Wednesday, November 18, 2009

We Need 'Philosophy of Journalism' (by Carlin Romano, the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Note to the Caption:Reporters in the New York Post city room in 1963 (Bettmann, Corbis)
If you examine philosophy-department offerings around America, you'll find staple courses in "Philosophy of Law," "Philosophy of Art," "Philosophy of Science," "Philosophy of Religion," and a fair number of other areas that make up our world.

It makes sense. Philosophy, as the intellectual enterprise that in its noblest form inspects all areas of life and questions each practice's fundamental concepts and presumptions, should regularly look at all human activities broad and persistent enough not to be aberrations or idiosyncrasies. (The latter can be reserved for Independent Studies.)

Why, then, don't you find "Philosophy of Journalism" among those staple courses? Why does philosophy, the academic discipline charged to reflect the noblest intellectual enterprise, avoid the subject while departments teem with abstruse courses mainly of interest to the tenured professors who teach them?

A few related questions come to mind. Why, at a time of breakneck technological and social revolution in news and newsrooms, do deans and presidents permit ossified philosophy departments to abdicate their responsibility to cover the world by not thinking about the media? How can it be that journalism and philosophy, the two humanistic intellectual activities that most boldly (and some think obnoxiously) vaunt their primary devotion to truth, are barely on speaking terms?

The explanations require a sociology of both professional philosophy and journalism, too large a project for this space, but worth thumbnailing anyway.

Unlike politics or art, journalism, as a sophisticated public practice in the West involving more than routine sharing of information, developed mainly in the 18th century, long after the core concerns of philosophy as a taught subject (chiefly cosmological, theological, and epistemological) shaped the curriculum. Unlike science, journalism long carried (and still does for many) the association of superficial intellectual goods. That made linkage with it unappealing to professional philosophers, whose egos and identities are deeply connected to an image of themselves as intellectually superior to other professionals. (Scientists and mathematicians, of course, tend to both scare and attract them.)

Add to this the historic insularity and inflexibility of philosophy—the field remains less diverse and intellectually adventurous than any of the other humanities—and the recipe for philosophical ignoring of journalism and new media was practically complete.

Other factors—highly human ones—also kick in, reflecting mainstream American values. A vast and mutual reservoir of condescension exists between American journalists and philosophers. Many philosophers think of journalists as B or even C students (we're talking pre-grade-inflation here), people who have committed themselves to simplistic narratives of the world shorn of nuance and qualification, fond of every fallacy in the book, all made worse by the pompous, officious, in-your-face personality associated with reporters in the popular imagination (see, most recently, Russell Crowe in State of Play, or Robert Downey Jr. in The Soloist.)

Journalists, in turn, often regard philosophy professors (though not all humanists) as mannered figures, badly informed and out of touch on matters outside their academic competence, insufficiently quick-witted on their feet, irrelevant in their influence on the public, and ludicrously inefficient in their Anglophilic and pedantic diction ("I should now like to make the claim, ceteris paribus …"). This makes philosophers, among other things, impossible guests on talk shows and hopeless sources for quotation. Factor in the root disposition that renders each group what it is—the inclination of philosophers to focus in any situation on the operative ideas and concepts involved, and the imperative of journalists to cling close to concrete facts—and the perfect storm of antipathy between these populations can feel fairly primal.

As someone who has tried to live a life in both fields for 30 years, I find journalists understand this state of affairs better than philosophy professors do. The former note the scorn directed at them by the latter and largely laugh it off. The latter often falsely think they are held in higher regard by fellow professionals than is the case.

Both groups, I think, twist the screws into each other too reflexively. For every philosophy professor with an impressive, tactile understanding of current events and human affairs, there's a journalist whose reading in the great books forms a wise philosophical understanding of the world that surpasses that of most philosophy professors. With intellectuals, it's all case by case.

Still, broadly speaking, we need philosophers who understand how epistemology and the establishment of truth claims function in the real world outside seminars and journals—the role of recognized authorities, of decision, of conscious intersubjective setting of standards. And we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science.

When I began teaching my seminar "Philosophical Problems of Journalism" at Yale more than 25 years ago—I've taught it nearly 20 times since at institutions ranging from St. Petersburg State, in Russia, to the University of Pennsylvania—it expressed my own bent as a fanatical reader of newspapers and magazines with (I believed) a fact-based approach to life that naturally steered me to philosophy. It was precisely all that raw journalistic information, often contradictory, that I thought stirred me to reason in a philosophical way, asking further questions, noting counterexamples, seeing the implications of the uncertainty of one concept for the uncertainty of others.

So I constructed a basic course that examines journalism in the light of philosophical thinking in epistemology, political theory, ethics, and aesthetics, mixing philosophical and journalistic materials and vocabularies. In Part 1, we scrutinize "truth," "objectivity," and "fact." In Part 2, we explore how journalism might fit classic modern theories of the state, including that tradition from Locke to Rawls that largely ignores the "Fourth Estate." In Part 3, we ponder how what practitioners call "journalistic ethics" fits with broader moral theories such as utilitarianism. In Part 4, we investigate whether journalism can be art or science without overstepping its conceptual bounds. The guiding principle was a variant of Browning: One's reach should exceed one's grasp, or what's a syllabus for?

Having now seen students in those seminars become journalists or philosophy professors themselves, I feel one of my core beliefs has panned out. I've always insisted to the philosophy students that journalistic thinking enhances philosophical work by connecting it to a less artificial method of establishing truth claims than exists in philosophical literature. I've always stressed to journalism students that a philosophical angle of mind—strictness in relating evidence and argument to claims, respectful skepticism toward tradition and belief, sensitivity to tautology, synoptic judgment—makes one a better reporter. Judging by reports from the field, it appears to be true.

For myself, teaching the seminar never gets stale, because journalism and philosophy never get stale. The news remains new. Tough philosophical problems never go away, and must be confronted again and again. At one time, I imagined "Philosophy of Journalism" would flourish through natural causation, despite my own inability, as full-time literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, to act as an academic Johnny Appleseed, planting the course like a senior professor through disciples and former doctoral students. It hasn't happened.

Might it still? I hope so. Some friends tell me the need is obviated by the huge growth in American academe of communications and media studies as a separate discipline, and the boom in journalism schools and programs. I disagree. Without doubt, as the annual meeting of the International Communication Association confirms, that field more than compensates in sheer volume for the lack of attention philosophy gives to journalism, new media, and implications of the Internet. Certainly it has produced thinkers, such as Manuel Castells, whose syncretic aspirations mirror those of philosophers. Yet, for the most part—a spirited subsociety of wonderful philosophy types notwithstanding—the attention remains chiefly empirical and "social sciencey" in style, too often belaboring and endlessly footnoting the obvious rather than challenging conventional wisdom.

We still need our colleges and universities to provide a more classical, full-bloodedly philosophical approach to journalism. If that's to happen, the welcome move by august universities and media-minded foundations to rethink and reshape journalism education must resist its own faddishness and lack of vision. Too many foundations and universities breathlessly fasten on the bells and whistles of new technology, as if tweets shall save us all, rather than attending to longstanding gaps in journalism education.

Every journalism student should be required to take a course in journalism history. It's essential for young journalists to understand how our peculiar institution developed, and that it is not a natural kind—it can be changed and reformed. Every journalism student should also be required to take a course in "Comparative Journalism," a flagrant lacuna in the field, to understand that the American model and its issues, which predominate in all American journalism programs, is not the world.

Most important, every journalism student should be required to take a course in "Philosophy of Journalism," to develop the intellectual instincts and reflexes that will make the approach to truth of both practices a permanent part of his or her intellectual makeup. Imagine a world in which every column about the Obama administration's battle with Fox News came with profound context about the large issues involved. A sweet, rather than tweet, thought.

There's a great history to be written of philosophers' engagement with journalism, from Hegel's citation of the daily newspaper as his morning prayer, to Ortega y Gasset's lessons from newspaper life, to Russell's widespread freelancing and the later Wittgenstein's instantiation of conceptual journalism as a philosophical method.

Universities and foundations could do their part to mine this rich tradition. Before directing more Knight and other grants to further repetitive Twitter and Internet "experiments," they should support a core intellectual curriculum in journalism studies that would make a far greater difference to future excellence in the field.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dancing Scruffy Cheek-to-Scruffy Cheek: Gay Tango by Maria Finn (

Tango Evolves as Argentine Dance Floors Mix Gender Roles, But Not Genders


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- May 1, 2008

In Buenos Aires, the tango starts with a gesture that is almost imperceptible to the untrained eye.

At traditional "milongas," as tango social dances are known, men do not approach women and ask them to dance. Rather, the Argentines sit across the room and make eye contact. If the woman does not avert her eyes, the man nods slightly. If the woman nods back, then he approaches her and they move to the floor.

That initial gesture is known as "el arte de cabeceo," or "the art of the nod." This ritual saves the man's dignity from public rejection, and it respects the vulnerability of a woman, as she can easily refuse and not feel obligated to dance with the man.

This is part four in's 10-part special series on nightlife around the world. Click here every weekday through May 9, 2008 for the latest story.

This is only one ritual among many. Throughout the entire exchange, traditions determine where to place your hands, how many songs you dance together  and strict gender roles are always present. Some dancers claim that the social codes inherent in the tango are necessary because the dance requires strangers to become so intimate with each other.

But there's a new kind of tango taking place. At the gay milonga, known as La Marshall, you'll find several kinds of couples dancing: women with women and a few mixed-gender couples  but mostly men with men. Five o'clock-shadowed cheek to five o'clock-shadowed cheek, they execute their steps with precision and clear intent.

Tango in Buenos Aires is constantly refining and redefining itself. The tango began in the 1800s near the ports on the south side of the city. It evolved from the overlap of slaves brought from Africa, immigrant laborers from Europe, Cuban sailors, and women who arrived or were coerced into working the brothels. During the years the music and dance became less bawdy, as it shifted from whorehouses to high society. Experimental music by masters like Astor Piazzolla, who introduced jazz and classical elements to the tango, opened it up for further experimentation. In the past decade, nuevo tango, in which electronic music is mixed with Belle Epoch classics, has the younger generation in Buenos Aires dancing.

Two of the latest trends, gay and queer tango, are attracting dancers from across the world to Buenos Aires. Many trace gay tango back to one man: Augusto Balinzano, who tours internationally to teach gay tango. When he's in town, he teaches tango at Lugar Gay, a guesthouse exclusively for men in the neighborhood of San Telmo.

A professional tango dancer, he says that gay tango wasn't a deliberate movement; it just happened.

"One night I was dancing with a man," he says. "Then the next time another couple of gay men joined us. And so on. Now we have gay lessons and a gay milonga."

Indicative of major changes in Argentine society, the gay tango is something of a perfect storm that came about from an economic crisis, improved civil rights for homosexuals and a revival in tango's popularity.

The long-standing dictatorship in Argentina that lasted from 1976 to 1983 considered anything different to be subversive. Even following the fall of the dictatorship, though there were no actual laws directly discriminating against homosexuals. But there was an Edict Against Public Dancing, according to a report written by Sociologist Amy Lind and published by the North American Congress of Latin America in 1997. This edict pledged to "punish any proprietor who allows men to dance together."

Lind goes on to explain that individuals were arrested under these edicts, held by police for up to 30 days and fined.

In 2001, Argentina experienced an economic crisis when the peso devalued. To aid their recovery, the government tried to attract more tourists. And because it had become such an affordable trip  prices were down by more than a third  both straight and gay tourists realized they could eat steak, drink Malbec and dance the tango for a third the regular price. Even those who didn't go to Buenos Aires to learn tango would become smitten by the art form.

Civil rights for homosexuals gradually improved, and in 2002 Buenos Aires' City Council passed a measure recognizing same-sex civil unions and extending health insurance and pension rights to same-sex partners. Since then, the city has worked hard to attract gay visitors, creating a gay tourist map and presenting at gay travel symposiums.

As a result, Buenos Aires has become a very popular destination for gay travelers, and according to Hector Aguilar, an architectural historian who gives lectures for Lugar Gay, "It now rivals Rio as the gay destination in South America."

One gay man, who asked to remain anonymous, came to Buenos Aires from his hometown of Montreal for almost three months to escape the Canadian winter. "I heard about it at a gay travel convention, and realized that not only was it inexpensive, but there was a lot to do here," he says. "Mostly, I am working on my tango. There are more gay milongas starting, and even some of the straight ones are becoming open to same-sex couples."

Gay tango is the natural outcome of these social changes in Buenos Aires, and the city hosted the first Queer Tango Festival last year. It drew about 500 people from around the world, organizer Roxana Gargano said. Take note: This festival was not gay tango, but queer tango. Another evolution is occurring.

Ingrid Remmen, who is visiting Buenos Aires from Norway to study queer tango, explained the difference: "Gay tango is about sexuality, and queer tango is about opening up traditional tango so that women can lead men or other women."

A teacher of queer tango, and one of the founders of the Queer Tango Festival, Mariana Falcon decided to learn the man's part when, as she puts it, "I lost my tolerance for bad leaders. And even when the leaders are good, I don't want to wear high heels and short skirts and play that feminine stereotype. It's not who I am."

She found even gay tango a little restrictive, as while some same-gender couples danced together, ideas of the dominant leader and submissive follower were still in play.

Queer tango, as she envisions it, means that it doesn't matter if you're straight or gay; you have the opportunity to be who you are  leader or follower  regardless of your gender or sexual orientation.

Of course, many tango dancers will stick to the traditional way; much of the pleasure of the tango is not just the footwork, but the embrace is important as well and straight dancers tend to be more comfortable in this close proximity with the opposite sex.

Joe Wieder, a straight tango dancer from New York, believes that it's just easier for a man to lead a woman, because, as he put it, "In tango, size and sex do matter."

But queer tango in Buenos Aires is about more than just the dance.

"Tango reflects changes in society," she says. "The growing popularity of queer tango means that as a society we are becoming more open-minded. Straight or gay, when partners learn to interchange roles, both can access different types of power."

They can do this, she says, by shifting their embrace. Or, as queer tango becomes more familiar to people, the negotiating of follower and leader roles could happen by something as simple as a nod.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Manifesto for Scholarly Publishing (by Peter J. Doughhrty, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

In 1948, the University of Illinois Press published Claude Shannon's brief and profoundly influential book The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Shannon's work, which explained how words, sounds, and images could be converted into blips and sent electronically, presaged the digital revolution in communications.

Anyone not living under a rock knows that Shannon's idea has engulfed all forms of written thought, including every genre of scholarship. Ironically, the very institution that brought Shannon's technological tract to a broad audience, the university press, is now contending with the possible demise of the print book itself. Just as the researchers at Bell Labs helped to develop the very technologies that undermined the old phone company, so the editors and publishers who brought Shannon and his fellow theorists to print have effectively disrupted the traditional technology of books. Joseph Schumpeter had a phrase for it: "creative destruction."

And while university presses grapple with the economic and technological challenges now affecting how we publish our books — the subject of a thousand and one AAUP conference sessions, e-mail-list debates, and news articles — discussion of what we publish seems to have taken a back seat. And understandably so. Why obsess about content if books as we know them are about to become obsolete in favor of some yet-to-evolve form? Has creative destruction spelled the end of books?

I believe quite the opposite. Books — specifically scholarly titles published by university presses and other professional publishers — retain two distinct comparative advantages over other forms of communication in the idea bazaar:

First, books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments at a relatively general level of discourse and in familiar rhetorical forms — narrative, thematic, philosophical, and polemical — thereby helping to enrich and unify otherwise disparate intellectual conversations.

Second, university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas. Hard ideas — whether cliometrics, hermeneutics, deconstruction, or symbolic interactionism — when they are also good ideas, carry powerful residual value in their originality and authority. Think of the University of Illinois Press and its Mathematical Theory of Communication, still in print today. Commercial publishers, except for those who produce scientific and technical books, generally don't traffic in hard ideas. They're too difficult to sell in scalable numbers and quickly. More free-form modes of communication (blogs, wikis, etc.) cannot do justice to hard ideas in their fullness. But we university presses luxuriate in hard ideas. We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit. As the Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters notes, even when university presses succeed in publishing so-called trade books (as in Charles Taylor's recent hit, A Secular Age), we do so because of the intellectual rigor contained in such books, not in spite of it.

Hard ideas define a culture — that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself. In a recent article, Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and novelist, underscores "the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing — and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share." The challenge for university presses is to better turn our penchant for hard ideas to greater purpose.

University presses need to foment a content revival astride the delivery revolution, one that stimulates our connection to new intellectual trends, encompasses a broader conception of scholarship, and renews our commitment to the scholarly mission of the university. Such a revival in content would return us to our roots; roots revealed in Albert Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity, Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis, Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Beyond the Melting Pot, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, and other classic works. Since our earliest days, our content has been our glory, and it will remain so in the future. But this requires a new and purposive round of brainstorming. We need to match the power of our book-making imaginations with emerging currents of scholarship, some emanating from corners of the university distant from our traditional turf in the humanities and social sciences — new genres, and new readerships.

This content revolution would proceed apace on parallel tracks, which I will touch on briefly, then in greater detail:

First, include on our lists more titles from the burgeoning professional disciplines: engineering, law, medicine, architecture, business, the graphic arts, and the information sciences. Those fields are driving the growth of our host universities while redefining the limits of culture in new and exciting ways.

Second, become much more purposeful and assertive in publishing books that define whole fields, including important advanced textbooks. University-press editors would add depth and ballast to their lists by looking for that next great advanced text in our traditional fields, such as social theory, comparative literature, or art history, as well as in emerging fields. That kind of publishing is often dismissed as cookie cutter, but it's not.

Third, publish more books for worldwide readerships. As the globalization of knowledge continues apace, American university presses are positioned to engage readers in ways unimagined a generation ago. By infusing our lists with titles of international interest, we can better exploit the technologies that bring the world closer to us.

Fourth, work more closely with departments and centers within our host universities to adapt their work — sponsored lecture series, etc. — into books, monograph series, and other such initiatives. We should be planning our future lists strategically within our host universities in order to maximize the relative strengths of press and campus alike.

Let's look more closely at these goals.

As noted above, the first key to a stronger and more vital university press is in the embrace of a broader array of fields, notably the professions, including medicine; engineering; computer, environmental, information, and management sciences; graphic design; and finance. The professions, for all the prestige of graduate institutions like the Wharton School or Harvard Medical School, are often seen as peripheral to the humanities-centered core mission of universities, and to the heavily humanities-oriented program of university presses. That disparity presents an identity problem for the modern university. The diversified research university's great growth areas exist largely outside the dialogue internal to the humanities and social sciences.

But that paradox offers an opportunity for university presses, because books function at least in part to humanize hard ideas, such as those that define professional knowledge. Not only do the professional fields yield important technical books, they provide university presses with the chance to publish broader books that convey important profession-specific knowledge to diverse, cross-disciplinary audiences. In other words, university presses, because of our position within the academic community, are uniquely positioned to help introduce professional knowledge into the larger intellectual discourse by publishing books that engage the historical, literary, and social dimensions of these fields. That effort has, in fact, already begun. For example, think of the influence of works such as Donald Mackenzie's An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (MIT Press, 2006), John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid's The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), Henry Petroski's Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design (Princeton University Press, 2006), or James R. Beniger's The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Harvard University Press, 1986). Each of those books introduced into the broader intellectual conversation powerfully important technical subjects to an impressive cross section of readers, removing the technical barbs and burnishing the transcendent human implications.

There are also ethical elements of professional subjects that need to be integrated into broader intellectual conversations. As Harold T. Shapiro, a former president of Princeton, notes in his book A Larger Sense of Purpose (Princeton University Press, 2005), "the most valuable part of education for any learned profession is that aspect that teaches future professionals to think, read, compare, discriminate, analyze, form judgments, and generally enhance their capacity to confront the ambiguities and enigmas of the human condition."

While naysayers may argue that publishing more books on the professions subverts the university press's historical commitment to the humanities and culture, one could counter that those professional fields are themselves coming to define culture. Think of the growing influence on society of fields such as telecommunications, financial engineering, and cognitive science, as well as the increasingly ubiquitous influence of statistics and applied mathematics in everyday communications. In fact, the electronic transition in scholarship itself is the product of applied science. These fields are foreign to most university presses, but the direction of scholarship suggests that they shouldn't be. In fact, they provide a great new opportunity for us to publish works that reflect the reality around us.

I am not suggesting that university presses should abandon or even reduce our commitment to traditional humanities fields. History, literature, art, politics, and philosophy form the core of university-press publishing, and always will. However, by integrating more technical subject matter into our publishing, we can add color and depth to our lists. The mere introduction of new ideas into the culture of university-press publishing would add vigor to our operations while inspiring in editors in the humanities and social sciences new exciting cross-disciplinary books. Books, better than any other literary form, can speak to the ever-widening chasms that define the modern, intellectually diverse research university. We should embrace the challenge.

Second, even as university-press publishers should diversify our disciplinary portfolios, so too should we strive more ambitiously to define entire fields by commissioning important new high-level textbooks and treatises. That kind of publishing used to be the proud purview of textbook publishers, but as a result of the nearly 30-year wave of consolidation that has marked college publishing, only a few such houses remain. Those publishers tend to concentrate their energies on producing mainstream undergraduate textbooks in repetitive shootouts for market share, leaving smaller yet intellectually vibrant fields open to new and innovative texts, treatises, and reference books.

University presses should seize the opportunity. Important advanced texts often turn out to be intellectual game changers, reviving and redirecting knowledge in older fields, synthesizing ideas in newer fields, and unifying scholarship across fields. Thus they serve eminently the mission of the university press. But as the author of a leading book on academic publishing observed in conversation with me, university-press editors tend to dismiss that kind of publishing as cookie cutter. A little history suggests it is anything but.

When I began my career at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the summer of 1972, I carried in my briefcase sales briefs for titles that would be regarded as excellent by any standard. Harcourt's college department published great works such as Noam Chomsky's Language and Mind, Walter Jackson Bate's Criticism: The Major Texts (1952), Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Modern Rhetoric (1949), Lewis A. Coser's Masters of Sociological Thought (1971), and Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity (1971). So did other college houses, as did the celebrated "crossover" houses of that day, Basic Books and the Free Press. If that's cookie cutter, please sign me up for some shares of Pepperidge Farm. There are superb and growing opportunities for university presses to engage in that kind of stylish textbook publishing and to do so both proudly and well.

Third, enlarging the globally relevant dimension of our lists not only provides a greater fulcrum for sales, but better connects us to the scholars, writers, and foreign publishers forming the next generation of research networks around the world. At Princeton, the percentage of business that comes from internationally attractive lists such as economics is as high as 40 percent of total sales, or about twice the average of most of our lists. Robust international lists also generate more translations. On a visit to Asia in 2007, I discovered that many of the booksellers there were aware of an important new book from our catalog, Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, even before its official publication dates. That is how immediate and tangible the global market has become. Without global content, university presses risk isolation from a growing community of readers and authors. After all, the numbers suggest the next John Hope Franklin or Joan Robinson is as likely to be sitting in a classroom in Delhi or Beijing as in Cambridge or Los Angeles.

Fourth, university presses should reinforce their strategic positions within their host universities by partnering with departments and committees on developing new books consonant with the scholarly initiatives afoot on campus. A simple example is the lecture series as book.

When I became an economics editor, I learned about the wonderful volumes drawn by Oxford University Press from the Clarendon Lectures delivered annually in Oxford by invited scholars. Those lectures served then — and continue to serve — as vital events drawing scholars and students alike together for several days of lecturing and discussion. They also serve as the basis for a manuscript that eventually gets published by Oxford and, in the case of the Clarendon volumes, read worldwide by economists and scholars in related fields. Those books include now-classic works such as Robert Shiller's Macro Markets: Creating Institutions for Managing Society's Largest Economic Risks (1993). That is the kind of win-win arrangement that facilitates partnership between the university press and its host university.

Another is the university-sponsored book series. For example, think of the Princeton Annals of Mathematics series, supplying the world of math with cutting-edge monographic works for generations, or the Harvard East Asian Monographs series. University administrators should be aware of the enduring recognition that comes from the successful continuing publication of such series, and of the capacity of books to command attention in publications as wide-ranging as blogs, Web journals, newspaper columns, and magazines. If mathematics can emanate throughout the world from Princeton and its press, economics from Oxford and its press, and East Asian studies from Harvard and its press, why not engineering, environmental science, management, or public health from other presses? Such books are reviewed worldwide, providing a continuing stream of recognition for universities and presses alike.

Although we live in an era of disaggregated knowledge, I believe scholarly books will thrive. William Germano notes in his book Getting It Published that "the book is the form in which we scholars tell our stories to one another. ... Even when a publisher offers the choice of a physical or electronic edition of a work, or supplements a physical book with electronic ancillaries, or produces a physical book only on demand, it is the form of the book, that precious thought-skeleton, that holds a project together."

In effect, books remain valuable precisely because they are distinct from the other, more transitory, forms of scholarly communication. But university presses have to grasp the stinging nettle, jump-start a serious discussion about content, get strategic, invent projects. If university presses attempt to be more creative by introducing new subjects into our existing lists, the resultant hybrid vigor, to borrow a phrase from the biologists, will put us on a stronger course and renew the place of books in the world of ideas. For in the future, as in the past, we will be judged by the character of our content.

Peter J. Dougherty directs Princeton University Press.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to Procrastinate Like Leonardo da Vinci (by By W.A. Pannapacker)

"Dimmi, dimmi se mai fu fatta cosa alcuna."

("Tell me, tell me if anything ever got done.")

— Attributed to Leonardo

On his deathbed, they say, Leonardo da Vinci regretted that he had left so much unfinished.

Leonardo had so many ideas; he was so ahead of his time. His notebooks were crammed with inventions: new kinds of clocks, a double-hulled ship, flying machines, military tanks, an odometer, the parachute, and a machine gun, to name just a few. If you wanted a new high-tech weapon, a gigantic bronze statue, or a method for moving a river, Leonardo could devise something that just might work.

But Leonardo rarely completed any of the great projects that he sketched in his notebooks. His groundbreaking research in human anatomy resulted in no publications — at least not in his lifetime. Not only did Leonardo fail to realize his potential as an engineer and a scientist, but he also spent his career hounded by creditors to whom he owed paintings and sculptures for which he had accepted payment but — for some reason — could not deliver, even when his deadline was extended by years. His surviving paintings amount to no more than 20, and five or six, including the "Mona Lisa," were still in his possession when he died. Apparently, he was still tinkering with them.

Nowadays, Leonardo might have been hired by a top research university, but it seems likely that he would have been denied tenure. He had lots of notes but relatively little to put in his portfolio.

Leonardo was the kind of person we have come to call a "genius." But he had trouble focusing for long periods on a single project. After he solved its conceptual problems, Leonardo lost interest until someone forced his hand. Even then, Leonardo often became a perfectionist about details that no one else could see, and the job just didn't get done.

A friar named Sabba di Castiglione said of Leonardo, "When he ought to have attended to painting in which no doubt he would have proved a new Appelles, he gave himself entirely to geometry, architecture, and anatomy." Leonardo worked on what interested him at the moment, cultivating his energies and insights, even when those activities were not directly related to his current commissions.

Leonardo, it seems, was a hopeless procrastinator. Or that's what we are supposed to believe, following the narrative started by his earliest biographer, Giorgio Vasari, and continued in the sermons of today's anti-procrastination therapists and motivational speakers. Leonardo, you see, was "afraid of success," so he never really gave his best effort. There was no chance of failure that way. Better to "self-sabotage" than to come up short.

Of course, the therapeutic interpretation of Leonardo — and, perhaps, of many of us in academe who emulate his pattern of seemingly nonproductive creativity — has a long history. Leonardo's reputation spread at exactly the right time for someone to become a symbol of this newly invented moral and psychological disorder: procrastination, a word that sounds just a little too much like what Victorian moralists used to call "self-abuse."

The unambiguously negative idea of procrastination seems unique to the Western world; that is, to Europeans and the places they have colonized in the last 500 years or so. It is a reflection of several historical processes in the years after the discovery of the New World: the Protestant Reformation, the spread of capitalist economics, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle classes, and the growth of the nation-state. As any etymologist will tell you, words are battlegrounds for contending historical processes, and dictionaries are among the best chronicles of those struggles.

The magisterial Oxford English Dictionary presents a wide range of connotations for "procrastinate," ranging from the innocuous "to postpone" to the more negative "to postpone irrationally, obstinately, and out of sinful laziness." The earliest instances of procrastination do not carry the moral sting of the later usages. To procrastinate simply meant to delay for one reason or another, as one might reasonably delay eating dinner because it is only 3 in the afternoon. For example, in 1632 someone described "That benefite of the procrastinating of my Life." In other words, sometimes delay is good; it is a good idea — in this case — to delay the arrival of death.

Somehow it is not surprising that the first notable shift in the moral weight of the term is found in relation to business and the building of empires. In his 1624 account, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, Capt. John Smith — adventurer and founder of Jamestown — wrote of his gang of shiftless cavaliers, "Many such deuices [devices] they fained [feigned] to procrastinate the time." It was, no doubt, owing to this procrastination — not tyrannical leadership and impossible conditions — that Jamestown's early years were so unsuccessful. Eventually, Smith developed the policy of "He that will not worke shall not eate," since eating seems to be one of the few things about which one cannot procrastinate for long. It's a telling moment when procrastination becomes a crime against the state potentially punishable by death.

As time wore on, and the pace of life accelerated, the exhortations against procrastination in the English-speaking world rapidly became stronger. By 1893 we find someone not being accused of procrastination or warned against it, but accusing himself of the shameful vice: "I was too procrastinatingly lazy to expend even that amount of energy." The rhetoric of anti-procrastination — constructed by imperialists, religious zealots, and industrial capitalists — had become internalized. We no longer need to be told that to procrastinate is wrong. We know we are sinners and are ashamed. What can we do but work harder?

Like the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we live our lives with regret for what we have not done — or have done imperfectly — instead of taking satisfaction with what we have done, such as, in Coleridge's case, founding English Romanticism in his youth and producing, throughout his life, some of the best poetry and literary criticism ever composed, including his unfinished poem "Kubla Khan." But that was not enough; always, there was some magnum opus that Coleridge should have been writing, that made every smaller project seem like failure, and that led him to seek refuge from procrastinator's guilt in opium.

One thing about this dalliance with the OED is reassuring: If words emerge and evolve over time, it is possible to get behind them, to disconnect the relationship between "signifier" and "signified" so to speak. Since procrastination emerged from a specific historical context, it is not a universal and inescapable element of human experience. We can liberate ourselves from its gravitational pull of judgment, shame, and coercion. We can seize the term for ourselves and redefine it for our purposes. We can even make procrastination — like imagination — into something positive and maybe even essential for the productivity we value above all things.

In 1486, when Leonardo was still struggling with the Sforza horse, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola gave his famous "Oration on the Dignity of Man," encouraging artists to become divine creators in their own right. In this vision, God encourages Adam not to embrace human limitation but to lift himself upward into the realm of the angels.

It was this dream of human perfectibility that animated artists like Michelangelo, and, perhaps, forever rendered Leonardo unable to relinquish voluntarily any of his more serious artistic projects. As Vasari writes, "Leonardo, with his profound intelligence of art, commenced various undertakings, many of which he never completed, because it appeared to him that the hand could never give its due perfection to the object or purpose which he had in his thoughts, or beheld in his imagination." Through his many episodes of alleged procrastination, we see an artist who engages with the irresolvable conflict between unlimited aspiration and the acknowledgment of human limitation.

If Leonardo seemed endlessly distracted by his notebooks and experiments — instead of finishing the details of a painting he had already conceptualized — it was because he understood the fleeting quality of imagination: If you do not get an insight down on paper, and possibly develop it while your excitement lasts, then you are squandering the rarest and most unpredictable of your human capabilities, the very moments when one seems touched by the hand of God.

The principal evidence for that is, of course, Leonardo's notebooks. He kept those notebooks for at least 35 years, and more than 5,000 manuscript pages have survived — perhaps a third of the total — scattered in several archives and private collections. Leonardo's known writings would fill at least 20 volumes, but if one includes the lost materials, he probably wrote enough to fill a hundred.

Some of Leonardo's entries are short jottings; others are lengthy and elaborate. The notebooks give the impression of a mind always at work, even in the midst of ordinary affairs. He returned to some pages intermittently over many years, revising his thoughts and adding drawings and textual elaborations. Several compendiums have been compiled from his notebooks, but, like so many of us, Leonardo never used his voluminous private writings to produce a single published work.

For the most part, his notebooks — like the commonplace books that were kept by students in the Renaissance (Shakespeare's Hamlet had one, for example) — were a polymath's workshop: a place to try out ideas, to develop them over time, and to retain them until circumstances made them more immediately useful.

Leonardo's studies of how light strikes a sphere, for example, enable the continuous modeling of the "Mona Lisa" and "St. John the Baptist." His work in optics might have delayed a project, but his final achievements in painting depended on the experiments — physical and intellectual — that he documented in the notebooks. Far from being a distraction — like many of his contemporaries thought — they represent a lifetime of productive brainstorming, a private working out of the ideas on which his more public work depended. To criticize this work is to believe that what we call genius somehow emerges from the mind fully formed — like Athena from the head of Zeus — without considerable advance preparation. Vasari's quotation of Pope Leo X has rung down through the centuries as a classic indictment of Leonardo's procrastinatory behavior: "Alas! This man will do nothing at all, since he is thinking of the end before he has made a beginning."

If creative procrastination, selectively applied, prevented Leonardo from finishing a few commissions — of minor importance when one is struggling with the inner workings of the cosmos — then only someone who is a complete captive of the modern cult of productive mediocrity that pervades the workplace, particularly in academe, could fault him for it.

Productive mediocrity requires discipline of an ordinary kind. It is safe and threatens no one. Nothing will be changed by mediocrity; mediocrity is completely predictable. It doesn't make the powerful and self-satisfied feel insecure. It doesn't require freedom, because it doesn't do anything unexpected. Mediocrity is the opposite of what we call "genius." Mediocrity gets perfectly mundane things done on time. But genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or an outline. As Leonardo knew, it happens through random insights resulting from unforeseen combinations. Genius is inherently outside the realm of known disciplines and linear career paths. Mediocrity does exactly what it's told, like the docile factory workers envisioned by Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Like so many of us in academe, Leonardo was endlessly curious; he did not rely on received wisdom but insisted on going back to the sources, most important nature itself. Would he have achieved more if his focus had been narrower and more rigorously professional? Perhaps he might have completed more statues and altarpieces. He might have made more money. His contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, would have had fewer grounds for mocking him as an impractical eccentric. But we might not remember him now any more than we normally recall the more punctual work of dozens of other Florentine artists of his generation.

Perhaps Leonardo's greatest discovery was not the perfectibility of man but its opposite: He found that even the most profound thought combined with the most ferocious application cannot accomplish something absolutely true and beautiful. We cannot touch the face of God. But we can come close, and his work, imperfect as it may be, is one of the major demonstrations of heroic procrastination in Western history: the acceptance of our imperfection — and the refusal to accept anything less than striving for perfection anyway.

Leonardo is just one example of an individual whose meaning has been constructed, in part, to combat the vice of procrastination; namely, the natural desire to pursue what one finds most interesting and enjoyable rather than what one finds boring and repellent, simply because one's life must be at the service of some compelling interest — some established institutional practice — that is never clearly explained, lest it be challenged and rejected.

Academe is full of potential geniuses who have never done a single thing they wanted to do because there were too many things that needed to be done first: the research projects, conference papers, books and articles — not one of them freely chosen: merely means to some practical end, a career rather than a calling. And so we complete research projects that no longer interest us and write books that no one will read; or we teach with indifference, dutifully boring our students, marking our time until retirement, and slowly forgetting why we entered the profession: because something excited us so much that we subordinated every other obligation to follow it.

If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the life of Leonardo, it is that procrastination reveals the things at which we are most gifted — the things we truly want to do. Procrastination is a calling away from something that we do against our desires toward something that we do for pleasure, in that joyful state of self-forgetful inspiration that we call genius.

W.A. Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College.