John’s (very early) Spring Tour of the UK

I flew to London on Valentine’s Day, immediately after Tools of Change in New York (luckily, my sweetie was on the plane with me). In pursuit of my sabbatical goal of building my academic network, I had planned a tour of Publishing programs in the UK. You see, in contrast to North America, the UK has a lot of Publishing programs (including twelve graduate programs!); over two weeks in February, I visited six of them.

A good part of the fun was travelling around to find these people at their institutions. I visited City University London (just north of the Barbican) and University College London (in Bloomsbury). At UCL they took me to see Jeremy Bentham, which was a shocking experience not because his long-dead self is sitting there for all to see, but because I had always thought his mummified remains were tucked out of the way at Cambridge or some place where you wouldn’t just suddenly bump into him. At UCL, Jeremy Bentham sees all.

I spent a glorious early spring day in Oxford at Oxford Brookes University, up the hill via a crocus-strewn park from the old University. I travelled to Stirling University in the old Scottish capital on a day that wasn’t so spring-ish (it was bloody chilly). I took the city bus well outside the normal tourist districts in windy, cold Edinburgh to visit Edinburgh Napier University. And I didn’t, sadly, visit the lovely Bath Spa University, because they met me in London.

In talking with the many interesting people I met at these places, I came away with the sense that Publishing Studies programs are very much alike; we have the same kinds of students, the same kinds of connections with industry, and we face very similar challenges. I gave a talk to the students at Stirling, and it felt a lot like talking with the MPub students here at home.

That feeling was comforting, but it also points to a troubling structural issue: there are a dozen or more programs in the UK (and some of them, like Oxford Brookes, are big programs, with 70+ students). The total number of graduates being turned out is in the hundreds every year. Can the publishing industry as we know it possibly absorb that many new people? Most of the programs (ours is no different) point to industry jobs as the payoff for doing the degree.

And if the short answer to that question is No, then why do students continue to enroll in publishing programs? By all accounts, application numbers and intakes are healthy across the board (our experience is no different). What are all these students after?

To answer that seriously, we have to look past industry training and job placement. In my experience, most students don’t go for a Masters degree in publishing because they want to get a specific job in the industry; what they really want is a career in the world of books (or magazines) and literature. They love books, and what books represent, and they want to have a life in that world. That’s a vocational identity rather than a job search or even a career plan. It’s deeper than our common rhetoric about jobs and placements lets on.

But if that’s the case–that publishing students are really after a deep, well-cultivated engagement with the world of books and literature–are publishing studies programs really giving them what they need? In another age (say, a decade ago, even), when the publishing industry was stable and profitable and predictable, then job training might have been the straightest line to a life in books or magazines. I don’t think we live in that world anymore. So what are we (all) doing as publishing programs to address this deeper (and frankly, much more reliable) desire that lies beneath the easy rhetoric about industry placements?

I think the elements are evident enough: we all lead with “practical skills” in editorial, design and production, marketing, digital. But we also ask our students to do heaps of creative work. We are guided by industry perspectives, but we also demand the kind of research and critical analysis that makes for a serious graduate program. We indoctrinate the individual student in the culture of publishing, but we they also work collectively developing ideas and perspectives, generating new culture and perspective amongst themselves. We teach ‘publishing,’ but hopefully we also transcend it. These are themes that came up in nearly all the discussions with my UK colleagues. But how to rebalance these forward-looking, generative modes against the traditional rationales for publishing studies? That, I think, is the challenge for this generation.