Teaching Science through the Arts

In this post, J discusses success they have had with the use of arts based research techniques and the teaching of science via artistic representations.  

For as long as I have memory, I’ve always been captivated by music and stories.  While many of my tastes have shifted and changed throughout my life, one constant has been an insatiable desire for collecting and creating music, stories, and musical stories in every way I can and from as wide a variety of sources as I possibly can.  As I’ve written before on the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction music blog, these interests often find voice in my research and teaching.  In my research, for example, I seek to integrate the stories of respondents into scientific and public discourses related to social inequalities, movements, and developments.  Similarly, I often use the stories of others – and my own – as well as countless musical examples to introduce students to the diversity of contemporary experiences, the methods whereby arts capture broader social patterns whether we notice or not at the time, and the ways the arts often provide the only voice for populations marginalized in religious, scientific, and / or political traditions at a given time or place.

While I have long utilized arts – especially stories and music based – to teach and enhance my research, it wasn’t until the last year that I came into contact with a broader pedagogical and methodological tradition and community of scholars engaging in similar works.  Arts based research, as its often called, is a research and teaching tradition that seeks to bring scientific insights to broader audiences and bridge gaps between varied ways of knowing by utilizing artistic mediums to convey scientific findings to audiences of varied sorts.  As Dr. Patricia Leavy notes in Method Meets Art, this type of work seeks to translate data, findings, and complex theoretical debates into more readily and easily accessible conversations for students, colleagues, and broader audiences who would benefit from such knowledge, but may not be as well versed in the technical or official languages of peer reviewed journal articles and texts.  Further, as Dr. Nowakowski and I have noted in previous publications drawing on teaching evaluation studies and experiments by others, the translation of data into stories and other narrative forms often increases student and public engagement with materials and allows potential learners to personalize important findings and theories in ways that make them salient in their lives beyond classrooms.

It was with these approaches in mind that I began utilizing artistic works in my classes as a way for students to apply theories and methods from journal articles to examples they might face in their own lives.  For example, I utilize offerings from the Social Fictions Series to translate social scientific concepts and issues into opportunities for students to engage with and consider the ways such things play out in their own lives.  When discussing class dynamics, for example, I may have students look at American Circumstance and other novels exploring class dynamics in the lives of characters from the same socio-demographic backgrounds as my students.  Similarly, when discussing social justice and things students might do if they are interested in promoting justice in society, I may have them run through one of the plays in ReView or other anthologies of such work to think about planning, strategy, and the reactions of others to such endeavors.  Further, in recent months I’ve begun incorporating poems, songs, and stories colleagues of mine have composed about specific social events and movements as well as publishing my own first research based novel – Cigarettes & Wine – concerning Queer experience in the south.  In all these and more cases, my incorporation of more artistic representations of data, findings, and theories has in each case facilitated even more student engagement, student discussion, and student investment than other methods I’ve attempted over the years, and in many cases, students have returned long after such class meetings to further discuss the works and talk about sharing these works with friends and families who – in many cases – never took much interest in the purely academic materials from the classes.

These experiences have led me to think more and more about the utility of arts based research and the teaching of science through the arts – especially in a social context wherein narratives and stories often carry more weight among many population groups than any raw data seems to be able to.  As such, I wanted to use this space today simply to encourage others to think about the possibilities of arts based research within and beyond classrooms, and the ways such efforts might enhance attempts to engage and motivate students concerning complex and often socially and politically important topics in our world today.

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Mixed Feelings about the Women’s March on Washington: Coming of Age in White Spaces as a Dark-Skinned Black Woman

This week’s post is a reflection on the marches that occurred over the weekend from a Doctoral Candidate in a social scientific PhD program in the United States. 

As I watch fellow women march in their respective cities, I am swept up in a mix of emotions: pride, encouragement, but most surprisingly to me: envy. I covet what these women have: identification as a woman; but mostly confirmation as a woman. As I reflect more, I think the show of solidarity by women across the globe highlights the loneliness I have experienced in my search for womanhood.

My formative experiences were shaped by my white peers. My adolescence was predominantly white, made up of predominantly white schools, and in predominantly white classrooms. My friends were white. My classmates were white. And thus, I came of age in an environment that valued whiteness over everything else. Including my experiences as a black woman.

Due to constant reminders from my family and friends, I knew I was black (And I knew I was a woman due to the way I conceptualized myself). I still know these things.  But, my womanhood has always been secondary to my blackness.  Whenever I was treated unequally, I chalked it up to racism. When there was no one who was interested in dating me, I chalked it up to racism. I’ve always been treated as black. But, I’ve never been treated as a black woman.

How this relates to my feelings about various Women’s Marches is still something I’m trying to work out. But, my initial thoughts are this: In every formative interaction, my blackness has superseded every womanly quality I have.

Now, at 29 – as I am finally coming into what I view as womanhood – I am still trying to reconcile what about womanhood makes me feel so disconnected from my peers. Those who I am supposed to feel a kinship with. I believe that answer can be found in the fact that as a black woman coming of age in white spaces, I experienced constant de-gendering. I must now struggle to find – and interpret – my womanhood, and what it means for myself. Thus – couched in a time when womanhood seems to be fiercely embraced, rallied around, and protested for – I find myself lost.

I often wonder if there are other people like me. People who are still searching for their womanhood amidst their ethnicity. Those who feel disconnected from other women who have found it – or who have never had to search for it in the first place.

I feel it must be difficult. And lonely.

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Activism As Expertise

 Eric Anthony Grollman is a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist. They are an assistant professor of sociology at University of Richmond, and editor of Conditionally Accepted – an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized scholars.  In this post, they call for understanding activism as an important form of academic and intellectual expertise.    

 

“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.

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Incorporating Underrepresented Populations in Teaching and Research

In this post, the Write Where It Hurts editorial team reflects on their experience advocating strategies for teaching to and about marginalized populations often left out of mainstream educational materials, research protocols, and data sets (see our recently published Teaching Sociology article on this topic here) in hopes of facilitating dialogue about the incorporation of marginalized and otherwise underrepresented populations in teaching and research.

As people who belong to, write about, teach, study, and engage in advocacy related to varied populations marginalized or otherwise often left out of mainstream education and scholarship (i.e., donor conceived people, adopted people, transgender and non-binary people, people managing chronic physical and / or mental atypical experiences, etc.), we have become intimately aware of the limitations or missing elements within much existing scientific data and educational resources. At the same time, we know all too well the structural and ideological barriers that slow alteration and revision of existing educational rituals, traditions, and structural patterns in concrete settings. As we did in our recently published Teaching Sociology article focused on strategies for inclusive teaching about gender via the use of survey data that often does not explicitly measure the gender diversity of our shared world, we would like to encourage our colleagues to consider strategies for overcoming existing structural and ideological traditions in hopes of continuing dialogue about methods for creating greater diversity and inclusivity within and beyond scholarly and educational materials.

As we note in our recent article, many data sets called “representative” and used to make far-reaching claims often do not contain and / or do not explicitly measure people like us. If, for example, Xan seeks to learn about social patterns related to donor conceived or agender people, such data sets offer no answers despite the use of such data to “represent” national or other whole populations. Likewise, if J seeks to learn about the experiences of transgender, adopted, or sexually fluid people, all ze will learn from data is that such people are not part of the representation of this society. Similarly, if Lain seeks to ascertain attitudes concerning or held by genderqueer and / or bisexual people, most data sets called “representative” will only offer a “representation” wherein such groups do not exist in any identifiable manner. Despite these “missing” populations, researchers, teachers, and advocates will often utilize these sets to make claims about, for example, families, gender, and sexualities that – we would guess unintentionally – ultimately reproduce existing power structures as well as the marginalization of the groups left out of the official representation contained in the data. In fact, we can see similar problems for other marginalized groups including but not limited to homeless people, neuro-atypical people, and multi and inter racial people despite the use of such data to make claims about housing, mental and physical health, and racial dynamics on a regular basis.

Alongside growing recognition of issues with calling limited collections of people and measurements “representative,” we have heard some advocate doing away with these data sets while establishing more inclusive and diverse forms of data collection, measurement, and sampling. Doing so, however, would require massive changes structurally, ideologically, and institutionally, which will likely take much time, debate, and discussion to accomplish. At the same time, we have heard others advocate for maintaining existing practices or rituals while seeking to explain away the limitations or problems with existing data collection, measurement, and coding practices. Doing so, however, would require accepting the ongoing marginalization and erasure of many sections of the population from official representations. In our article, we propose a middle ground between these two extremes wherein we utilize the existing limitations to illustrate important patterns, power dynamics, and structural issues in contemporary society while continuing to push for revisions in existing data collection, measurement and sampling procedures and encouraging scholars, teachers, and others to talk about such data sets in more inclusive ways within publications and classrooms.

With this information in mind, we invite dialogue, commentary and discussion on strategies for inclusive teaching with existing data limitations and issues. Whether one seeks to join this conversation on this site or in relation to our call in Teaching Sociology or in any other space, we invite and appreciate other educators’ perspectives on these matters. To this end, ask yourself what do we say to unrepresented populations when we call data sources devoid of their presence or measurement representative of our world? What institutional and structural steps might we need to take to make our data sources and educational materials more inclusive of marginalized, underrepresented, and otherwise “missing” populations? Why do we push so hard for generalizations instead of seeking to empirically map the complexities, nuances, and diversity of our shared world, and is this pursuit of “representative” or “generalizable” claims worth the potential negative effects such practices may have on marginalized populations? While we will not pretend to have some “right” or “absolute” answers to these questions, our experiences to date within and beyond classrooms tell us these questions might be incredibly important and useful in many ways. Thus, we encourage members of our intellectual and activist communities to engage openly in these (admittedly challenging) conversations in order to move us closer to truly understanding the complexities of our social world and challenging the inequalities that exist within it.

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The Transgender Religion Survey

In this post, J. Sumerau discusses the motivations, contents, and goals of a survey effort seeking to document and amplify the voices of sex and gender groups typically missing from social scientific surveys about religion and nonreligion in American society.

In the past few years, contemporary religious and nonreligious commentators have begun to issue formal and informal statements concerning sex and gender diversity. As transgender women and men, intersex people, non-binary people, agender people, genderqueer people, and other groups of people who do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “woman/man” sex and gender binaries gain more recognition in American society and continue to fight for equal rights and representation in this country, some of the largest religious traditions in the country – including but not limited to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Catholic Church – have started issuing official statements about these groups of people. While some of these statements have been positive (such as the recent changes occurring within Reform Judaism to incorporate greater recognition of sex and gender diversity), many of them have been negative (such as the Southern Baptist Convention denouncing transgender, intersex, and non-binary existence).

At the same time, debates have emerged (especially online) within nonreligious communities about these populations and their place in American society. Like their religious counterparts, some of these examples have included positive depictions of such communities and calls for greater recognition, inclusion, and support of sex and gender diversity in America. However, some other nonreligious leaders and lay people have taken the opposite side while adopting and repeating negative stereotypes and condemnations of these communities. If the historical experiences of various marginalized people and communities offer any clues to these patterns, one may assume that religious and nonreligious statements about sex and gender diversity will only increase, that such statements may have far ranging effects on policy, politics, and the everyday experiences of many people, and that politicians (as presidential candidate Marco Rubio did earlier this week) may seize on these statements to justify opposition to equal rights for all people regardless of sex and gender status, identification, and experience.

As we watched these patterns unfold over the last couple of years while doing research and teaching concerning sex and gender groups and statuses often missing from traditional research agendas, measurement strategies, and protocols, some supportive colleagues and I became interested in what sex and gender groups typically missing from existing surveys might say about these patterns, the statements religious and nonreligious people made about sex and gender diversity, and their own religious and nonreligious experiences. To begin exploring this question, I began explicitly asking transgender, intersex, and non-binary people I encountered at various events for their opinions on these topics, for advice about incorporating these opinions and experiences into scholarship, and for advice concerning the best way to create a questionnaire or survey capable of capturing such opinions for scholarly dissemination and publication. While I initially only went to events and meetings I already attended occasionally or was already acquainted with, I gradually began to find and attend other meetings and events in hopes of gathering the most diverse array of advice, opinions, and suggestions I could. Specifically, I sought out people in each of these groups who experienced life in varied racial, class, regional, community, and political contexts in hopes of developing a study that could be as inclusive as possible of the immense variation contained within any common sex and gender status, group, or community categories.

Overall, the lesson I learned from all these informal inquiries was that if anything characterized the groups experiences of and opinions about religion and nonreligion it was diversity. People in each group agreed about many things, disagreed about many other things, and accomplished both of these options from question to question at times. As a result, I decided to fashion a survey that would allow people to self-identify and self-define their selves, experiences, and attitudes concerning religion, nonreligion, and other elements of American society. With this goal in mind, I turned to a supportive colleague with extensive experience designing surveys, and we further recruited another colleague who did their master’s work on sex and gender diversity and worked with us on other pieces on these issues related to religion. The three of us developed survey questions that allowed for a lot of variation in terms of responses, and then I took these questions back to people I had consulted previously to evaluate our efforts.

Over time, this process of construction and revision led to a survey instrument wherein respondents who choose to participate may define themselves (via multiple options or written in their own words; for example the gender identification question has 17 multiple choice options and an open-ended other response respondents may write in) in varied ways on every single variable, discuss their experiences and attitudes in their own words via open-ended options tied to questions about religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions and categories (for example, rather than assuming an experience with sex status, there is an open-ended question where respondents can share and define such experience in their own words), and wherein respondents may answer questions commonly offered on other religion and nonreligion surveys that generally do not have sex and gender measurements or only allow male/female or man/woman options for sex and / or gender.

Recently, we launched this survey online, and we are currently in the process of recruiting and gathering respondents through social media, conversations with national organizations, and through word of mouth in various communities. With recruitment under way, I wanted to use this space to discuss the details of the survey for anyone who may be considering participation. Simply put, the survey is a combination of multiple choice and open ended questions focused on religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions in contemporary America. Anyone who participates will have the opportunity to self define (either through the selection of one of many options provided in the survey or by writing in their own self identification in their own words) their own gender, sex, sexuality, race, education, income, religious or nonreligious affiliation, year of birth, state or region of residence, employment status, healthcare access, and political views. Respondents will also encounter a series of questions ascertaining religious, nonreligious, and other social experiences, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs (most of these also include open ended options for response and / or elaboration). Rather than assuming anything about the populations eligible for this study, we have specifically designed the survey itself to allow people to identify in their own ways, and discuss their own opinions, experiences, attitudes and beliefs.

Since our goal here is to document and amplify the experiences and opinions of sex and gender populations typically left out of surveys concerning religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions, anyone who identifies or exists in ways that do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “man/woman” binaries is eligible for participation in this study. As such, the focus of this survey rests upon comparing and contrasting the variation, diversity and complexity of sex and gender groups typically missing from previous surveys concerning religion, nonreligion, and other aspects of social life.

As part of contemporary institutional research processes, we developed a shorthand  label for describing and explaining the project to audiences and reviewers beyond the target population. After consulting with various members of different sex and / or gender groups, we decided to name the project the Transgender Religion Survey for official purposes because this option received the most support from members of these various social groups.

Especially considering that many sex and gender groups do not necessarily use or identify with the term “transgender” and many spiritual, nonreligious, and even some religious people do not necessarily use or identify with the term “religion,” we recognize that this name is not perfect and understand the perspectives of people who might prefer other names or not use or identify with these terms in daily life. However, for the purposes of this study and following the lead of some other large scale efforts to incorporate sex and gender groups often marginalized and erased in contemporary American society, we use transgender in the official survey documentation as a broad umbrella term for anyone who does not fit neatly into societal assumptions about binary sex and / or gender status, identification, expression, and / or display. Likewise, for the purposes of this study religion is defined as of or having to do with assumptions, beliefs, and practices regarding the supernatural.

While many people who fit within the broad definitions noted above identify in a wide variety of ways, shift and change language and identification terms and definitions over time in varied ways, and have very distinct experiences, beliefs and characteristics, we selected these terms as broad descriptors for the overall effort. Within the survey itself, respondents will define themselves in terms of sex, gender, and religion, and our analyses and use of this data will be built upon the ways people self identify and describe themselves, the variations and distinct experiences shared by the varied populations, and the representations respondents select for their distinct lives, groups, and experiences with religion, nonreligion, and other social phenomena. Rather than attempting to pick a definition for this or that group, we thus allow people to define themselves, and we will utilize their self definitions to compare and contrast variation among sex and gender groups concerning religion, nonreligion, and other elements of contemporary American society.

As a result, this project does not seek to define the characteristics of specific groups (i.e., what is transgender, what is Christian, what is atheist, what is intersex, etc.). There are many talented and capable activists and scholars engaged in such work at present, but in this case we will utilize the definitions and terms selected and discussed by the respondents themselves. Our goal is thus to compliment the work of sex and gender activists and scholars by incorporating the voices of sex and gender groups typically missing from other surveys into other areas of contemporary scholarship.

In closing, I encourage all eligible people (i.e., anyone who identifies or exists in ways that do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “man/woman” binaries) to consider participating in this study. While I hope for the day when all sex and gender groups are regularly recognized, included, and represented in scholarly efforts, I am reminded of how far we have to go to reach this goal every year when I encounter students that learn of many sex and gender groups for the first time in my classes. With this survey effort, we seek to continue and compliment ongoing efforts to increase the awareness and recognition of sex and gender diversity in contemporary society by documenting some ways varied sex and gender groups experience and think about religion and nonreligion.

For more information, official survey documentation noted above, and / or to participate in the study, please visit: http://researchsurveyor.com/surveys/index.php?r=survey%2Findex&sid=568681&lang=en

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Ripped Pages, Erased words – lessons from the unintended audience

A writer across genres and disciplines, this anonymous contributor is playing the professional field. She is debating whether to continue tenure track pursuits or focus on a career that lets her write what she chooses while pursuing advocacy work. She is grateful for the conversation/reflection that inspired this essay. 

There were two times in my life – once as a child, another as a young adult – where I was asked to destroy my words. In both situations, men asked me to get rid of my words – a journal and a blog. As a survivor of sexual assault and a feminist scholar aware of gendered language and silence, it was important for my own journey as a writer to fully name and forgive how I had responded to write as a result of those moments. I write this to remind myself why I write, for whom I write and to face the fears that have emerged in what I could/want to write and publish.

First, the journal writing I was doing as a 10-11 year old was framed by divorce, moving, death of a childhood friend and grandparents’ return to Puerto Rico. In that time period, abstract thought developing in my brain along with a great deal of loss in my environment creo un sentido de rencor, angustia y resentimiento. I was angry at everyone before I was a teenager. I had been lost, confused and I felt worthless given how much consistency I had lost. That anger was private until an elder read it. After reading it, he demanded I throw my words away because of how disrespectful and hurtful they were to the people I was framing in a negative manner. My words, my private thoughts were not protected because the journal was neither locked nor stored in a secret place. As a child I internalized the idea that my words did not belong to me. Once I ripped out the pages, I started writing fiction. Fiction as escape, as release, as an optimism I would not allow myself to find in an environment until I grew to live comfortably as a lesbian in a city located in the Western United States.

Ten or eleven years later, I was still acting and writing ‘straight’. I was writing straight fantasies, very PG, I thought, and the object of my affection demanded I take down the blog. Written without ever thinking he’d see it, I grew mortified that someone would share it, especially given the greater social context in which my ‘feelings’ for him were shared with him and how long it took him to tell me that someone told him. The person I was writing about yelled at me for how I felt, for writing it down and for publicizing it the way I had. Again, my words no longer belonged to me and I had to get rid of them. I did. Within months, I stopped associating with all involved. The wounds of being uncovered, of leaving and all that neither of us understand of each other’s life lay as an ever-increasing gap between us. Not just for the manner in which something public-private had been shared, but, more specifically, for what I understood that to represent at the time.

In both of these instances, I took for granted where I was writing. As a child, I needed locks and I needed hiding to keep my words mine. The uninvited and unintended audiences wanted to alter/erase my words because of what those words meant to them. Those words were not direct weapons against them. For me, in either instance, the words attempted to explore hurt, frustration, loneliness. The losses and change were overwhelming with minimal outlets available compared to the extent so many were suffering. I wrote as a means to escape, to let go of feelings. To have that taken from me, literally ripped out, informed fantasy writing that would sustain me until high school gave me access to password protected writing.

As a college student teetering on living in truth/coming out and trying to find smaller ways to be different, blogging was a way to connect with a handful of friends who had online journals and remained as invisible as I intended to be. Like in my childhood, I wanted a way to have a journal go with me wherever I was, operating on the belief that I was insignificant enough not to be distributed. It served as a way to explore curiosities, questions, internalized hetero-romantic idealism and other ideas that are of little significance to me now. In those moments, they were growing pains on paper/on screen. Growing pains that were mine. A question emerged that I will address after explaining how I viewed those two moments.

Those writings were a necessary process in my journey. Tremendous loss shaped how I perceived family because of how little control we had over our lives and over the affects of others’ choices on my ability to have, what I thought, was a normative childhood. No one wants to lose so much so quickly. Divorce and death shake foundations. Those I grew to rely on dispersed, and, in that, the grief of various communities – blood and peer – overwhelmed me. Grief transformed to hate because I could not bring my friend back. I could not go back to the house I had lived in for ten years. I did not have childhood friends I played with living next to me. I had more than my uncle had at my age, but that more was not something I would understand or forgive until others’ affluence taught me the power and resilience I had gained in that year of intense loss and change.

As for the online journal I kept in undergrad, I wanted to rewrite ownership of my sexuality. I didn’t think I owned it because – whether a gender or a community – I had spent a lifetime internalizing that my sexuality was not my own. Women grapple with this as much as those who struggle with being queer. I only allowed myself to understand that I had to hide, negotiate and perform resistance to the factors that informed the lack of ownership regarding my sexuality. Because of how new I had been to that community, because of the struggle I had relating to and working with cismen (of color), I was terrified of sharing the complex emotions I had around my body. When I did, I felt I was giving up too much too quickly. It has taken me years of poetry, therapy, and journaling to forgive myself and those young men for how naive we were about bodies, power, sexuality and desire.

The ownership others take over words based on their age/gender internalized authority remains a struggle in many communities. As writers, we each contend with the implications of ownership and measurement exercised by those who use social media to factor into whether one will be hired, published in the future, or deemed socially appropriate because of how in/visible we hope to be and because there are members of our audience we do not know. Reflecting over reactions remains key because there is a great deal we learn from ourselves in the process. Those lessons can, when we allow them to, spur our creative, intellectual and spiritual growth. Neither silence nor censorship will control the audience that thieves itself into the words to which we do not invite them. Neither silence/self-censorship will adequately erase the effects of our experiences. Writing is a choice, a demand for those of us who have born witness to suffering brought on by silence.

The quality of our writing can improve with awareness of how we control what we choose. As scholars, we control that which we are most informed. I take this out of my journal to share on this blog out of a need to forgive myself for who I couldn’t be for myself in moments I needed to express myself while protecting the integrity of my right to feel. As I grow as a writer, protection remains key, which is why I choose for this to remain anonymous for now. I want to control where my writing goes next. I want it to go to a place where, in the future, attaching my names to these words will not cause me nor any of the people in this narrative harm.

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Comprehensive Exams are a Glorified Hazing Ritual

 

The following anonymous guest post is by a doctoral candidate at a public research university in the United States.  In this post, he discusses experience with comprehensive exams often required for doctoral study, and the ways such exams mirror hazing patterns in other institutions and groups.  

As many graduate students know, comprehensive exams (sometimes also called preliminary exams, qualifying exams, prelims, comps, etc.) are often part of the grad school process. I’m sure I’m not the only person who heard horror stories about such tests from senior graduate students and faculty alike from the earliest days of grad school. The stories from graduate students went something like this:

 

“Oh my GOD. The semester you take the test is the worst semester of your life.”

“Get ready to hate everything when you take them.”

“I mean, people have failed before. It’s been documented.”

“Jeez, I don’t even remember half the stuff from the test, but make sure you know the stuff for the exam.”

“They’re so hard. The worst. Ugh I hate them.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

From faculty:

 

“You will seriously need to study. Plan on doing nothing else the semester you take them.”

“Your exams are what first demonstrate that you are going to be a scholar in (area X) of (discipline Y). So you need to take them seriously.”

“You need to remember everything from the readings. Yes everything.”

“People have failed them before.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

Now, in my particular situation the students were assigned or selected a certain number of texts to read in order to reflect their expertise in a specific area of the discipline. Then over the course of many hours (sometimes in one day, sometimes in two) they sat in a specified room and typed our responses. Faculty then assessed our responses and assigned a score.  Then, we learned our score, but never saw the test again.

For me, as someone who struggles with anxiety, hearing all of this before taking my exams was extremely disconcerting. As I listened to my colleagues and faculty gush about the horror of the tests I started to wonder why we even do them anymore. Over and over again I heard graduate students and faculty alike reinforcing the notion that the tests need to be taken seriously, that they’re intimidating, horrifying, traumatizing even.

In the midst of all this advice, multiple graduate students repeatedly told me that no one ever asked them about the test in the months/years after completing them, so “just get through it and move on”. Each person I talked to portrayed their method of studying as the way to study for these tests. People shared their “survival strategies” with me in what seemed like an effort to soften the blow of this supposedly horrendous process.

When it came time for me to start studying, I kept all these things in mind: the terror of the test, the embarrassment that would come if I didn’t pass, the stress of being a slow reader trying to get through thousands of pages of texts. I woke up in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety more than once. It seemed my colleagues were right: comprehensive exams are terrible.

“But why?” I wondered to myself. “Why do they have to be terrible if this thing is just a valorized essay test that no one will ever ask me about ever again in my life once it’s over?” it was during this reflection that I realized that all comprehensive exams really are is a glorified hazing process for graduate students.

And I get it, if you think about it as a hazing process it all makes sense:

The tests are framed as the thing that will make you an expert in a field. This framing reinforces the notion that they are not only important, but that if we all really want to be experts then we need to do really well on them. In reality, a completed dissertation or set of publications is more likely to reflect your expertise in a given area, but pointing this out might undermine the ritual of comprehensive exams.

The tests are vaguely framed as scary and something we need to take seriously, even though most people pass, most programs allow you to take them more than once, and no one will ever ask you about them ever again. This fits the guidelines of a hazing ritual perfectly. If we aren’t repetitively told that the tests are scary then maybe we would see them for what they really are: timed essays shrouded in hype. Also, if students are scared into (over) studying for the test, then faculty can say “you must not have studied hard enough” in the face of someone who does fail. In this framework, failing the test becomes a personal failure, instead of a problem with the structure of the examination, and the structure of academia more broadly. Namely how the structure itself is specifically disadvantageous to neuro-atypical, racial/class/gender/sexual minority students who have been told over and over that we aren’t good enough, will never be good enough, and can’t succeed.

“Surviving” makes you one of the team, and then you get to tell future generations how awful the process is. This makes me think of a friend of mine who was involved in Greek life during his time in undergrad. A few years before he pledged his fraternity, their chapter got in trouble for hazing. As a result, they were under serious surveillance from the national office of their fraternity. The brothers who were seniors during his freshman year were the last pledge class to get hazed and were extremely bitter that the incoming class didn’t have to navigate the same emotionally stressful, degrading, “bonding” activities that they did. To these older brothers the initiation of my friend’s pledge class cheapened the meaning of brotherhood.

Comprehensive exams, as they exist now in many programs, operate in effectively the same way: Faculty and senior graduate students who made it through this format get to maintain boundaries between “them” and “us”, those who are “in” on the knowledge and those who are “out.” They do this by engaging in the same, ritualistic scare tactics that they experienced before they made it through the process, and in so doing justify and reinforce the meaning of their own experiences with the hazing process. Otherwise something that they spent a significant portion of their time in graduate school worrying about might be rendered meaningless.

Once you pass them, they don’t really matter. I took my comprehensive exams. I passed. And I’ve never been asked about them since (with the exception of other nervous graduate students who will take them in the future).

Now, to be fair, I learned a lot while studying for the tests, and it was not a total loss. I also understand the argument that we need to have something in place to make sure that people who are getting PhDs are truly experts in a field. I agree, I’m just not convinced that this format of evaluation is it. I also know that not all programs use this format, in fact some of them have (what I think) are much more useful evaluation methods.

For example, in an academic context where publishing is becoming increasingly more important, why not have students review a specific body of theoretical literature, craft a paper that makes a new theoretical contribution, and then submit it for publication? This format allows students to get the experience of reading broadly and deeply across a field, and the written result of all that work isn’t thrown into a vault where their ideas just waste away. Students could also do an archival research project of all the literature in one or two journals that relate directly to their dissertation topic and give an oral or written (but not timed) defense of that literature. Doing this could help students expedite their dissertation proposals and would give them a wide and deep understanding of their disciplinary sub-field/ fields.

I don’t expect changes to the current format overnight. So while what I mention above are just two potential alternatives to this format, I would like to share some thoughts for students who may be getting ready to take comprehensive exams that look like the ones I took:

Do take them seriously, but remember that they are not the end of the world. Yes, these tests do determine when/if you get to move on in the program, but they are not the be all and end all of your worth as a scholar or a human being.

If your program allows you to take comprehensive exams more than once, think about the first time you take them as a practice round. This is easier said than done, especially when the implicit knowledge around one’s department might be that failing is shameful. However, if you can do this it helps put them in perspective – just think, if you have to take them again at least you will know what you’re getting into. Also, you can spend the semester(s) between the first and second time taking them as a chance to work on your dissertation proposal, and then defend your proposal immediately after you (in all likelihood) pass them the next time.

Hey, senior graduate students and faculty, stop treating failing like its shameful. If you passed, good for you, but just because someone doesn’t pass their first time (or ever) doesn’t lessen their value. Help shrink this as a departmental (and academy-wide) norm. Yes, there might be people who fail because they didn’t study, but it can often be significantly more complicated that that. Again, minority scholars specifically are told their whole lives how likely we are to fail at any time. Instead of reinforcing this logic, work to create an environment where students can do better the next time.

Develop your own studying method(s). In the months leading up to comprehensive exams you will likely be inundated with advice on the best study methods. Really, the best method is whatever works for you. Maybe you audio record conversations you have with yourself about the readings, maybe you make flashcards. You could be someone that needs to structure every hour of their day, or a person to whom that degree of structure feels suffocating. Perhaps you discuss the readings with a study buddy over drinks or coffee, or conversely, you might like to study more solitarily. These and dozens of other methods exist – trust yourself to figure out the one that works best for you and run with it.

Don’t lose yourself. Take some evenings off and hang out with friends (or not), allow yourself to watch Netflix between a reading or two, take a long walk and listen to music – whatever feels like a relaxing activity to you, don’t be afraid to do it. In all likelihood that one evening, or one episode of Breaking Bad won’t make or break your experience with comprehensive exams.

All in all, we could seriously use a critical examination of the pedagogical reason these tests exist in this fashion. For now, though, hopefully this framing will help bring the process back down to earth for folks who will be managing this ritual in the future.

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Our Peers, Ourselves: Introspective Tips for Insightful Reviews

This week’s post is the final in a four part series where Xan and J share experience and tips managing academic publication and reviewing.  In this post, Xan provides tips for being a good reviewer.

Hello readers! Xan here again for our second of two posts on peer review. Last week I shared my thoughts on how peer review often goes wrong, as well as some general discussion on how it can go entirely right. This week, I’m following up with specific strategies to help you write awesome peer reviews that will support your fellow scholars in doing great work while also building your reputation as a professional.

Becoming a great peer reviewer is first and foremost about finding meaningful ways to connect with and support your fellow scholars when you can’t show your face or tell them your name. To do this effectively requires remembering one thing first and foremost, which brings me to my first suggestion to help you become the best reviewer you can be.

  1. Remember that today’s peer reviewers are tomorrow’s authors…and vice versa.

We all dream of receiving kind, thoughtful reviews that help us get to the top of our game as writers and thinkers. We can also probably point to at least a few examples from our careers where reviewers did exactly that, regardless of what the journal editor’s final decision was. Those reviews are the real game-changers, yet they are unnecessarily rare. It’s easier to write a thoughtful and constructive review—especially in cases where you have serious concerns about the methods or findings in a paper—if you remember that the authors truly are your peers. It’s easier still if you stop to think that tomorrow the tables may turn, and the same people might be reviewing one of your own papers. Model your reviews after the kind of feedback you yourself wish to receive!

  1. Read every word of the manuscript with care and consideration.

In academia as well as the applied world, we are often required to read and digest huge amounts of text in small amounts of time. This is a great skill to have, but there are some specific ways to apply it that will help you get the most out of a first manuscript reading so that you can write a really dynamite review. Ordinarily I am the supreme overlord of reading electronically, but I never do this for a peer review. Why? Reading in hard copy helps me to savor every word of the manuscript as if I were reading a favorite poem, and to think about all the ways in which I could possibly interpret each phrase.  This is crucial to writing excellent peer reviews, not only because it gives you a phenomenally solid grasp of the manuscript content, but also because it makes giving authors the benefit of the doubt much easier. How many times have you received a review in which you were asked to do something that you’d already done quite explicitly in your first draft—or worse, attacked for not doing that thing? Don’t be that reviewer. Instead, be the reviewer whose comments are accurate and precise. Editors and authors alike will appreciate your efforts!

  1. Take good notes and save them until a final decision on the manuscript has been provided.

To help you make those accurate and precise comments that will get you to the top of your reviewing game, take concise but thorough notes in line with the text that you can then use to write a point-by-point review. I suggest coding these notes with symbols that tell you where in the review to incorporate each piece of feedback.   Your specific system will vary depending on the precise structure you prefer for your reviews, but most editors will suggest that you offer some distinction between major issues with the manuscript and minor points for improvement.

  1. Consider that something being new or different doesn’t automatically make it wrong.

To be clear, major issues are things like conclusions that aren’t supported by the data, unclear relationships between the literature cited in the “front matter” and the content of the later sections, or weaknesses in the research methods that fundamentally call the findings into question. Some things that are *not* major issues include: need for English-language editing services, typographical or grammatical errors, unconventional choices of pronouns or identity labels, etc. Reviews often become a hotbed for microaggressions towards people who differ from ourselves in one or more ways. It’s much easier to keep the focus on the content when you take careful, detailed notes about why you think something is an issue and what you’d suggest the authors do about it. In cases where there really is a serious issue with the research, it’s also much easier to back up your concerns when you have a detailed record of your thinking.

  1. When you feel tempted to pass judgment on something, ask a question instead.

In my experience as a reviewer, for every paper with such severe flaws as to suggest problematic motives on the part of the authors, there have been numerous others with shortcomings owing more to clarity of expression or thoroughness of explanation than to conflicts of interest. When reviewing a paper that raises “red flags” in your mind, think about how you would want a fellow scholar to respond if they had similar concerns about your own work. Would you want them to eviscerate you on the spot for the possibility of your work not being honest, or would you want them to ask thoughtful questions and encourage you to share the facts before passing judgment? Give your authors enough rope to hang themselves. In most cases, you’ll find that said rope quickly becomes a lifeline that can rescue a sinking argument. And if you still have questions after the final version of a paper appears in print, why not write a thoughtful letter to the editor in response, and net yourself an additional publication while promoting constructive scholarly dialogue?

  1. If you make a suggestion, substantiate it with specific strategies and helpful resources.

I don’t know about all of you, but I love those reviews where someone suggests a change and then offers a citation or two to help me make it. That’s a great way to get yourself noticed as a constructive reviewer, and to make a great impact on the final published research. Humans are remarkably like other creatures in that if we can see a path of least resistance, we are likely to take it and do so gladly. Offer your authors a clear path to greatness and encourage them to follow it! To frame your comments, think about the most helpful and encouraging feedback you received from your mentors in school, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, and try to emulate that. Point out the precise reasons for which a specific item needs improvement, articulate a concrete strategy for making those improvements, and affirm that the end product will be stronger for the authors’ efforts in implementing your feedback.

  1. Know that being a great reviewer means both speaking thoughtfully and listening attentively.

As reviewers and as writers, we are stronger together than we are individually, especially when we take the time to look out for one another as we do for ourselves. This means not only sharing our own ideas, but also taking the time to consider the insights and perspectives of others whose experiences and contexts may differ substantially from our own. So I’ll put my money where my writing is and turn the floor over to our readers. What tips do all of you have for writing spectacular peer reviews? What lessons have you learned during your time as a peer reviewer that you’d like to pass along to others?

We encourage all of you to share your experiences in the comments—let’s make this one of those supposedly rare Internet postings where it actually *is* a good idea to read the comments—and spread that wisdom around to your colleagues. Writing Where It Hurts about your experiences with peer review makes it easier for all of us to review where it helps!

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Doc Eat Doc World? Thinking Differently About Peer Review

This week’s post is the third in a four part series where Xan and J share experience and tips managing academic publication and reviewing.  In this post, Xan discusses the elements of being a good reviewer and some ways to capitalize on reviewing opportunities in terms of careers and networks.

Hello readers, Xan here! Over the last couple weeks, we got some great tips from J on how to publish a whole bunch – see here and here. This week, I’m offering some insights on sitting at that other side of the publishing table: being a reviewer! I’ll follow up this first post next week with my own top tips for writing awesome peer reviews, and building your reputation as a scholar in the process.

Writing peer reviews is a great way to support your fellow scholars and have a hand in getting good research published. There’s a lot of good research floating around out there in peer review, so this is a very important task! Serving as a peer reviewer also provides you with the opportunity to strengthen manuscripts that are merely okay with suggestions that help the authors make them truly great.

It also certainly doesn’t hurt that writing peer reviews for a diverse array of journals looks great on your CV. If you’re Writing Where It Hurts on the regular by doing scholarship and outreach on controversial topics, or if you occupy a marginalized social location within academia, or if you just want that promotion so badly you can taste it, writing awesome peer reviews can help you get there! Being a peer reviewer helps you to shine not only by diversifying your record of professional service, but also by increasing your own chances of publishing in the journals of your choice.

As J pointed out earlier this fall, publishing a lot is very much about building strong relationships with editors at your target journals. Offering your services as a peer reviewer and writing thoughtful, constructive reviews is a wonderful way to accomplish this. There are certainly others, of course, but being a dependable and affirming peer reviewer is one of the best.

Editors absolutely do take notice of the content and quality of reviews you submit. And if you’re writing good ones, odds are you’ll receive more than a few emails from editors expressing gratitude for your excellent work, and urging you to submit your own work to that journal. Here at Write Where It Hurts, we get a lot of these emails, and we’d like to spread that good fortune around to as many people as possible.

Making an editor’s day with a really excellent manuscript review hardly requires a doctoral degree—indeed, it’s something all of you readers can do even if you are still in graduate school. Writing good reviews isn’t about the particular credentials you hold, but rather the critical thinking skills and spirit of curiosity you brought with you upon matriculation.

Of course, if you’re in graduate school right now, you’re probably also hearing a fair few horror stories about the peer review process. We all have them, and if you’re looking to publish a lot, your best bet is to treat them like literal horror stories—i.e., macabre entertainment. A certain neuroscientist whom I admire greatly once regaled me with tales of how a peer reviewer told her that her manuscript “should really be two papers, neither of which should be published”. She went on to publish the paper in another top journal.

J has given you plenty of excellent ideas for turning garbage into gold when receiving spiteful or just plain incoherent peer reviews. I’ll give you my own detailed perspectives later on how to write a truly golden review, even in those cases where you may think that a paper is absolute garbage. I have had this thought precisely once in the course of many years as a peer reviewer, and approached reviewing it from the perspective of coaching the research team in salvaging the paper if at all possible. The review earned me lengthy accolades from the journal’s editor, who in turn strongly encouraged the authors to incorporate my feedback for future submissions.

So I speak from experience in saying that the secret to writing good peer reviews is first and foremost to remember that we are all in this together. Although our perspectives as scholars may differ dramatically at times, we are ultimately part of a shared community of learners and teachers. We do our best work as members of this community when we remember that we do not stand in it alone, and that anonymity does not equate to null consequences for our own behavior. Even anonymity itself is a fantasy, of course. While the authors may never know who wrote that petty and vitriolic review, the editors certainly do, and they will remember.

Perhaps the more important question here, though, is why anyone would *want* to hit their fellow scholars below the belt in the first place. It’s a question I can’t answer with a high amount confidence because the correct response likely varies by individual, but I can certainly make some educated guesses. The hateful peer reviewer is academia’s equivalent of the Internet troll, a person whose only socially acceptable outlet for rage, which likely owes to a fair amount of perceived marginalization in their own life, is ranting into the abyss.

I suspect every person reading this article has experienced marginalization on at least one occasion in their life, and in turn entered a sort of “sneaky hate spiral” in which they eventually lose their composure and all semblance of social graces over a seemingly innocuous exchange. I’ve been there myself, and look back with a mixture of regret and empathy at those times where I’ve chewed out a customer service representative or scathingly silenced a grocery bagger for asking one too many questions about my personal life.

But likewise, I’ve tried to use those moments as an opportunity to understand what makes us find so much satisfaction in cutting down someone who has no power over us in the first place—and to use them as a means of connecting meaningfully with them and others afterwards. Beyond the world of academia, this has led me not only to apologize on the spot if I’ve snapped at someone, but also to explain what led me to do so. Without fail, the other person has responded with appreciation and compassion.

So what if we could do the same as peer reviewers—or better yet, simply jump ahead to the territory of sharing and connectedness? In my experience, we can and sometimes do…and it’s easier than we might think. Tune in next week for some tips on bridging the gap between criticism and critique by exploring our own thoughts as we examine those of others.

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Adventures in Publishing Volume 2

This week’s post is the second in a four part series where Xan and J share experience and tips managing academic publication and reviewing.  In this post, J offers 5 more tips for publishing in academic journals that build upon the first 5 outlined in last week’s post.

In last week’s post (Volume 1), I outlined 5 lessons I have learned about publishing journal articles to date. The following lessons build on those so I encourage all readers to check out Volume 1 before reading this one. That said, these are all lessons that have become equally important and obvious to me throughout my experiences publishing journal articles. As noted in the previous post, I do not expect everyone to agree with my experiences, but rather I share the lessons I have learned and encourage others to debate and discuss their own experiences with these dynamics.

Lesson 6: Publishing journal articles is about recognizing that reviewers only really matter if you get an R&R.

I know the standard marketing slogans that you hear everywhere about the importance of reviews, the need to consider every review seriously, and the fears of not doing so and it coming back to hurt you. Once again, I find most of this discussion to be “wishful thinking” or “anxiety statements” coming from people that believe in meritocracy or some other imaginary version of the academy. I can tell you that in my experience paying much attention to reviews that do not come with an R&R is at best a waste of your time and at worst will cause you more time wasted on extra work later.

Don’t get me wrong here, I would suggest (and I do) reading and thinking about all the reviews you get on any paper. Sometimes reviewers note important aspects of your paper or useful literature that you can use no matter where you send it next, and in such cases you should incorporate these elements. Sometimes reviewers will say things you wanted to say or agree with but left out, and you may then want to put those things in the next submission. Most importantly in my experiences, sometimes reviewers will note details that tripped them up or distracted from your manuscript that you may want to clarify or drop from the piece to avoid the same distraction or confusion again. The fact is some of the best and most useful feedback I have gotten on papers came in the process of a rejection so I would argue it is in fact important to take the reviews you get seriously even if they are part of a rejection.  The problem, however, arises when you grant reviewers that have no power (i.e., you got rejected, they cannot get you published no matter what they wrote) some power by spending days, weeks or months working on comments instead of getting your paper back under review somewhere else where it might have a chance of publication (see lesson 2 again).  Put simply, finding what is useful in a review is important, but in the end you have no way of knowing if that review will ever matter in relation to publication so it should be a tool you consider rather than something that eats up a lot of time.

The person I know that has published the most since I came to the academy does not even read reviews that come with rejections at all and simply flips every paper until ze gets an revise and resubmit. In fact, I will admit that 8 out of 10 times I simply flip an article from one journal to the next exactly as it was at the first journal or with very minor adjustments (i.e., clarifications).  The other two times out of ten are when reviewers say something I find useful for any journal in terms of publishing the article (i.e., I agree with them and think “Damn I missed that”). The vast majority of the time (all but 1 so far) I get very different reviews from the next journal and if I get an R&R I revise and if not I do the same again. In 1 other case thus far, I even experienced the horror story I have heard in graduate programs and at conferences (i.e., you get the same reviewer you had at the first journal who notes they already reviewed the piece and you didn’t change it like they wanted back then), but I can tell you that it apparently did not matter since I got an R&R and got published in the course of that experience (in fact, the published version also doesn’t have the changes they suggested because I disagree with them and apparently the editor did too). Once again, the point is simply that reviewers have little power (they hate it but editor likes it = published; they love it but editor hates it = not published; they agree with editor = published or not based on agreement) so while pretending they have more power than they do might make them feel good it may also simply waste your time and energy. So my advice is simple when you get reviews with a rejection = study them to see what may be useful to your paper and what you agree with, incorporate those things quickly, and get it to another editor and set of reviewers where the reviews might end up mattering more to your chances of publication.

Lesson 7: Publishing journal articles is about recognizing reviewers are simply other people sharing their opinions based on their own training, assumptions, biases, and backgrounds.

Again here, I know the standard marketing slogans spread throughout disciplines – reviewers are experts in a field, reviewers donate their time so must be respected, and reviewers are important to listen to and please. Once again, I simply disagree with this because my experience – and those shared with me by others – do not support these assertions. Reviewers are people like anyone else, and thus they have their own standpoints and perspectives. Reviewers are scholars like you and me, and thus they have their own background training, favorite theories, and methodological assumptions. Reviewers are varied ages like the rest of us, and thus they may know this theoretical framework or that one from graduate school, but not necessarily the latest developments in that field or theories not covered in their training or experience or they may know older or other theories useful to you that you did not get exposed to. I want you to notice that each of these aspects of reviewers can be good and bad. On the good side, this means they may add something to your work, and they may catch things you miss – this is useful. The fact is there are some amazing reviewers out there, and in the next two posts Xan will discuss some aspects of these reviewers.  When you get these amazing reviewers, you can learn a lot and greatly enhance your work.  On the bad side, however, this means they have their own values and beliefs and limitations so they may be wrong, misguide you, or otherwise problematic just as easily. The fact is you will run into some horrible reviewers and biases and assumptions along the way (unless you’re very lucky) and you need to be ready to manage these and sort them out from the good ones in practice.  Simply put, in order to publish journal articles, you must learn to spot the difference, and make your case. If you agree with the reviewer, do what they say in your way, but if you disagree with them, do so and explain why in a memo. In my experience and that others have shared with me, both of these options happen regularly, and in the end the editor (see Lesson 5 from the first post again) is the only one with any real power in the process.

I understand that most of us are taught to assume reviewers know what they’re talking about, but in reality – as editors will even tell you if you ask – they are simply selected first and foremost on their willingness to review and no one checks to see if they actually know what they’re doing in regards to your paper. Here are some fun examples:

  1. I think of the reviewer who suggested I go read x book because x book would show me that my entire paper was wrong. I went and read x book, and it turned out that x book said my entire paper was right, necessary, and important. I responded in the memo that the reviewer should go read x book that they had suggested to appreciate my paper, and even quoted the findings from x book so the editor could see that the reviewer either never read x book or simply got it wrong.
  2. I think of the reviewer who explicitly told me “be nicer to” privileged group x “in my analysis” because we all know politeness trumps empiricism right?
  3. I think of the reviewer who admitted in their review they were not familiar with (i.e., had not read or studied) the theory at the heart of my paper. How they expected to evaluate my paper without any understanding of the theory it was using is beyond me.  I also wonder (since this is what I do when I agree to review something and then realize I don’t know the literature in the piece) why they did not go read the theory first before completing their review instead of reviewing the paper without this information.
  4. I think of the reviewer who expressed anger because they had “read this manuscript already and it is no good” when reviewing a manuscript I had never submitted anywhere before, and I wondered if they either (a) just didn’t want to read it but wanted to do a review, (b) were not much of a reader and thus got it confused with some other paper they read, and / or (c) had simply had a bad day and didn’t want to bother with doing a review.
  5. I think of the countless reviewers who have told me to read my own or one of my coauthor’s works because that work totally destroys the piece in question, and I am lucky I did not get me or one of my coauthors as a reviewer on this piece, which is just plain hilarious and for me quite a lot of fun honestly.

Once again, I could offer so many more examples it is scary, but the point is the same – reviewers are people who are offering their opinions, and there is no reason to believe their opinions are any better (or more accurate) than yours automatically. You should thus make sure you know your work so you are ready to defend it if necessary or accept useful feedback (I honestly get quite a lot of that too and it makes me smile – there really are some seriously good reviewers out there so don’t let the bad ones discourage you too much) when it is provided.

Lesson 8: Publishing journal articles is about recognizing that storytelling is more important than data.

It is not uncommon to hear many scientists in a wide variety of fields talk about the importance of data (regardless of what kind of data they prefer themselves). Not surprisingly, it is also not uncommon for many emerging scholars to assume that data is what matters in journal article publishing. Sadly, this is false. In every field I have come across and among every scholar I have encountered (with a few notable exceptions), the reality is that publishing journal articles is about your ability to tell a good story. In some fields, this emphasis is more explicit so you will hear people regularly say that you must have a “theoretical” contribution to get published no matter how interesting, new, or fun your data is. You must put that data into an existing storyline for it to matter at all because the theoretical discussion (i.e., the storytelling in that journal and in your field) is what matters most. In other fields, this is more implicit, but the pattern still holds – it doesn’t matter what your data is or says unless you can find a way to tell a good (theoretical) story about it. If, for example, your data says that x and y correlate, then you must creatively construct a storyline where this correlation theoretically implies some possible concrete thing in the world beyond. If, for example, your data says that x accomplishes y by doing a, b, and c, then you must creatively construct a storyline where what x accomplishes (the y) matters to existing theoretical assumptions, beliefs, and values held by others in your field or another field. The story – not the data – is what matters; the theory – again not the data – is what matters.

While I cannot say I’m correct or not because I simply do not know, my own guess is that this counterintuitive reality (i.e., that stories (theory) matter more to science than data (empirical observations) stems from the emergence of Western Science within societies dominated by Christian traditions that prioritize belief (i.e., agreeing about the right story) over action (i.e., what one actually does). As a result, science was founded and developed as an attempt to theorize (i.e., come up with stories people could agree upon that were not necessarily religious) instead of simply observe or document (i.e., catalogue what actually happens in the world). To this end, we value attempts to explain the world (i.e., theory and belief) over attempts to document the world (i.e., data and empiricism). Stated another way, we care more about what the correlation might suggest in a possible scenario and less about the fact that what we actually documented was simply a correlation. Whether you like this or not again does not matter – the reality is that empirical papers (i.e., those about data instead of about a story) will rarely get published and theoretical papers (i.e., those about a story whether or not it necessarily fits or has data) will get published so learn to be good storytellers if you want to publish journal articles.

Lesson 9: Publishing journal articles is about recognizing that “contribution” means nothing and a thousand different things all at the same time.

Related to lesson 8, publishing journal articles requires figuring out what anyone means when they say “contribution.” In some cases, this means you have found something that others have not discussed yet, but this is rare in my experience (in fact, editors often reject such findings even when reviewers love them because they disrupt existing storylines). In other cases, this means you studied something other people have not yet studied (i.e., some new data), but again this is rare in my experience as people generally privilege theory / belief over data / practice. In most cases I have seen, heard about, and experienced, “contribution” actually means an addition to existing literatures and lines of thought (i.e., you’re adding a new wrinkle or detail or chapter to the latest published story). This means that a “contribution” is basically anything an editor (and then reviewers) see as complimentary or additive to whatever they have already read and / or agreed with at that point. Not surprisingly, this means a contribution can mean anything. If, for example, you get an editor who has never heard of theory b but loves theory a, and your piece adds a detail to theory b, you will likely be seen to have no contribution. On the other hand, if your piece adds a detail to theory a, you have a contribution. In the same manner, if your piece makes theory b look bad, you may have a contribution if the editor and / or reviewers don’t like theory b, but you may not have a contribution if the editor and / or reviewers do like theory b. See how this works?

This gets even more complicated since the vast majority of reviewers (positive or negative) will offer a similar critique of damn near any manuscript = you didn’t use literature on x. To interpret this critique, you have to realize that what they are saying is “you didn’t use this literature I like or know that is somehow maybe related to your study and I want you to use it or I’m not going to like your paper.” So, if reviewer k loves literature in this subfield and you don’t use that literature, you do not have a contribution, but if you do use that subfield you either (a) have a contribution or (b) have to add the literature they like in that subfield to have a contribution. Again, note that the literature (i.e., the established storyline) is more important than the data in your study.  In either case, “contribution” is shorthand for “what I as a reviewer or editor deem important at present,” which is something you can rarely guess since any paper will only use a limited amount of any given literature to make its point. Publishing journal articles thus requires giving up any belief in an absolute or easily guessed “contribution,” and instead embracing that this term can mean anything or nothing in a given context because it is based on what the reader themselves (a) thinks matters, (b) is familiar with, and (c) feels comfortable with. In fact, if you embrace this reality you may – as I have many times already – have the hilarious experience where you get the exact same unchanged paper rejected from journal a because “you have no contribution” and then accepted at journal b because “you have a significant contribution” as a result of the lack of actual concrete meaning the term “contribution” actually has in practice.

Lesson 10: Publishing journal articles is a social process.

As all the above suggest, publishing journal articles is a social process wherein a multitude of variables influence whether or not something appears in print. While it may be comforting to think of journals as containers of truth and merit, the reality is that they are created based on the actions and assumptions of people like any other result of social processes. In many ways, the process is kind of like dating wherein the author seeks an editor (and then reviewers) who like their outfit, agree with their worldviews, and find things about their work important. When these things line up, you have a nice time, but when these things are incompatible you simply swipe to the next potential lover on your app.

This is complicated because like any other social process journal article publishing is not uniform, but rather varied in relation to existing assumptions, biases, opinions, experiences, and expectations held by parties on each side of the interaction. The editors and reviewers behind the scenes are just as human and socially created and influenced as the authors, and as result, their opinions and biases and expectations influence the outcome of the interaction dramatically. There are many people, for example, that adjust their names, the language used in articles, and other facets of their self presentations simply to avoid or protect against assumptions and biases they have experienced in the process at times in the past. All these intersections and interactions (as they do in other social processes) influence outcomes and experiences in nuanced ways.

This is further complicated because – again like any other social process – journal article publishing is varied in status and prestige. Like other normative institutions, the mainstream or most valued journals (think the top 10 to 20 in any field) tend to be more conservative in what they publish than lesser established journals are (I was lucky that senior scholars explained this one to me early on since as someone who does work often deemed “innovative” or “controversial” this is an important detail about the structure of academic publishing often not talked about in official spaces). As a result, pieces that are more controversial or create problems for existing stories often get published in brand new or niche journals (or in books removed from the journal article process) and only really effect the mainstream conversation over time or as a result of many people citing those works in their own endeavors. At the same time, someone will gain more immediate benefit in their career for publishing a more ordinary or conservative or usual piece in the top ranked journals than they will for pushing boundaries in lesser known journals. These factors – not surprisingly – dramatically influence what knowledge counts and leads to better careers as well as each of the lessons outlined above.

This is even further complicated because – again like any other social process – journal article publishing requires resources that are not evenly distributed. One example may be found in the topic of time, and who does or does not have time to shop multiple editors, who does or does not have writing time built into their job, who does or does not have time for conference networking or library searching in the midst of their work. All these factors play prominent roles in who can even pursue publishing in journals in the first place. We can run down a similar amount of inequitable dynamics if we look at money, research support infrastructure, course releases to focus on writing, or assistance in research just to name a few examples. All of these resource distributions influence who can publish in journals by limiting or expanding the ability one has to work through the process and play the game.

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