Purpose of (19th Century) Academic Publishing

I was looking a bit more on some of my work on Theophilus Wylie, and thought about a question related to scholarly communication.  Wylie lived in a time when (more or less) the only scholarly journal in the United States was the American Journal of Science better known at the time as “Silliman’s Journal” (Benjamin Silliman, Jr. being the editor at the time).  In the modern scholarly communication system, publishing in such a journal would be essential for continuing an appointment as a professor.  In Wylie’s day, however, that was not true.  What were Wylie’s practices for disseminating his scholarship?  They were obviously very different from today.  Also, in my view, knowing about previous methods of sharing scholarship may help modern scholars think in new ways about how scholarship should be shared.  Should modern scholars return to the earlier system used by Wylie?  Probably not, but in some ways Wylie represents a tradition where sharing of scholarship happened primarily through teaching to non-specialist audiences.  Such a practice might also benefit modern scholarship.

The first way of addressing the question of how Wylie disseminated his scholarship would be to look at his publications.  That is how a professor now would be judged, and by modern standards no doubt Wylie would never advance in his career.  He published just one book (a history of Indiana University) which was not until after his retirement from the university in 1891.  In 1860 he wrote a biography of his cousin Andrew Wylie, first president of Indiana University in the Indiana School Journal. In terms of scientific research in his field, Theophilus Wylie published one article in Silliman’s journal, on mastadon bones (which is really more of a report of what he saw rather than a scholarly article, even by 19th century standards).  If one wishes to count it as a publication, Wylie is mentioned by Prof. John Frazer in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, about the discovery of gold in Indiana (similar to his article in Silliman’s journal, this too  is more of a report than a scientific article).  In 1859, Theophilus Wylie published two items.  He wrote an article for a local newspaper, the Indianapolis Journal that, like his articles in Silliman’s Journal and the Journal of the Franklin Institute, was more of a report (this time on mining conditions in Indiana) and his baccalaureate addresses.  That brings Wylie a grand total of 6 publications, only one of which appeared in an academic journal, over a career of 49 years (1836-1885).

Such a list gives to simplistic a picture of Wylie’s activities at Indiana University, however.  Over the same period of time, Wylie gave a large number of public addresses and sermons (many of which survive in note form at the Indiana University Archives).  I have not counted them all, but needless to say they far outnumber Wylie’s print publications.  What conclusions might one draw from this disparity between public addresses and printed publications?  First, I think it is fair to say that Wylie put more emphasis on his preaching and teaching than on his publishing.  I think there is one key aspect to Wylie’s practices, though which goes beyond mere numbers of his printed publications and lectures.

If one looks at all of Wylie’s outputs (lectures and publications alike), I think there is one common denominator:  the audience for which they were intended.  Only two articles (Journal of the Franklin Institute and Silliman’s Journal) were intended for fellow scientists.  The rest were intended for various members of the general public.  Therefore, it seems to me at least that Wylie saw his purpose in sharing knowledge as a public duty, a not one that was meant to be shared only among fellow academics.  In this time where there is increasing debate about whether academic professionals should be engaged in the public sphere, perhaps it is worth thinking about the ways in which professors communicated their scholarship to the public prior to the creation of academic journals.  Might the career of people like Theophilus Wylie be an interesting window into that debate?  I think it certainly could.

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