AJP and AHR: Decolonizing and Diversifying

In the last couple of months both the American Historical Review and, most recently, the American Journal of Philology issued statements declaring their intent to diversify and decolonize. Here’s the AHR’s and here’s the AJP’s. They both reference their own historic lack of diversity and admit that their own procedures both reflect and produce their disciplines and communities. I won’t dwell too much on the differences between the two, but the AJP’s is shorter on specifics and this likely speaks to basic structural differences between the two organizations and how comfortable they are in this particular cultural moment.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the issues facing these journals and the little magazine that I edit, North Dakota Quarterly. While NDQ is substantially different in every way from these flagship academic publications, I suspect that, in some ways, our challenges are the same. Our content is not as diverse as we’d like because our submissions are not as diverse as we’d like. More than that there is a tension between content that reflects the character of the community – warts and all – and our responsibilities to serve as a guide to our community of readers and take the imprimatur of our respective publications seriously as both a mark of quality and representations of what we want our community to value.

I think this tension between reflecting a community and challenging it to change is the most interesting tension in academic publishing. Without wading into the specifics of these two journals, neither of which I read with any regularity, it seems to me that these two statements open up a few interesting areas for reflection.

1. What Diversity?

Without in any way denying the need for gender and racial diversity at the highest levels of academic publishing, I wonder whether other kinds of diversity in, say, the editorial boards of these journals is also important. For example, both boards seem to be largely comprised of full professors at traditional “R1” institutions. The AHR’s board shows a bit more diversity with faculty from Fordham and Western Washington, but there is only one person from, say, a small liberal arts (Hamilton College on the AJP’s board). Moreover, there are no representatives from the massive number of public institutions with teaching missions, HBCUs, junior colleges or two year schools, institutions with religious affiliations (of various kinds), and, perhaps most importantly, avocational scholars.

There’s also a lack of diversity in the scholarly ranks represented is also a bit disappointing. Perhaps I’m missing something both board have only full professors and emeriti (with a couple research fellows and faculty at European universities with slightly different ranks). There are no associate professors, assistant professors, visiting lecturers, adjunct professors, or unaffiliated scholars. These faculty ranks make up the vast majority of individuals who teach, research, and invest in the field. There are ideas there. Their absence on the editorial board is not a super great thing.

UPDATE: Do note the comments which point out that at least two of the AJP board members were appointed as early career faculty and represent urban universities with serious missions of outreach and diverse student populations.

2. Review and Disciplinarity.

The AHR offers the most spirited defense of peer review which I don’t mind entirely. I wish they said more about how they identified reviewers for their journal and what constituted the “usual suspects” verses their typical reviewers. The editor also see the democratizing potential in scholars who are willing to persevere through the constructive, if extensive review process. On the one hand, this is a good way of articulating the value of high-quality and sustained peer review in the process of knowledge making. On the other hand, it is naive to suggest that the ability to persevere isn’t a mark of privilege. In an academic world defined, in part, by “publish-or-perish” persevering on a single article through multiple steps of review can be a luxury. More than that, it assumes a scholar has the time and opportunity to commit to a sustained review process. While there is no doubt that time and energy can make a paper better, a review process that explicitly emphasizes perseverance (and presumably “hard work”) is as likely to reinforce the existing academic hierarchy (disguised as a meritocracy) as it is to serve as a platform for diversification.

I also started to wonder about the diversity of reviewers. While I suspect that the AHR does seek to find a range of reviews with different identities, ranks, and perspectives, I wish they’d have articulated this (if for no other reason than to model their review process for others). More than that, I’m curious about how disciplinary boundaries shape their pool of reviewers. For a discipline like Classics, for example, the edges of disciplinary identity are in no way clear. On the one hand, reviewing an article in Classics requires some basic expertise with the languages and the texts, but the broader theoretical frame work for understanding these texts could easily draw from many areas far afield from the traditional core of Classics (or, in the case of the AHR, history).

3. Citations, Soliciting, and Community

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the role in which citations serve to mark one as member of a particular conversation or community, fueled in part by this nice little editorial in Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen. I attended a panel in the falls that used a “progressive stack” method for fielding questions to ensure that individuals who are overlooked in the male and senior scholar dominated bloviation sessions at academic conferences get a chance to have their voices heard. It seems to me that journals like the AHR and AJP could embrace practices and expectations that don’t just allow for marginal voices to speak, but require that they have a place at the table.

Whether they do this by demanding diversity in citation, by soliciting and prioritizing articles by voices who have been historically marginalized, or by using their platform to make their respective communities aware of how individual decisions and actions serve to create barriers to participation in the professional discourse. What if there was a 20% decline in the number of submissions by tenure-track male faculty members to both journals? Would that negatively impact the quality of these publications? I suspect not. To my mind, this kind of deliberate choice by individuals of certain status and privilege would help diversify the content of these journals by creating room for other voices.

At the same time, these journals – all journals, in fact – could force open their pages through supporting forums that highlight scholarship from historically marginalized groups. They could make more transparent and reflective their own efforts to diversify their pages. The AHR statement is great (and I’ll accept the piety of the AJP’s statement despite its lack of details), but the follow up over the next few years will be more useful and revealing.

To be clear, I’m not doubting the commitment from either publication. In fact, as an editor and publisher myself, I’m desperate to understand how and whether the steps they take work to create a more inclusive publication. These two journals provide influential and high profile laboratories for creating a better field and a better, more dynamic, inclusive, and representative past. I want to know how what they do works (and what doesn’t work). This means continued transparency of even “trade secrets” like peer review and honest reckoning whether the changes occurred.

I’m watching not to pounce on them if they don’t succeed, but to understand how they do!

6 Comments

  1. Richard Lansdale March 12, 2019 at 11:30 am

    Aside from racial and gender disparity, which scholars have rightly drawn attention to, the issue of economic background of the contributors surely is a pressing and remarkably often ignored issue. For instance, in a recent Economist article that is based upon academic research, in the UK now the biggest determining factor of a person’s lack of success in higher education is their childhood economic class- not gender or ethnicity. Of course the problem is establishing the individuals who have preserved into academia despite the disadvantage of money, and the lack of peer expectation and role-models into academia are not so easy to spot. One usefully rubric is whether they are a first generation student in their family to pursue higher education, and if they were state educated, were in receipt of government assistance etc. Those are the people who cannot sit around waiting years to build up a peer-reviewed portfolio, and who cannot go out and purchase the books to do their scholarship. Establishing those individuals though requires more than a google search to see their social media photos, but it doesn’t mean efforts should or cannot be made.

    I fear we might in future decades still just be hearing largely from the voices of those (men, women, non-binary, white and poc) people with moneyed backgrounds, and seeing history through their eyes (and it was, of course, the moneyed elite who dominated our historical sources too!), and lull ourselves into a false sense of achieving equity. Now that the issues of addressing privilege are rightly being aired, and the debate framed, now is the time to consider the issue.

    Reply

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful response. I am looking forward to how AJP and others in Classics address these issues. I’ll just note quickly that I think you’re right in general in your points about institutional diversity and career diversity (without, as you write, denying the need for gender and racial diversity). But, for clarity’s sake, I’m on the AJP Editorial Board, and I’m an assistant professor (tenure-track) at an undergraduate and public teaching-focused institution (the University of Winnipeg).

    Reply

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Peter. Perhaps next time I trace the Red River north to the ‘Peg, I can buy you a beer! (Or if you find yourself in ND, do look me up!).

      Reply

  3. I didn’t realize you were just down the street! Thanks again for the post.

    Reply

  4. Thanks so much for the thoughtful response! I should say that I was appointed as an AJP Editorial Board member before I became a full professor, and am the first in my family to take a “traditional” (and non-vocational) path to university. I am also an economic migrant, and work at a comprehensive, civic University with a strong mission to diversify the academy (though I understand from US colleagues that UK definitions are different to US definitions). Getting appointed to the AJP Editorial Board was a fantastic thing for me, and I (along with all the board) take the responsibility very seriously. It’s really great to see people thinking seriously about the AJP editorial piece as the board collectively has been thinking hard about how to move forward on these important issues.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for taking time to read and respond to my post! I’m really pleased that you and Peter could point out my oversights. I assumed, perhaps falsely, that Birmingham was a “Russel Group” university which I loosely equated to the “Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity” or R1 in the U.S. In Peter’s case, I just missed that he was at the University of Winnipeg. Many Winnipeg and Birmingham are similar in their urban character and their strong mission to education first generation students in these dynamic and diverse communities.

      That being said, I realize that Classics has increasingly fallen out of the curriculum at many lower tiered universities in the U.S. which puts obvious limits on the amount of diversity one might expect on the AJP board. (As I noted in my post, of the two “flagship” universities in North Dakota, there is only 1 Classicist and I suspect that this model holds true for many “R2” or lower state institutions.)

      Thanks again,
      Bill

      Reply

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