Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rejection and Scholarly Identity

I know this is going to sound like I'm being a total drama queen, but I got a journal article rejection today that is making me question my identity as a scholar.

There's more to it than the simple rejection, of course.

This is a piece that started out its life as a second-year-of-grad-school seminar paper, one which was returned to me with the somewhat embarrassing mark of A+ and a comment from the professor that it was publishable as it was. Great, I figured. So I held onto it and submitted it to a journal as soon as I was done with my dissertation. Originally, I got a decision of revise-and-resubmit. So I revised, making many but not all of the changes that had been suggested. On that basis, I figured there was a decent chance that it would be accepted but that there was also a very real chance that it wouldn't be; and the gamble didn't pay off.

One option would be to send it to another journal and see what their reviewers have to say. The problem is, I think that there is some merit to some of the comments I got back on the second set of reviews. So I'm not sure it would be acceptable anywhere as it is now, and even if it were, I'm not sure I'd want it to appear in exactly the form it now takes.

The obvious solution is to put my butt back in the chair, make the changes and send it somewhere else. And this is where the scholarly identity crisis starts to creep in. The thing is that I don't want to. It's not that I don't want to do research or writing — in fact, I'm working on another article that I'm so excited about that I have to limit the amount of time I spend on it each day because I have two talks coming up in the next month that I've not finished writing. I finally feel like the book manuscript is coming into focus. And I'm really excited to go back to Oxford and the Bodleian at some point very soon.

It's not my identity as a scholar that's the issue; rather it's my identity as the type of scholar I want to be. In this article that was rejected, I was suggesting that the anonymous author of the Libro de Alexandre, a really major part of the traditional Spanish canon, was probably familiar with some of the stories in the Qur'ān. I conceded that the work was speculative, but there was probably still more I could have done with the texts to make my point. That is, there's more that I could do.

But the fact of the matter is that I kind of feel like I can't be bothered. Part of it is the fact that this has sort of been hanging over my head for the last five years — not inhabiting my mind, like a big book project that could easily stick around for five years or longer, but just like a little nagging fly buzzing just at the edge of my ear. Part of it is, I'm sure, reluctance to return to graduate school material simply because, for all the good in my department, it was a rough period in my life: I hated Ithaca, I was in a disastrously bad relationship for much of the time I was there, I was trying to navigate some weird academic and intellectual politics, I hated Ithaca, and my dissertation was a seriously ugly sprint to the finish after I was hired majorly ABD at NYU. My book isn't even a revised version of my dissertation — it's all from scratch. So part of it is definitely still a visceral reaction to thinking again about anything I did in graduate school. And part of it is a sense that I don't want to shift gears too much right now. I have a book project. I have an unrelated article in progress on the side. I don't want to have to get my head all the way back into mester de clerecía, as well.  With patience not being my strong suit, putting it away for a while and coming back to it later, probably the smart thing to do, isn't really an option. I just don't think I will. It's now or never. This or nothing.

And this is where my scholarly identity crisis is coming into play. This is exactly the kind of article I should be wanting to work on, offering to the world careful proof of meaningful intellectual content between Christians and Muslims, between Romance-speakers and Arabic-speakers. This sort of work is the promise on which my department hired me: I could see connections that nobody else could or did.

But a funny thing has happened in the three years since I was offered the job I now hold: I'm becoming something I never thought I would be, namely a pretty credible scholar in the pretty (though definitely not completely) mainstream field of Judaeo-Islamic Studies. I'm becoming a pretty credible reader of challenging Arabic and Hebrew texts. These are texts that are crucial to understanding intellectual life in Spain, in al-Andalus, but the connections that I used to see with the Romance-speaking side of that world are slipping away out of my field of vision. I don't know if that's because they were never really there in the first place. I don't know if it's because I've simply become distracted by a book project that went in a very different direction than the one I was expecting and that I'll be able to re-center myself for the next book. (I'm hoping that's the case, actually.) But I also don't know if I just positioned myself as this odd maker of connections as a way of carving a niche out for myself when I was convinced I'd never be good at any of the real or the hard stuff, that I'd never be able to read a text that a million people have already read a million times over and see something new and important in it.

It's not really the job I'm worried about (although I'd be lying to say I felt completely confident that my colleagues won't get to the table when it comes time for my review and realize that, wait a minute, they've hired an Arabist — even though that was what they set out do do in the first place). It's that I don't want to fight the serendipity of working on good material and doing it well right now, which is why I don't want to take the time to go back and rework that graduate school paper that was just rejected by the journal. But at the same time, I also don't want, as I become this thing I never thought I'd be good enough to be, to lose sight of the quirky reader and the indefatigable fighter that I used to be.

I'm not sure yet what loss I'm lamenting, and I think I have to sort that out before I can figure out how to proceed.


  1. I got a rejection today too!

    I had a similar experience last year. I didn't want to be bothered with revising an article that started out as a grad school paper; it felt like an enormous undertaking for something that was only tangentially related to my main project and the scholarly identity wanted to build. I followed the momentum of my other project, but when I needed a break, I looked at the article again and knew what to do (I have a friend who calls this Seeing the Matrix). The revisions came easily and the article was accepted. This paper also had a lot of emotional baggage; its publication was cathartic.

    One's scholarly identity is a continual work in progress. You don't have to give up one thing to be another. You can be both. Maybe at the same time, maybe not. On rejection days I have to remind myself to enjoy the freedoms this career gives us, especially when we give up so much.

    Best of luck,

  2. Sorry to hear about your rejection, C!

    And thanks, too, for the kind words of encouragement. Unfortunately, revisions for this won't be easy and aren't the kind of thing I can do just as a break from more intensive work — really what it needs is a serious amount of Latin paleography. It's funny — Hebrew and Arabic MSS at this point I could probably look at as a break or a reward, but Latin ones still require a different kind of focus and mentally gearing up. The emotional baggage, too, is actually more complicated than I let on here and isn't unconnected to to the identity questions I raised. So, yeah. These are revisions that I fear are just not going to happen.

    One possibility I'm looking into is actually paring the thing down so that it's just an idea, the broad strokes of an argument and directions for future study, and then sending it to a journal that accepts "short note" type pieces. That might be one way to go.

    In the end, though, you're right. We're allowed to do what we want such a huge percentage of the time that even with disappointments here and there, there's absolutely nothing to complain about!

  3. Does it really need all that revision? Could you send it as-is to a lower-tier journal?

  4. I'm not sure. My original Plan B had been to do just that (I even had the second-choice journal all picked out) but given that I don't disagree with the criticisms, it's not just a question of submitting something that I think is good to a journal that's more likely to accept it. I sent it in knowing that maybe readers would think that it was just good enough, but certainly no more than that. So it's more a question of whether I'd be embarrassed to have it in print given that I'd imagine that the reaction of readership would be not dissimilar to the reaction of the reviewers (or, in the worst case scenario that's presenting itself to my mind, that the reviewers would somehow end up being outside reviewers for my tenure case, see that article there, and trash the rest of the body of my work on that basis).