Three Things Thursday: Peer Review, Being Busy, and Fiction from the Archive

It feels like it’s about the time of the semester for a Three Things Thursday. So here are some thoughts on peer review, being busy, and a little fiction from the NDQ archive!

Thing the First

This week, I was vaguely annoyed by a well-meaning twitter thread about peer review. The author of this thread argues that journals are being overwhelmed by low quality submissions that are unpublishable and many of these, she argues, come from graduate students. She quite reasonably suggests that graduate programs and advisors take more time to mentor graduate students on the publishing process. This is all commendable, but I take a bit of issue with the premise that the problem with low quality submissions is that graduate students are being told to send manuscripts to journals before these manuscripts are ready.  

To my mind, the problem isn’t the submission of low quality manuscripts, but peer review itself. I’d argued that in the contemporary humanities peer review has become so capricious that it has undermined any common standard for what constitutes a publishable manuscript. I have published consistently over the last decade and worked with a wide range of experienced colleagues, and I know that we still feel a bit unprepared for how reviewers will react to our manuscripts. Some of my weaker articles sail through with minimal calls for revisions while some of my more carefully reasoned and vetted pieces have received rather unfavorable responses for reviewers. When I was a less seasoned scholar, these vagaries frustrated me, but now, I realize that this is just part of the unpredictability of the academic publishing process. As a reviewer I’ve also had the experience of providing careful feedback to articles and then seeing these works published with hardly any changes. And I’ve favorable reviewed articles for one journal only to see the appear in a different journal. I’ve also been struck by the different levels of anonymity in the review process, the different levels of editorial guidance, the different deadlines expected for reviewers, and the sometimes overwhelming number of asks from a small number of publications followed by radio silence. As a reviewer, I constantly find myself second guessing my reviews, the journal’s expectations, and the attitudes of journal editors.   

The rise of the infamous “Reviewer #2” is just a symptom of the randomness associated with the review process. Some of this invariably has to do wide range of epistemologies, methods, and approaches that currently contribute to knowledge making in the humanities. The plurality of understandings of what constitutes meaningful knowledge makes consistent critique of articles challenging and determining which article crosses a bar .

Some of this also has to do with the growing pressure on academics to publish across all stages of their careers. This not only means that scholars have a greater diversity of experiences with the publishing process (and mentoring could help alleviate this diversity of experience, if that is thought desirable), but more importantly a range of access to libraries and resources vital to the task of thinking, reading, and writing. A contingent faculty member teaching at four institutions, a PhD student juggling between teaching and research, a tenure track or tenured faculty member at a lower tier state institution, and a faculty member at a SLAC or R1 will all have different resources at their disposal. More than that, they’ll also have different kinds of academic communities with different expectations and different approaches to critique. To me, this diversity is a good thing in academia. 

Peer review, however, struggles to accommodate epistemological diversity and the kind of institutional and social diversity which has only been exaggerated further by the COVID pandemic and ever more incisive cuts to library funding. In fact, I’d argue that peer review was a fine too for managing a largely homogeneous academia, but has perhaps struggled to adapt to the growing heterogeneity in our ranks.

In this context, it is not so much that manuscripts are “unpublishable,” but that our sense for what constitutes a publishable manuscript has become so helplessly muddled that suggesting graduate programs somehow clarify to students what constitutes publishable seems almost an example of “punching down” and pushing graduate directors and advisors to resolve a situation that is fundamentally outside their control.

Thing the Second

I would like to propose a moratorium on people declaring themselves busy in academic setting. This isn’t meant to diminish the anxiety that people feel about their workloads or the current situation. Nor I am trying to deny that people are actually very busy. And I’m certainly not trying to discourage people from making known that current workloads, in addition to the challenges associated with the seemingly endless pandemic, are not sustainable. People are busier than ever, it creates genuine anxiety, and we need to reinforce that this is not a sustainable situation.

At the same time, faculty have to recognize their audience, pick the opportunities, and channel their anxiety into collective solutions. In at least a few recent occasions, I’ve felt that faculty have directed their sense of busyness onto their colleagues and this feels like a deeply counter productive approach and one that is more likely to produce a kind of defensiveness than a sense of solidarity. I know I have increasingly come to feel that declarations of busyness are often ways for certain individuals to say that they are a busier than other individuals (even if that is not their intention). 

I have a modest proposal: instead of repeating mantra-like statements of how busy we are to all and sundry (including fellow travelers!), perhaps it would be more useful to direct these anxious statements in more collective and unified ways toward those who can actually impact our workloads. At the same time, assume that everyone is busy at the table might create a space where it is easier to find temporary solutions to our collective sense of being overwhelmed.  

Thing the Third

If all this is too structural and academic, do check out this week’s post over at NDQ! It’s a short story from the archives that involves dancing and joy.

As the author of the story, Bábara Mújica, has one of her characters say: “Celebrate when you can. Be happy when you can. Rejoice in the moment, and look for reasons to be glad.”

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