Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Tour of the Sausage Factory

I'm finding myself totally disheartened by the various academic review processes these days. Spending lots of time around other academics in a sort of artificially summer-campy setting ends up being the publishing equivalent of visiting a sausage factory. You're aiming for the heart, to steal the words out of Upton Sinclair's mouth, and hit the stomach by mistake instead. And you never want to eat again.

I have one colleague who openly boasts about knowing the identities of the authors whose manuscripts she reviews for journals that are supposed to have double-blind peer review and using those reviews to further her own career, giving a positive review — perhaps not undeservedly, but still — to a senior scholar who she feels is in a position to help her get a job, or to compel a friend-and-colleague to listen to methodological critiques she had ignored in the past. I hope it's all bravado.

And then there is the matter of Haym Soloveitchik. It doesn't really matter that I'm naming names because anyone who knows his reviews will know it's him anyway and because he has publicly declared that blog posts are beneath him. I'm just a twerp with too much time and the ability to type. It's sort of a liberating position to occupy.

Soloveitchik is really famous for his scathing book reviews, one of which was even quoted in the movie Footnote, placed into the mouth of one of the characters who berates a student, as Soloveitchik berated Peter Haas, for being "apparently unaware of the writings of Yitzhak Baer, Salo Baron, Eliezer Bashan, H.H. Ben-Sasson, Menahem Ben-Sasson, Reuven Bonfil, and Mordechai Bruer, to mention only historians whose names begin with B." 

He has taken his most recent potshot at a member of the Penn faculty in a review that is so over the top, so nasty for nastiness' sake alone, so clearly and explicitly the articulation of a personal vendetta of the How dare she ignore me?! variety, that it can't carry any weight. The notion of comparing the knowledge of a tenured member of faculty at a major research institution unfavorably to that of a day school graduate is risible. The suggestion that a text written in one language cannot mimic the usage of a text written in a different language with different syntax is plain wrong and (yeah, I'll say it), there is something deeply distasteful about an old white Jewish guy from Brooklyn mimicking Creole to score a cheap point. I don't know rabbinic literature well enough to have a truly educated opinion, but I'm inclined to accept every last point that the book makes simply because the critique is so unbelievable. Nobody could possibly take it seriously.

Except —

Except that the same colleague who mentioned that when he submits work for review he (and, he claims, everyone else in the fields of Talmud and Rabbinics) attaches a note to the effect of Don't you dare send this to Soloveitchik seems to be taking delight in this takedown and seeming to accept it more or less on its face. The hubris required to try or claim to manipulate the system in such a way, to have one's critical cake and eat it too, to talk out of both sides of the scholar's venerable, articulate, over-educated mouth is vast. It's all so slippery, and it's so clear that religious observance and gender are factors in ways so subtle that they can't be addressed productively, and it cowers behind a screen of allegedly rigorous standards and honest processes. We are scientific, it intones, in spite all evidence to the contrary.

To be sure, part of my reaction to all of this is displaced anxiety over my own (lack of) success so far in the publishing sausage grinder — a long silence that almost assuredly means the rejection of an article from a journal that has published much worse (which is admittedly not the standard I'm ideally shooting for, but still) and a bunch of things held up in press for ages where there's nothing I can do about it even though I need them to be out in print before my third year review. Rejection by a cliquish new academic publishing gambit that sounds a lot cooler in theory than it is in practice but that is still too cool for me.

So, yes. I'm feeling sorry for myself and need to get a grip, put my butt in the chair, keep writing, and just avert my gaze from all the grossness that truly is out there. But in as lonely an endeavor as scholarship, it's sometimes a challenge to push away human contact and engagement even when it's one big proverbial train wreck. That's what has to happen, though. To draw in the words one final colleague, one who is planning on getting out of the game completely unless something miraculous occurs by the end of this job-market cycle: If we don't have the intellectual honesty of our work, then we have nothing. This isn't just a game.

It's not a game. It's our own lives and our obligations to the lives of the long-dead writers we study and the future ones our work might inform. So if I'm going to pretend that I can still take this seriously and try to play by the rules, I guess I'd better get back to it.