consider the note

(an academic hot take)

If it weren’t for the professional pressure to produce them as CV items, most scholarly articles and book chapters would be better as notes. Notes are 1-6 page essays. Stereotypically they announce a small discovery or solve a crux in a text, but they can also communicate article-sized ideas. I encourage early career researchers to consider publishing in this form. And I encourage my senior colleagues to give notes due weight in hiring and promotion decisions.

I am a fan of the note form. It is for writing an article without having to write an article. So many articles I read feel like a note-sized discovery or insight dutifully inflated to 8,000-15,000 words. Writing up your idea as a note can be liberating: instead of welding the text/idea you really care about to a few others that are related, simply present your best idea, once. Instead of lumbering introductions and conclusions that restate your idea in general terms, simply dive right in. Instead of speculating at length on the implications of your argument, mention these in a concluding sentence and leave their elaboration to those who will respond to the note, or to yourself later on. Ditch the discursive footnotes. Ditch the lit-review footnotes.

I might as well complete the thought and burn the bridge: if it weren’t for the fact that the book is the gold standard professionally in many humanities disciplines, most academic monographs would be better as long-ish articles. . .*

Notes and conference presentations have the virtue of being digestible in one sitting. Books and even some longer essays must be refrigerated and reheated; or they must be skimmed. Notes align better with the kind of reading that is required in order to keep up with a scholarly subfield year in and year out. Notes get right to the point. In that way, notes are kinder to their readers.

*

When I said as much on Twitter, responses were mostly positive, but some were offended at the suggestion, as if a particular intellectual virtue inheres in a particular page count. That got me thinking about what distinguishes a monograph from an article and an article from a note, really. At least for my own field of literary studies, I do not accept that the difference between these three lengths of argument is, typically, the complexity of the argument, or the full documentation of claims. It often seems to me to be, instead, performance: the performance of expertise. Books afford more room than articles for this performance, and articles afford more room than notes.

I say this not to dismiss the performance of expertise, in which I am, of course, invested. To perform expertise is both professionally and intellectually mandatory in academia. That’s the real reason the book remains the gold standard. I would never recommend that ECRs publish only notes. (In this economy?) To the extent that length is a valid proxy for demonstrated expertise, hiring and promotion committees in ‘book fields’ like mine are justified in valuing books above articles, and articles above notes. But performance of expertise isn’t a virtue in itself; it is a thing that one is called upon to do. The best notes (like the best conference presentations) emerge from subject expertise without having to advertise it.


*I freely include my own book English Alliterative Verse in this judgment. If you want to pretend you have read it, read this article instead. I enjoy the experience of composing articles and books, and in that limited sense I prefer them to shorter forms that take less time to make; plus, my work must answer to my field’s professional expectations. Still, I can’t help fantasizing about an alternate reality in which most scholarly discourse was transacted in much shorter forms. It’s like that in medicine and many STEM fields, for example.

2 thoughts on “consider the note

  1. I was one of them who approved of the idea on Twitter, but I’m not surprised to hear of the pushback you’ve received. I have to wonder how much of it, though, proceeds from sunk cost fallacies…

Leave a Reply to m257jo Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s