigned scholarly books or really talked about them. It could be just the place I was at...? And this was the same at the undergrad level. Most all the profs I know would rather squeeze another novel or poetry collection onto the syllabus if they saw they had any room, not put the latest prizewinning book from the 18th Century Nose-Picking Society on there. In fact, I had plenty of profs who put nothing but acres of primary texts on their grad syllabi and expected us to research out all the theory that was being referenced, as well as do some solid critical research for our papers. My department could be an anomaly, I guess.
So why is the "gold standard" in literary studies a book for tenure if we are not assigning them in our classes?
History is a "book field," but at least the book sales are helped a bit by the fact that profs are assigning them as models in their grad classes. You come out with a book on, I don't know, colonial American concepts of transgenderism and people like Tenured Radical and Historiann will have their students buy a couple dozen. You come out with a book with four chapters on Alexander Pope and --- can you even come out with a book like that? I know lots of the reasons given about why projects need to be thought through on this level of scope and depth across a lot of pages (I can disagree with them too) but I was wondering how people justify the system from a publishing and purchasing standpoint.
Just something else to chew on during the Magical Month of Academic Publishing.
(and update: one hour today, yet another paragraph, but I found a bunch more quotes that actually are about the pattern I see over here at the beginning of the novel so maybe I have to add another paragraph. Hmm. So then did I make progress or not today?)