Sunday, March 15, 2009


Article -
What green deal?

16 Mar 09 | Print this story | Send this story to a friend

It started over breakfast and ended with his resignation. Why Toby Miller quit the University of California Press.

I just resigned from the editorial committee of the University of California Press. Most university committees I have served on are boring. They achieve little more than generating alibis for those who run them not to do research and to make themselves feel important and valued. But this one wasn’t like that – it actually did real things that mattered. So why did I leave?

Let’s examine how university presses in the US function. After decades of expansion, they have contracted drastically in recent years, and culled their lists. So literary theory and criticism, for example, became a deadweight – no one buys such books any more. Several presses just won’t publish these works nowadays, including California. Sorry, critical theorists - your day was the day before yesterday.

In the case of the press I served on, we produced both big sellers – atlases of California, wine books about local vineyards, and earthquake tracts – as well as highly specialised ones, such as drawings of incredibly ugly, tiny fish that live in harbors around the world and have bizarre mating rituals observed by keen-eyed harbourmasters.

University presses work by in-house editors recruiting manuscripts. Once these have been completed, they are evaluated by subject area experts. Then the editors present them to the good and the great (or in my case, the Toby) for final approval. The UC Press does this last part differently. Even though the faculty who serve on the editorial committee have not been involved up to that point, we present the books to the other committee members – not the editors. Only the professor proposing the work has read the whole thing – the others receive just a few pages, and the reviewers’ reports.

I found this slightly nutty. It meant I often presented works that I’d never have commissioned and didn’t like very much. But I put up with the process, in the hope that I could influence future directions. And the committee and the editors were very interesting. I enjoyed the banter and the opportunity to learn more about the political economy and culture of publishing. That enjoyment ended last month.

You may recall earlier columns about the financial crisis here in California – world’s eighth biggest economy and world’s wackiest budgetary process, all rolled into one under the control of a steroid-addled bodybuilder proud of his Nazi Party father. Amongst other things, the financial problems have necessitated belt-tightening across the university system. So the press decided to stop offering breakfast at our meetings, and asked us how that would affect our travel. The backdrop to this is that there are 10 campuses of the UC, from right across the state. Almost all the nine annual meetings are held in Berkeley, which is nowhere near either an airport or a major railway, so many people have to fly then get a cab for 90 minutes for a one-day event.

In response to ideas about shifting the meeting times, people wrote emails about leaving home at 4.30 am and other hardships. I run a blog about the environmental impact of new technology (take a peek - and have been writing papers for some years now on the topic. I decided this was the opportunity to weigh in.

Here was my idea – we should meet in person once a year, for two or three days, to get to know new members and discuss the wellbeing of the press, the future of publishing, and so on. Given only one of us reads each manuscript in full, other meetings could be held by iChat (best) or Skype (second best). As a consequence, we would save money and reduce the carbon impact of our profligate travel.

I was unprepared for the hostility this drew from my fellow hegemons. How can you treat authors like this? How can you suck up to management by cutting costs? How can you put faith in technology over face-to-face interaction?

Well, pardon me for living. First, I think authors are not getting a good deal through the metaphysics of presence, since it hasn’t meant more people read their full texts than would otherwise be the case. Second, it’s laughable to accuse someone with my politics of sucking up to management. And third, technology over face to face? Many people at the meeting barely speak, and most decisions draw little comment. Is it a crime to break that up?

After receiving numerous denunciations and no support, I resigned. I could no longer continue; not because I lost the debate, but because my ideas were impugned. I was surprised at the vehemence of the response. Here we are, in the state that contributed more to cybertarian dreams than any other place in the world, and a modest proposal for cutting air and car travel was too much. Good luck with your Green New Deal, President Obama.

Toby Miller is professor of English, women’s studies and sociology at the University of California, Riverside.

1 comment:

Danielle said...

After reading your article I can see why you would develop a bit of frustration, I know I would! It's people like you who will make the world a better place, Professor Miller! =)