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"We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit"

Posted by Christopher Shea  June 9, 2009 02:51 PM

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University press director: textbooks need not be cookie-cutter projects

Peter J. Dougherty, director of the Princeton University Press, presents a "Manifesto for Scholarly Publishing" in the latest Chronicle Review (the magazine of ideas inside the Chronicle of Higher Education). Outlets for publication may well be flourishing today, Dougherty concedes -- how could he not? -- but that's not the case if your goal is to wrestle with hard ideas. In that realm, the university press remains an oasis. Commercial presses, he writes,

generally don't traffic in hard ideas. They're too difficult to sell in scalable numbers and quickly. More free-form modes of communication (blogs, wikis, etc.) cannot do justice to hard ideas in their fullness. But we university presses luxuriate in hard ideas. We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit. As the Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters notes, even when university presses succeed in publishing so-called trade books (as in Charles Taylor's recent hit, A Secular Age), we do so because of the intellectual rigor contained in such books, not in spite of it.

Why does this matter? "Hard ideas define a culture -- that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself."

Dougherty goes on to argue, however, that there is room for improvement:

He'd like to see university presses publish more titles from the "burgeoning professional disciplines," which remain in the shadow of the liberal arts, at least in the eyes of editors. And too many editors, he thinks, look down on textbooks and other synthetic, summing-up works, deeming them cookie-cutter projects. Yet when Dougherty began his career as a sales rep for the college division of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, in 1972, among the broad-gauge titles he pitched were Noam Chomsky's "Language and Mind," Walter Jackson Bate's "Criticism: The Major Texts," and Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's "Modern Rhetoric."

"If that's cookie cutter," Dougherty concludes, "please sign me up for some shares of Pepperidge Farm."

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