symbolic dominance, culture and religion

When the war of the yard signs was at its peak some years ago, I wanted to put three popular signs in my yard, all together:

Let Your Light Shine: Fight Racism
We Support Gays and Lesbians
Keep Christ in Christmas

My state celebrates the winter season with the war of the symbols.  Nativity scenes on public property justly spark lawsuits by those who are not Christian.  Menorahs and “separate church and state” banners flank the decorated evergreen tree whose very name is subject of debate in the legislature.  Proposals to include Wiccan pentacles and jokes about Festivus poles add to the fun.  Some Christians have decided that “their” holiday has been ruined by any acknowledgment of others, even by as simple an expedient as a generic “Happy Holidays” in public space or by using the name “holiday tree” for a decorated evergreen, itself a pagan symbol morphed into a Christian symbol for a pagan Roman holiday morphed into a Christian holiday.  This seems to me to be so clearly about cultural dominance, not religion, that I find all the arguments unsettling.  The Christmas centered on shopping malls and Santa Claus and Christmas trees is not a religious holiday, unless the religion in question is capitalist consumerism.

The religious holiday centered on the symbol of the nativity is about God embodied in a new human child, a light in the darkness, a hope for the oppressed.  For those of us in this tradition, it is a symbol well worth contemplating, and any Christian of conscience wants to lift up the nativity and downplay the materialist excesses of the secular Christmas.  So it is doubly ironic and sad that deploying this symbol in public space is an act of cultural domination over religious minorities, not a challenge to excess and greed.

As a practicing Christian, albeit a theologically liberal one whose right to the name is disputed by more conservative Christians, I struggle to find a way to be authentically who I am without oppressing others. Continue reading “symbolic dominance, culture and religion”

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An Object Lesson in Good Interviewing and Public Health

I have recently experienced an example of a persistent and rigorous interview that yielded an unexpected payoff. I somehow contracted a Giardia infection, a parasite usually associated with contaminated water. The first questions anyone knowledgeable asks are “Were you drinking out of streams?” and “Were you drinking well water?” because there is a problem in rural areas with contaminated water and wells can become contaminated, especially when there is a lot of flooding, as there was this summer. But I am a city person and only drink tap water. No, I haven’t been camping, I have not been drinking out of streams. I thought maybe there was a sick food service worker? Maybe contaminated tap water in a rural gas station in our trip to Duluth? Hard to know.

It turns out that Giardia is a reportable public health infection, so I got a call this week from a public health student. Continue reading “An Object Lesson in Good Interviewing and Public Health”

Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics

My department has run a number of workshops (organized by grad students) on “teaching about race.” They asked me to speak about what the rules are about what we can and cannot say in the classroom. I was pretty sure I knew the “rules” but asked our Provost for the official statement. Interestingly, there was none, but the question was referred to the Legal department. After a  delay, Legal Affairs sent back an email citing Wisconsin state statutes and linking to some policy statements. I’ve pasted the original correspondence below.* First a student and I translated the legalese into English bullet points. Then I wrote an essay about how to think about the authority and ethical responsibility in teaching controversial topics. This was recirculated this fall and as I’ve gotten positive feedback about this, I decided to post it here, with a few more edits, in case it is helpful. There’s always more to say, and legitimate disagreement about how to handle some things. Feel free to use the comments to expand on these points. Continue reading “Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics”

Stata: roll your own color palettes

I realize all the cool kids have switched to R, but if you still work with Stata, you may be interested in some routines I worked up to generate color and line pattern palettes and customize graphs fairly easily with macros and loops. This is useful to me because I am generating line graphs showing the trends for 17 different offense groups. Some preliminary tricks, then the code. Continue reading “Stata: roll your own color palettes”

A Matthew Christmas

nativity_2016
Christmas

The Christmas Eve homily stressed the need for an adult Christmas narrative. There is the children’s narrative with angels and shepherds and wise men we patch together from the theoretically-inconsistent stories in Luke and Matthew and set up in our Nativity scene. And, the pastor stressed, there is a place for that narrative. But there is also a time and place for reading each narrative as it was written and understanding the meaning of the narrative to the people who wrote it and used it in worship.  In the Matthew narrative, all the main characters fear for their lives, a deranged king who fears a usurper orders the slaughter of babies, and the Holy Family are refugees fleeing into Egypt. This year the Matthew narrative seems apt. Anyone who is paying attention to the climate news and the political news and the economic news is afraid. Anyone who is paying attention knows that there is tremendous suffering going on in the world right now.

massacre_of_the_innocents
Nicolas Poussin, Massacre of the Innocents, artable.com

Here and now, when the nights in our hemisphere are long and the news is bad, we light a candle in the darkness and contemplate the hope that we will survive and that something new is yet now being born that will bring light to the world.

Participating While Privileged

I’ve been asked to participate in a session at a conference for academics and activists that is supposed to help set the tone for how academics ought to behave when interacting with community people. It turns out that I am considered to be good at this. This is the kind of accolade that is very dangerous. The minute you think you know what you are doing and are confident of your ability to mix well across lines of culture and privilege, you will mess it up. It is like bragging about how humble you are.

Since I seem to have been anointed, at least temporarily, as having some expertise in this area, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts, partly in preparation for the session. We agreed I’d begin by giving my own background, but that feels like too long a detour, so I moved it to the bottom of this blog post. Bullet points because it is too much trouble to turn it into an essay. Continue reading “Participating While Privileged”

Religious Observance Policy Limitations

My campus’s religious observance policy is pretty good, although vague around the edges. First, we are urged to avoid scheduling mandatory exercises on days when “significant numbers of student would be impacted.” In practice, this means try to avoid Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana; the updated version of the policy also mentions Eid al-Adha although, candidly even avoidance of Jewish holidays for exams is hit or miss and there is very little public attention to Eid on this campus.

Second, and this is the part I want to both praise and comment on, we are to provide a non-punitive alternative for any student who says they have a religious conflict with a particular date. There are reasonable constraints on this: the student has to tell the instructor the relevant date(s) within the first three weeks of class (not the night before an exam), and there can be “reasonable limits” on the total number of days requested. The policy explicitly says that “students’ sincerely held religious beliefs shall be reasonably accommodated with respect to scheduling all examinations and other academic requirements” and that “A student’s claim of religious conflict, which may include travel time, should be accepted at face value” because “there is no practical, dignified, and legal means to assess the validity of individual claims.”  Pretty good.

So where are the problems? Continue reading “Religious Observance Policy Limitations”

open letter to students of color

NOTE: I did not write this letter. I am posting it here as a model for what support looks like and because some people will find it helpful to have it in a place they can link to. For those of you not at Wisconsin, the context is that campus police entered an Afro-American Studies class and removed a student charged with putting up anti-racist spray-painted graffiti around campus, then took him downtown and filed criminal charges against him, thereby publicizing his name. This was in the context of a wave of hate and bias incidents on the campus; students in these cases faced campus misconduct charges, not criminal charges. Tony Robinson was a young biracial man shot last year by a police officer in a Madison neighborhood near campus.

18 April 2016

An Open Letter to the Students of Color of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

            From The Faculty and Staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies

The faculty and staff of the Department of Afro-American Studies is thinking about you and keeping you in our hearts at this time of extreme stress and tension.  Your anger is justified, your fear understandable.  The disruption of Professor Almiron’s class, and the arrest of your fellow student, King Shabazz, while important in itself, is only the most recent in a series of events that has been steadily escalating in recent months and weeks.  What so many of you are experiencing isn’t a sign of individual weakness.  It’s a version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a mental health crisis as serious as those following campus shootings or natural disasters. We admire the way many of you are holding up but we understand what a strain this represents.

In recognition of that fact, we call on faculty across the campus to respond to the crisis in a spirit of care and generosity as we near the end of the semester.  Further, we ask the administration to affirm that call, as well as to offer public assurances that these events will not interfere with King’s plans to graduate at the end of the semester.  Further, we ask that emergency mental health support be made available to all students affected by recent events.

The most important part of our message to you is simple: do your best to keep your eyes on the prize, and know that we’re there to support you as you walk a difficult path.  We know you’re feeling torn between the demands of your studies and your desire to take an active role in responding to what’s happening.  Let some of the burden be shifted to our shoulders. Continue reading “open letter to students of color”

Clashing norms of deference

I posted this on FB. “How to be deferential but not excessively deferential: If you have a scheduled appointment with your professor and you can tell she is talking to someone else, knock or stick your head in so you are sure she knows you are there, then back up apologetically and say “I’ll be happy to wait.” Quietly waiting without letting her know you are there is a problem because she may prefer to get rid of the person in her office and stick to her schedule rather than run late with you, and she should be the one who gets to decide this.”

In my office configuration I cannot see the hall from my desk and I have OFTEN been chatting aimlessly with someone, telling them “I’m expecting a student soon” and then even “I wonder where my 3pm appointment is, did he forget?” while, unbeknownst to me, the student is sitting or standing quietly and patiently outside the door, never announcing their presence. This drives me crazy, as it seems going way overboard in the deference direction when you have an actual scheduled appointment with someone not to announce that you have arrived for it. Thus, when given the opportunity, I instruct students (as above) about how one can simultaneously exhibit politeness and deference while also honoring schedules. However,  former students (who are now professors themselves) confirm that their own sense of deference would lead them NEVER to interrupt a conversation a professor was involved with.

Is there any hope for this culture clash? I obviously need to return to the sign on my door that says “please tell me if you are waiting for me.” But even when I used to have that sign on the door, I’d have students who either would not notice the sign or not think it applied to them.

Cities you did not build, wells you did not dig

Sunday’s sermon text was

Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you—a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6: 10-12 New English Bible)

These lines echo today. They are typically interpreted by feel-good Christians spiritually, as reminding us that we are provided with good things not of our own making. And maybe as reminding us that we are dependent on others, not just ourselves. But these passages are explicitly and unambiguously about conquest and the displacement of the previous occupants of a territory. This can be readily seen in the parallel passage in Joshua:

You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The leaders of Jericho, as well as the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites, fought with you, but I handed them over to you. I sent terror ahead of you to drive out before you the two Amorite kings. I gave you the victory; it was not by your swords or bows. I gave you a land in which you had not worked hard; you took up residence in cities you did not build and you are eating the produce of vineyards and olive groves you did not plant. (Joshua 24:11-13 New English Bible)

The Biblical writers know this history and make no apology for it. They believe that a one-sided war god backed them against their enemies and gave them the land over the dead bodies of their enemies. They remember their own victimization and their time of slavery and rejoice that it has ended, but they simply have no compunction about killing other groups and taking their land, and they are sure that is what their god wants them to do. (See more references below if you have any doubt that this is a persistent theme.)

The launching point of the sermon was a tour the pastor and other church members took to be educated about immigration issues in Arizona. This stressed the overlain history of the area: indigenous inhabitants partially conquered and partially assimilated by Spanish; the Mexican people who are the amalgamation of indigenous and Spanish who moved around in Mexico; the Anglo-Americans who conquered Northern Mexico and finished conquering the indigenous and now have the audacity to complain about “foreigners” in the area. Our pastor also spoke of touring old Jaffa in Israel-Palestine today with Palestinians who can point to the exact houses that were occupied by their parents and are now occupied by Jews who forcibly removed them. There are plenty of other examples. White South Africans still occupy areas from which they forcibly removed Black South Africans in the 1940s and 1950s. European settlers on the Atlantic coast of North American were able to gain a foothold because they occupied villages that had been built and farmlands that had been cleared by indigenous Americans who had recently died of a plague. All European Americans live on land that was taken from indigenous Americans in a multi-hundred year war of conquest.

Some White American Christians believe in the war god who favored [White] America in its genocide and conquest just as the war god of the Old Testament favored Israel. In fact, the sense of American exceptionalism and American divine right to rule cannot be understood outside this religious context, this understanding of America as the new Israel and Americans as the new chosen people.

Biblically literate atheists point to these passages and these interpretations as a reason to reject Christianity and the Biblical tradition wholesale, and it is hard to blame them.

What is a progressive White American Christian to make of this? How can we reject the one-sided war god and make sense of our position if we believe in a god that is God for everyone? We must sit with the understanding that we are living in houses we have not built and drawing water from wells we did not dig. We are living atop the graves of others, and we are only here because our ancestors brutally displaced other people from their homes. This is plain historical fact. Either we believe only in the one-sided war god, or we believe that somehow there must be some just accounting for the sins of our ancestors. To continue to benefit from the consequences of past injustice is to perpetuate the injustice. And yet, we are not volunteering (I am not volunteering) to relocate myself to my ancestral homeland in Europe, and moreover (and perhaps ironically), Europe considers me to be a foreigner. It seems to me the only way forward is to sit humbly with the burden of history, to try to make justice or at least to get out of the way when others try to make justice.

 

* Passages which are explicit about killing and displacing others: Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6, 7:2, 13:15, 20:13-14; Numbers 21:3, 31:17-18; Joshua 6:21-27, 8:22-25, 10:10-40, 11:8-15, 21-23; Judges 1:4, 1:17, 3:29, 7:19-25, 8:15-21, 9:45, 20:43-48, 21:10-12; 1 Samuel 4:10, 7:7-11, 11:11, 14:31, 14:48, 15:3, 7-8, 27:8-11; 2 Samuel 8:5, 8:13, 18:6-7; 1 Kings 20:29-30; 2 Kings 14:5-7.

peace and justice

The second candle of advent is the candle of peace. My radical daughter sitting next to me bristled and, to tell the truth, I did, too. To pray for peace without simultaneously thinking about justice is implicitly to pray for oppression to continue. Facts are facts, and conflict and turmoil are pretty much the only way to battle hierarchy, oppression, and injustice. Anger is politically important.

The Biblical texts are considerably more full of conflict than the sanitized middle class Midwestern Christmas narrative.

Matthew 10 (commissioning the disciples) (34-39): “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (With a similar sentiment found in Luke 12:51-53).

And Mary’s song in the Magnificat (Luke 1: 51-53): He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

As individuals, we need to be as centered as we can be. Peace at the center, knowing that we are part of something larger than ourselves. And we need to remember the humanity of others, even when they are inhumane. But there is no religious warrant for asking for, much less demanding, that people choose peace over justice. It is the other way around. Justice is the commandment.

Hope in the Darkness, Fatalism is not an Option

This is the first week of advent, the week we light the candle of hope. Hope is not cheerfulness and optimism. Hope is not the property of the wealthy and self-satisfied. Hope stares into the dark, looks despair in the face, and dares to believe in another future. Hope is what keeps us going when everything around us looks bleak. Despair demobilizes, despair paralyzes. Despair makes us fatalistic and inactive. Despair tells us that we may as well go about the individualistic business of scrambling to get what we can for ourselves and ignore the signs of need and injustice around us. Hoping is believing and working for what is right and just when there is no easy path.

My hope in the darkness of injustice was renewed this week by these words from Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I’m the descendent of enslaved black people in this country. You could’ve been born in 1820, if you were black and looked back to your ancestors and saw nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and saw nothing but slaves. There was no reason at that point in time to believe that emancipation was 40 or 50 years off. And yet folks resisted and folks fought on. So fatalism isn’t really an option. Even if you think you’re not going to necessarily win the fight today in your lifetime, in your child’s lifetime, you still have to fight. It’s kind of selfish to say that you’re only going to fight for a victory that you will live to see. As an African-American, we stand on the shoulders of people who fought despite not seeing victories in their lifetime or even in their children’s lifetime or even in their grandchildren’s lifetime. So fatalism isn’t really an option.” Interview on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” 12/4/14, posted on the Huffington Post by Ed Mazzra Link

Name Ghost

One way or another it is looking like it will cost me several hundred dollars and significant aggravation to deal with the fallout of US patriarchy. Back when I was married in 1970, the women’s movement was just kicking in and a summer employer insisted that they could not (would not) pay me unless I signed a form changing to my married name on my social security record. I never got a new card, however, and since that time, the only name I’ve used is my birth name.To do this, in the 1970s I had several times to verbally lie to self-appointed local government monitors of women’s names (marital status was never a question on the written document one was signing) who were insisting that married women must use their husband’s surnames on things like drivers licenses and employment records. Sometimes the courts upheld the patriarchists, sometimes the women. All this dust gradually settled around 1980 and since then married women have been left alone and allowed to use birth names in peace.(All you young-’uns who are going about changing names willy-nilly for trivial reasons like marriage just make us older women sigh, given all the grief we incurred to avoid it.)

Because many people do change names at marriage, it is very easy to do so. You just drop by your local identity office with marriage papers and poof your name changes. This does not apply, however, if you are caught in the warp of the 1970s. If the SSA persuades itself that the name they have for you is your “legal name,” you must prove that there has been a legal name change. If you are a married women using your birth name you do not, of course, have such a court order, because you never changed your name. You are just dealing with the fallout of strong arm patriarchal bullying from the 1970s that gives many married women from that era an inconsistent set of names.

SSA knows who I am. I have a comprehensive identity record. They know my birth name, they can see my lifetime payroll records, they have my marriage certificate. They know what happened. There is no dispute about the facts. But they claim to be incapable of correcting their records to match reality without a court order. They say this is part of the heightened scrutiny on identity with e-verify. There are activists pointing out that this system disproportionately affects women. http://www.nilc.org/everifyimpactonwomen.html My lawyer says I should not have to pay her to do this for me, and I’m going to try one  more time on my own before handing it over to her.

I’m pretty mad but if I have to I can pay the money to get this straightened out. If I have to, I’ll get the court order. But as my friends say, “what are poor women supposed to do?”

Splaining

This essay is about the phenomenon often called mansplaining (with its variant whitesplaining). It is prompted a recent 90 minute episode of what felt to me like mansplaining. Any use of the term mansplaining or whitesplaining in mixed company typically evokes complaints that the term itself is sexist/racist. Even our own scatterplot had a minor eruption of this conflict when mansplain was used to describe something women had said to a man  Of course both mansplaining and whitesplaining are very common special cases of the more general privilegesplaining or, better, just splaining. The term splaining has not been applied to class, or to student vs. professor status, or other hierarchies, but it could and should be. Let’s begin by saying that I am often guilty of splaining, at least in the basic sense of telling someone else something they already know or of speaking with confidence about something that is later revealed to be wrong. In fact, when I told my spouse what I was thinking about, he said: “well, you know, you do that.” As if I didn’t know that. This essay is thus not about my own virtue and others’ vice, but about unpacking the idea of splaining, examining its sources and making distinctions. And then explaining why we don’t stay neutral about it. Continue reading “Splaining”

you think applying for academic jobs is hard?

Since retiring, my spouse has been volunteering at the “job club,” helping low income people apply for jobs. Applicants for low-wage jobs need to apply on line, and many low-wage workers neither own computers nor have much experience using them. Plus they are often unfamiliar with the various verbal hoops applicants have to go through. One of the big ones are banks of attitude questions. Yesterday he spent a couple of hours with a woman applying to work as a baker in a donut franchise, not the chef who thinks up recipes, someone who just does the work of cooking and frosting. She had to respond to 300 Likert items, 25 a page for 12 pages (!) with items like these

It is important to know what my coworkers think.
It is important to know what my coworkers feel.
I can easily imagine what my coworkers feel.
It is important to my life that the company do well.
Sometimes you have to take a risk to solve a problem for the company.
You have to know all possible solutions before picking one.
My coworkers say I’m cooperative.
My coworkers say I’m obedient.

Other items, he says, are convoluted sentence structures that even he finds difficult to parse to figure out what the positive/negative ends of the scale are. After two hours, they had to quit because the room needed to be used by someone else, and they had only gotten through five pages of the questions. The 300 is the worst so far, but this kind of thing is common in the low wage world. Another time he was working with a mentally disabled man trying to get a job as a dishwasher who had to work through 150 such questions. This is not what you do after you’ve passed the screening and are being interviewed. This is what you have to do just to enter the screening process. My daughter the labor activist says they are trying to screen out not only thieves but activists. I’m sure she’s right, and also pretty confident that these question banks are produced by consultants who don’t necessarily think through what it means to have to spend five hours applying for a $9/hour job on a computer in a public place. Or maybe they do, and that’s part of the test?

I don’t mean with my title to belittle the stresses of being on the academic job market. It is a scary world out there, and the application process is time-consuming and stressful for everyone. But I think we have not stooped this low. Yet, anyway.

Coauthoring Norms 1: Assisting and Junior Authoring

My goal is to improve the culture of publication and coauthoring in my department. Although some of our students do great on this, others languish, and many of our students complain that they do not get enough mentoring about publishing. I have identified as one problem that many faculty consider it “exploitative” to involve students in their research if they are not being paid. Another problem is wide variation in opinions about the level of involvement that merits a coauthorship. What I want to do is to develop a set of normative guidelines for apprentice-like experiences that do not involve payment, as well as guidelines for those that do. I am working up a draft of this and would appreciate comments and reports on good and bad experiences and practices in other programs. So here is my draft. Comments, please. NOTE: This is explicitly a model for the hierarchical situation in which a professor takes the lead in defining a project and the graduate student is an apprentice. It is NOT a model for the more egalitarian relations that develop organically. Continue reading “Coauthoring Norms 1: Assisting and Junior Authoring”

gradebook rant

I use what seems to me to be a very logical grading system. I grade papers on a letter grade scale and then calculate grades as a weighted average of these letter grades. Say there are three papers weighted 25%, 25% and 50% that got BC, B, and A respectively. The grade would be 2.5*.25 + 3*.25 + 4*.5 = 3.375, a grade I would then interpret as a low AB. Clear, logical, fair.But as far as I can tell, the course software cannot handle this kind of grading. It assumes that everything is percentages or points. So I cannot use it as an online gradebook. And I have had over the years a large fraction of TAs who cannot quite understand the logic of grading papers with (gasp!) grades. I cannot understand their confusion. To me this seems only logical. Ultimately we will give letter grades, why not set the standards for the grades and grade that way from the beginning? But, instead, they set up their own 10-point or 100-point or 24-point schemes for grading papers, and then I have to ask them, well, so how does this translate into grades? And they look at me with puzzled expressions. I don’t get their confusion.

For things like tests or homeworks that are more point-like, I use linear equations to transform the points to the 4-point range and put those into the grade calculations in the same way. This is a little more outre and would not have been possible back in the days of paper gradebooks, but after all, you have to take algebra BEFORE you get to college, and we have had computers with spreadsheet programs readily available on college campuses now since the mid-1980s.

So I ask you, why do my university and most of my colleagues and students still assume that everything will be calculated on a percentage basis and then curved to grades? For that matter, why are most of you just blindly assuming that everything should be done in percentages even though virtually every school in the US reports grades on a 4-point letter grade scale? There are a lot of reasons why the percentage-point system has problematic properties, but even if you have a good reason to like it, is it really that hard to understand why I’d like my system, or understand why I prefer it? Is it really that crazy to expect that to be an option in campus course software?

Too Many Reviewers

(reposting here to archive. Discussion is like to be on scatter.wordpress.com)

I freaked out recently when, after reviewing an article, I received a packet of FIVE (5!!!)  reviews on the same article. I chewed out the editors for wasting my time and told them I would never review for their journal again. After an exchange (in which I got a little less testy), I told them I’d post my concerns to scatterplot and open a discussion on the topic. Although five was over the top and freaked me out, it has become pretty common now for me as a reviewer to get a packet with four reviews. No wonder we regular reviewers are feeling under the gun. The old calculation of two or even three reviews per article has gone by the wayside. The pressure for fast turnaround and the high turn-down or non-response rate among potential reviewers has led editors to send out articles to extra reviewers in the hopes of ending up with at least the minimum two or three.

But this is a death spiral. As a frequently-sought reviewer I get at least four requests a month, sometimes as many as eight, and I used to get more before I got so crabby.  When I was young and eager, I was reviewing an article a week [and thus, by the way, having a huge influence on my specialty area], and I know some people who are keeping that pace. But at some point you burn out and say “no more.” I, like all other frequently-sought reviewers I know, turn down outright the requests from journals I don’t know for articles that sound boring, and then save up the other requests and once a month pick which articles I want to review. So the interesting-sounding articles from good journals get too many reviewers, while the boring-sounding articles from no-name journals get none. If journal editors respond to the non-response by reviewers to boring-sounding articles by sending out even more reviewer requests per article, our mailboxes will be flooded even more and the non-response rate and delayed-response rate by reviewers will go up even more. Senior scholars are asked to review six to eight (or more?) articles per month. You have to say no to most of the requests.

And then we have the totally out of hand R&R problem. I think it is completely immoral to send an R&R to ANY new reviewers. I know a young scholar with a perfectly good paper who is now on the 4th (!!!!) iteration of an R&R from ASR. Not because she has not satisfied the original reviewers, but because the editors keep sending each revision to a new set of reviewers in addition to the original reviewers and, of course, the new reviewers have a different perspective and a new set of suggestions for the paper, some of which cover ground that was gone over in one or more of the previous revisions. Not to mention the problem that R&R memos are now longer than the original articles!!  We are no longer a discipline of article publishing, we are turning into a discipline of R&R memo-writing.

Something has to change.  Senior scholars burn out and get reputations for being difficult, possibly because editors don’t know how many other people are asking them to do things. Junior scholars would want to review and wonder why nobody is asking them, and other junior scholars think they are being tapped a lot because they are getting four requests a year. Article-submitters (disproportionately junior scholars) whine and complain about slow turn-arounds, and imagine — what?  I guess I don’t know what they imagine? Do they even understand what is happening on the reviewer side of the equation? I think some of the more clueless imagine that reviewers are just queuing up to write negative reviews about them and it is all the editors’ fault for not organizing things better.

My purpose in posting is to open the discussion. I think what is needed are some ground rules that would help the senior scholar problem. (1) Reviewer time is a scarce resource. Treat it as such. Do not waste people’s time. (2) No article is ever sent to more than three reviewers. Better is to send to two and ask for a third if there is a split vote.  (3) If a reviewer fails to respond in a timely fashion, they get an email: please respond or we will send the article to someone else. (4) If an editor has three reviews, they immediately send a notice to anyone else they asked for a review saying “we have enough now” or, if you insist, “we have three reviews but they are mixed, and your opinion would help.” (5) If you get two reviews and the situation is obvious, tell anyone else you asked for a review “never mind.”  (6) An R&R is sent back to the original reviewers and to NOBODY ELSE unless there is some very specific issue and the paper author is told at the time what the issue is and the category of additional reviewer who will be solicited. (7) Author angst about turn-around time is dealt with not by sending articles out to eight possible reviewers (!!!!) but by keeping authors informed of their status. Telling an author that they are having a hard time getting reviewers lets them know what is going on. (8) Tell reviewers you want a response to the “will you review?” email within two weeks and cancel the invitation if they do not respond within one week to the follow up to the initial request. Leaving the requests open just encourages the kind of gaming I described and increases the risk of wasting reviewers’ time with too many reviews.

To expand the pool of reviewers among junior scholars, it seems to me that there needs to be a database set up of potential reviewers. This would have to have cvs and samples of the person’s own publications/writing. Does anyone have an idea about how to get such a thing going?

Scatterplotters: Your thoughts?

Letting Go

The publisher emailed me last week to ask whether it isn’t time to just give up and admit the book is never going to get written. It’s not that I have done no work. I’ve done tons of work multiple times for nearly 10 years. I’ve generated hundreds of pages of text, hundreds of regression analyses, and more than 10,000 graphs. Four years ago I dug down, worked hard, and sent off a partial MS saying “I don’t know if this is a book. If it isn’t, just tell me so and I’ll let it go.” I was encouraged to go on but asked a question that led me to another round of analysis and a whole new set of findings and a totally different understanding of the main story. Two years ago there was another crisis: the publisher said  it has to be finished by September or we’ll pull the plug. I dug down, did another revision of another partial MS and sent it off, again saying, I don’t know if this is a book. Maybe we should just give up. Nearly a year ago we had a “book meeting.” The basic response was: This isn’t a book. There is too much information, we don’t want all those details.  It was pretty frustrating to hear that four years after I’d said that. I said I’d think about whether I could reshape things to pull the main narrative out. There is a narrative in there, but it is  hard to see how it hangs together into a single simple story. And I’ve done this so many times, I just don’t think I can do it again. I’m tired of it.

I think it’s time to pull the plug, to salvage the fragments of what I’ve done and put them out in other ways. But it is hard to do. It is hard to decide that I’ve wasted so much of my time for the past 10 years working on a project that will never see the light of day. I can’t make myself send the email. I have to sit with this for a while.

Lessons learned.

For the publisher: don’t give a contract for a book to someone who has never written a book unless there is already a set of articles to build on or a good draft manuscript and outline.  I’ve got (or used to have) a good track record as an article writer, but I have no track record as a book writer. My one book is a collection of articles and that was delivered five years late. Books and articles are different kinds of products and being good at writing one of them does not make you good at writing the other.

For the writer: don’t accept a contract for a book unless you know you can deliver it. It’s been clear for at least 8 years that I had no clear conception of what “the book” would be, and trying to write a book without a clear conception of the product is a recipe for disaster.

And another lesson. Academic work has to be shared and communicated to be meaningful.