Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The sorrows of peer-review

Peer-review is often referred to as the "gold standard" of scholarly publishing: a rigorous vetting process that ensures the quality of the research that makes its way into print. And although the system isn't fail-proof--crap can make its way into top journals and every couple of years there's an actual scandal involving falsified data or obviously tendentious analysis--I do believe that, in the long run, the traditional double-blind review system mostly works.

But "in the long run" is a pretty big caveat, and I know no one who hasn't beaten her head against the wall of peer-review at least a few times. There are genuine horror stories of reviewers who make it their mission to block any work that challenges their own or that uses a theoretical model they disdain, but mostly there's just pettiness and obtuseness: reviewers who on some level can't "hear" arguments that don't match their own.

Indeed, although the publishing world has been good enough to me over the years, I've encountered as many obstructionist reviewers as generous ones, starting with my very first submission. As a grad student, I submitted one of my dissertation chapters to a top journal and got back a thirteen-page, single-spaced review. It was clear that the reviewer had taken a strong dislike to me, and hostility oozed from every sentence. He appealed continually to what "everyone knew" about the subject, sometimes going so far as to say, of actual, documented facts "this hardly seems likely." In one especially bizarre paragraph, he took it upon himself to lecture me on the Vietnam War and U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s. (My essay was on Milton.)

Compared to later negative reviewers I've encountered, however, this one was easily sidelined: the journal editor told me to read the review carefully, make "whatever revisions you think necessary," and send it back. It went out to a second reviewer from a similar school of thought, but this time a professionally and intellectually generous one; I later met him at a conference, and as he shook my hand and introduced himself, he said, "I don't know if you could tell from my review, but I disagreed with pretty much every other sentence of your essay." He smiled, told me that it was a provocative and worthwhile argument, and added, "and boy, can you write."

You could say that this taught me to have faith in the system, and I do, but it's been tested routinely by both my own and others' subsequent experiences. The problem isn't so much with the bad behavior that anonymous review sometimes permits or with the way a single person can block good work for personal reasons. Those are problems, to be sure, but there are plenty of venues out there, and plenty of readers; good work will generally get published eventually, and the real test is its afterlife: how often it gets read and cited and grappled with once it's out there in the world.

No, the real problem lies with "eventually": scholarly time is always inefficient and unpredictable--it's hard to know whether the article you're writing will take six months or two years--but when your work is in your hands, at least you have some understanding of why it's taking so long and what comes next. This isn't true of peer review, which might as well be a black box: even the reports and the editorial decisions, once you get them, are not always self-interpreting. This is especially hard on junior scholars, who are always on a clock; they need that vita line ASAP because they're going on the job market, or they're approaching their third-year or their tenure review. Under those circumstances, even the usual delays--a reviewer takes six months instead of the promised four; a journal requires a second round of revisions--can be nerve-wracking, and the more capricious and unreasonable responses can damage careers.

There's not a solution here that I'm aware of; I don't believe that open-source peer review is a better answer--on the whole, I think it's likely to produce more conservative and crowd-pleasing rather than more innovative work--and I certainly don't advocate for the end of peer-review, but there are problems here that affect junior scholars disproportionately (although not exclusively: I've heard well-published full professors mention having written pieces that got savaged so badly they'd never had the heart to send them out again). I suppose one solution is, "submit early and often," but that too is hard on junior scholars, who tend to be focused on the One Big Thing that is their dissertation/first book and can't as easily work up little side articles.

Readers, what do you think? Are there ways to make the peer review process work more equitably and efficiently (beyond being an ethical and responsible reviewer oneself)--or do you have words of wisdom to give to grad students or recent PhDs stuck in peer-review hell?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The wages of casualization, part 2

For anyone who hasn't seen it yet, Slate's L. V. Anderson went to Pittsburgh and learned more about the life and death of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

As some of us speculated in the comments to my post about the original Post-Gazette op-ed, there does indeed turn out to be more to Vojtko's story than made it into that editorial; Vojtko actually had dozens of people who tried to help her, and many of her problems weren't directly related to her employment conditions. But if Duquesne isn't the cartoon villain some readers wished to see, Anderson doesn't back away from holding them and higher education accountable for the end results of academic casualization. It's a thoughtful, compassionate, and balanced piece of journalism, and well worth reading in full.

Vojtko's story wouldn't have gotten covered if Duquesne hadn't appeared uniquely coldhearted and evil, but I never assumed that it was (though as a Catholic, I remain outraged at the institution's claim that labor unions violate its religious identity); I don't think most academics did. The fact that Duquesne isn't an outlier is the real scandal.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What's a professional society for?

I belong to a half-dozen professional organizations, and if you'd have asked me why, last week I'd have said something vague about their advocacy for scholars and the importance of paying it forward. But yesterday the Renaissance Society of America showed me what a professional organization can actually do for its members and how it might respond creatively to inequities in the academy--even those over which it has no immediate control. Effective immediately, the RSA is offering free access to Early English Books Online to all its members.

To understand the significance of that move, you have to understand, first, that EEBO is the single most important database for those of us who work with printed texts published in England (or published abroad for the English market) from 1475 to 1700. EEBO is a collection of complete facsimile images for 125,000 different books. It is, in essence, an online rare books library, but also a fully-searchable one: it's now possible to run searches to see, for example, how often and in what context a particular historical figure gets mentioned in print over the course of a given decade. Equally as importantly, it's made extremely rare books--some of which survive in only a single copy--available anywhere in the world to anyone with a subscription. There are still many reasons we need rare books libraries and physical books, but EEBO makes everything a hundred times easier, whether it's something as trivial as double-checking the page numbers for a quotation or as significant as comparing two books held in different locations.

Or rather--EEBO makes everything a hundred times easier for those who have access to it. Because the second thing to know about EEBO is that subscriptions are prohibitively expensive. Most research universities subscribe, but the majority of colleges and universities do not (and subscriptions are not available to independent scholars or other private citizens). Several years ago RU looked into the possibility of getting a joint subscription with several other masters-granting universities, but as I recall our portion alone would have run somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000-$30,000.

So most of us don't have legitimate access to EEBO, though pirated subscriptions are relatively common; in the seven and a half years that I've been at RU, I've had access, at one point or another, through three different friends' university accounts. My conscience doesn't twinge much about that, but since I'd never give someone else's login to a student, I can't use it in the classroom or incorporate it into research assignments. That's a huge loss.

Enter RSA. A few months ago they sent around a survey asking how much we'd be willing to pay per year for access to EEBO--on top of our membership dues--if the organization could get a good group rate. I filled out the survey, but didn't expect much to happen; the price points they mentioned were high, and I told them frankly that although I'd prefer to be an ethical user, since pirated access was so readily available I probably wouldn't be willing to pay more than an additional $50.

Then I forgot about it until yesterday, when I got an email informing me that, as a result of the survey and their internal research, the RSA had concluded that EEBO was so vital it should be funded out of the organization's endowment and be free to all members.


Let me be honest here: I'd never previously given much of a shit about RSA. I always paid my dues because I have a good job and because I believe in being a good citizen, but I could never muster up much enthusiasm for the organization. It's a huge umbrella society whose members come from a range of disciplines and work in at least a half-dozen languages on material that spans nearly 500 years; its conferences are thus even less targeted toward my interests than the MLA. (I have more in common with a James Joyce scholar than I do with someone who works on Florentine numismatics or Dutch landscape paintings.) It's the smaller professional societies that I've cared about the most: the ones getting by on a shoestring budget, the ones whose founding members are still alive, the ones I feel need me, and need younger scholars, and are working toward goals I share.

But the RSA has really impressed me with this. I'm not surprised to learn that a major organization can wield more clout than a smaller one, but I am surprised to find that it can be just as driven by and just as responsive to its members' needs. According to the email I received, this new benefit is the direct result of a single member's query about whether a group subscription to EEBO might be possible--and in the same email, the RSA urged us to keep bringing forward ideas about other resources or benefits they might investigate making available to all.

It's easy to think that the big professional societies are hidebound, slow-moving beasts that are irrelevant to the lives of most scholars, existing chiefly to confirm the importance of those who've already arrived. But the RSA has proved that professional organizations can be vital and relevant even to the most junior and the most professionally marginalized people in the field, those who need to see some benefit if they're going to shell out $50 or $75 or $100 a year. My hat's off to them.

So if you're an Early Modernist, please think about joining or renewing your RSA membership. And if you're an academic in another field or discipline, talk to your own professional societies about what they're doing to provide equal access to whichever resources you consider most crucial, whether those be databases or conference travel funds for grad students and contingent faculty.

Sometimes, apparently, all it takes is asking.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Intimate friendships

Whatever ambivalence I felt about the Grad School City portion of my recent trip, I felt none whatsoever about my housing arrangements: I spent three nights with my college roommate and her family and three nights with another college friend and his husband. This arrangement was originated by necessity--half-pay means no money for a hotel room!--and I had some trepidation about burdening busy people in the middle of the work-week. But it was terrific to have that time with them, and to be, however, briefly, a part of their regular lives.

As I've aged, this has become increasingly rare: actually seeing how my friends live. Sure, I have friends whom I meet for drinks every week; friends whose houses I dine at regularly; and I've even rented a vacation house with several friends for a weekend. But that's not the same thing.

When I was in my twenties, I was enmeshed in my friends' lives in ways that went beyond our constant phone calls. We actually lived with each other, even after college, and even after most of us had gotten our own apartments. If we lived in different cities, we'd visit each other for long weekends--and if we lived in the same city, we'd crash at each others' places when it got too late to go home for the night. We'd sleep in the same room, use the same bathroom, make breakfast together. Or we'd hang out at each others' places for hours as afternoon turned into evening, watching bad t.v., reading magazines, drinking a bottle of wine and doing our makeup as we tried to decide what to do with the night.

Now we're busier, with work and other things. Almost all of us are partnered and half of us have kids, and spending large blocks of time together is a trickier proposition. Even when Cosimo and I stay overnight with friends, it's usually just one night (if we're traveling), or there's some event we're all going to (reunion, sporting event), so the rhythms aren't those of real life.

But over the past year, I've stayed for two or three nights, just by myself, with four or five different friends (and their partners and kids, if they have 'em), some of whom I'd never before seen in pyjamas, or whose kitchens I've never experienced flooded with early-morning sunlight.

It's been a treat. The greatest luxury is simply that of time: all those hours in which to have the kinds of conversations that emerge only over a day or two of doing other things--fixing meals, taking the dog for a walk, running errands--and that wouldn't necessarily come out over a 45-minute phone call or a hasty lunch. But there's also the special intimacy that comes from witnessing someone's daily routines with her partner or her child or her pets, from seeing the corner of her kitchen table where she pays her bills, or learning how her coffee maker works. I like that intimacy, and I miss it. But I'm glad to have gotten a fresh taste with a few friends this past week.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Rewriting the past

I'm just back from a week of research at the rare books library at my alma mater, which was a complicated experience. The research end of things was great: I put in six to eight hours every day, got through a ton of material, and feel I now have a firmer grasp on some of the background material for my second book project.

When nonspecialists ask me about my research, I usually say that it's about how we deal with the past: how people find a language to describe experiences or identities that the culture doesn't recognize; how they narrate events that even they may not understand; how they reimagine the past to cope with traumatic change. That's the big take-away and what animates both of my book projects (and no one wants to hear me talk about Early Modern religious prose for longer than it takes me to say "Early Modern religious prose").

But as I spent my week thinking about the ways sixteenth and seventeenth century ecclesiastical histories narrate the past to bring it into alignment with the present, I had a disorienting sense of going through a similar process myself.

The thing is, I don't know what my relationship to my alma mater or its city is anymore, or why I keep going back. It's surely not a city I'd think to visit if I didn't have any prior relationship to it, but given that I know the rare books library inside and out (literally, since it was one of my work-study jobs in college) and it's the major collection closest to my home, it makes sense to regard it as my default rare books library. I also have lots of friends who live or work in Grad School City or its immediate environs, as well as a deep attachment to many of the city's shops, restaurants, museums, and theatres.

But although I like going back and I'm always eager for an excuse to visit, I'm not really sure why. I was unhappy almost the entire time I lived in that city in grad school and I fled after my fourth year. (Indeed, I was so unhappy, so early, that I started saving money in my second year because I needed to believe that I'd be able to leave.) And although I say that I loved my college experience, the reality is more complex. I loved my friends, my classes, my extra-curricular activities. I believe that who I am today is profoundly shaped by that institution. But on an actual, day-to-day basis? I was anxious and stressed and often mildly depressed.

So being back is strange, although it's not as fraught these days as it was several years back, when I had a month-long research fellowship and felt I was continually running into all my past selves. Once in a while, though, I was still taken by surprise. Looking for street parking one morning I got caught in a long loop of one-way streets and found myself a couple of miles from campus alongside a building that a guy from my cohort had briefly inhabited. All at once I was thrust back to September 1999: he'd thrown a party there, that first month of grad school. There was nothing remarkable about the party; we'd only just met one another, and the ten or twelve of us sat around in a circle chatting and drinking wine out of plastic cups. I remember it as a pleasant evening. But seeing that building I felt, hard in my gut, what the rest of that year was like, and the year after.

Flashbacks like that happened a few times. More bizarre were the actual live people I stumbled across whom I'd known in grad school but had no reason to suspect were in Gradschoolandia these days--like the guy whose voice I heard from another room of a coffee shop and instantly recognized, or the woman I saw from across the library, still wearing a coat I remembered. I didn't love either of them and I don't think they loved me, and seeing them, similarly, returned me to the reasons I'd been dying to leave that town in the first place: so small, so insular, so hard to escape. What were they doing there?

For that matter, what was I doing there? Why do we all keep coming back?

I think, sometimes, that it's because I can't quite get my head around the fact that I was so unhappy somewhere I should have been happy. I don't really understand who I was in grad school, or what it says about who I am now. That's old news to long-time readers of this blog--or anyone who has perused the vast archive of posts tagged "grad school trauma." But on this visit, in an unexpected twist, I wound up talking about some of these things with my dissertation director.

We had lunch one afternoon, which was the first time we'd seen each other in perhaps three years. It was lovely from start to finish. At some point she mentioned that she was proud of my successes, and added that she was especially proud because I'd managed them without--she suspected--having gotten much support from her in the early years. I said that I wasn't going to disagree with that statement. . . but that I understood, now that I advised undergrad and M.A. theses, how complicated the advising relationship was and how prone to mismatches or misunderstandings due to different emotional and personal styles. I added that I felt I'd been a very different person in grad school, radically different not only from who I am now, but not much like who I was before grad school, either: that I saw myself as a mostly optimistic and self-assured person who for some reason had been a disaster of insecurity and timidity for most of six years.

She, in turn, did not dispute that statement. But we wound up having a nice conversation about how hard it is to predict future results--our own or anyone else's--and how interesting it is to watch and see how life turns out.

The past is a problem that can't be solved. But it can be reintegrated, renarrated, and reimagined.