Sunday, March 20, 2016

Mount St. Mary's and Hanging Together

As I watched the debacle at Mount St. Mary's unfold, I was waiting for my tenure decision to come through. As a result, I found that the biggest source of anxiety for me was not the question of whether I would get tenure, but whether tenure would mean anything if I got it. After all, if a business-minded, bunny-drowning president could unilaterally fire not just a provost but a tenured faculty member with no due process, then it seemed like all the work I had done and all the time I had put in to gain tenure might have been a wasted effort, at least as far as the dream of job security went. As I've watched the dust settle, however, I've come to conclusion that Mount St. Mary's and other similar situations, while a loss for particular individuals--and that's not a matter to be brushed aside--may also be wins for faculty generally, insofar as they've demonstrated that the academic community can still fight back.

Watching a tenured faculty member be fired for disagreeing with a university president, I was inclined to agree with Rebecca Schuman's position that, to quote her title, "Tenure Protects Nothing." And to a certain extent, I know this is right. Squid, who left academia to work in the labor movement, has said to me more than once that tenure (at least outside of union contracts) is little more than a gentleman's agreement: there's not a lot to back up the job protections tenure is supposed to provide, beyond university administrations' desire to avoid looking bad in the eyes of the academic community. Even in cases where courts might side with wrongfully-dismissed faculty, it can take years for such cases to work their way through the courts--enough time that the faculty member will likely have needed to move on and find other employment. Steven Salaita very well could have won his case in the courts, particularly since the university's claim that Salaita had not officially been "hired" when he was fired was struck down. But how long would it have taken? Labor law doesn't protect wronged employees while the case is being litigated. How many people can afford to wait around, unemployed, for a year or more for the courts to make them whole?

Legally, then, tenure doesn't offer much protection. But the law is not the only recourse faculty have. As both the Salaita and Mount St. Mary's cases make clear, organized, public outcry from the academic community (particularly when students participate in that outcry) has power. The response to the firing of a tenured faculty member without due process at Mount St. Mary's was immediate and multifaceted. As the Chronicle of Higher Ed reported:
The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Mr. Newman on Tuesday that sharply criticized his dismissal of a tenured professor without a hearing. By Tuesday evening more than 3,000 scholars, administrators, and graduate students had signed a statement condemning the university’s actions. The Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have also weighed in.
This response from the academic community, both inside and outside Mount St. Mary's, got almost immediate results: Newman's office began backpedalling to an extent that was almost as hilarious as it was inept. Significantly, this backpedalling didn't work. The academic response to Newman's disregard of tenure brought too much negative attention to Mount St. Mary's, and so his head had to roll. Less than a month after he had fired (or tried to fire) a tenured professor without due process, he announced his resignation.

That Newman had to quit--as did the former UIC chancellor who fired Salaita, Phyllis Wise--is important. They were forced out of their positions not because they did something wrong but because the academic community reacted loudly to it--because faculty and students came together to make life difficult for bad administrators and those that protect them. Therein lies our leverage. The best way to stop academic administrations from behaving unethically and contrary to the academic mission of our universities is to make sure that these administrators face consequences for their mismanagement. When faculty are fired for speaking out, we tend to talk about a "chilling effect" that has on freedom of academic speech. But that's a sword that cuts both ways. We can create a "chilling effect" on bad management by holding them loudly and publicly accountable. Administrators will be a lot less likely to dismiss faculty for bad reasons if they know that doing so puts their own heads on the block.

In that sense, I think Mount St. Mary's was more a win for faculty than anything else, because it put other administrators who might be tempted to think like Newman on notice: you can try to fire us, but it might mean your job. But there's also an important lesson for faculty here, too. When we fight, we can win; but all that stands between us and the total domination of administrators like Newman is our willingness to fight. We have to stop acting like our contracts and the law will protect us. Schuman is right: tenure protects nothing. We--the members of the academic community--protect tenure, but only to the extent that we protect each other from wrongful dismissal by standing up against it when it happens. When we fail to do so is when tenure as an idea falls apart. We have to hang together, or we'll all hang separately.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Modest Budgetary Proposal

[Note: I originally wrote this post a year ago, but decided not to publish it because I was paranoid about the fact that I was getting close to submitting my tenure file.]

When administrators cut liberals arts budgets, they generally cite low enrollments in liberal arts majors; we're not pulling in as much money as other divisions within the university (though it's worth noting that our overhead tends to be considerably less than theirs), so we don't get funded the way the more "popular" divisions do. In a previous post, I made a case for why the university should be willing to subsidize the liberal arts even when our enrollments drop--we may not have the majors, but, unlike the other divisions, we serve the entire campus. Here I want to take a look at a cause of the enrollment problem in order to suggest that university administrations are cutting our budgets for a problem they created, and that the solution to the problem lies in cutting their budgets, not ours.

The usual argument against a liberal arts (and particularly a humanities) major is financial: the question is always, "What are you going to do with a [insert liberal arts discipline here] degree?", implying that a degree is only worth the employment prospects it offers. Those of us who work in the liberal arts are always quick to point out that our disciplines give students the communication and critical thinking skills to excel in a wide variety of careers. But the fact that a philosophy or a history or an English degree doesn't have clearly-defined a career path for many students makes the liberal arts look like a bigger gamble in terms of future prospects. I've had more than one conversation with a student or a prospective student in which they expressed interest in the humanities but were concerned about their ability to find a job out of college. 

At the end of the day, as much as I think this way of thinking is a bit short-sighted, I can't blame students (and their parents) for being worried about their financial futures. The main reason I can't blame them is because of the debt burden most of them take on by going to college. When the average student can expect to leave university nearly $30,000 in the hole, the question of finding a reasonably high-paying job right out of college becomes much more pressing. The student debt problem is of course a product of skyrocketing tuition costs. A Bloomberg report states that a college education costs now nearly 12 times what it cost in 1978, which far outpaces inflation. In a very real way, then, students have been priced out of liberal arts degrees. When obtaining any college degree requires students to mortgage their futures, it's hard to blame students when they focus on majors that give them the best chance to dig themselves out of that debt as quickly as possible.

So if we're looking for a cause of declining enrollments in the liberal arts (or at least enrollments that don't keep pace with enrollments in other divisions of the university), tuition seems like a plausible culprit. If students could leave college with less (or--just imagine!--NO debt), the pressure to choose majors that lead to lucrative careers or that have the highest job placement would be considerably less, and students would be much freer to follow their interests rather than money. Then the question becomes, what has caused tuition to reach these absurd levels?

This is a question much written- and much opined-about, but a recent article in the New York Times makes the case that the real culprit is administrative bloat. This is a point that has been made more than once in the last few years, but it bears repeating (and repeating and repeating) because the problem doesn't seem to be getting better. Administrators make a lot of money--according to this chart, only a tiny handful pull down fewer than 6-figures per year--and their ranks over the last 25 years have been increasing at a rate that far outpaces every other kind of employee within the university. When a school decides to increase the number of highly-paid administrators it employs, this has a much greater effect on the school's budget--and therefore on tuition--than faculty hiring. And hiring administrators does nothing to improve the quality of one of the two primary services universities offer--education--because these administrators (and their staffs--they all come with staffs) don't teach. Neither do many of them support teaching. So students are paying more not for improved quality of education, but to support the administrative hoard that administrators made the choice to hire.

Those of us in the liberal arts should therefore be outraged when administrators cut our budgets not just because this is a short-sighted approach to managing a university, but because they are making us --and our students--suffer for a problem they have largely caused. Administrators make decisions to swell their ranks and hire more administrators; as a result, tuition goes up. Rising tuition creates a strong financial incentive for students to choose majors outside the liberal arts. And then administrators cut liberal arts budgets, citing low enrollments. There are two ways to interpret this chain of events. The more charitable way to view the situation is that administrators are clueless about all of this, that they don't recognize the correlation between their larger salaries and increased numbers, tuition increases, and enrollments. The other option is that business-minded administrators, who may have more in common with Scott Walker and the North Carolina legislature than with the core faculty of the university, want the liberal arts to fail. Neither of these options bode well for us in the liberal arts, or for the health of the university overall.

In light of all of this, I'd like to make a small proposal about how budget shortfalls in liberal arts divisions should be managed. As things currently stand, when budget cuts affect personnel, the first to go are the adjunct faculty. This is a wildly inefficient way to cut budgets, because they make so little money in the first place. A generous estimate of an adjunct wage is $4,000 per course. If you have a budget shortfall of, say, $250,000, you have to cut a lot of adjuncts to get to where you need to be. A deanlet, on the other hand, makes a six-figure salary; a provost-level administrator might make a quarter of a million a year or more. Instead of firing 16 adjuncts (assuming a course load of 4 classes per year)--which affects the quality of instruction either by lowering the number of courses offered and raising course caps, and/or by adding to the workload of already over-burdened full-time faculty, which gives them less time to devote to each student--a university could instead choose to fire two deanlets or a single vice-provost, and the problem would be solved--without affecting instruction at the university at all. Which of these seems like a sounder solution at an institution whose primary mission is education and research?

As faculty, I think this should be our message. Our universities have been mismanaged by people who think the solution to every problem is to hire another 6-figure administrator, and their mismanagement has directly affected our ability to teach and our students' ability to follow their interests rather than their debt burden. So when they come for us, and try to make us do more with less and fire our colleagues, I think we need to come back at them and point out--to students, to alumni, to the community--that they are the problem, not us. Before they start culling our herd, they need to prune their own overgrown, bloated numbers, whether through deep salary cuts or simply firing administrative personnel, re-bundling unbundled tasks and consolidating their work into fewer offices. It's time they started doing more with less. And it's time we as faculty got aggressive about this.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Tenure Oath

[I let this blog go dark about a year ago because my anxiety over the impending tenure process made me paranoid about what I was saying publicly, even under a pseudonym. Now that I’m through that process, I hope to get back to a more regular posting schedule.]

I was recently at dinner with my husband (Squid) to celebrate the news that I have been granted tenure at my university. As we were looking at the menus, I was pleasantly surprised when the waiter arrived at the table with a very tasty bottle of sparkling wine and the message, “Your mother and sister say congratulations on tenure!” (Unbeknownst to me, my sister had contacted Squid to find out where we were eating and ordered the wine for us–I should have known something was up when I noticed he wasn’t looking at the cocktail menu.) As he opened the bottle, our waiter asked where I was teaching and in what discipline. And then he said, “I’m an adjunct, actually, so I know how important tenure is.”

Squid and I heard that comment somewhat differently. For me, it was a quick reality check, a reminder of how messed up everything is in academia. While I feel like I have done the work to deserve tenure–I publish in my field, take my teaching very seriously, and have been an active participant in service roles at my university–it was entirely likely that this man standing next to me had also done the work to earn tenure, or would have be perfectly willing and capable of doing that work if given an adequate opportunity. And there we were, both (probably) deserving of tenure: but I was out for a semi-lavish celebratory dinner with my spouse, and he was serving me wine because his academic job doesn’t pay him enough to get by.* I can’t think of a better metaphor for the inequities of academic employment. I heard his words as a statement about what he is denied–something that is important for him, something that would put him on my side of the table. My survivor guilt kicked in immediately.

Squid, on the other hand, heard a statement about the importance of tenure generally. Though this man has to this point been shut out of the tenure system, he recognized, so Squid thought, that tenure itself is important to the profession, that we need tenure. Whereas I heard an indictment of the inequities of the tenure system, Squid heard support for its potential, for what tenure is supposed to offer.

All of this is of course reading too far into our waiter’s gesture of recognition: really all I think he was trying to say was that he understood why I had cause to celebrate that evening (my feelings of guilt were on me, not on him). But it was a moment that made me reflect on what receiving tenure means, both the good and the bad. The academic freedom tenure is supposed to ensure is a power: it enables those of us with it to stand up a bit more confidently for what we think is right, and to fight against what’s wrong, in our professions, our workplaces, and in the world. Even in the current climate where jobs offered with tenure are rescinded and tenured faculty are fired for disagreeing with the president, it’s hard to argue that, in most institutions, faculty with tenure generally have more security–and therefore more power–than those who don’t. But we only possess this power if we use it. If we are content to let this power be a privilege bestowed on a minority of faculty in part by luck and in part by systematic forces steeped in inequality, we both lessen our power–the more of us there are, the more powerful we are–and we cease to deserve it. Tenure is important to the extent that it gives us the power to fight for our profession. It is meaningless if we don’t fight.

With that in mind, and at the risk of going a little too Citizen Kane (because that turned out so well), I offer a tenure oath–a stab at a set of promises I think we should all make to ourselves and to our colleagues if we are lucky and privileged enough to get tenure. Those of us who get to tenure can’t be content with a system that has some of us seated at the table while our colleagues–at this point the majority of our colleagues–work, often unnoticed, to serve us. We can–and should–use our tenure to do better for all of us.

An Oath of Tenure:

  • I promise I will be attentive to the conditions of all my colleagues, whether full-time or part-time, on the tenure-track, off it, or in training;
  • I promise that I will never sit silently while conditions are made worse for people lower than me on the hierarchy;
  • I promise I will actively guard my profession from all attacks, whether those attacks directly affect me or not, and will fight whenever possible to improve conditions for those that follow me;
  • I promise that I will prioritize my responsibilities to others–particularly to junior faculty, faculty off the tenure track, and students (grad and undergrad)–over responsibilities that only serve my personal advancement or those above me on the hierarchy;
  • I promise that I will cultivate a personal awareness of how my privilege colors my opinions, try to correct for that privilege, and own up to my failures when I fall short;
  • I promise that, when I am in the position of making decisions that will affect others, I solicit and weight heavily the views of those who will be affected;
  • I promise that, when I am in positions of power, I will treat that power as a responsibility to those I have power over, not as an opportunity to exercise my will;
  • I promise that I will remember that the most important work of the university is done by the faculty and staff lowest in the hierarchy, and accordingly work to enfranchise these people and value their work;
  • I promise that I will use what job security I have to support those in precarious positions;
  • I promise I will always punch up, and never kick down;
  • I promise I will treat tenure as a benefit I must continue to earn.
*I do not mean to suggest that working in the service industry is unworthy work; but from our waiter’s tone it seemed clear that it was not his preference to be working there.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fight or Die

This week has been a rough one for faculty in the liberal arts division of my university. Administration has come for our budgets, feeling that we aren't pulling our share of the weight, and in particular they are interested in having the full-time faculty teaching more classes (without any indication that we will get more pay, less service work, or reduced expectations of research output). This is not surprising. I've seen my division face one raising of course caps and two workload increases in the less-than-a-tenurable-number of years I've been here. We've been upset and angry, we've rolled our eyes and made lots of sarcastic comments, we've told each other why this is ridiculous, etc. Once we even wrote a strongly-worded letter. But ultimately we've just accepted our fate, as if our school were run by Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos themselves. There are lots of reasons why we often respond with frustrated resignation, but I want to lay out the reasons here why we should not continue to do so.

Here's what I know. First, I know that the university needs the liberal arts. It needs us both from the perspective of its mission--like most 4-year universities with pretensions to greatness, it holds itself forth as one that provides a well-rounded education--and, more importantly, it needs us because of its core curriculum, the majority of which is carried by the liberal arts division.  While the professional and pre-professional schools may be pulling in the most of the money right now, we are the ones that allow those schools to grow while maintaining the university's identity as a university, rather than an expensive vocational college. That fact alone should mean that the university is happy to subsidize the liberal arts through the lean times. 

Investing heavily in career-oriented divisions at the expense of the liberal arts core is furthemore short-sighted and likely to end badly. The healthcare professions in particular, which have been popular because they offer high job placement rates and decent starting salaries, are not going to continue to absorb the workforce universities like mine are pumping out indefinitely. In 10-20 years, these divisions are unlikely to keep attracting students like they do now; and when the enrollments start to drop, the university is stuck with a less-lucrative faculty that draws down much heftier salaries than those of us in the liberal arts. As far as "job training" goes, the liberal arts offer transferable skills--that is, again, why we carry the bulk of the core curriculm--which means that, while our enrollments may ebb and flow, we're never going to outlast our utility--which goes far beyond the vissitudes of hiring markets. We've been around at least since the 5th century: we're not going anywhere.

All of this leads to the second thing I know: administrators need us more than we need them. Without a liberal arts faculty, there is no university. Period. But if all the administrators suddenly disappeared tomorrow, I'm guessing the faculty could pull together and get the work done--which is the way it used to happen, before the rise of the professional administrator class. This means that the liberal arts faculty has power. This is ultimately true of every faculty, and there have been some important examples of faculties being able to reverse administrative decisions by coming together and expressing outrage in a coordinated, organized way. Both UVa and UT-Austin faculties successfully saved presidents from the actions of their boards of governors, and a recent article out of Harvard details several successful initiatives by the various faculties that halted or reformed badministrative decisions. So faculty can fight, and faculty can win. And because the liberal arts are necessary to the running of the university, liberal arts faculty are particularly well-positioned to exercise some measure of power over the running of the university (though an ideal situation would simply be total-faculty solidarity, where we all recognize that we're in this together and an injustice to one division of the university is an injustice to all divisions of the university).

That doesn't mean that every fight will result in victory, and certainly some prudence is necessary in deciding which battles to fight. But picking one's battles means that one actually has to fight a battle or two--otherwise, one is not "picking" battles, but running from them. This is, I think, where we tend to cripple ourselves, and what we need to change if we want not just to make our jobs into the kind of jobs we want to have, but--more importantly--if we want to save the university from its administrators, if we want the university to be the kind of place that helps students learn not just about what they want to do, but about what kind of people they want to be. As academics, and particularly as a liberal arts faculty, we are trained in careful, considered, critical thinking. As I've discussed previously, we therefore are skilled in finding problems with just about any idea or plan that can possibly be imagined. And so we are reluctant to spring into action, because we can imagine myriad ways in which we can fail. This has to stop. If we aren't willing to act, to take a stand and say this is our battle, we will not only see our jobs turn to shit; we will stop serving our students the way we know they are best served--with a well-rounded education provided by faculty who have the time to develop both their teaching and their scholarship, in order to keep bringing new insights into the classroom. If we're not willing to fight for ourselves, we have to at least be willing to fight for our students.

Make no mistake: it is fight or die time. The foreseeable future of the university will be shaped by the decisions of a largely non-academic administration who thinks only in terms of FTEs  and enrollment numbers rather than quality of education, unless faculty start to stand up and fight. At this point, doing anything is better than what most of us continue to do--which is nothing. If we're not willing to take a stand, if we're not willing to stand up for ourselves and our students, the corporate managers will win. And because the corporate manages are so badly wrong, it will mean the end of the university, at least the kind of liberal education this country has prided itself on providing since the 19th century. We have the power to reverse this trend because we, along with the students, are the university--not the administrators. And it's time we started acting like it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tech vs. Teachers

(I've taken a long hiatus from this blog, in part for personal reasons, and in part because I'm just kinda lazy. I hoping to get back to writing more regularly this semester--in part by learning to write shorter posts, like this one.)

In my Facebook feed yesterday morning, I found a link from the Badass Teachers Association to this article about Pearson (aptly named "Everybody Hates Pearson"). The article examines Pearson's reinvention of itself from a publishing house to "get all your education needs here" monolith that seeks total domination of all aspects of education in this country and abroad, while also peeking at high-stakes testing and Common Core fall-out. It's worth reading in its entirety. But it was one quote in particular that caught my eye yesterday morning: 
Today analysts think Pearson controls some 60% of the North American testing market. “From 30,000 feet, the strategy makes sense,” says Claudio Aspesi, senior research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. “If you believe in the societal pressure to drive improvement in educational outcomes and there’s not money to put more teachers against students, the next best strategy is to try to use technology.”
Aspesi's comment implies that technology is a viable alternative to teachers because, apparently, technology doesn't require money--or at least it requires less of it. Earlier in the same article, however, we get this bit of information:
The business of assessing students through high school has grown 57% in just the past three years, to $2.5 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.
The graph presented just below in the article shows an increase in the "testing and assessment market" from $1.6 billion in 2010-11 to $2.5 billion in 2012-13. That's an increase of $900 million in two years. If the technology Aspesi refers to is this testing and assessment software (which, from the context in which the article places the quotation, seems to be the case), then it seems a bit of a mistake--a nearly billion-dollar mistake--to claim that technology is an affordable alternative to teachers.

The real issue here, of course, is that assessment and teaching--and assessment and learning--are just not the same thing. Investing in assessment instead of investing in teachers is like investing in sommeliers instead of investing in grapes and grape growers. If you want specific outcomes, it makes very little sense to invest heavily in testing those outcomes if you haven't also--and first--put the time and money into cultivating those outcomes. In education, that means investing in students and teachers. This can't be an either/or situation. Every time we put money into assessment before putting money into teaching, we're short-changing the part of the process that actually matters.

Aspesi's comment stood out to me not just because it seemed so obviously confused, but because I've heard it before: from administrators, from voices on my television. There seem to be a lot of people out there who think that technology is a viable replacement (as opposed to a supplement) for teachers. And a lot of the time, we are told that technology is better because it's "cheaper." But it's not: if it were, these massive profit-seeking entities would seek other markets in which to do business. What technology is--at least from the perspective of administrators and legislators--is easy. It comes pre-packaged, with its own tech support (no doubt for an ongoing fee), and--best of all--it doesn't talk back, doesn't disagree, doesn't engage in contract disputes, doesn't organize against (mis)management. This is, I think, the real appeal for those (largely non-educators) who think working with companies like Pearson is appealing. "Education industry" mononliths don't provide a cheaper way to get things done in the classroom; they provide ease of management. That's an "educational outcome" that has exactly nothing to do with the good of the students.

Monday, August 11, 2014

How Not to be an Asshole: Peer Review Edition

I am somewhat late to the “here’s everything that’s wrong with the peer review process” party. This is in part because I have spent the last several weeks busting my ass to complete revisions requested by a reviewer of an article I submitted quite literally years ago. Following the Wordsworthian injunction that the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” should be “recollected in tranquility,” I didn’t want to write about peer review when I was feeling Hulk-smash-ragey about the peer review process. But I’m feeling much better now. Since peer reviewers are so kind as to provide us all with feedback on our work, it seems only right that we should reciprocate by providing some suggestions for them. So, to the gatekeepers in my readership (I think there might be one of you, maybe even two!), I humbly submit my suggestions for revision of peer review practice.

Try to respond in a timely fashion.

I understand that peer review is generally thankless work; it is unremunerated, and at best it earns you some favors from the editor and an entry in the “service” column of an application for promotion. Mostly, it’s just service you do to the scholarly community because you have an investment in that community–this is very benevolent of you, and you probably deserve more thanks than you get. But a quick look at the editorial boards of all the big journals indicates that most of the people doing peer review work do so as tenured faculty: you folk have lots of pressures on your time, but you also have a position of security. By contrast, a lot of us who send essays out to journals and edited collections do so with a big fat clock ticking over our heads. For graduate students and adjuncts looking for full-time employment, it’s the job-search clock, which ticks down the minutes until the next market cycle. For these, the difference between having an article accepted for publication or not before the CVs go out to search committees can mean the difference between having their application advanced to the interview pool or not. For junior faculty, that ticking you hear is the sound of the tenure clock. If we don’t have enough publications when the buzzer sounds, we get to start looking for a new careers. So when an article lands on your desk, it would be extremely helpful to us if you could read it and return it with feedback ASAP.

We can debate what a reasonable timeframe would be for returning essays to their authors, but we can probably all get behind that notion that, if you’re measuring in half-years or years, then it’s taking too long. I am not the only person I know to have had an article sit on someone’s desk for over two years, and that’s really not okay, both for the reasons I just mentioned and because sitting on an essay for that long shows serious disrepect towards effort and time the author put in to writing the work in the first place. The problem here isn’t that it takes such a long time to read and comment on a 25-page article; the problem is that the work of reviewing doesn’t get prioritzed by the reviewers in this situation, which says to the author, “Your work is not important to me.” Again, there are reasons why the work of reviewing might get de-prioritized that I mentioned above. But if you take on the work, then you should commit to doing the work. It’s okay if you’re too busy: just decline the invitation to review, and let the editor find someone who isn’t, at present, swamped. The fact is that the author of the article is also, more likely than not, a tremendously busy person with similar if not more pressures on their time. The difference is that, when you accept the invitation to review an essay, that author is now depending on you for their work work to mean anything. It’s simple professional courtesy to hit your deadline and respond in a timely fashion. And if by (likely) chance that author is lower than you on the academic totem-pole, then anything less than a timely response is a failure of stewardship for your profession, insofar as you are potentially shutting the door in junior scholars’ faces without giving them the opportunity to succeed.

Help, don’t hurt

I remember one reader’s report I received that stated, “The author is clearly unaware of the large body of scholarship on X.” This was somewhat surprising to me, because I’d actively looked for things written on X, but hadn’t found much, and so I assumed it was a peripheral issue rather than something a lot of scholars talked about. The problem with the reviewer’s comment from my perspective–which is to say from the perspective of someone who sincerely wanted to make this the best essay I could–was that the comment was both dismissive and unhelpful. The phrasing was condescending insofar as it was a claim about my ignorance, rather than about an omission in the essay (my favorite on this score was one that said I had “only a light grasp” of the scholarship in the field), and it offered me no direction for fixing the problem. I’d already searched on this topic and found nothing; now I was being told that there was, indeed, a “large body” of stuff somewhere out there, but I was given no guidance in how to find it. By contrast, the most useful reader’s reports I have received–ones that eventually led to publication–made recommendations rather than accusations. The first reader for my book noted that the draft wasn’t addressing a body of scholarship that I hadn’t realized existed, and recommended that I look into work by a couple of specific scholars. Those recommendations helped me find other material on the subject as well, so that I was able to address the omission in the draft substantively, and, I think, produce a much stronger piece of work. Instead of calling me deficient and leaving it at that, my book’s reader told me what was missing, then pointed the way where I might find what I needed.

If the point of peer review were just to say “yay” or “nay” to pieces of scholarship, we wouldn’t bother with reader’s reports: readers would just give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and that journal would give the author a yes or no, without further comment. The fact that we do reports that get passed to the author at all suggests that part of the purpose of peer review is to help authors improve their work. If that’s the case, then when you are writing up a report you should ask yourself about every comment you make, “Will this help?” You have to justify your decision regarding the decision to publish or not, but if the answer is “no,” then providing guidance for how the essay could be brought up to snuff should be more of a priority than making sure the author knows you think they’re stupid. We do this all the time commenting on drafts of student essays. The point isn’t to tear the student down; where there are problems, we point out those problems and offer suggestions for how to address them–and we don’t (or we shouldn’t) say, “Your work is woefully inadequate” without further comment.

I’ll be honest, though: when, after trying to research a topic as thoroughly as I can, I see a reader’s report that alludes to a “large body of scholarship” I’ve missed without mentioning a single scholar or scholarly work that belongs to that body, I’m suspicious. It reads a little bit too much like undergraduate appeals to “what everyone knows,” and I have occasionally wondered if this “large body of scholarship” actually existed, or whether the reader were simply half-remembering a couple of essays they’d read that mentioned the topic. At best, this kind of criticism is lazy, a gesture with no substance. At worst, it’s intellectually dishonest. If you can’t come up with one citation off the top of your head, you might need to rethink whether this body of scholarship is as large and as important as you think it is.

Not everything is about you

I considered titling this section, “Don’t be a narcissist.” There’s a lot of different bad reviewer behaviors that fall under this category. Perhaps the most obnoxious–and most dangerous to the profession–is the one that doesn’t distinguish between the tasks of deciding whether a submitted work is good on its own merits and whether the reviewer actually likes what the work has to say. My very first reader’s report was also the most vicious I’ve received in my (still relatively short) career, because it came from a reader who seemed not to be able to tell the difference between an argument and a personal attack. The reader opened by saying that the essay was well-written, that it was adequately grounded in the relevant scholarship, and that the argument was well-structured and well-reasoned. And then they recommended that it not be published. I reread the report as many times as I could stomach, trying to figure out why they didn’t recommend publication, but all I could come up with was that the reader didn’t like my argument. Mostly, the report just criticized the politics of the position, and at one point the reader weirdly compared me–not the essay, but me–to George W. Bush. This went on for three pages, single-spaced. Luckily for me, the editor over-ruled the reader and gave me a revise-resubmit. I had to go a second round with the reader, but eventually they conceded with the comment, “perhaps I am just worn down from engaging with a well-crafted argument with which I vehemently disagree.”

This reader wanted to stand between my article and publication not because my article was a bad piece of scholarship–they admitted more than once that it was a good piece of scholarship–but because they didn’t like what I had to say. If this is the criterion all readers use for deciding whether something will be published, then there will be no innovation, no opportunity for argument or critique, and no advancement. We will simply clone ourselves. Which, as at least one person has pointed out, is pretty much what the humanities are already doing, suggesting that my experience with my first reader is not anomalous.

One of my favorite (by which I mean least favorite) comments I’ve ever seen from a reviewer was on a report a close friend received, which told him that, “If we accept the author’s position, then that closes down other avenues of interpretation.” Well, yes, that is what an argument–any argument worth the name–does: it makes the case for one way or set of ways of reading, and in doing so implicitly argues against others. What the reader really meant was that my friend’s position argued against the reader’s preferred way of reading the text, and the reader didn’t like that (so the reader recommended not publishing the piece; it got published in a better journal with no substantial changes later). This kind of gatekeeper is more like the bouncer manning the velvet rope at an exclusive club: they only let through the “right” kind of people, which is to say those who fit the tastes and preferences of gatekeepers, rather than those who are simply producing good scholarship. This is obviously not good for the profession of academic inquiry.

If you’re reviewing an essay submitted for publication, please try to remember that not everything is about you. If your preferred position on a topic you care about is being assailed, that’s not a personal attack on you and your career; it’s just an attempt to create a different way of looking at the problem. Similarly, not everything you read has to cite you, your friends, and everything you’ve read recently. After doing a Twitter poll of ridiculous responses from peer reviewers, Rebecca Schuman provided a succinct summary of what she saw:
So many readers’ reports can be boiled down to: “Why wasn’t this article exactly the one I would have written?” (Or: “Why wasn’t I cited enough?”)
This accurately describes my own experiences with peer review, and I suspect I'm not the only one. Asking authors to cite your own work more is just tacky, unless you’ve written the definitive treatise on the topic (and by “definitive” I mean others have recognized it as such–you don’t get to give yourself that designation). You may have written something on the topic, but you really shouldn’t treat your position as gatekeeper as your own little citation generator.

More often, though, reviewers seem to think that any work they review should have the same frame of reference they do. It’s one thing to read an essay and say, “Well, I’ve just read this other essay that seems like it might be useful to the author–the author might want to take a look at that.” It’s quite another to say, “The author neglects the work of [person I was just reading]; this is necessary to cite.” About a year ago, a reviewer told me it was “necessary to cite” an essay that was (1) at best tangentially related to all the main claims of my essay, and (2) NOT EVEN IN PRINT YET. This speaks to an argument I made long ago about over-citation; but it also suggests a mind that isn’t distinguishing between the reviewer’s work and ideas and the author’s. Unsurprisingly, this same reviewer also wanted me to cite their own work several times, including an essay that had just come out in print. When I went to look at the new essay, lo and behold, my reviewer had cited this “necessary” study that was still in manuscript. My reviewer wanted me to reproduce their own research.

Look, I get that we all work necessarily from our own frame of reference, drawing on our own bodies of knowledge to judge things. And I get that it’s a lot easier to see the faults in an argument we disagree with than in one that we agree with. But if part of the purpose of academic inquiry is the disinterested pursuit of truth, then at the very least those of us serving as gatekeepers have a responsibility to try to be aware of the limits of our perspectives and biases and to correct for them as best we can. If you’re reviewing a work and you want to say “no” or “make these revisions,” ask yourself first where you stand on the topic being discussed, and consider seriously whether your position is potentially skewing your recommendations. Ask yourself whether your recommendations are enforcing conformity with pre-existing research. Ask yourself also whether these recommentations are designed to help improve the work or to hurt the author of the work. And, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t take three years to do it.