Speed versus developing young faculty

Recently I got into a disagreement with a journal editor over the way a manuscript of my student’s was adjudicated. The reviews were negative, which is what it is, but they were also…not particularly insightful or useful reviews. I hate to drag on reviewers (jk I actually love it), voluntary service and all that, but as every good nonprofit director knows, not all volunteer contributions are worth having. And with these reviews, the sum was less than its parts, and the parts were pretty lame, too. Now, again…this happens with reviews: we’ve all written lame reviews, and it’s a statistical probability that at some point in your career, three useless advice trains will arrive at the station at once.

Honestly, there have been times when I have gotten all the referee’s reports in, with mine and everybody else’s, on somebody’s manuscript, and my response is: “well, we sure sucked. Sorry, anonymous author person.”

That’s when I hope the editor has stepped up and made us sound smarter than we did, so that the author doesn’t walk away with steaming pile of poo for feedback.

But this editor just sent a “Hi, the reviewers want it rejected and so I am rejecting it and isn’t it swell of us to get this back to you so fast? Please don’t be discouraged from submitting again!” letter.

Now, does anybody owe you feedback? No. But duties aren’t the only reason to sack up and provide a little feedback. If we want a field of excellent scholars and excellent scholarship, we better be giving good-quality feedback, and not just for the “I, me, and mine” of student development. It takes a village to make a field.

So, I objected; I know and respect this editor and I said “Come on…is this what you are sending to young scholars who submit to the journal?”

And the response from the editor was, in essence, I am too busy to waste time on papers that have a reviewer consensus that it should be rejected, you’re mean for criticizing me, now grow up and learn that peer review is “a crap shoot.”

In fairness, most people with any sense when confronted with the possibility of debating anything with me run in the opposite direction. When I come swinging out of a corner, it’s going to be rough on the person I’m poking at. So short-circuiting any debate with such a defense perhaps served survival instincts. Or maybe the editor was just having a bad day. It’s not good to go quoting out of context, so don’t judge too harshly.

But boy that “crap shoot” metaphor, from an editor, really isn’t sitting well with me.

If peer review is a crap shoot, why do journal editors exist? Some are just doing the job with no compensation, and it’s all service, and I do empathize, but some of them get paid, and decently enough. If peer reviewing is just a crap shoot…what’s the editor’s role? Are they like Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and they get a percentage off the top simply because they preside over the space?

And if it’s a crap shoot, then why the hell are any of us doing this? All we got to do is get some low-paid administrative assistant a Magic Eight Ball with “Accept”; “Revise and Resubmit” and “Reject” on it.

Better yet, just have a randomized algorithm deliver an immediate decision as soon as the “submit” button is pushed. Hell, it’s a crap shoot.

Just think of the time we’d all save! (I’m rather tempted.)

I’m not disputing the decision: papers get rejected. I am well past the point of my career where I need anybody to tell me about JK Rowling’s rejections or the like. We all know the good stories of papers that got rejected only to win prizes.

In reality, peer review is a deliberative process with a stochastic element to it. (the crap shoot part). But it should be more than that stochastic element. There’s all sorts of ways where worthy work and piss-poor work don’t wind up with desert. We live with this because the process of deliberation serves, when it works, as process of research and faculty development, and do you have a better idea? Nope, not perfect. But it can be decent if we approach it from the perspective of development.

So there’s the general principle of: if we want the field to exemplify good work, we need to help authors develop the work. And when the reviewers piss all over themselves, it is a good idea for an editor to step to some degree.

And then there is simple self-interest. Go ahead and reject me with a paragraph. I should know what I am about by now. But young scholars should walk away, ok yeah, stinging from a rejection, but with the belief that the journal wasn’t a waste of his/her time. In this case, with this journal, this submission was a waste of the kid’s time.

Now, if you are the editor of AER, then no. You don’t have to put in the time to foster relationships or submissions. You’re sitting on top of a valuable asset, and you have market power. That means people are going to keep coming back because the lottery shot of getting in there is worth something. And chances, your reviews will be decent, if not nice.

Field journals, however, are a different smoke.

Just about all field journals are hurting for submissions. You need to wade through a lot of stuff before you get gold, and since field journal editors are already not at AER level, they are getting people’s dodgier submissions anyway. So that means they need an even bigger submission pool than the elite journals–which the field journals won’t get because they are not really elite–if the field journals hope to gather some quality hits.

Or they just accept lower quality to fill pages, which means they stay mediocre.

Field journals have to really work to court submissions, IOW.

If a field journal editor gets a set of bad reviews, and they don’t do work on the submission themselves, a young scholar walks away with nothing but a lesson in resilience. Now, if you are an editor of big-deal journal, like AER, the scholar comes back. With a field journal, the young scholar doesn’t need to: journals with IFs of around 1 to 2 are thick on the ground. Fast decisions are one way to compete, and that’s good, but fast isn’t everything.

Revisiting your young scholarship as an older scholar, learning what matters

I spent a good part of the summer reading Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. My edition came from 2000; I see there is a more recent edition out. It’s a long haul of a book, buoyed most by Brown’s marvelous prose, and I was lead there, by Brown’s spectacular recent book, Through the Eye of A Needle, which I had read last year.

This is my little reading chart.

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The book was originally published 45 years ago, and my edition includes two afterwards: New Evidence and New Directions. The first discusses the exciting new evidence about Augustine that has been found since the book was published: the Divjak letters and the Dolbeau sermons. These new items, in addition to the formal corpus of Augustinian output (enormous), had Brown rethinking his young man’s views on Augustine at multiple phases in his life. It’s important not to get too sentimental: with his suppression of the Donatists*, Augustine cemented, if not laid, the intellectual foundation of forced conversion that in the hands of less moderate men would immiserate many.

Nonetheless, the sermons illustrated just how much of a fight Augustine had on his hands in north Africa at the time; bishops then were not the just stuff of silks and fancy hats. They had hostile and vigilante landowners, corrupt administrators, and others who abused power all around them, as well as a populace that remembered, all too well, the fun of pagan rituals, circuses, and celebrations relative to the austere language of sacrifice and personal redemption the Christians were peddling. The threats that may have seemed to a young biographer as minor were not: Brown admits throughout the addenda that he was, at times, too hard on his subject, too ready to ascribe to Augustine an unbending adherence to his authority of office rather than what, in retrospect, seems to Brown as Augustine simply trying to develop and use his authority to stem the worst abuses by a landed elite, his fellow bishops, and a greedy colonial administration. Augustine, as Brown notes, lived long enough to see all his hard-won victories in Africa fall apart around him after all was written and done. It is a sad ending for the man, if not for his lingering influence on Catholic theology.

As an older scholar, Brown recognizes also his willingness as a young man to write off Augustine as an old duffer who simply tried to sink Julian of Eclanum’s more reasoned positions about sex and human nature. Instead, the letters show Augustine a decent man who, in his old age–where he was highly venerated as a scholar and bishop–takes time for the smallest acts of teaching and ministering (largely the same things in my head):

It is, above all, the Divjak letters that have made me change my mind. In them we are bought up against a very different, more attractive, because so poignantly painstaking, side of the old man. Not only do they show Augustine acting always, if with a constant sigh of resignation, as the loyal colleague of his fellow bishops, when they struggled with endless cases of violence and the abuse of power among the clergy, land owners, and Imperial administrators. His letters are marked by an inspired fussiness and by a heroic lack of measure when it came to the care of endangered souls. There is nothing ‘burnt out’ in the seventy-year-old man who would spend the time to interview a young man terrorized by slave-traders** and who would go out of his way (as part of an effort to encourage the father to accept Christian baptism) to ask to see the school exercises, the rhetorical dictiones, of a teenage boy.*** The letters make plain that the old Augustine was prepared to give his unstinting attention to any problem that might trouble the faithful, no matter how busy he was, no matter how trivial or how ill-framed the problem seemed to be, and no matter how remote from Hippo,o show eccentric its proponents were.

The beginning of a new school year always has me thinking about the question of time and painstakingness. Research and teaching are really two jobs if you do them with the passion that I do, and in a place like USC, you are always encouraged to put research first. That’s where the painstakingness is meant to apply. And then there is my animal rescue work, which takes time and emotional resources, and where life-and-death decisions have to made; painstakingness, too, is required. The mistake of a day; the wrong medical choice; a failure to notice a limp, or a certain behavior, can result in tragedy.

How do you carve out a life when you have so many demands? Parents scoff at me, naturally: you have to when children in the picture, or if you don’t, you soon regret not doing so.

But this little bit at the end of Augustine reminds me that taking time for the small things, the small nudges to goodness and betterment that the old teach the young, matters in ways we ourselves do not often see. Taking time to visit and be present, and taking time and care over a student’s work…those distinguish scholars from those who merely wish to be stars.

*My auto-correct will keep making Donatists into Denists. I feel somewhat badly for the Donatists, though they certainly seemed to have been able to dish it out, but dentists deserve everything that is coming to them. (JK)

**Ep 10

***Ep 2

St. Augustine on Writing

I’m done reading Aristotle and have moved to St. Augustine, and I am currently reading Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo. In some places, it’s so, so great. In other places, I feel like he’s digressing, badly. Even so, I’d consider myself lucky if I ever finish a book half as beautifully written. Amazing prose stylist.

I am, however, very unclear on the citation protocal he is using. I just don’t get it. I think it might be unique to Augstine scholars. I’m just not familiar with many of Augustine’s writings. Thus, I am not clear as to where this comes from. The citation is: de cat. rud. ii, 3.

No. Clue.

But this is a lovely quote anyway.

“For my own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words; and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”

Comrade. I, too, have ruined many, many good ideas by trying to write them down.

Committing plagiarism is easier to do than people think

I work with plagiarism all the time as a college professor, and I send my *own* papers through Turnitin.com because I think it’s far easier to plagiarize by accident than people realize. Now, I am not a fan of Melania Trump. As I said on Fboo, I’ve always seen her as the mean girl at Durmstrang who joined the Death Eaters as soon as she possibly could, and this little teapot tempest is especially delicious granted that Mrs. Trump got her similar material from Michelle Obama and gave the speech, to yells and cheers, to a group of people who have treated Michelle Obama with so much unmitigated, unwarranted, and blind hate they should be ashamed of themselves.

The fact that all “First Lady” convention speeches are always the same “family valooos, my man is a Good Man, Daddy loves the Kiddies” blah blah means that I have to take my hat off to whoever first recognized the similarities.

Obviously, computers have done quite a bit to change plagiarism. Of course, detecting it is a million times easier. When people were just typing out of books or articles, it was harder to find. Now it’s easy to find.

But even easier to do, I think.

I still take notes by hand on notecards. My students think I am insane. Why would you do that when you can just type notes or cut and copy those notes from the original. That just strikes me as really dangerous on multiple levels. The first is that unless you really force yourself to put the concepts from the original piece in your own words, you may not really move much beyond the authors’ ideas and into your own ideas. You want to fairly represent what they author says, but for me, it’s important that I summarize the ideas in my own words so that I get a stronger grasp of how those ideas fit in with my own and others that are floating around. The second is simply making a mistake by not flagging what you have typed as a direct quote if it is a direct quote, you might forget and use it later in the writing.

Now, I think it’s possible to do notes and summarizing by typing. I just don’t do it that way, and these reasons are why.

The other reason I work by hand is to slow down and really think about the words and the concepts. I type so fast that I am not thinking much when I am typing.

I also have to watch myself. I have a good memory and I love bon mots. I’m also conceited enough to think I came up with a clever turn of phrase when actually I didn’t. I still check Turnitin even though I also try to plagiarism-proof my notes.

Slow scholarship….

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Tim Gunn on needing to be a student to be a teacher

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am a great fan of second acts and taking on new challenges at every stage of your life. One of my favorite popular mentors, Tim Gunn, just took up fencing. The video is utterly charming, but it also shares some great insights about the relationship between learning and teaching:

But it’s not just the sport that has added so much to Gunn’s life. He found a relationship with Morehouse built not just on fencing but their shared love for teaching.

“Tim and I have so much to talk about. I spent 29 years in a classroom, about to do my 15th season of Project Runway, plus ancillary, related things. We talk about the challenges of communicating, directing, guiding, correcting,” Gunn says.

My favorite part is the section where Gunn describes his moments of frustration and loving how he is hating fencing, when it gets hard, and when it feels like he is not making any progress. Research projects should be like this: they should stretch you so far and hard that you are ready to quit a dozen times. That’s one way research helps with teaching: it reminds a teacher of what it feels like to learn, of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing–and the utmost necessity of trying again.

I’m having trouble writing about Los Angeles’ “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative”

Because I haaaaaaaaaaate so much.

Here is the LA Times story on it.

When I write about something, I try to force myself to understand what is going on before I formulate conclusions. Now, that’s a pretty lofty idea, and I fail all the time. I often write normative theory, and normative theory is…normative. People should get excited and passionate about things like justice and equity.

But this time out, I’m having the same trouble as I had with Chapter 6 and Stand Your Ground. I haaaaaate. Haaaaaaate so hard.

Somebody tell me to straighten up and put my big-girl social science pants on.

If Newton was “wasting” his time, the rest of us who have television sets and Grand Theft Auto are doomed…

I am a regular reader of blogs, obviously, and recently, this takedown of Mario Beauregard by PZ Myers, writer of Pharyngula. Mario Beauregard starts us off with this selection in Salon, about “proof” of afterlife from near-death experiences. On critiquing this sort of thing, I’m with Myers pretty much the entire way: anecdotes about near-death experience do not really help us with the science of what goes on. Myers might be helped out by labeling one of his objections:

If I am an ideologue, it’s only in that I demand that if you call something science, it bear some resemblance in method and approach to science, not mysticism. Beauregard insists on trying to endorse the babbling piffle above as science by reciting the number of publications he has made, and how much grant money he’s got, when I’m looking for verifiable, reproducible, measurable evidence.

Oh, I do love me a squabble. This objection, for you students of argumentation, confronts an argument from authority. You can argue from authority (though it’s usually a weak argument and should be heavily caveated as such), but if you are going to go the argument-from-authority route, you’d better make sure your argument pertains to the area of authority you actually have. So I’m not sure what field “afterlife studies” belongs to, but it’s safe to say that Beauregard’s publishing and grant record do not attest to his authority in whatever field that would be.

But Myers goes off the rails at the end:

I would also remind him that Isaac Newton, who was probably an even greater scientist than the inestimable Beauregard, wasted much of his later years on mysticism, too: from alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, to arcane Biblical hermeneutics, extracting prophecies of the end of the world from numerological analyses of Revelation. While his mechanics and optics have stood the test of time, that nonsense has not. That his mathematics and physics are useful and powerful does not imply that he was correct in his calculation that the world will end before 2060 AD; similarly, Beauregard’s success in publishing in psychiatry journals does not imply that his unsupportable fantasies of minds flitting about unfettered by brains is reasonable.ˆ

Oho, Beauregard, let me set you straight the way I would have set Newton straight had I been there to drive from his back seat.

Unfortunately, even without Dr. Myers to supervise him, Newton could pretty much kick all of our asses, even somebody as renowned as an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, no matter how much time Newton spent skylarking about alchemy, and no matter how silly he looks in that powdered wig he’s got on in all his portraits. His contributions to mathematics alone leave most scholars throughout history in the dust.

So Newton “wasted” his later years? For reals? He should have done what with his last years, exactly? Newtonian physics (without which there is no modern physics) and helping invent calculus aren’t enough? Geez, tough crowd.

What if he had taken up golf or stamp collecting or politics, instead of studying mysticism? Would those have been less of a “waste”?

One reason we KNOW alchemy isn’t really worth spending time on is that people…smart people like Newton…spent time on researching it.

Negative results are still results, people.

As catastrophic as global warming is likely to be, there’s a part of me that rather enjoys watching scientists wiggle in outrage as people treat them and their claims to knowledge like so much noise–the way many, many scientists treat everybody who is Not Scientist–instead of the constant deference to them and their topics that many of them believe they are owed.

There are plenty of humble, wonderful scientists out there who deeply respect the arts and humanities and the human endeavor more generally. My own university president, an electrical engineer by training, is fanatical about the arts and humanities–one of the (multiple) reasons I respect him a great deal.

But for every one of those scientists, I swear there is a Mike Brotherton*/Dr. Sheldon Cooper who acts like any study of “not-science” is, simply, a waste of everybody’s time–and then wonders, after acting like kings astride the earth and showing no interest in listening to anybody Not Science, why for people no listen to them no more?

Welcome to the fuzzy wuzzy world of human society, boys, where all of us actually live. Your playground got a lot less fun when, after you excluded and ignored people for years, the excluded suddenly stopped caring about what you think and built a playground/status hierarchy of their own where Experts in Science simply do not matter all that much.

The rest of us would like to live a world where we can pursue many approaches to understanding and interpreting the world, and where we could work together to face potential problems like climate change, but that doesn’t seem likely any time soon.

*BTW, I am a big fan of Mike Brotherton’s books and his blog, but if there is a way he can build in snark about humanities, he does. It’s tiring, and he’s also wrong.

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