academia: August 2004 Archives

The Chronicle of Higher Evil

| | Comments (2)

I make no secrets about my feelings for the Chronicle of Higher Education. There are times when the articles they publish make academia a little more transparent, and that can be a good thing. But there are other times when their interest is clearly motivated by the bottom line--in fact, I'd say that that's all the time, and that what benefits we get from them are a side effect.

Over at Rhubarb, where I first saw this, I've commented, but I ended up feeling strongly enough about it to add something here. There's a CHE article called Stuck in Transition, by and about a woman (psuedonymmed Eleanor Robinson) who was going through 3rd year review in her department, and miscarried. The story is a sad one, and made all the worse by the fact that Robinson doesn't tell any of her colleagues about the miscarriage, for fear of damaging her review:

I needed to compartmentalize my emotions in order to get my work done....

In the end, that was the simplest reason that I did not say anything about my miscarriage: I could not talk about the loss without crying. And justified or not, I could not get past the thought that women who cry at work cannot easily, in the next breath (or on the next page), describe themselves as competent professionals.

What really takes my sadness to the point of anger here is that "the thought" comes from the Chronicle itself, which has delighted in publishing "research" about how various people are treated or mistreated in the academy. Robinson writes about how she has internalized all of the Chronicle articles about women and mothers in the academy, and how she and her partner planned out her pregnancy accordingly. Robinson does compartmentalize her emotions, and gets a glowing review, after taking a week-long extension because of "family problems," as she tells the chair of her review committee.

But that's not what makes me angry. What really irks me here is the lack of self-consciousness with which the Chronicle is publishing an article that is partly about how the ideas published in the Chronicle led this woman to keep her miscarriage a secret, to isolate herself emotionally from her friends and colleagues, to prevent her from receiving support at a place and at a time where she obviously needed it. The Chronicle's answer to that would, of course, be that Robinson made her own choice, and she did, but she made it based on information from a source that frequently publishes opinion and provocation masquerading as facts, trends, and customs. It's certainly not true of everything they do, but their first responsibility is not to helping reader understand academia--it's to their own bottom line.

I don't know how else to explain the presence, in this heart-wrenching story, of a link to the story about mothers in the academy, the very one that led Robinson to deny who she was and what she was going through as a person so that she could shine as a "competent professional." It's cynical enough that the Chronicle would publish this piece, but for them to add a link to the original feature in the middle of a story about the pain that it caused, is evil.

Pure. Evil.

I don't know that I'm necessarily the best person to write about academic publishing, but I do have experience with it from various angles, and if I say something patently wrong, I'll trust to the comments. Probably the most fundamental unit of academic publishing, at least for those of us in English studies, is the research article, and so that's where I'll focus most of this entry.

What's the point of the research article? There are several:

  • For researchers, publication provides us with the chance to share our knowledge, to participate in scholarly conversations, and to receive feedback on our scholarship.
  • Since many of us teach courses in the areas where we do research, publication provides an incentive for work that will enrich our understanding of the material we teach, ideally making us better teachers. At the graduate level, scholarship often comprises a significant portion of course readings, becoming in part the material we teach.
  • Publications operate as tangible evidence of our research, and for our tenure and promotion committees, that evidence plays an important role in those decisions
  • however minimally, publications also serve some function as a recruitment tool for graduate programs--I've encouraged MA students to look at the whos and wheres of published scholarship to help them decide where to apply.
  • ideally, and perhaps debatably, from the reader's perspective, the research article sheds light on a particular text, idea, or phenomenon, and provides some lasting insight. In other words, I'd argue that one of the ideals of research is that it contributes to our knowledge and/or understanding.

In other words, the research article plays a number of different roles, in various contexts, and I suspect that the relationships among these roles vary quite widely from person to person, from specialty to specialty, and even within one person's own career. I've held two different tenure-track positions, and in each, I was expected to publish 1-2 articles a year. Some of the articles I've published have taken me a couple of years to develop; some were conceived and executed much more quickly.

In my opinion, at the core of the research article is the fact that it is a contribution to at least one conversation, and sometimes several. As in KB's parlor, it's a conversation that has begun before you arrived, and will continue after you leave. When tenure committees count one's publications, what they are doing is basically verifying that you're participating and contributing to these conversations. The article itself is the tip of a fairly daunting iceberg, though. In order to publish an article in a journal, you must be familiar with what can sometimes be a long-developed, insular, and/or jargon-laden tradition that precedes you. One of the points of graduate school is to assist students with building familiarity in the scholarship of their chosen areas of inquiry. Specific journals (and editorial boards) may also have well-defined perspectives or expectations that scholars must familiarize themselves with--some journal boards see their audience as specialists, or adhere to particular theoretical perspectives, for example. In short, the "research" part of the research article requires not only knowledge of a particular subject, but also familiarity with how that subject has been handled previously and knowledge of the particular audience that one is targeting.

When one sends a draft of an essay to a journal, typically that essay undergoes what is known as peer review. The article is read by several people (usually at least a member of the editorial board and 2-3 outside readers with specific expertise in the subject), so-called "peers" in one's field. When the peer review is "blind," this means that all language that might identify the author is removed so as not to influence the readers' decision about whether or not to accept the submission. Most journals will either accept a submission, accept it conditionally (i.e., with some amount of revision), or reject it. Some journals will provide extensive feeback, and some will not. The turnaround time from submission to decision also varies widely from journal to journal.

Typically, the research article does not result in direct compensation. In other words, we don't make money directly through publishing our scholarship. Some universities will award merit raises based on publication, and one may benefit monetarily through name recognition, but for the most part, academic publishing is a prestige economy, one that operates almost exclusively within one's own field or specialty.

That's probably enough for now. Feel free to suggest corrections, additions, subtractions, etc.

On the cusp

| | Comments (0)

Have been thinking recently about the rhythms of academic life, and I'm not the only one. Here at SU, we're hitting the second week of orientation for incoming TA's, with the start of the semester just a week away. I don't think it's just me--the tail end of August means that summer's over, and while we all giggle a bit at the cliché of writing on "What I Did Over Summer Vacation," there is pressure to account for one's self, to accomplish things that "count."

Coming to the end of the summer means facing up to the various grinds and pressures of the regular season, and doing so from a position that's relatively distant. Even though I've taught during the summer for 8 out of the last 10 years, and do a fair share of my research and writing during those times, there's a feeling that summer is "off," even though it's not for most of us. And that feeling, I think, requires me (at least) to sort of psych myself up, to remind myself of what I'm doing and why. There's a bunch of meta-academic posting going on, and I see that as part of this process. In addition to the links above, George Williams has embarked on an ambitious project, an attempt to talk about "how we are organized, what our responsibilities are, how we get hired, how we are evaluated, etc," specifically for people who don't have much idea (or, often enough, the wrong idea) of what it is that people in English departments do. Chuck just posted about the tenure process, and both his entry and the comments are worth reading.

I'm a little ambivalent--on the one hand, one of the rules that I try to follow is to avoid situations where I have to "educate" my audience about what I do. More often than not, that kind of rhetorical stance ends up either (a) sounding like a desperate attempt to justify myself, hence begging the question, or (b) implying that said audience is ignorant, sometimes willfully so. There's a lot of conversation in rhetoric & composition about how our colleagues, or administrators, or the public, etc., "just don't understand us," and that what we need to do is to "educate" them. The implication here is that if they understood us, they'd agree with us, and there's an arrogance underlying that position that I find really disturbing, even though I find myself falling into it more often than I'd like.

Now that being said (and this is the other hand), Timothy Burke has a review of the new book The Rule of Four, and one of the points I took away from his review was that ROF relies on some pretty well-worn, outdated, and inaccurate archetypes about academic life:

Now some of this is just part of the general clumsiness of this particular book. But I do think that this is still what a lot of Americans think academics arebasically a combination of the Nutty Professor, Professor Kingley from The Paper Chase, Dr. Frankenstein, and various and sundry novelistic alcoholic and lechers. People with secrets, people with strange and monastic passions, people with eccentric manners and esoteric knowledge, people who are sometimes horribly unprincipled but usually in an ethereal and otherwordly way. Its not utterly wrong, but its not especially true either.

I'm still optimistic enough to believe that what George is doing might make a difference in this regard. I don't get the impression from his post (or the subsequent comments) that this is about proving to some faceless audience that what we do is worthwhile. I'm projecting, perhaps, but I'd like to think that his project is about making what we do less of a blackbox operation, not because we need to justify it, but because much of our profession is invisible to the general public, but also sometimes to our employers, our colleagues, and our graduate students. I'm not sure that even we always understand what it is that we do, and if George's site helps in that regard, it'll be worth it.

And so, if it's worth doing, it's worth it for me to contribute. That's my next post...

Will Blog for Cred

| | Comments (2)


All right. I'm exhausted, but that hasn't stopped me from spending the last hour or two following out all of the threads. One in particular I want to reply to, since it's an indirect response to one of the issues I raised last night/morning. Rana has a really smart post that flips one of the assumptions behind much of this discussion, thinking instead about how those of us who post under our names might defend that practice. I defended what I called "academic blogging" under my own name for a couple of different reasons last night. Rana's reply I'll quote in full here:

Getting Credit for One's Blogging Here's another one, one that Stephen raises. I can see the general idea, but for me, this doesn't work all that well. (Again, your mileage may vary.) Let us say I choose to blog about my research, and hope to gain some scholarly cred by doing so. Well, first off, anything I post here is unlikely to be of the quality of my more formal works. It's a heck of a lot of work doing good historical work, and it takes time and space. So anything here would either be (a) incomplete, in which case I can't see it being any more beneficial to my career than sharing a rough draft with a colleague or two, or (b) good enough to publish, in which case why post it here? If it's good enough to survive a peer review process, I'd rather have it published. (Not to mention it would be 30+ pages long, plus endnotes -- not exactly blog-friendly.) In my (admittedly limited) experience, it seems to me that a journal publication would count for far more in any sort of professional assessment than something self-published on some personal site. This may change in the future, but at present, blogging about one's research and claiming it as publishing is about as effective as xeroxing a bunch of copies and passing them out at conferences and claiming that that constituted publishing.

I've got plenty to say, but first let me that I don't really disagree. I'm more interested in clarifying my remarks, and I don't think my position necessarily clashes with Rana's. Here's why:

(1)Big difference in disciplines. Like Steve, my field is rhetoric and my speciality is technology. Rana notes that the kind of painstaking work history requires doesn't really lend itself to blogging, and I understand that. But in my field, part of the work I must do (part of the work I was explicitly hired to do, in fact) is to stay abreast of communications technologies. For me, to write about blogging or to incorporate it into my courses without actually practicing it myself would be (I think) close to the equivalent of claiming to write an authoritative or definite historical work without consulting the available primary texts. Blogging does garner me credibility, perhaps not as an academic in general, but almost certainly as a member of my particular sub-field. (For a more eloquent take on the issue of the ethics of blog research, check Liz's post from a month or so ago at M2M.)

(2) I want to suggest that peer review works in more than one way. If I'm working out an idea that isn't ready for "prime time," my blog is a node in an informal peer network that may help me get it to that point. The difference here is between "anonymous" and "official" peer review, one that serves to certify a piece of writing at the end of the process, and the more informal review that can take place here. I've done this informal review with writers' groups, over email, and to a more limited extent, in the blogosphere, and each brings a set of advantages. Again, this may not be the case for historians (and others), where what counts as knowledge and evidence differs from what counts in my field.

(3) If I post the transcript of a talk, or an informal paper, here, and it gets picked up and distributed favorably (yes, wishful thinking abounds here), I can provide hard data about its value, both qualitative (comments, reviews) and quantitative (number of hits, trackbacks, etc.). On the cv that I submit for my tenure case, on the other hand, there is no difference between a conference paper delivered in front of an audience of 5 people or one that galvanizes a standing-room-only audience--for those reading the vita itself, the effects of those papers are completely invisible. I've had both kinds of experiences (the latter a result of much more famous co-presenters, to be sure), but neither shows up. If one of the assumptions behind quality scholarly work is that it makes an impact on the field, then I'd argue that this impact is at least as demonstrable in a blog as it is from being delivered at a conference. In other words, if the ideas are good ones, and I can track their effect to an extent, I think a case can be made that legitimate academic work is going on. (Again with the folk who say it better than I, and with more credibility. Mark Sargent, in this case.)

(4)Finally, one of the labor issues in my particular field is that those of us who identify as technology people are often called upon (or elect) to do work that ranges outside of the traditional boundaries policed by T&P committees. Like I said yesterday, I don't plan on substituting my blogging for those more traditional forms. Compared to published work, blogging isn't even close. But the argument I'd suggest (and again, it's one that may be more relevant to my field than to others') is that blogging doesn't aspire towards those standards. It's a different practice from publication, and no, it's not accepted as legitimate academic work. Yet. But the most telling example here is Invisible Adjunct. When we consider all of the praise and credibility she earned, from people who "knew" her solely through the practice of blogging, I don't think we can question that there are plenty of us out here who see scholarly value in an activity that doesn't show up yet in our tenure cases.

Yeah, that's all I got right now. It wouldn't surprise me to find that I end up clarifying even more tomorrow. As Rana notes at the very beginning, mileage may vary, and I hope that what I've offered is some clarification about why that's the case. My comments above are no less context-dependent than hers, and I think some of the disagreements over the past few have resulted from incomplete acknowledgement of what can be huge differences in context. I don't really know what constraints Rana operates under, and so what I'm writing here isn't meant as a direct refutation so much as it is an attempt to identify and clarify how "academic blogging" might operate for me given my constraints.

Finally: thanks, Rana, for a really thought-provoking post, one that challenged me to improve (one hopes) on my ideas from yesterday...

Staying out of the kitchen

| | Comments (2)

A couple of quick thoughts, before I turn in, on the flurry of posts that have been happening over at Steven's blog (and elsewhere), that connect back to the discussion that was going on a few days back, re anonymous/pseudonymous blogging.

I don't claim to have the last word, certainly, but it seems to me that at least a couple of the comments raise what for me is an important distinction, one that I first started thinking about in response to AlexH's talk at MEA: the distinction between academic blogging and blogging by academics.

I should be clear that I don't find one necessarily better than the other, nor do I see them as mutually exclusive. I think I do a little of both, although I think of myself primarily as someone who does academic blogging. In part, that's because technology is my primary area, and that means I should be doing, not just studying. But I've also got a stake in building a rep and attaching it to my name, the same name that'll be the byline for an article or two (on blogging and/or networks) in the next couple of years. I also believe strongly that, eventually, blogging will come to be seen as a legitimate form of academic activity; but just like electronic publication, part of the momentum for this must come from recognizable scholars offering either explicit or implicit endorsement. Unlike profgrrrrl, I probably will offer selected portions of my blog for my tenure case in a few years, both as an example of technoscholarly innovation and as a way of pushing at the kinds of evidence allowed. I won't use it instead of more traditional evidence, but I currently plan to use it. (maybe not the ass-grabbing story, though.)

However, and this is a big however, not only is academic blogging a tiny, tiny subset of blogs in general (as AlexH has also noted), it's a subset of the number of academics who blog. And I think it's important to recognize that occupying that subset means that our (academic bloggers') goals are pretty narrowly defined. By no means does this mean that we've got all the answers, esp to the big life questions, but it does offer us the freedom of setting those issues aside. And it does so at the cost of the freedom of confronting those issues in one place where we can build a community to help us with them. My point is stupidly simple, I suppose. Different isn't worse, once you accept that the relationship between the terms "blogging" and "academic" can be configured in a range of ways.

Okay. One more. Steven asks: "When did the tables turn on this idea of 'not my real name' equals credibility and authenticity?" I've actually got a half-baked essay on this. Credibility isn't just one thing. We're used to seeing it work top-down: I know this writer is good, therefore I will read her article. But it works the other way, too: This article is good, therefore I will remember her name the next time I see it. It's not so much that pseudonyms themselves grant instant credibility, so much as it is that, when a body invests time and energy and care into developing a pseudonym, it functions with no less credibility and authenticity than does a "real" name. (Which is the point that Rana makes.)

To be fair, though, I should note that pseudonyms are basically anonymous, if an audience isn't party to that investment. The distinction there is not as hard and fast as I think some are assuming. The first time I read a blog, whether the person blogs under their "real" name or not, for me it's anonymous. I think that the problem comes when someone has invested in their anonym to turn it into a pseudonym, only to have it treated like an anonym (decontextualized, generalized, etc.), if that makes any sense. But I don't really think that the process of developing a pseudonym is markedly different from developing a nym. In both cases, credibility is something that ends up emerging over time.

And no, I don't really think I'm saying anything here that isn't raised in one form or another in the comments to the posts listed above. I'm just thinking through them for myself....

I've got a question for some of my regulars. I'm feeling pretty exhausted lately, as I'm nearing my 3rd dissertation defense in 12 days. One of the things I'm convinced we need to do a better job of, probably in the field as well as individual programs, is helping our students understand what to expect from the process. I'm close to this topic for a variety of reasons: I'm trying to finish up my first book manuscript and recalling the lessons I learned back in the day, I'm on several committees here, and of course, I'll be taking over the position of grad director in my department next spring.

While there are some pretty good sites on the web that give advice, the problem I'm finding is that each person's experience is different, enough so that generalizing to the level of advice is a tricky proposition. Like writing itself, it's rare that there are hard-and-fast rules for actually accomplishing the dissertation. Here are some of the things I'm thinking about (below the fold), but I'm especially interested in hearing from some of you who have gone through the process--what advice made a difference, and what do you wish you had known (or simply taken more seriously) when you were dissertating?



Powered by Movable Type 4.1

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from August 2004.

academia: June 2004 is the previous archive.

academia: September 2004 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.