Edited Collections: Why Bother?
Yesterday, I saw a link to advice against editing a collection. I was about to type a few words of response either at the original post or where I saw the link, but instead found myself with more I wanted to say. So here we go. See, I’ve co-edited three collections and am currently working on a fourth. I’ve gained a heck of a lot from the experiences, professionally and personally. Consider this post a defense of the oft-maligned edited collection, with pictures of some really good ones to further make the point.
Let me start, though, by agreeing with the injunction not to edit a collection if you really think of it as a substitute for publishing work that you have written yourself. Edited collections won’t get you tenure or promotion by themselves, and they take time and energy, so if you have very limited reserves of each, you would be better advised to spend them elsewhere.
However, if you’re paid full-time to be an academic, unless you work a 4/4 load with lots of advising hours and you’re a slow writer, or unless you’re not working full-time, you very likely do have extra reserves. Which means that telling someone not to edit a collection because you could instead be writing a journal article is kind of like telling someone not to watch television because it’s important to read books: the fallacy lies in thinking you can’t do both. All three of my edited collections were compiled while I was writing monographs and journal articles.
As for tenure and promotion, I’ve seen numerous people across the humanities get tenure at top notch schools with the formula of one book + a strong selection of journal articles + another large project. That “other large project” is sometimes a second monograph (written or in progress), but it can also be an edited collection. Even directly, therefore, edited collections do and can matter – they aren’t fetishized as are monographs or articles at leading journals, no, but they still matter.
A great deal of their value, though, is best measured indirectly. They increase your skills, your profile, and your network in ways that can definitely impact tenure and promotion decisions (not that this is all that does or should matter, a point to which I’ll return).
Indeed, let’s back up and discuss what’s involved in an edited collection. First, of course, one must come up with the idea. Then one begins the lion’s share of the editing, which involves wrangling academics and cat-herding. A heck of a lot of the job is social, finding talent, encouraging some people to write for you, soothing them when they think they might need to drop out, finding replacements if they do drop out, reminding them of deadlines, working out how best to get them to work when they inevitably miss the deadline, talking through their ideas, and smoothing over reviews. Another key part of the job is critical reading, looking for what works, what doesn’t, and being diplomatic and constructive in improving the chapters. Then there’s the dealings with the press, which involves selling it to them, running interference when their reviewers inevitably want you to drop one or two articles and replace them with make-believe ideal replacements, and proofreading and likely indexing the thing towards the end.
Let’s look at each in turn:
(1) The Idea – First, make sure there’s a reason for your collection. Vanity publishing for a group who got together and thought they had something teh awesome to say about topic X doesn’t suffice. Ask who else will want to read this, and will benefit from it. Ideally (at least if you want a book contract!), you’ll need to think about what kind of undergraduate classes might use the book, and should use the book. Some of the best edited collections make an intervention, and/or find something that everyone’s talking about and either teaching or wanting to teach yet not doing so because there aren’t the readings.
What this means is that one of the key reasons to do an edited collection is because the area needs it. If it’s vanity publishing and is the equivalent of forcing some poor soul to sit down and watch your entire wedding video, don’t bother. But if the book has something to say, adds to and develops the discussion on a topic, and thus will be seen as a good, then you’re doing a great service to the discipline, and that service will likely be noticed.
(As an aside, though, be aware that you’ll be identified with the topic of this collection if you edit it. Perhaps moreso than with your other work, because edited collections often enjoy a visibility that a lot of other work doesn’t. Case in point is my co-edited collection, Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. I was originally asked to co-edit it by someone who liked my essay on non-fans and anti-fans, and thought it would be neat to have me as a co-editor since I could add a critical viewpoint on fandom from outside fan studies. That person then needed to back out of the project, and I was left as the lead editor of a book on fandom. I am still introduced as a fan studies scholar, and a surprisingly large number of prospective grad students want to come to UW to work with me on fandom. So do ask yourself if this fits with your publishing profile.)
(2) The Cat-Herding – A lot of my job as editor is conducted while watching television, sending emails to check in on this or that, reading creative excuses for why something’s late, etc. It can get frustrating, especially if you run into a primadonna, and thus it pays to know who you’re working with, what they’re capable of, and how well they work with deadlines (a key reason I’m not fond of the open call edited collection). But it can also be immensely rewarding. Why?
On one hand, that social aspect can keep you sane. Rather than doing your work in a little bubble, or only leaving that bubble to share with students a limited version of it, edited collections can put you in touch with a lot of very smart people working on a topic that matters to you. But that can also be professionally rewarding. Back to Fandom, I largely met Henry Jenkins, Roberta Pearson, and a whole slate of other cool people through that book, and not just the “hello, my name is” style greeting you might “enjoy” at a conference reception. When I was a very junior faculty member, I had senior faculty regarding me as a peer as a result of Fandom. Then, with my next collection, Battleground: The Media, since it was an encyclopedia, I was in touch with an even wider group of scholars.
(3) The Critical Reading – I moved to a university with a PhD program only two years ago. Yet I felt extremely well-prepared for working with grad students because of my editing (both the books and the journal). There is a profound difference between grading undergrad papers and giving comments to researchers that move them closer to publication, and editing hones the latter skills. Sure, it requires diplomacy – sometimes a lot! – but that is itself a great skill to learn and develop in our field.
But over and above that, surely one of the key reasons to edit a collection is because you believe more work on topic X is needed. And as an editor, you read that work closer than most. Academics often need an excuse to read, post-grad school – we either need to be teaching the topic, or writing on it directly. Editing has ensured, though, that I’m always reading. And if your edited collection is on a topic near and dear to you, you’re thinking through your own ideas in the process. I came out of editing Fandom knowing so very much more about fans, and with much more nuanced, sophisticated understandings of many aspects of fan studies. Ditto with Satire TV and satire. Granted, we can often feel like we’re in a business that’s all about publishing and teaching, but central to both of those, and likely the driving force that got all of us into this business, is a passion for ideas. Editing allows you to wrestle with those ideas in a wonderful way. Not just your own ideas, or not just others’ ideas for a paragraph or two, but meaningful, substantive investment with a range of ideas.
(4) Working With the Press – A lot of this work can be mundane, but that’s the nature of publishing, and at least you’re able to see reviewers’ comments on other people’s work, too, not just your own. Building a relationship with a press can’t hurt, either. So it’s all educational and helpful in its own way.
To bring this all together, let me try to list the ways in which Fandom helped me, a collection that I began as I was finishing grad school, and that came out while I was in the second year of a tenure track position:
- I became much closer to Cornel Sandvoss and Lee Harrington, a bond that led to us editing Popular Communication for five years (and, btw, you can be damn sure that most journals wouldn’t be offering an editorship to someone as junior as I was alone)
- I got to think through issues of fandom and audiences in an intense way, thereby improving the state of my thinking on both
- I met Roberta Pearson, Henry Jenkins, and Aswin Punathambekar, three wonderful people who have been great friends, advisors, and advocates throughout my career, and who have been on panels with me and worked on other projects with me
- I also met other wonderful contributors and strengthened bonds with some who I already knew
- As noted above, a significant number of grad students or at least prospective graduate students came to know who I was
- When Kristina Busse met me at Flow, she accosted me about the exclusions in the book, and this led to a great discussion at the time, and many since. Last year, we wrote a chapter together, and Nina’s a good friend. That’s just one example of how it started discussions for me
- I got to publish some extremely talented junior scholars alongside some bigger names, thereby quite literally placing the younger lot right next to the older lot and giving them an early venue for their ideas
- I established a relationship with NYU Press that continued into a single-authored book and another co-edited collection
- I was able to intervene in a sub-field (fan studies) and try to slightly change the direction of future research (in particular, I wanted to have sections on high culture fandoms and anti-fans, and they’re both there)
- I learned a bunch of skills of diplomatic review writing that I have since been able to use with grad students, journal reviews, and such
- At a junior point in my career, I was able to pull a chair up to a bunch of bigger names and realize I belonged. Post-Fandom, therefore, I think I was a lot less timid about asking people I didn’t know to be on a panel, or so forth
- And yeah, yeah, it may not count as much as a single-authored book to many, but it certainly counts for something
The “moral” of this post is not that everyone should do edited collections. But I don’t like to see them maligned. There are some wonderful edited collections in our field: Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren’s Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method and Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John Caldwell’s Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries together carved out a new sub-field and gave it legs most recently; Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette’s Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture (both editions) is not only the best one-stop shop on the genre but also superb for teaching television in general; and please don’t tell me that Horace Newcomb’s Television: The Critical View didn’t play a key role in making Newcomb one of the more known and respected figures in our field along the way of helping endless undergrad classes get why and how television matters. And that’s just skimming the surface. All of the above editors who went up for tenure got it, and all helped our field. That works for me.Tags: edited collections, editing