Crossroads 2006: Presentation

Brief blog-only preface: What follows is the text of the paper I delivered at the 2006 “Crossroads in Cultural Studies” conference in Istanbul last week. It was written with an eye (or, more precisely, an ear) for oral presentation, and I haven’t bothered to re-edit it for this somewhat more fixed format. So if you’re looking for footnotes, or wondering why some of the sentences read as if they were meant to be spoken, now you know why those things aren’t happening the way they would in more polished publications.

Tyrannosaurus Text:
Publishers, Profits, and Pedagogy

My talk is admittedly shaped and limited by my position as a monolingual US citizen. I would be delighted to discover that the pessimism that characterizes my argument is simply the byproduct of the limited vision afforded by US parochialism. My suspicion, however, is that the problem that motivates my remarks does, in fact, extend beyond the borders of the US — if for no other reason than that the US has an unfortunate tendency to impose its parochial concerns and values on the rest of the world.

In 1988, I began work on my Ph.D. and enrolled in Larry Grossberg’s graduate seminar on cultural studies. Larry’s syllabus included eleven books — all primary sources (The Uses of Literacy, The Long Revolution, Policing the Crisis, etc.) — and a collection of photocopied essays and reports that added another 2500 pages or so to our total page count. As a matter of short-term pragmatics, this sort of informational overload was probably not sound pedagogy. I suspect that none of us — Larry included — managed to get through even half the assigned reading before the semester officially ended, and it was certainly difficult for cultural studies novices (such as myself) to fully process the massive amount of whatever reading we actually could finish in a mere sixteen weeks.

In the long term, however, Larry’s strategy of burying his students in primary texts was probably the most effective way to introduce us to this thing called “cultural studies.” Nearly twenty years later, I still regularly revisit Larry’s syllabus to assist my own teaching and research (and I hope to finally finish all the reading sometime in 2012, give or take a year). A conventional cultural studies textbook couldn’t possibly do justice to the range of authors and arguments covered by Larry’s syllabus, nor could such a textbook hope to capture the rich texture of the extended dialogue between all those voices that Larry’s syllabus mapped out so thoroughly. Of course, in 1988, there was no such thing as a “cultural studies textbook” — so Larry didn’t exactly have the option of building a syllabus around one — but I feel certain that the textbook that could equal (much less improve upon) Larry’s reading list simply can’t be written.

By the time I started teaching my own graduate seminar in cultural studies in 1996, there were a handful of edited anthologies in print that could plausibly be pressed into service as required texts for such courses. Most notable among these was the 1992 Routledge volume, Cultural Studies (known in some circles as “The Doorstop,” “The Phonebook,” or “The Bible”), but there were still no real textbooks to speak of: at least not in the sense that any single volume existed that explicitly tried to provide cultural studies newcomers with a preliminary map of the terrain. As cultural studies continues to grow, to change, to reshape itself for new geopolitical contexts and historical moments, such a map becomes even harder to imagine, much less actually draw: enough so that it’s probably unreasonable to expect any single book to succeed at such a herculean task. And, until very recently, no one had actually seen such a daunting project through to completion.

Today, however, cultural studies textbooks seem to be everywhere — and another handful pops up in publishers’ catalogs every few months. If raw page count were all that mattered, one could now duplicate the volume (but not the quality) of Larry’s 1988 reading list using nothing but these introductory guides and beginners’ manuals: Teach Yourself Cultural Studies, A Short History of Cultural Studies, Doing Cultural Studies, How to Do Media and Cultural Studies, Cultural Studies: The Basics, Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice (already in its second edition), two completely different books entitled Introducing Cultural Studies. And the list goes on. Eight years ago, none of these books existed at all. At the rate that new volumes in this genre seem to be appearing, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if that list of titles doubles in the next two or three years alone.

My lack of surprise at such a proliferation, however, would be accompanied by a keen sense of disappointment, as I believe that the net effect on cultural studies of the ongoing textbook boom is already a negative one — and is only likely to worsen. To be sure, there is an upside to this particular development worth acknowledging. One could, after all, understand the current flood of cultural studies textbooks as material evidence that cultural studies has matured enough to finally be accepted as an important and prominent player in the academic world. Or one could argue that the textbook boom is a sign that the “bottom-up” demand for cultural studies (and cultural-studies-flavored courses) has expanded dramatically. Or, perhaps, one could make the case that the new textbooks are the byproduct of an unprecedented push by a range of scholars and critics to democratize and popularize cultural studies in valuable ways: to make the often formidable terrain of cultural studies theory and jargon more readily accessible to (and understandable by) a broader segment of the population than has typically been drawn to cultural studies in the past.

Though I’m willing to accept that these rosy interpretations of the textbook boom each contain some noteworthy (if small) grain of truth, I’m not fully convinced by any of them. A large part of my skepticism stems from my belief that the damage done to cultural studies by the current boom far outweighs the benefits. But before I move on to explain what I feel the nature of that damage is, I should first dispose of a potentially distracting side issue: that is, the actual quality (or lack thereof) of specific titles in this new genre — and I’m deliberately not singling any specific title out for praise or condemnation. I will admit that I have not been impressed by most of the new textbooks — at least not in their intended use as cultural studies primers — even (or perhaps especially) after trying to incorporate two or three of them into various courses I’ve taught over the past few years. But the most serious problems arising from the textbook boom are structural and institutional problems, rather than issues that can be satisfactorily resolved by producing newer, better cultural studies textbooks to replace existing titles that, for whatever reason, don’t quite succeed as pedagogical tools for bringing cultural studies initiates into the fold. As I see it, there are three major problems with the current textbook boom: a problem of genre, a problem of audience, and a problem of interlocking institutional effects. And while good textbooks are certainly more desirable than bad textbooks, none of these problems can be adequately addressed at the level of individual texts.

Problem #1 — the problem of genre — is a difficulty connected to all introductory textbooks, regardless of topic, but it’s an especially acute problem for cultural studies. More precisely, this is a problem of superficiality. Whether the subject at hand is cultural studies or computer science, macroeconomics or mechanical engineering, an introductory textbook necessarily requires that its authors summarize a very broad, very complicated phenomenon within an extraordinarily limited space . . . and the resulting condensation must be readily grasped by readers who have little (if any) pre-existing knowledge of the subject. Thus, any given textbook will engage in sins of omission and oversimplification. This is not necessarily an insurmountable difficulty, given that textbooks are intended reading for absolute beginners, rather than for established scholars in the field. And, typically speaking, the gaps and shortcomings of your average textbook will occur at the edges of the field, rather than at its core. Competing textbooks in western psychology, for example, may offer different versions of Freud’s contributions (and ongoing relevance) to the discipline, but they’re not likely to leave him out of the story altogether.

In the case of cultural studies, however, the very question of the field’s “core” is itself a matter of longstanding dispute: enough so that it’s not at all clear what the obligatory canonical touchstones of a good cultural studies textbook would be. Whatever divergences and disagreements exist between the various textbooks in established fields such as physical anthropology, organic chemistry, or English literature, one can still generally compare those volumes and believe that they’re all attempting to describe the same basic phenomenon. The much more fluid nature of cultural studies, however, renders it an especially slippery subject for the sort of canon-building practices that introductory textbooks undertake. Place a half dozen of the existing cultural studies primers side by side, and it’s not at all clear that any of them are actually using the “cultural studies” label to describe the same phenomenon. The Birmingham school figures quite prominently in some, but is barely mentioned in others. Some volumes seem to be trying to train literary scholars to make productive use of critical theory, while others are clearly dedicated to producing politically savvy research on media and popular culture. There is, I believe, plenty of room within cultural studies for all these versions of the field (and then some), but I’m not convinced that there’s room in any single textbook for all the things that cultural studies really does.

Problem #2 — the problem of audience — revolves around the question of who we’re trying to teach. Put simply, there’s a profound and problematic gap between the most likely population for such training (graduate students) and the primary target market for most textbooks (undergraduates). One could argue that the major goal of such textbooks is simply to teach undergraduates about a field — introductory psychology texts aren’t designed to create new psychologists, after all — but this simply takes us back to the canon issues raised by Problem #1, and it overlooks the frequency with which the average cultural studies textbook actually does interpellate its readers as future practitioners. A safer assumption is that the major goal of most of these textbooks is to train students to actually do cultural studies . . . and I simply don’t believe that this is a feasible goal for undergraduates.

There’s a much larger argument to be made here that’s probably a separate paper of its own, but let me briefly gloss the major issues at stake by noting that cultural studies is both an intellectual and political set of projects . . . and that the vast majority of undergraduates (at least in the US) simply don’t understand their education in ways that lead to the sort of passionate and disciplined commitments that characterize the best work in cultural studies. Put a slightly different way, the sort of intellectually rigorous, politically charged, theoretically informed work that is the hallmark of cultural studies demands a sort of intense affective investment in intellectual and political work that might reasonably be expected (or at least hoped for) from graduate students, . . . but the average (and even some of the above-average) undergraduate simply isn’t that engaged with the life of the mind — much less a version of that life that embraces, rather than avoids, prickly questions of cultural politics, social justice, and radical democracy.

Lest I be misunderstood, I should emphasize that I’m a strong advocate for taking cultural studies to new audiences, that I prefer to challenge my undergraduates with material that helps them to stretch and grow intellectually, and that there will always be individual undergraduates who really are able and willing to rise to the particular challenge of doing cultural studies. If I genuinely thought that I could regularly teach cultural studies to undergraduates, I’d be delighted to do so. My fear, however, is that the ongoing textbook boom doesn’t actually function to extend the cultural studies brand in productive ways as much as it serves, however unintentionally, to dilute it.

Problem #3 — the problem of interlocking institutional effects — revolves around the harsh economic realities of contemporary academic publishing and the harsh professional realities of contemporary academic employment. the current textbook boom is largely a side effect of economic pressures on academic publishers, who are no longer able to vet potential new manuscripts solely on the basis of their intellectual merits, but must now also assess whether a would-be addition to their catalog will be profitable . . . with “profitability” largely assessed using a simple, cruel formula: will the book be widely adopted as an undergraduate textbook in the US market? If the answer to this question is No, a publisher might still find other reasons to offer a contract to an author. But, as Jayne Fargnoli (senior editor for Blackwell) lamented in her presentation at Crossroads 2004, the “US undergraduate” litmus test is all too regrettably becoming the “common sense” rule for most English-language academic presses.

In this institutional and economic climate, the textbook boom makes perfect sense: when most (if not quite all) of the books we write are expected to function as required reading for sophomores, it seems inevitable that volumes explicitly tailored to serve that market will be published in greater quantity. Ultimately, what disturbs me most about this trend is not so much that people write (or that publishers commission) introductory manuals for cultural studies: rather, my discomfort arises from the “one-size-fits-all” impact that the textbook imperative is having on academic publishing as a whole. If Jayne’s lament were merely that she needed to land two or three “blockbuster” textbooks every year to subsidize the less profitable, but more intellectually adventurous, books that comprised the bulk of Blackwell’s catalog, I would probably feel less concerned about the recent proliferation of textbooks. Sadly, however, the “textbook test” is being applied up and down the line . . .

. . . which, perhaps obviously, places severe limits on the range and type of cultural studies scholarship that can be published . . . which, in turn, has a potentially stifling effect on the future shape and state of the field. The problem at hand is only magnified by the ever increasing professional pressures on young scholars. In the US, at least, the increasingly corporatized nature of higher education has meant that — in the name of “efficiency” — doctoral students are pressured to finish their degrees in as little as 3-4 years. The seemingly ever-worsening academic job market has meant that all these rapidly minted Ph.D.s are expected to have extensive publication records simply to get interviews. The increasingly rigorous requirements for tenure and promotion — even at institutions that ostensibly emphasize teaching over research — have meant that those Ph.D.s lucky enough to land jobs must immediately transform their dissertations into publishable books. And now, it seems, those publishable books have to simultaneously function as the sort of polished research projects that will impress tenure committees and succeed as profitable textbooks for undergraduates across the US.

This combination of institutional pressures does not add up to a rosy scenario for cultural studies’ future. I fear that the pressures to produce more and more undergraduate-friendly manuscripts — and to do so at an accelerated pace — will ultimately push cultural studies scholars in the direction of “safe” research topics that already fit neatly into well-established undergraduate curricula, rather than producing the sort of innovative, nuanced, interdisciplinary work that has historically been the field’s greatest strength.

I would dearly love to conclude this talk by offering a neat and workable set of strategies that we might use to address the pessimistic scenario I’ve outlined. But, alas, I have no such answers at hand. If, for instance, there were an easy (or even a not-so-easy) way to encourage academic presses to once again think more broadly and open-mindedly about the types of manuscripts they published, then editors such as Blackwell’s Jayne Fargnoli and Sage’s Julia Hall (who aren’t exactly pleased by the tightened constraints themselves) would already have pushed their bosses to support more heterogeneous catalogs.

Perhaps the most optimistic conclusion I can offer, then, is to point back to the beginning of my talk . . . and to Larry’s back-breaking, textbook-free syllabus. As I noted earlier, the real value of Larry’s syllabus only fully revealed itself in the months and years after the course ended. So perhaps it can serve as a hopeful reminder that learning cultural studies properly is not something that anyone can do in a single semester. And so if we really want to teach cultural studies — and teach it effectively — we would do well to re-imagine our pedagogical labors as something that extend beyond individual textbooks and readings, and into a whole way of life.

3 Responses to “Crossroads 2006: Presentation”

  1. [...] As promised/threatened on CULTSTUD-L, I’ve typed up the talk I gave at last week’s Crossroads conference and put it online here. Watch this space in the days to come for actual commentary on the conference itself. [...]

  2. on 08 Sep 2006 at 5:56 pm Jason Mittell

    Gil – I agree that the quality of most of the CS textbooks are spotty (more in not matching my ideal line-up of topics, theories & examples). But I do think there is a place to teach Cultural Studies to undergrads – I offer such a course and while most students don’t emerge from the class ready to author a first-rate study, I have had some go on to write top-notch senior theses using the methodologies taught in the course. More commonly, though, students walk out with a heightened awareness of the complexity of culture. Just as students taking Intro to Psych tend to diagnose friends & family, my students tend to spot ideology & resistance everywhere they look. It more about stimulating active thinking about culture, rather than training researchers (which you point out are being churned out fast enough, thank you).

  3. on 08 Sep 2006 at 10:08 pm Gil

    Jason, I’d agree with you that it’s possible — even desirable — to teach undergrads to be better researchers and writers and thinkers. I’d even be willing to say that cultural studies informs most of the undergraduate teaching I do myself.

    But that’s still something very different than claiming that I’m teaching cultural studies to my undergrads — unless, of course, all we really want to claim for this thing called “cultural studies” is that it’s just another major. And I’m simply not comfortable with that as the upper limit of how cultural studies should imagine its ambitions.

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