Friday, November 29, 2013

Anatomy of a Rejection

(This is the coda to these two posts.)

The email began, "I'm afraid the news is not good..." and pretty much went downhill from there. The more I read, the more capricious the decision seemed.

Jewish Quarterly Review should have been a good fit for this article as a journal the covers many disciplines united by their treatment of Jewish material. And on top of that, it's also the place where the editio princeps of the poem I analyze in the article was published by Nehemia Allony; that is to say, there were historiographic reasons for my choosing that journal on top of all the others. I don't necessarily want to position myself in Jewish Studies, although many people would place my work there, but at the same time, because this is something that I wrote while I was at the Katz Center, giving their journal right of first refusal seemed like the right (and, to be fair, expedient) thing to do. I  just wasn't expecting them to exercise it quite so literally and refuse.

I'm not enraged over the article's rejection. I'm enraged because it seems to have been made on other-than-scholarly grounds. You might be thinking at this point that anybody would say this and that of course my own work is in my blind spot and maybe the article actually sucks and JQR was right to reject it; but one of my strengths is that I'm capable of reading my work pretty honestly and I do that. I've had one other outright article rejection, and in that case I had no qualms about it. I thought it was worth sending in because it was at a standard of work that that journal published, but it was definitely not as good as it could have been and certainly wasn't my best work. I submitted that article and just sort of hoped that nobody would notice its flaws. They did. And I was okay with that. But in this case? This is a good article. The documentation is meticulous and it offers a way to make sense of a poem that people have spent eighty years throwing their hands up in the air over. The people whose opinions I value, and who are honest with me about the quality of my work, think it's good. I know it's good. And yet I have this infernal, perplexing rejection letter.

As angry as I am, I didn't tear the letter up in pique, but rather in resignation. I had held out a fleeting hope, as I received the paper copy, that it would say something different than the email; of course it didn't, and I was foolishly disappointed anew.

That's not to say that I'm not angry. I did a lot of venting during that first week or so in real life, and it seems that everyone I've vented to has a story about JQR being capricious or taking forever to simply reject a piece or sending things out to inappropriate reviewers or generally being a den of nepotism. (Although oddly, in this case, I ought to have benefitted from the nepotism since, as I said, this is the in-house journal of the research institute where I was a fellow last year, a research institute where we all got a spiel about how much the journal likes to publish the work of former fellows. This, of course, then leads to a really destructive spiral of wondering how bad my work must really be if I couldn't even succeed when the deck would appear to have been stacked in my favor — not a rational or realistic way of thinking about things, but present nonetheless.)

When I'm done venting, and when I have the article accepted by a more suitable journal, I'm thinking that I might tone down what follows here, put it all together and send a sort of "anatomy of a rejection" to the dead letter series; I'm imagining it'll be something like The Lifespan of a Fact, a running gloss on the text and the reviewers' paratext. Realistically speaking, it'll probably not happen. For the meantime, anyway, if not posterity,  what follows the jump is, essentially, my review of one reviewer's final response to my article.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Week in Links (Victorian Sanitarium Edition)

There's medieval Arabic and Hebrew poetry like this:

Rap Song With Lyrics That Do Not Use the Letter E

This week in history: Somehow I never realized that both C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died on the same day as JFK.

An Essay on Unseen Truth

This is very bad:

Damascus. Great Mosque. Façade of the Inner Courtyard Suffers Damage from a Shell

This may be cause for optimism:

And my favorite tweet this week:

I often talk to Renaissance/Spanish Golden Age scholars as though they work on my same material because, as far as I'm concerned, the Middle Ages doesn't end until the very beginning of the seventeenth century, and every single time I am forced to remember anew that they don't see themselves as medievalists.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Anatomy of a Revise-and-Resubmit, parts II and III: Questions of Audience

Part II: Discipline and Disagreement

I used three of the four reviews of my original manuscript to greater and lesser degrees in revising it. I believe I know the identities of reviewers A and B because their writing has such a strong sense of voice about it and because the concerns expressed in their reviews were so specific to their own research. Reviewer B is the closest to the material and to the discipline, and so it is not surprising that reviewers A and C had some more basic questions about how I was reading the imagery in the poem. (The crotchety Reviewer C, who called my discussion about Dunash's wife and Deobrah "so much hot air" went as far as to say, in his perfected condescending tone, that he couldn't tell whether I was trying to write history or literary criticism, and essentially asked me to justify the value in interpreting poetry; it's possible that that's a valuable conversation to have, but at the same time, I think it's fair that an article that is a reading of a poem — even a thick-descriptive, New Historicist reading — should be able to assume as a first principle that need not be justified before getting started.) To try to address their concerns, I added a methodologies section that offers a basic overview of the concrete and metaphorical ways in which Arabic poetics uses jewelry and personal adornment imagery, like the imagery in Dunash's wife's poem.

In the end, Reviewer B was the only one who read the revised manuscript; and naturally, it was his considered opinion that the methodologies section "adds nothing" to the discussion. I'll be horrible and quote myself in an earlier post here when I say that "on the one hand, he was right. [And to be perfectly frank, I resented having to write an introductory overview of Arabic poetics for a research article, especially to placate a reader who wasn't necessarily prepared to be charitable about the value of reading and interpreting literary texts, but I also understand the value of contextualizing material for a more general academic audience and so I just did it.] But the other hand, working on the assumption that the readership of the journal would be as as disciplinarily varied as the cross-section of the reviewers, he's wrong. But either way, it was up to the editor to have made this clear" and not to have left me shooting at a moving target or writing for a shifting (or overly specialized) audience.

Part III: Expertise

In the introductory section of the article, I drew a comparison between how the secondary literature treats the Jewish, female poet writing in Hebrew who was the wife of a famous male poet and whose work was the focus of my research and how it treats a Jewish, female poet writing in Arabic who was the daughter of a famous male poet.

The mysterious fourth reviewer responded to this comparison with the admonition that "one must never speak of Jewish and Arab poets as though they are one and the same. This is clearly not the case."

I didn't even have to look at the review to quote from it; this comment is seared into my mind.

What, exactly, then, would this reviewer like me to do about the fact that Qasmuna was Jewish poet writing in Arabic? Or that Judah al-Harizi (a Jew, in case his name wasn't a dead giveaway) wrote poetry in Arabic? Or the three treatises I can think of quickly off the top of my head in which the authors explicitly write about the Arabic poetic meters they are using in their Hebrew poetry?

During this period in the Iberian Peninsula, there is no difference between Jewish and Arab poets; it is a false contrast that attempts to equate religion with language in a way that no poet and no reader from this period would recognize and that no modern reader can recognize if he or she reads the material honestly and without some modern Middle Eastern political agenda infused in his view of the Middle Ages. That Arabic and Judaism (or Christianity, for that matter) could be mutually exclusive is a mistake I do not allow my undergraduates to make without penalty.

This review betrayed an approach to the relationship between religious identity and language choice what was so quite frankly wrong — although I called it "different from mine" in my covering letter to the editor when I resubmitted my revised manuscript — that I have to wonder how and why he was allowed to review my work. I think, to her credit, the editor disregarded that review; although in light of the fact that the article was ultimately rejected and that one of the aspects that she cited in sort of justifying her decision was that the readers reacted strongly to it, I'll always wonder a little.

This was an audience I was never going to be able to please.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Anatomy of a Revise-and-Resubmit, part I: Writing While Female

I've just recently received word about the final disposition of an article I submitted for possible publication in the Jewish Quarterly Review: after an initial decision of revise-and-resubmit that led to some really major revision of the piece, the article was ultimately rejected. The process was flawed at every stage and doesn't inspire a huge amount of confidence in the value or merits of the double-blind peer review process as the sine qua non it is often thought to be. The next few posts will reflect upon the process.

Just for some brief contextual reference, here is the abstract that accompanied the article:

 Of thousands of poems written in Hebrew between the closure of the canon of the Hebrew Bible and the dawn of modernity, a single exemplar is identified as having been written by a woman. Modern scholarship concerning this poem has primarily been interested in it as a unique and curious artifact of a woman writer working in Hebrew. The present article will reconsider that poem in light of documents in the Cairo Genizah that deal, from a documentary perspective, with the same concerns and activities that the poet treats in verse, specifically the ways in which women supported themselves financially in the absence of their husbands. This study will argue that the work of the supposed Andalusi Hebrew poetess reflects economic and social realities faced by women in Muslim Spain and more broadly in the Mediterranean society documented in the Genizah. The exchange of personal effects between the woman depicted in the poem and her husband stands as a literary comparison for records of similar exchanges and calls for both a more historicized reading of Genizah poetry and for studies of this poem that move beyond the question of the poet’s gender.

As much as I wanted to ignore the question of authorship and all the attention paid to the poem because it might have been written by a woman, my methodology was, nevertheless, a little bit programatic in this respect. I was drawn, in large part, to this poem because I was really bothered by what, to me, seemed to be very condescending treatment of it and of its ostensible author in the very small amount of scholarship devoted to it. I mentioned this in the introduction to the article and offered a very brief intervention.

One of the anonymous reviewers put on his best condescending air in order to make the following comment on that section:
“So much hot air about a non-issue! It is true that Fleischer and Rosen say that there were no women poets in Hebrew since Deborah. No one made a “comparison” or “identification” with Deborah. To make an issue out of it is not to be able to discern what’s important and what’s unimportant.”
Actually, it’s not a non-issue, and here’s why, explained with text borrowed here from a footnote I added to the the article as I revised it:
“I think that it is important that when we speak about this poem we perhaps moderate more carefully the gendered language with which we describe Dūnash’s wife. For example, even though this poem is rarely given scholarly attention, when it is, some mention is always and invariably made to the gap in women’s Hebrew poetry between the biblical figure of Deborah, whose exploits are recounted in the so-called “song of Deborah” expressed in her literary voice in Judges 5 and the wife of Dūnash; the latter is described as the literary heir to the former, the heritor or lamplight or bastion of Hebrew verse ostensibly written by women. Although it has recently been suggested to me that this is never intended as a serious comparison between the two, it seems that the persistence of the juxtaposition of Deborah and Dunash’s wife ensures a certain, likewise persistent, flattening out of the distinctions between the very limited number of women authors and women’s voices in literature. Especially if the comparison is superfluous or unserious and serves no real purpose but could, rather than illuminate our understanding of the text have a deleterious effect on reading and interpreting it, I should think that it is an analogy best consigned, quite deliberately, to the literary-critical scrapheap; when the identification of the poet as a woman at all is in doubt, this is particularly important.”
Don't even get me started (and I didn't even try to address this in the article) that we in the field, both colloquially and in print, refer to the poet, known as the wife of a poet named Dunash ben Labrat as "Mrs. Dunash."

During my first year of graduate school, after a week on feminist theory in an introduction to theories and methodologies in the field course, I asked the professor what the expectations generally were for women scholars to do feminist scholarship or write on women authors. I did not, I told her in no uncertain terms, want to be pigeonholed as a “girl Arabist.” And she gave me this incredibly sensible, sensitive answer, which was to say that no, I definitely didn’t have to do feminist scholarship or write about women, although some people might occasionally ask me why. She continued that it was possible, though, that in the course of reading text in line with whatever critical schools of thought I might ultimately decide to be valid, I might, by virtue of being a “girl Arabist” (something I couldn’t ultimately do anything about being, she pointed out to me) notice things that a male colleague might overlook or that I might be sensitive to certain textual resonances by virtue of being a woman.

This is not to say that all women readers would all notice the same things, or even that all women readers are uniformly sensitive to the same elements of writing by or about women. (The aforementioned Rosen, after all, is also a woman.) But I think this is one of those cases where the critical status quo bothered me because of the complicated gender issues in the text and in the academy in a way that male colleagues — and I am only assuming that this anonymous reviewer is a man — can overlook and call a load of silly, dithering, girly hot air. Maybe being a girl Arabist isn’t such a bad thing in the end if it means getting to stick it to the guys who read carelessly because they can or because they fail to recognize a problem that doesn’t affect them.

There's no need for condescension; and it might even be worth giving authors the benefit of the doubt that they are, in fact, identifying a real problem. Seems to me that asking for clarification is preferable to dismissing the suggestion out of hand and more in keeping with the scholarly mission of the endeavor.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Readership Changes Afoot

I've decided to close the readership of my blog for a finite period, beginning in the next week or so. If you're a regular reader, if I know you in real life or on Twitter, or if there's some other reason why you ought to be able to keep reading, shoot me an email or leave me a comment with your email address in the comments section and I'll send you an invite when I change the privacy settings.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fixing Peer Review

Behind closed doors, virtually everyone is willing to say that the double-blind peer review process for journal articles is very badly broken. Yet it is still held up as the sine qua non of quality assurance, intellectual honesty, and academic integrity in our profession. To wit, the only articles that count in tenure reviews are those that appear in peer-reviewed journals. Book chapters, for example, regardless of who edited them or how thoroughly, don't count. If the primacy of the peer review is going to obtain, there need to be some changes to the process. Here are my suggestions for a few:

1) Allow simultaneous submission.

This is a no-brainer. If editors and reviewers know that they are competing for the best articles, the process will move more quickly. Scholars will have some options about where to place their work. And  those whose work is difficult to place because it falls between disciplinary boundaries or deals with unusual groupings of languages or types of texts won't have to gamble six months away at the mercy of a single journal perhaps seeing the wisdom in her work but perhaps erring on the side of intellectual conservatism. Particularly for people whose work is really, truly interdisciplinary this is especially important.

2) Commit to a piece at the "revise and resubmit" stage.

A decision of revise-and-resubmit ought to represent some kind of commitment on the editor's part to seeing an article through to publication. It should not be a guarantee of publication, but it should represent a grant of some time and space to work and of the benefit of the doubt. If, upon resubmission, the reviewers identify new and/or easily correctible issues, the author should have a narrow window in which to fix them, rather than facing automatic rejection.

My recent article rejection was especially frustrating because, after spending a ton of time making revisions based on the original reader reports, the article was rejected on the basis of five or six comments from one reader. All were new, and all were very superficial and easily fixable. Given how far along the article had gotten in the process and how non-fatal all of the issues were, the editor of the journal ought to have given me a chance to address those rather than rejecting the piece. (For example, the reader wanted me to invert the structure of a single paragraph so that my description of the text came before my review of the poem's historiography — something, by the by, that he had not asked me to do for that same paragraph in his original report, which rather foreshadows my next point...)

Again, I'm not saying that R-and-R should represent a commitment to publish, and I'm not saying that an editor should be obligated to work with an author who won't or can't get an article up to standard, but it should represent a commitment to work with the author a little bit to see the article through.

3) Clarify standards.

When a piece is revised, will it be returned to all the readers? To only one? If to all, and if some of the readers' opinions on changes required to the original, how will the difference of opinion be adjudicated? To new readers?

Again, drawing from my own experience: I added a methodologies section to the revised version of my article, in which I set my literary analysis into both medieval and modern poetic theory. For me it was really redundant and I resented having to write it, but Reviewer A had some specific questions about how I was analyzing the imagery of the poem and Reviewer C said he wasn't really clear about whether I was trying to write literary criticism or history. Yet it was Reviewer B, whom I believe to be the reviewer most closely in my own sub-sub-subfield (again, bringing up issues to be addressed in the next point), who was sole decider of the fate of the revised piece, and from his perspective, this new methodologies section "added nothing" to the piece. On the one hand, he was right. On the other hand, working on the assumption that the readership of the journal would be as as disciplinarily varied as the cross-section of the reviewers, he's wrong. But either way, it's up to the editor to have made this clear.

Had I known that the enthusiasm of a single reviewer was going to be the standard by which my article would ultimately have been judged, I would have revised in a somewhat different fashion. I know that fairness doesn't play into the academy or into the real world, but it's not totally fair to ask scholars to be shooting at an invisible moving target; but more to the point, it doesn't serve scholarship or intellectual endeavor at all.

4) Unmask the reviewers.

A decent amount of nastiness and sarcasm and other absurd and unnecessary rhetorical strategies factor into review reports that isn't warranted, necessary, or helpful. Review critically and deeply. Please! Really! But do it in such a way that you are willing to sign your name to it.

Furthermore, in small fields, the identity of the reviewers and the authors is already something of an open secret; no need to perpetuate a charade.

5) Make reader reports available online.

Again, this is a change that might best serve scholars who don't fit neatly into the scope of a single discipline and are likely to garner very different positive and negative reactions from scholars whose work does sit more neatly within a single camp. If reader reports were available, it might be possible for editors to publish more interdisciplinary scholarship that had, for example, garnered a certain type of praise and a certain type of criticism from a literary scholar and the diametrically opposite praise and criticism from a historian. It wouldn't hang the fate of interdisciplinary work on disciplinary concerns, would still allow for the peer review to have a place in the process, and could let journal readers have a greater insight into the debates within and between fields and ultimately make their own methodological judgment on the basis of a wealth of evidence.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Academic Calvinball

My only evidence is anecdotal or drawn from my own experience, and so I don't really know where to begin writing about this more globally, but the double-blind peer review of journal articles, which is held up as the sine qua non of judgment, quality control and  is badly, objectively, broken. It seems as though everybody will acknowledge it behind closed doors, and yet that's still the only thing that counts in the review process. Something needs to change, because the system as it is right now only serves the intellectual status quo ante and the whims of a favored few. I feel like I'm playing a game for my livelihood and my professional life but I don't know the rules because they keep changing and we never get to play the same way twice.