The Committee on Scholarly Editions: What We Do and Why You (Editors) Should Care

John Young reflects on how the CSE serves the community of textual scholars.

The MLA’s Committee on Scholarly Editions (CSE) has two primary functions: to review scholarly editions nominated for a seal designating them as “approved editions,” and to promote excellence in editing to the profession broadly. Since its inception in 1976, the CSE has issued its seal to dozens of editions, including multi-volume single-author editions, stand-alone editions of particular texts, and a range of digital projects. But the list of sealed editions represents only a fraction of the editions produced over the past forty years in North America and the U.K. This fact has recently led CSE members to reflect on why the committee and seal don’t enjoy a greater pride of place among literary scholars and editors. What follows are brief speculations on that question and reasons for current and future editors to engage the CSE review process.

As many graduate departments have de-emphasized or phased out training in bibliography, most editors have become editors not because they are immersed in editorial theory and practice, but because they have acquired sufficient scholarly expertise on a given author and/or text for publishers to seek them out. That has long been the case—Jerome McGann, one of the most influential editorial theorists of his generation, came to the field while puzzling out the mechanics of a new Byron edition. But as the practice of editing has become more marginalized in the contemporary academy, and has it been viewed as quaintly empiricist in a discipline soaked in the hermeneutics of suspicion, editorial work has often seemed to reside outside the bounds of “true” scholarship (witness the frequent debates along these lines among promotion and tenure committees and deans). Scholars approaching editorial or archival projects through the digital humanities, similarly, have reflected often and productively on the nature and conditions of electronic textuality, but have not always or necessarily carried out those discussions in dialogue with corollary debates within editorial theory. (There are numerous exceptions here as well, of course; see, for example, as for instance in recent work by Matthew Kirschenbaum, McGann, Elene Pierazzo, Kenneth Price, Peter Robinson, and Dirk Van Hulle, among others.) And even within the editorial community, the notion of an “approved” edition has often threatened to hint at the long-discredited notion of a “definitive” edition, though most recent editions earning the CSE seal would hardly be conceived as the final or absolute word on the texts they represent.

Why, then, might those scholars pursuing or contemplating editorial projects consider seeking CSE review, in addition to the external readings already generated at the behest of university presses? First, it may be worth clarifying the CSE review process: 1) once a new edition has been put forward, either by its editor(s) or by its publisher, a committee member serves as review manager, shepherding the review from its beginning through the committee’s eventual vote; 2) the review manager, in consultation with the edition’s editor(s) and MLA staff, locates a vetter, a scholar with expertise both in editorial practice and in the literary and/or cultural field related to the edition; 3) the vetter examines both the edition and the documentary materials on which it is based, and prepares a report for the CSE in accordance with the committee’s established guidelines; 4) based on that report, the full committee votes on the awarding of the seal. This rigorous process offers an additional layer of professional review for the edition, beyond the readers’ reports sponsored by the press, and almost invariably results in an even more finely crafted and considered product, as evidenced by the comments of both print and digital editors to the CSE. In addition, the CSE seal broadcasts the high professional standards exercised in an edition’s production. For those readers and teachers seeking out a thoughtful, detailed, and explanatory edition, the CSE seal signals that all those elements are in place.

With its recent white paper, “Considering the Scholarly Edition in the Digital Age,” the CSE continues its work in understanding how best to serve the field. CSE members come to the committee with their own deeply held concerns for the value of editorial scholarship, and are eager to mobilize the CSE as an advocate for the continued importance of such work across the range of media in which contemporary readers come to new editions. To current and future editors, we look forward to working with you.

John Young

October 2015

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