Formalism and the article

Getting a Ph.D. is pretty hard. You have to amass a lot of information, but beyond that, you have to learn a specific language–not just professional jargon, but the form of academic discourse. That form is usually casually taught, by experience, rather than formally, as a set of precepts. But there is a form, and a format, and and as a result intellectual formalism, and we all learn it.
It’s extremely difficult to separate thinking itself from the form thinking takes, and nowhere do we see this difficulty more clearly than in the academic journal article. Most historians, when they encounter an interesting idea or problem, immediately begin shaping it into an article. The article has a very standard form:

1. a catchy anecdote or example

2. followed by an explanation of the larger problem being addressed

3. followed by a long march though the historiography,

4. followed by a lot of examples

5. ending with the conclusion.

We know it is simply a form, simply formalism, when we look at how we actually read these articles. If you know the author and trust their work, all you need is 2 and 5. If you’re serious, or out for blood, you look at 4, maybe you look at three to see if it’s the same chain of evidence you follow, or if you’re offended.

It has this form not because it’s the best, or most useful, but because of the scarcities and costs imposed by print media. To be deliverable at reasonable cost, a journal in 1920 could only be of a specific size, which limited the room for articles. Having limited space for articles compelled a form designed to speak to outside of disciplinary specialties, which compelled the historiographical garden-paths and the extensive problem-framing. Having limited space meant the article needed to be finished; armored against all complaint and impregnable to enemies.

There are many good things about this model: the selection process can result in better work, and readers can reasonably assume that what appears in a major journal is of general value to professional historians. It may indeed be the permanent and everlasting model of scholarly communication for all time, and not just an artifact of a specific period.

But scholarly communication need not take only this specific form. Articles look like they do because the print journal had limited space and had to be exclusive, and so had to cater to as many possible objections as could be imagined. The strengths of a good monograph—as everyone knows—lie mostly in what we prise out of the decorative trappings and clanking armor imposed by 19th century scarcities.

Within the next few months we’ll be launching American History Now, a new kind of academic journal exploring alternative forms of academic discourse. An article for AHN will be shorter, most likely, but also will not be organized like an article in print. Articles in AHN will be chosen by the editors, but peer reviewed in real time, by selected peers and by the larger community of interested readers, as described here. Articles in AHN will also be more “provisional,” less finished, and designed  more for engaging dialogue than polishing off enemies.

We’re assuming articles for AHN would begin with an abstract, a short summary of the article, the argument, and the material. Most readers would probably never get past the abstract, but the abstract would not just introduce the article: it would be a source of tags that web searches would find. From the abstract one might click “read more” to get to a more sustained version of the argument with a few examples. A separate link might establish the theoretical framework. A third might bring dedicated readers to a more sustained engagement with the evidence.

None of these sections would necessarily take the form of a conventional narrative article. The section of deep evidence, for example, might consist of pieces of evidence, links to the relevant digitized archive, and statements that amount to “this is how I’m approaching this material.”

But we have to admit we don’t know exactly what form these articles will take, because thinking your way out of formalism is difficult, and typically, alternatives emerge not in theory but in practice. We’ve considered taking submissions via a template, in order to make the rethinking/restructuring obvious. For example, you would submit a piece broken into discrete sections: Abstract, Evidence, Theory, Bibliography. We may offer a template, but not make it mandatory. The hard part is thinking out way out of our own training.

As always, this is not an argument that demands replacing conventional forty page articles, which have their strengths. The discipline required to produce those articles, like all discipline, can produce a lot of good work. Nor is it an argument against good writing; rather, writing in the form imagined here would demand concise, accurate, expressive prose to the same degree, and perhaps even a greater degree, than the conventional article.

There is surely room for more than one form of scholarly communication, and for forms of communication organized around the world we live in today. What should a shorter article look like?


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