JAPA’s Problems and The Invisible Art of the Edit

We’re having a bit of a tussle in planning with our flagship journal. The current editor is my former advisor. I love the guy, and that’s all there is to it. He’s produced some very fine special issues of the journal, for all the criticism.

It comes up rather routinely in journals for all the durm and strang going on about JAPA at the moment; somebody who is a marvelous scholar in his or her own right takes over the editorship of a journal and winds up not necessarily suited to the role in various ways. That’s because editing isn’t a simple matter of being the best scholar in the room, or having good taste. It’s also a matter of organization and directness.

All that said, disorganized editors can hurt younger scholars. No, your promotion case shouldn’t come down to the one paper you are trying to place in one journal. But if that journal is important, there are consequences if the journal goes into disarray at the wrong time for you, as has happened for me here at JAPA. My senior colleagues with their close association with JAPA have convinced our Dean that JAPA is the premier journal in planning, at least for American scholars. It probably is. But now that USC is big into the prestige game, my promotion to full hinges on getting things into JAPA. Now, I haven’t even managed to get my stuff reviewed at JAPA after years waiting. I may have already damaged my chances at promotion by allowing my stuff to languish at JAPA. I know better than to do this, and yet I did it anyway simply because JAPA is so important to promotion here. And let’s face it: even when you are old and have been in the harness for awhile, you still hope your advisor approves of your work. At least I do. A weakness I should have outgrown, perhaps, but one of many I possess anyway.

I just finished Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of the Edit by Ved Mehta, a memoir of Mehta’s time working as a staff writer under William Shawn. I suspect the book is most valued for the New Yorker gossip, but for me, the most interesting parts of the book came down just how extraordinary Mr. Shawn was as an editor: Uniquely supportive, attentive to detail, with a visionary eye for what types of long pieces would capture an audience and a republican interest in creating valuable content. He had a staff full of people to make it work; most scholarly editors do not.

In reading through the book, it occurred to me that JAPA’s previous editors, David Sawicki and Amy Helling from Georgia Tech, really were exemplary even if I could argue with David, in particular, about his attitudes towards certain types of qualitative work. I was a probationary faculty at the time, and David was infuriatingly direct, but quite nurturing in his own rough way. He said “This is not good, here’s why, send me something else” and “This doesn’t work for JAPA; it’s too technical/narrow/specialized for the audience” to me more times than I care to relive. Why? Well, because the material wasn’t good, and I was missing the audience, that’s why. Journals are where scholars keep learning after they finish their dissertation. Tom Daniels once referred to journals, rather dismissively, as “a training ground for junior faculty.” The phrase stuck with me at first because of the dismissiveness and now because of its insight. Journals are training grounds. David Sawicki, for all the “no” that I got from that guy, was teaching me how to write for the journal by showing me where I was missing in my attempts.

This nurturing represents an incredible generosity to the scholars that you edit.

Amy Helling, the managing editor, was even more wonderful. When I finally did get something past David and into the pipeline, Helling managed the process brilliantly, fact-checking and challenging points that didn’t make sense, catching typos and even–do you know how rare this is?–catching a typo in the regression tables. She kept things transparent and professional–a breath of fresh air in the academy where things are often neither.

I hope the kerfuffle around JAPA dies down soon and everybody gets their papers published somewhere.