Continuing Blog Post Series: Medievalists Beyond the Tenure Track

Jerome Singerman is the Senior Editor for Literary criticism and cultural studies, medieval and Renaissance studies, and Jewish studies at the University of Pennsylvania Press. For decades, he has shaped what books we read and have read in medieval studies at large.

Before you read any further, let me date myself. I started graduate school in Comparative Literature in the fall of 1973, so I set forth on my career path a long time ago. Some parts of the landscape through which I passed en route to my destination have disappeared or been changed almost beyond recognition in the years since; some landmarks have altered in ways I’m not sure I like. But enough has stayed the same that I’m happy to tell my story.  Keep in mind, through all this, that I was working with a road map that didn’t show all the detours I would encounter, and neither will you.  At times I probably veered off my chosen course without noticing, at other times I was compelled to take an alternate route that turned out to be not so bad at all.  I can’t really say how much my sense of direction helped me to get to where I wanted to go versus how much I owe to luck.  It was really a combination of both, and there’s probably no purpose in trying to sort out how much of each went into the mix. What I do know is that planning, positioning, and chance all played major roles in shaping my career.  They will in yours as well.

So back to 1973.  It’s hard to believe, but up until the early seventies, just about everyone who’d earned a doctorate from a reputable institution, and even a good number of ABD’s, were able to find tenure-track positions in their chosen fields.  All that came crashing to a halt, for a variety of reasons, about a year before I started my program. It took a while for the news to filter down, but once it had, all of us who were in graduate school had to ask ourselves: Were we doing this with the sole purpose of getting a professorship at the end? And if we didn’t get a good teaching job—by which we probably meant one with a reasonable teaching load and the possibility of tenure at an attractive institution—would we consider the years earning the Ph.D. to have been misspent? If not, what kind of alternative career did we imagine for ourselves? I can’t pretend that it was entirely easy, but I gradually  arrived at a point where I wasn’t answering “yes” to the first two questions, and found my way to an answer to the third:  “Publishing.” By which I meant “scholarly publishing.” By which I really meant “as an acquisitions editor at a university press.”  Of course, I didn’t really have any sense at the time of just how scarce such positions are.

Flash forward a decade.  I’d finished my degree and had had back-to-back one-year jobs at a good New England liberal arts college, but hadn’t succeeded in landing anything more permanent. Meanwhile, I’d married, and my wife had taken an academic position in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins. A teaching opportunity I thought I’d secured in the vicinity fell through after we were committed to the move, and faced with the wish to solve the two-body problem, it seemed time to move onto Plan B.  (Note to reader: I recognize and chafe at the ranking  implicit in  the “Plan A = a faculty position, Plan B = everything else” formulation.  I’d like to think that today I—and my professional peers and mentors– would consider my options as true and equal alternatives. We weren’t there yet in the early eighties though; I hope we’re closer now.)

I’d had an informational interview with the editor-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Press some months before (I’m not sure if we called it “networking” already, but then as now, it was a good idea), but it was through a newspaper ad that I learned of an opening. The timing was right (luck!), though it was an entry level position in marketing rather than editorial and paid less than I’d been earning as an assistant professor (let’s call those a couple of possible detours). Still, it was a job with the kind of publisher by whom I’d hoped to be employed (planning!), and it might not be uninteresting. It was a copywriting position—I would be charged with distilling the essence of each of the press’ new books into a few hundred words of jacket, catalog, or advertising copy. During my years studying and teaching, I had honed the much vaunted analytical skills that are so often touted as one of the benefits of the liberal arts education, and I could bring the contents of that particular toolbox to the job;  I had done a fair amount of writing, and had become pretty good at it; and I’d spent enough time in the academy that I understood its cultures and was able to speak its dialects.  So let’s call that positioning.

I got the job—but of course it would be disingenuous to deny that I was lucky to do so, and it all could easily have gone differently.  They could have thought I was—or worse, that I would consider myself– overqualified for an entry-level position; or they could have noted that I didn’t, after all, have any prior publishing or copywriting experience.  Was I the best person for the job? I like to think so, at least in some key respects; but I also have to accept that in some others, another candidate might have been “best” too.  In any event, I proved to be good at what I was doing, and my luck—for surely it was that and nothing else—continued to hold out. About six months into my employment, my supervisor went on maternity leave and chose not to return. I moved into her position, inherited a staff of two, and was charged with hiring my own replacement. I was now overseeing an extensive program for the promotion and direct-to-consumer sales of some hundred plus scholarly books each year. This was, at the time, entirely print-based, and we relied upon the United States Postal Service to distribute the hundreds of thousands of catalogs and brochures we researched, wrote, designed, and produced annually; my counterparts today, of course, do this overwhelmingly via the internet. Be that as it may, I’d left my entry-level job behind, and was embarked on my career in publishing.   It was not the editorial career I’d imagined for myself, but it was editorial-, as well as design-, production-, and business-adjacent.  And I found the work both enjoyable and rewarding. I expected that I was en route to becoming the Director of Marketing at another press, and now thought of that as a natural and attractive career path.  If you had told me at the time that I was actually still on a detour, I would have been skeptical.

Flash forward another six years.  I had done whatever I was going to accomplish at Hopkins and had advanced as far as I was going to advance, and it was time to make the next career move. The Marketing Director position had opened at Penn, and I interviewed for this, a job for which I was now eminently well-qualified. I didn’t get the offer, though if you’ll allow me to be ungenerous, I was a much stronger candidate than the person who did. Sometimes the best person does not get the job, and it’s not necessarily sour grapes to notice. I continued to apply for other positions.

And then, just when it seemed to be in short supply, chance—or rather pure, dumb, glorious luck –made a return appearance. There is no way anybody but the person in question could have foreseen this, but the longtime humanities editor at Penn had a mid-life crisis of the best sort, realized he had misidentified his calling, and resigned to go to medical school.  Penn was not the press that it is today back then, but it did have real prominence as a publisher of Medieval Studies. I’d trained as a medievalist, and I was now a medievalist with strong credentials in scholarly publishing.  I had grounding in the intellectual field for which the press was perhaps best known and I had solid knowledge and experience of the business of scholarly publishing  that I’d built up during my long and rewarding apprenticeship—for that’s how I now think of it—at the very fine and career-nurturing press that was Hopkins.

And this time, Penn hired me.

Planning and positioning had certainly been instrumental in helping me to get to precisely one of two kinds of position I’d imagined for myself some fifteen years earlier (for recall that I had, after all, entered graduate school with the idea of becoming a professor). But I also ultimately reached my goal by being open to opportunities that were close enough to what I wanted and to seeing where they led, for there are, in the end, some things in any career for which you simply can’t plan. There will always be factors beyond your control. And yet, with a mix of perseverance, planning, and luck, things just may work out.  As to that two body problem, at around the same time as I was starting here, my wife was taking up a tenured position at Penn.  Who could have predicted that?


A few afterthoughts about me:

I gave up doing my own scholarly work when I entered publishing. This was a personal choice and not an inevitability. What I never gave up was an active engagement with academic life–an engagement that goes well beyond whatever role I’ve had as nurse-midwife to the scholarly work of (quite literally) hundreds of authors whom I have published.

Working as a publisher has inevitably turned me from specialist to generalist.  I’ve found that rewarding, though not everybody will. The longing to take a deep dive into the archives–to follow a single line of inquiry for however long and in whatever directions it takes me—has never gone away, but it may well be that it comes more naturally for me to skim along the surface of a large and diverse scholarly biome, swooping down for a closer look here before moving on to the place there that catches my eye, never stopping for too long in a single place.  It suits me. Perhaps it all comes down to temperament.

And about you:

I moved into publishing well before the culture of internships came to dominate, but when I find myself on the hiring side of the desk, I am much more likely to be interested in a candidate whose resume shows more  publishing experience than I had when I applied for my job at Hopkins. It’s not strictly logical or fair when one is trying to fill an entry-level position, I know, but this is the world we now inhabit. If you think you might want to pursue a career in publishing, position yourself early on: by taking an internship or a part-time job, if you can, at a university press or even with your institution’s publications office; by doing some free-lance copyediting; or by working as research assistant to a faculty member on your campus who edits a scholarly journal.  Your scholarly credentials will speak for themselves, but any publishing-related experience will help your job application to stand out.

And think more broadly about what scholarly publishing is and can be than I did when I first entered the field. Think about journals as well as books. Acknowledge, as you surely do, that we are moving from a print culture to an increasingly digital environment,  but recognize that our digital books still overwhelmingly fail to take advantage of what they can do that the printed codex cannot. Accept—and actively embrace—the fact that open access publication will play an increasingly important role in scholarly communication, but understand that we’ve not yet done the hard work of figuring out equitable and sustainable financial models to underwrite it. Know that while the legacy university presses will surely retain a place of crucial importance in the ecosystem, libraries and other institutional sites will continue along their upward trajectory as generators of published scholarly content.  The landscape of academic publishing is shifting and extending even as I type these words, and there is a lot about its new configuration that still needs to be figured out.  Know that if you embark on a career in publishing now, yours is likely to look very different from the one I have had. And know that you just may end up reinventing the whole system in ways I can barely imagine.

Jerome Singerman

Susan Kramer is an independent scholar and author of the 2015 monograph Sin, Interiority, and Selfhood in the Twelfth-Century West published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. As is the case with so many colleagues, she gives voice to the difficulties of continuing her scholarship while lacking a permanent affiliation.

I was a corporate tax-lawyer in New York City with a toddler, a newborn and an enduring interest in how religion shapes culture when I was accepted to Columbia’s Ph.D. program in medieval history.  Thankfully, I was also somewhat naive as the first few years of coursework, language-study, and TA’ing were some of the most demanding I’d ever had.  Intellectually they were also some of the most robust.  Graduate school was not only about learning how to critique interpretative methods or use available data to ask interesting questions.  Above all, it was a place of stimulating collegiality, of endless opportunities to test wacky theories and hopefully, more substantive ideas.  While there were also solitary hours in the library followed by long nights staring at a computer screen, at its best “doing” medieval history was a collective enterprise.  It is that easy access to discussion and exchange that I have found hardest to replicate outside institutional academia.

Like others invited to contribute to this series, my post-graduate trajectory did not culminate in a tenure-track teaching position.   Nevertheless, I used my medieval skills in fairly traditional ways.  I have taught at an undergraduate college, two universities, and a religious seminary; published reviews and articles in academic journals and a book with an academic press.  I’ve done freelance-editing, indexing and presented at conferences and colloquia.  I have also benefited enormously from the generosity of former mentors and teachers who remained committed to reading and critiquing my work.   But while I have had many short-term institutional affiliations, I have not had an institutional home.  This has posed challenges both practical and psychic.

The access problem faced by unaffiliated scholars is an issue that is frequently flagged.  With the pandemic and the closure of so many libraries last spring, all scholars have experienced some limitations and medievalists of all kinds have appreciated the increasing wealth of digital resources.  I am grateful for the role that the Medieval Academy has played.  Sadly, however, the profession as a whole often deems digitalized editions of medieval works to have limited value.  My reliance on digitalized versions of the Patrologia Latina edition of the Glossa ordinaria or of Peter the Chanter’s Verbum Abbreviatum, for example, are not considered acceptable by the editors of academic journals, especially since there are better, modern editions.  But like many unaffiliated scholars who depend on the limited privileges that university-libraries provide to guests or alumnae, I have no current access to these works.  And, despite the increasing number of secondary works that now exist as e-books, many universities do not—for contractual and financial reasons—make these resources available to researchers beyond their own matriculated students and current faculty.   In addition, unaffiliated scholars seldom have recourse to such simple tools as interlibrary loan.  The re-shaping of higher education and the budget constraints precipitated by COVID-19 are likely to aggravate these access-issues across a wide spectrum.  Reading broadly the invitation to contribute to this blog, I would urge the Medieval Academy to consider creative solutions to facilitating access to secondary works, as it has so helpfully done with JSTOR.

Less frequently discussed than the availability of sources are the psychic costs of lacking academic colleagues and the lack of academic standing.  Fortunately, in New York City, there are ways to create a scholarly community.  But the issue of standing is more intransigent. In the non-academic world of lawyers, artists, bankers and writers that I inhabit, a medievalist is something of an exotic.  Nevertheless, it is accepted that researching and writing medieval history is a craft.  Like journalism, figure-drawing, or grant-writing, it is taken for granted that after acquiring the necessary skills, one can practice the craft even without holding a formal post.  Academia, though, is less hospitable to those without an “official status” (even if that is what the designation “Independent Scholar” is meant to be).  In academia, one can unexpectedly have even a solicited book-review rejected because one lacks an institution’s name below one’s own name.  Despite having credentials such as publications and awards, one can find oneself excluded from even applying for many fellowships and residencies.   Certainly it is the case that those who combine doing research with teaching and administrative duties are burdened by the proverbial race “to publish or perish.” But perhaps it is time for the profession to re-think why it is that doing scholarly work and holding a tenure-track teaching post are so tightly coupled.  And this is not just an economic coupling; it is also an attitudinal one.  Until there is some sort of realignment, what seems necessary is a new status-indicator—something more than “Ph.D holder” or even “Independent Scholar.”

The Medieval Academy has a long and fruitful history of supporting scholarship by those without tenure-track positions.  In the past, this has meant primarily women.  With the new challenges facing universities and colleges, the population of unaffiliated medievalists will grow.  Happily, there is now a renewed interest in supporting medievalists who find themselves on less traditional paths but who remain passionately committed to the field.  I welcome this because much of the joy of doing scholarship is in having the opportunity to share it.

Susan R. Kramer
December 17, 2020

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