An Open Letter to Eerdmans

Dear Eerdmans (and other publishers too numerous to name):

I relish being an academic. I love the cyclical feel of an academic year: excitement and optimism in the Fall; the mid-year break in the dark Winter; the long Spring semester, extended due to Spring break and yet over in the blink of an eye.

One of the highlights, of course, is the spring commencement ceremony for the jubilant spirit of grads and their parents and also for the long lingering summer that beckons once the regalia are put away for another time.

Oh sure, lots of people think summers are spent playing and traveling and generally doing nothing productive. But my experience is that while summers offer a change of pace, they are also the time when I do the most reading and planning, strategizing about teaching and learning.

A critical component of this summer work entails a fair bit of precision in my reading materials, deciding which books recently published would be most beneficial to my teaching load for the upcoming year.

So, part of this yearly pattern involves the arrival of academic catalogues, the shopping spree that is uniquely academic. It’s the anticipation of a new vista, a topic unidentified before, a new perspective on an old idea.

It’s a little like lingering in your favorite bookstore, the arrival of publishers’ catalogues. In the pages of these booklets, the world of words opens up, inviting you, begging you, to buy its goods. What decent academic wouldn’t take this bait?

At least this is how I used to feel. And here, Eerdmans—and other publishers who know this reflects you, too—is where I hope you’ll hear what I have to say.

Maybe this has been a simple oversight on your part, but I have noticed that year after year mostly men are writing your books. I’m sure if you happened to take note of this, you’ve tried mightily to change it, encouraging women to write their academic tomes, too. When I was a newly minted Ph.D., I eagerly pored over these academic catalogues even as I was a little surprised they all seemed, well, boring. Maybe you know the feeling: I wanted to be interested, but no matter how hard I tried the novel or memoir sitting on my nightstand always won. It was hardly a battle.

But now that I am a little more seasoned (ok, older, middle-aged, even!) I realize the problem really isn’t that I lack the appropriate interest in all things academic; it is rather that the books you publish are asking different kinds of questions than ones I need to explore. It’s often as simple as the audience not fitting the writer. You publish books mostly written by men. Their questions and methodologies are legitimate, of course, but they aren’t the sum total of what is important. And this is what you miss by your masculine bias.

The most recent Eerdmans Spring 2015 catalogue features four female authors out of a total of forty-one books and one additional book that includes poems of Joy Davidman, a point of interest most certainly only because they were written to C.S. Lewis. In other words, without the presence of the famous man in her life, her work would not be of interest to Eerdmans.

This imbalance results in a more narrow scope of scholarship than you could otherwise circulate. There are more women than this writing good books; works of impeccable scholarship and contemporary interest (unless you want me to believe that for every ten men, there is only one woman who has anything important to contribute to the field of religious studies).

An image from graduate school has stayed in my mind and maybe it is useful here. There we were, my classmates, all male with the exception of two of us, sitting around the table in the basement of the religion building where it was dark and damp. Some might say an apt environment for Ph.D. students of religion.

The clamor for space played out once a week when we gathered in this seminar room. Students eager to earn their place, to assert their ideas, to defend their positions occurred during the course of three hours each Tuesday morning. As a woman and introvert, I felt my disadvantage acutely and therefore prepared more than most. I wrote down my questions and comments in advance, playing out in my mind how the discussions might go anticipating how and when I could speak. It seemed to me, despite my strategic preparation, I had to elbow my way to the table, fight my way, really, to the place where I could speak, where my words could share the space the men found so easy to occupy.

I imagine the current situation with academic publishers is little different. Academics from all parts of the globe and all areas of expertise clamor to the table of various publishers hoping their elbows are sharp enough that they can gain a chance to speak. The loudest voices are the ones who get heard, and most often, this tilts decidedly toward men. And so, year after year, the dearth of works by women means that our disciplines are not shaped and influenced more completely by other perspectives, by those whose ideas themselves have been changed because of their struggle to be heard.

What if every publisher had a goal of creating an entire academic catalogue composed entirely of works written by women? Such a proposal is preposterous if only because it would immediately be tagged as such and directed to an all-female audience. Of course this is the current reality with a critical difference: men are the authors and no one thinks to suggest their writings are only for men.

Maybe it’s time for academic publishers to consider their role in shaping academic disciplines and more importantly in taking a stand for greater diversity, greater awareness, and greater celebration of all voices, even those who have to elbow their way to the table.

On the other hand, I can always recycle my copy of the latest academic catalog, hoping in another life or iteration it will be useful. In the meantime, I’ll pick up a book of a different genre knowing I can find voices of women there.