Home > Academic Job Market, book reviews > Edited Collections: Why Bother?

Edited Collections: Why Bother?

August 16th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

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.

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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).

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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.

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(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.

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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

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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.

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  1. August 16th, 2011 at 08:43 | #1

    *sits back and applauds*

    All of that, yes! It may sound odd, like the fact that I like teaching Symbolic Logic or that I like teaching Comp 101 (just not 4 sections :) , but i like editing! I think I’m pretty good at it, and it certainly has improved my reading and my writing skills. (And that’s before the actual intellectual engagement!)

    I love how you bring me in there as accosting you…my online image as abrasive troublemaker safely remains intact :)

    [Also, we’re planning on submitting an SCMS workshop on that, but our experience in editing Transmedia Sherlock has been amazing (collective peer review and two rounds of revisions in less than 3 months and all essays in hand on time!), and Louisa suggested it might be the Media Commons shared review. I think we may need to think about how to make collections *more* readable, *more* useful, and simply better. your notion of the idea is also getting at that, but I think a strong driving argument that connects the essays and possibly sharing the essays to have a shared interest in the overall project might be useful as well.

  2. August 16th, 2011 at 08:52 | #2

    @Kristina Busse
    I thought you’d appreciate the “accosts” reference ;-)

  3. August 16th, 2011 at 08:54 | #3

    Thanks so much for writing this corrective. I’m almost done with my PhD program, and was looking forward to undertaking a project like this in the coming years, because I love to work w/ others and to edit; I read the original blog post that provoked this response and felt sad indeed.

  4. jordan
    August 16th, 2011 at 09:08 | #4

    This is great Jonathan! As a junior faculty member about to embark on my first co-edited volume, this was a great (and useful) read!

  5. August 16th, 2011 at 09:21 | #5

    Great post. I think your points about time management are excellent. A good balance in the types of work being done seems key for maximal productivity. As you say, if all one did was teach constantly and excessively, then options for other projects might not be possible. And thus the beauty of the 2/2 teaching load – the extra time (and expectations) means that each day is filled with a variety of tasks. Get sick of one and it’s easy to switch to something else. Sick of student emails? Switch to some editing work. Sick of editing? Switch to some article writing. It’s part of the reason I feel I am more productive during the school year than during the summer.

  6. August 16th, 2011 at 09:53 | #6

    As I said over at Antenna, bless you. Thanks for writing. :)

  7. August 16th, 2011 at 10:14 | #7

    Can I split the difference between your post & the original triggering rant? I do think that editing a collection can be quite rewarding, fulfilling, and successful in all the ways you mention. It also can be a complete failure & waste of time that causes professional damage. At the risk of hijacking your post with my anecdote…

    Two years out as a junior professor, I was contacted by an editor at a prominent press, who was working with a high-profile series editor and came up with an idea for an anthology that they thought I’d be well situated to edit – it was on a topic that I’d published a chapter about, but was certainly not my passion. I agreed to do it, more because of the quality of people who were asking me rather than a belief in the topic & project. After months of shaking the trees for contributors, the submissions came in and were really subpar. I pulled the plug after seeing that I’d gotten at most 4 good essays and it would have been tons of work on my part to transform mediocre pieces into something I’d feel proud to have my name on.

    Certainly I wasn’t following much of Jonathan’s advice above, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge that editing carries some different risks than solo authoring – things may fall apart due to no fault of your own, and you risk upsetting contributors & editors if things don’t work out. So the rewards of networking & professional capitol cut both ways. Also few academics I know are half as productive as our intrepid blogger, so time spent editing will pull away from other forms of publishing (or teaching or service or real life) for us mere mortals.

    That being said, I came away from my aborted editorial effort believing that I would never try to edit a book again – but last spring a friend pitched a project for me to contribute to that struck me as such a great idea that I signed on as a co-editor. Thus far it’s been far more rewarding, and if it lives up to its promise, it will be something I’ll proudly have invested my time into. So the real lesson is to pick projects wisely and be aware of the risks – and never say never.

  8. August 16th, 2011 at 10:18 | #8

    @Kristina Busse
    I think we should make T-shirts saying “I was accosted by & later befriended Nina!” Respectful intellectual assault is a great way to forge academic friendships…

  9. Matt Sienkiewicz
    August 16th, 2011 at 10:50 | #9

    The sad part of that post, to my mind, is that none of the q’s were But what if I think I might really enjoy it?

    Are we really consigned to such tactical drudgery? I hope not, but I guess I’ll find out at a tenure review in 6 or 7 years…


    matt.

  10. August 16th, 2011 at 10:59 | #10

    Jason, your warnings are very well taken. It’s especially important to note that one is playing with fire to a degree when editing, since if it doesn’t work, one faces the ire of one’s contributors (and if one runs into primadonnas, one may face their ire even if it does work!). So I hope my post doesn’t suggest that editing is ever a wonderful gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane. But:
    * I read your bad experience more as a reason that one should make sure one cares about the mission, and has the people and quality on hand, before beginning, than as a reason not to edit.
    * On the whole, I’d recommend that anyone get their book published before editing one. Some exceptions apply for those who can do both at the same time.
    * On the topic of doing both at the same time, I think Michael Braun, above, gets at part of the secret — editing requires very different skills from writing, and thus is ideal for the part of the day after one finds one can’t write any more. The other secret is what you’ve realized quite brilliantly with your forthcoming collection — get good people whose work you trust, and then honestly they do most of the work. Perhaps it’s to my detriment, but I’m not very interventionist as an editor; those who’d like to rewrite every sentence of someone else’s should stay well away from editing (not just for their sake, but for the world’s!), but by and large, it’s Field of Dreams-like in that you build the edifice, and they come.

  11. Jonathan Gray
    August 16th, 2011 at 11:06 | #11

    Matt, while I’d definitely warn that one can’t do everything one wants as a non-tenured prof, you get at a really valid and important reason to edit that isn’t just naivety. After all, drudgery is soul-destroying, and if and when we work on the things we must do, but don’t want to do, they sap our skulls. But when an edited collection is working, it’s exciting and fun. I’m just getting drafts in for a collection now, and am really inspired by them. This gives me energy which I can then exert on other things. If a key to productivity is to work a lot (duh!), then surely one needs to find ways to want to work a lot, and edited collections can — for some people — do the trick nicely.

  12. August 16th, 2011 at 11:21 | #12

    I always appreciate a good rebuttal, but you will never change my mind. I’m glad you’ve had success, but i’ve seen far more careers of junior people aborted from the ed. coll. effort. My advice is: Best not at all, but if you must, only after tenure. (I didn’t actually say the latter part explicitly in the post, because I don’t engage with post-tenure concerns on the TPII site).

  13. August 16th, 2011 at 11:36 | #13

    @Jason Mittell Oh man, there’d be quite a few who’d deserve that T-shirt. It may be a good thing I only go to one conference a year, or the list’d be even longer :D

    I think your comments and Jonathan’s responses are really useful in giving a range of positions and experiences. Because I doubt anyone has edited a collection and has nothing but good experiences (and show me an academic who hasn’t been burnt by an editor dropping the ball).

  14. August 16th, 2011 at 12:06 | #14

    Jonathan, Thank you for a balanced approach to this. I edited one collection (with a male co-editor, btw) and working on a second one. Both have been a positive experience – they allowed me to explore a bit outside of my immediate work, put me in touch with some amazing people, and yes, gave me a sense of camaraderie – which btw is not a uniquely female need and resent the author of the original post implying that it is. Academia is an isolated profession and co-editing makes you feel that there are people out there who can get your back if needs be. But of course, this is not a substitute for a monograph or journal articles.

  15. August 16th, 2011 at 14:00 | #15

    Well said, Jonathan, great points!

    Unless you are pretentious beyond belief and you regard intellectual communication as a waste of time you SHOULD do an edited collection, and a co-edited collection, and a co-authored volume, and be a series editor for others’ work. And co-teach, and co-apply for funding, … All stimulating, exciting and also humbling experiences that help you discover the person behind the scholar (for yourself and for others).

    One additional point. For those of in film and media studies, it is often a squeeze between two persistent (and persistently outdated) traditions: the arts and humanities tradition and its emphasis on the ‘big monograph’ (or the ‘Big Creative Work of Sole Genius’ if you’re a practitioner) and the social sciences (and natural sciences) tradition and its ‘project-based research teams’. The edited-collections-are-useless argument usually comes from one tradition only, and once that is made is explicit in a letter that accompanies one’s application for tenure and promotion that bomb is easily defused.

    Yours, a veteran of 10 collections (1999-2008).

  16. Jeffrey Jones
    August 16th, 2011 at 14:01 | #16

    @Karen Kelsky
    And what exactly is your discipline (your site doesn’t say if you were in the social sciences or humanities)? That distinction is important.

  17. Jonathan Gray
    August 16th, 2011 at 14:11 | #17

    Not to speak for Karen, Jeff, but I think she’s an anthropologist. So, as you say, there may well be some area divisions here. Perhaps anthropology is still very fond of the single monograph based on extensive fieldwork, in a way that tv and media studies isn’t?

  18. Will Brooker
    August 16th, 2011 at 14:14 | #18

    I have had some difficult experiences editing a couple of volumes, and I’ve read some absolutely dreadful collected volumes, but I find your rebuttal more persuasive than the original because yours didn’t go

    You: Should I edit a volume?
    Me: Uh-huh.

    You: Really? But it won’t get me tenure.
    Me: Wrong, girlfriend. Tenure’s the birthday cake, and you’re about to chow down on a big slice.

    You: Are you sure?
    Me: Never been surer, toots.

  19. Will Brooker
    August 16th, 2011 at 14:18 | #19

    Also, because you don’t introduce yourself as Jonathan Gray, aka. THE PROFESSOR. Which is fine if you’re talking to your class, or if you’re some sort of supervillain, but maybe not if you’re addressing the whole internet.

  20. Will Brooker
    August 16th, 2011 at 14:32 | #20

    Finally, taking a look at these services

    http://theprofessorisin.com/services-and-rates/

    I realised I’ve done most of those for students and junior colleagues, for free, over the past year. Because it’s part of the job I’m already paid for, and more importantly, because supporting, mentoring and helping people out without asking for extra money in return is one of the pleasures of academia.

  21. August 16th, 2011 at 14:57 | #21

    @Will Brooker Will, I really think we should call Jonathan from now on Jonathan Gray, THE PROFESSOR. I know you’re more DC than Marvel, but we could also say, Professor G. (yes, i’m still in First Class fever…)

    (Then again, my students do call me Dr. B., because they can’t pronounce my last name :)

  22. Ethan Thompson
    August 17th, 2011 at 06:40 | #22

    Meeting Jones and Gray and editing Satire TV is, without a doubt, the best thing that ever happened to my career. Whatever tenure math it does or does not count for, properly editing (or co-editing) a collection engages you in your discipline in a way nothing else can. I really don’t mean this as a dig at The Professor, but if one doesn’t participate, or even value, such engagement, then I can understand how one might leave the discipline and instead end up with a more general academic job outside it, like The Professor. Which ought to be taken into consideration by those seeking career advice from her.

  23. ChristinaInAustralia
    September 19th, 2012 at 17:21 | #23

    Thanks so much for this considered post. I’m now going to look up several of your books for next year’s teaching adventure (“Studies in the media”), and I’m starting to feel more confident about the edited collection I’m working on right now.

    BEST WISHES FROM AUSTRALIA!

  24. Devil’s Advocate
    March 23rd, 2013 at 22:15 | #24

    You should read a little bit more of The Professor’s bio before criticizing her motives or questioning her ethos. In any event, she presents her stance on edited collections (like anything else on her site) as an opinion, not The Inescapable Truth About Every Single Edited Collection Ever In Academia.

  25. Jonathan Gray
    March 24th, 2013 at 13:11 | #25

    @Devil’s Advocate
    She’s paid pretty well for those opinions, often by people who are assuming they’re going to steer them safely through troubled waters. So a retort and rebuttal is entirely fair (especially when it’s free!); why do you have problems with that??

  26. June 24th, 2014 at 02:47 | #26

    Since both this and the post to which it responds are doing the rounds again, it seems apt to add one more comment. Not every (prospective) editor of a collection is seeking tenure, or indeed a university position. For those early in their careers who enjoy editing – yes that is possible – and who are looking to move in that direction, an edited collection is a hugely useful item to have on the CV. Kelsky’s post is written from the prospective of the tenure system, and, like all her materials (many of which are available for free) is naturally geared exclusively towards her targeted audience. It is characteristically hard-hitting, to the point, and presents some home truths of which her readers may well not already be aware. It does not attempt to present the full story, and should not be derided for not doing so. Neither should Gray for filling in the gaps in the big picture. Thank you both for excellent points which are well made.

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