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.

David McCullough on Reading Up

I am a great fan of escapist literature, but I also routinely get myself booed for being a snotty elitist when I tell people they really shouldn’t just read for escape. They should read to be challenged in addition.

Think of this way: you don’t run a marathon every day to train for a marathon. You do bits, big bits and small bits, and sometimes you just run around waving your hands in the airs chasing a little one in a game. The latter, taken alone, doesn’t train you for the marathon, but life would be terribly, terribly sad without it.

Or, you can’t eat chocolate all day every day. Gotta have some salad in there, too. But a life of salads, though many are delicious, is a lot less fun if there is never any chocolate.

So for those of us who write, we should be reading to understand our craft better, and we should be reading to understand how thinking occurs on the page and with the page.

This conversation with David McCullough is, like just about all conversations with him, delightful, and here he talks about “reading up, reading something that is just a little past your grasp.” You should. You’ll be surprised at how much you will grow doing that. Those stretch goals help a lot.

I was recently reminded of this with my foray in Thucydides in Greek. GOD THAT WAS HARD and it took me FOREVER. I’m translating Julius Caesar now and GOD THAT IS HARD. But I’ve learned a lot. I shall have to go back again and again. But those stretches have been so good.

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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Reviewer #2 on the Declaration of Independence

RECOMMENDATION: Reject

SPECIFIC COMMENTS TO THE AUTHOR:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The introduction is overly long, and there is no statement of the problem. The author should tell us right away, and clearly, what the argument is. As it is, this weak problem statement does not convince me that the issue at hand is worthy of study. Also, what is up with the false dichotomy between “God” and “Nature”?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-

Vague attribution that assumes a unitary public. Author has not defined rights anywhere previously in the text. It is also question-begging.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The theme of safety is introduced after prior focus on happiness, with no transition. Does not adequately cover the literature on either topic to make these claims.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

This is a distraction, not a valid counterfactual. This work could benefit from additional case studies where Prudence and evils vary systematically.


But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The author has provided no empirical proof of bad government–merely asserts a ‘long train of abuses’ and fails to specify them until much later in the document. The manuscript is thus poorly organized and needs to be entirely restructured.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

Again, question-begging conclusion that follows, inappropriately, from a simple set of assertions that political revolution is the answer to poor representation in government. The list of offenses, entirely unspecified, comes later, so that this assertion is out of place and unfounded. Thus, the entire theoretical frame is unsound.

It also assumes that everybody is in an equal position to pursue revolution, and thus renders invisible and silences all other voices and perspectives on revolution.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good…..He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

This long list of affronts sounds very serious, indeed, but it lacks specify and citations. Which laws, on what occasions? How do you know these events occurred as you represented them? Which coasts have been “ravaged?” Which merciless Indian Savages have been brought to which frontiers? When, exactly? According to which sources?

I am surprised the author does not seem to know about an important study in this area entitled “Mercilessness as Social Hermeneutic and Construction: A Examination of Savagery as Metaphor.” It is important that this study by cited here and discussed at length.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

This argument would be more effective if the author cited the petitions and presented them in detail. The author suggests that such behavior may define a Tyrant. Does it define a Tyrant or not? Granted the fuzzy definition, the conclusion is over-stated and far beyond what you can conclude from the evidence you have presented. I suggest the following improvements to the language: “which may define a Tyrant, is perhaps unfit to the multiple tasks of governance in collaboration with a pluralistic society.”

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

This paragraph is out of place at the end; it should go at the beginning, along with a clearly stated conceptual framework that specifies, exactly, how repeated warnings and pleas factor into the relationship between revolution and repeated rights violations.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

This conclusion suffers from its vainglorious and overwrought language. It is sufficient to the point to say “Subjects will leave and form another nation once the original government fails to demonstrate sufficient legitimacy in the political community.”