Why doesn’t anyone write in to JAMS anymore?
What, if anything, can be determined about the relative health of a readership-based community based on their letters to the editor? If one were to open the New York Times editorial page, and find it mysteriously blank, what would that mean? In my initial amusicology.com feature, I want to look at precisely this trend in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, the so-called journal of record for the discipline of academic musicology. As Figure 1 shows, the number of people writing, as well as the total number of pages given over to correspondence, has trailed off rapidly since 1990 or so. With JAMS now in its sixtieth year, some two generations of scholars have contributed to its pages, and 425 separate “communications” have been published in the journal. The interested reader can consult the JAMS Communications Spreadsheet spreadsheet that I’ve prepared to see all of the items. There are several factors that seem to contribute to the decline in JAMS Communications in the last decade. In the following thousand words or less, I want to highlight some of them, based both on my own examination of the journal and email correspondence with editors-in-chief.
Why Write in at All?
In the first issue of JAMS, the editors described the purpose of the communications section, which merits quoting at length:
This section of the Journal is reserved for smaller musicological contributions, for communications other than letters for the Editor, and for new items other than those concerned with the official activities of the Society and its local chapters. It is designed primarily as a place for the publication of those incidental by-products of research that do not lend themselves to presentation in the form of extended articles, as a department similar to the “Kleinere Mitteilungen” of the old Zeitschrift, as a sort of musicological “Notes and Queries.” As such it will also make room for inquiries as to the location and availability of source materials, for corrections of and additions to the standard musical dictionaries, encyclopaedias and handbooks, and for reports on research in progress. But it is not intended that its scope should be arbitrarily restricted in any way. Thus it will also be receptive to communications from other societies with interests bordering on our own, to announcements from libraries and museums, to notices of conferences and exhibitions, to summaries of the activities of the graduate seminars, to historical programs, and to news from abroad and from Latin America. If its real potentialities are to be fully realized, it will require the active and continued support of every member, indeed of every reader.*
In brief, the “Communications” section of JAMS was intended to be a clearing house for every variety of musicological information that was neither article-length nor official business. Furthermore, there was definite sense of communitas underlying the section; it required “active support” not only of members, but of anyone who picked up the journal. And in the early years of the journal, it served precisely that purpose. Scholars conducting research on broad topics would solicit expertise from the community at large; institutes and new scholarly organizations would announce their initiatives; libraries would announce collections of interest; and authors would write in with corrections and emendations to their own work.
As time went on, the modern purpose of “Communications” — namely as a forum for scholars to respond and critique one another’s work — became more evident. The first instance of an actual conversation taking place in “Communications” was in 1949, between Edward Lowinsky (who was also the first to submit a communique), and Ruth Hannas, regarding Lowinsky’s article on the “tabula compositoria.”** This particular exchange had surprisingly long life, with the final letter from Hannas about the matter appearing some seven years later, in the 1956 edition.
The late 1980s were particularly active for the “Communications” section of JAMS. Although some of the correspondence has become notorious for its vitriol – the spirited debates of the Spring 1987 issue about Martini’s imitation masses and Busnoys’s relationship to the l’Homme Armé mass tradition run almost 30 pages is particularly noteworthy, as is the Lambert-Solomon exchange about Solomon’s article “Charles Ives: Some Questions of Veracity” – it is equally apparent that “Communications” were used for other purposes as well; in the preceding issue (Winter 1986) there were numerous requests for information of the type more common in the 1950s.
The increasing trend towards considering the “Communications” section as essentially a question-and-answer section among exports was standardized in 1994, when then-editor-in-chief Richard Kramer slightly changed the format of the section to interleave responses from the original authors with the comments. Kramer described the process “The intention in the change of formatting was to generate lively exchanges, modeled, as I recall, on the format in the New York Review of Books, in the hopes of establishing a kind of forum for scholarly debate.”*** Kramer’s recollection is interesting in two respects: first, the model for the change was based on the widely-read New York Review of Books (as opposed to the initial decision to model the “Communications” section on the Zeitung). Secondly, the decision began to steer the “Communications” section towards the path of become essentially a debate forum for established scholars (a trend that had been evident in the late 80s).
Why then, are the pages so spare now? Although there was a slight spike in letters to the editors in 2000 and 2001, in the last ten years there have been two whole years where not a single item was filed under “Communications” (1998 and 2004). In the entire history of JAMS before that, only a one other year – 1960 – had failed to elicit a single communication.
I’d like to speculate on a few reasons why this may be the case; hopefully the comments to this post will further elucidate this phenomenon.
The Proliferation of Email + Lists
With the general penetration of email into higher education, many of the original functions of the “Communications” section have moved out of the pages of JAMS. The ams-announce mailing list, as well as the ams-l, are active lists for new research items, and have a broad enough readership that calls for papers, and announcements of new societies are generally disseminated through these lists or related web pages, rather than through the pages of JAMS.
More Articulated Sub-Disciplines
Another potential reason for the down turn in letters to the editor is that the discipline is increasingly fractured, and specialized journals are flourishing. As such, many of the more interesting scholarly debates play out within the pages of a more narrowly focused journal. However, most of these journals do not have as broad a readership as JAMS, and, based on my informal survey, do not necessarily exhibit a burgeoning letters-to-the-editor section which would account for JAMS’s decline.
Topics of Communal/Canonical Interest
I think one of the most promising reasons for explaining JAMS’s sparse “Communication” pages relates to the ever-increasing suspicion of the Western music canon, and, along with it, the Western musicological canon. The most intense debates which appeared on the pages of the “Communications” section during the last 60 years happened when an author of an article touched a particular nerve about a core field of study. In recent issues of JAMS, however, more diverse voices have been brought in to the conversation. This creates a broader topical base for the field of musicology as a whole, but comes at the expense of have scholars being fervently committed to certain areas of research. I won’t name names, but I’m sure most regular readers of JAMS can think of recent articles which decidedly problematize whether or not JAMS is always publishing “matters of record.”
I’m not really sure if the decline in letters to the editor in JAMS – although at odds with the initial vision of the “Communications” section – should be reduced to being “good or bad.” The culture of peer-reviewed journals is changing along with the rest of the world as the Internet becomes an increasingly viable medium for scholarly discourse. In addition, it would be difficult to say whether the comparative decline of “canonical” topics in JAMS is a sign that the discipline if flourishing or if we are losing our ability to communicate with one another. Nevertheless, it seems to be a fact worth pausing over that the trend of formal debate in print, at least as represented in perhaps the most prestigious musicology journal in the land, is on the wane.