February 21, 2002
The Flattening Of The Academic Pyramid

Glenn Reynolds and Will Vehrs (scroll down to yesterday's topmost post) agree that the Ivy League schools are overrated and "have no monopoly on outstanding scholarship, teaching, or facilities" (Vehrs). Both pundits, the 'Insta-' and the 'Quasi-', concentrate on the technological advances, mainly web databases, that have made it much easier to find and read articles in less-prestigious journals, so that researchers need not start with the 'best' journals and work downwards, as before.

I want to add a related point. For a combination of reasons, it is now much easier for those who work in places like Tuscaloosa or Bowling Green (Kentucky or Ohio, what difference does it make?) to write good articles in the first place, and to get them into the more prestigious journals.

Once it is written, getting a good article into a good journal is easier because of double-blind refereeing. I have heard that when one of the top-ranking American classics journals switched over to double-blind refereeing in the 1970s the percentage of female contributors immediately doubled, while the percentage of nobodies roughly quadrupled. The latter number is obviously a lot harder to calculate precisely, but includes professors working in smaller institutions, those working in the hinterland, the untenured and untenurable (i.e. instructors), and the occasional high school teacher or precocious grad student.

As for writing a good article in the first place: Fifty years ago, it was essentially impossible to do first-rate scholarshiop out in the sticks, at least in my field (Classics), because the scholar had to go to where the essential journals were kept and read them on-site. In any field, there are a lot of journals to read, and very few university libraries subscribe to them all. I have heard of an eminent Midwestern Mediaevalist who spent every summer (this would have been in the 1930's and 1940's) at the Library of Congress. While he read the new books in his field and took detailed notes on those important enough to read but not important enough to buy, his wife spent eight hours a day copying out articles in long-hand for him. Before the xerox machine, that was the only alternative to actually working at or near a place that subscribed to the journals.

It is now far easier to get to where the books and journals are kept, and this is still essential for rare books, which can't be checked out. (Classics is one of the few fields in which scholars still find pre-1800 books essential to their work. Many have been reprinted, but more have not.) Airline deregulation and the interstate highway system have helped a great deal. For most of the time that I lived and wrote in Tuscaloosa (early and mid-1990's), a round-trip airline ticket from Birmingham (55 miles away) to Baltimore cost $110. I could have gone to the Milton Eisenhower library at Johns Hopkins and used its well-stocked Rare Book Room every month if I had wanted to. As for interstate highways: in "From Four 'Til Late", Robert Johnson sang "from Memphis to Norfolk is a thirty-six hour ride". According to Rand McNally, it is now 16 hours and 36 minutes, and their estimate assumes that you obey the speed limit. Perhaps Johnson was talking about a train ride, but I suspect that 36 hours would have been about right for his time, and that improved roads have made more difference than faster cars. Neither Norfolk nor Memphis is known for its libraries, but that's another question . . . .

Even better, it is now far easier to get the books and journals to come to you. In the mid-1990's, I noticed that Interlibrary Loan suddenly became much quicker. For a paper I was writing, I needed to get hold of the 3-volume collected scholarly works of a third-rate German classicist of the first half of the nineteenth-century. Only eight libraries in North America owned copies. It took less than two weeks for the books to come from Ann Arbor to Tuscaloosa. Interlibrary Loan had previously always taken a month or more, often two or three. Why the difference? Because the slow part is not the actual shipment of the book, it is finding out who has a copy that is not checked out and is willing to lend it. That used to involve looking in the Union Catalogue, making a list of possible lenders, and then writing to them in turn, starting with those in the same state. It might easily take five or six tries to find a lendable copy. Now the searching is done on the web, the requests are sent by e-mail, and, if the librarians are not too busy, a book or journal can be located and ordered the same day the request is filled out. After that, it's up to the Post Office, and even book rate doesn't all take long.

Of course, inexpensive xeroxes are also a life-saver, though the high quality nickel-a-page copies of a few years back are now rare. The prices of scholarly books tend to go up faster than the general inflation rate, but so do professorial salaries. It is probably easier now than it has ever been for professors (but not adjunct instructors) to buy the books they need. Xeroxes are still necessary for journal articles and the occasional irretrievably out-of-print book. Even for the last, it is far easier and quicker to find used copies than it ever was before. A simple web-search on (e.g.) www.abebooks.com replaces years of trolling used bookstores in various cities. Of course, it's not as much fun, since it's more like shopping and less like hunting a rare and elusive beast.

All in all, it is now possible to do first-rate scholarship just about anywhere in the continental U.S., to look no further. Of course, many (not all) professors in the Ivy League and other big-name schools (Berkeley, Michigan, and the like) continue to sneer reflexively at those with less-prestigious jobs at less-well-known institutions. Perhaps surprisingly, I have always found Oxford and Cambridge less snobbish than the Ivies. Perhaps that is because it is obvious even to professors that two schools could not possibly contain all scholars worth reading, while some might think that twenty or thirty schools could. Whether they could or not is moot: they don't, and it's time they realized that.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at February 21, 2002 10:00 PM