A conversation among journal editors on theory, history, and database

So, to start with, I have two projects on the stove at once, one I should have finished and sent out long ago, and the other, meant as a sequel, which is now riding its own melting. This project was at first conceived as a sequel to an earlier project I am still trying to finish and send out, but it is turning into a prequel.

First, the old project, with all but the writing finished before this course started: I am trying to find evidence of the effect of large databases of primary texts (Early English Books Online, American Periodical Series online, the Whitman Archive, Google Book Search, etc) on scholarly practice in the humanities. I’ve gathered four and a half threads of evidence:

* ideological statements made in public fora (professional journals, listservs, etc) made about these databases;

* an ambitious quantitative analysis of citations of primary texts in two prominent journals, American Literature and English Literary History, showing a dramatic increase in primary sources cited well after the rise of New Historicism and directly matching the rise of database;

* interviews with authors who published in those journals,

* some new history from interviews on why searchable text (not a simple enterprise, and one that was not a natural choice) was added to these collections when they were digitized,

* and my own theoretical argument for why search is a big deal, transformative rather than just a boost in efficiency.

I had some questions left over from this work. I wanted to find evidence of trends in scholarship that I’ve intuited but that I don’t have either the evidence or the stature to assert, specifically, two trends: a rise of a sort of historicism and an eclipsing of theory, or perhaps merely lapsing into a theoretical monoculture. I can put these claims in the mouths of my elders:

* A few years ago, Jane Gallop wrote about a job candidate who claimed it’s impossible to get published without archival work and complained that history has overtaken close reading.

* In a column before MLA ’12, Stanley Fish announced that “the theory days” are over.

I saw both of these trends as entangled with the third trend I could prove, the increasing adoption of database in literary studies, English in particular.

I conducted a series of interviews with prominent journal editors and asked them questions about trends they’ve seen in the submissions received and comments by reviewers. I asked the interviewers to reflect upon trends in the scholarship generally whether or not they’re related to databases. And I referred to Gallop and Fish as prompts.

And, this is actually working.

I’ve completed interviews with Frances Ferguson of ELH, Cathy Davidson and Priscilla Wald of American Literature, and David Raybin of the Chaucer Review, Nancy Armstrong of Novel, Marianne Hirsch of PMLA. Gordon Hutner is posting a question on my behalf to a listserv for the Council of Editors of Learned Journals.

The questions I asked were motivated by my particular take on database and its effects, but I think they also serve to elicit a good characterization of the current state of literary studies in English. What I have now is a conversation about the canon, what counts as a discovery in 21st-century English studies, the use of archive, and the role of history and theory–all with database serving as the connecting thread.

I am planning to publish this as just that: a conversation of prominent editors about trends in scholarship. To the extent that it has a thesis, it is that database is central to understanding the forces converging in this moment literary scholars find themselves in.

So, I personally think this is shaping up to be a pretty good project. I need to do some thinking about how to organize their responses.

/Alan Bilansky


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