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‘Decolonizing’ a Journal

After a major editorial flap, history's premier journal announces a series of changes aimed at diversifying viewpoints and contributors.

January 31, 2018
 

The typically tame world of academic publishing got heated last year, as several journals took flak for editorial decisions about content regarding historically marginalized groups. Now one of those journals has a plan to “transform.”

“I have no illusions about what an enormous challenge this will be, and I fully expect it will make people unhappy on both sides of the barricades,” said Alex Lichtenstein, professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington and editor of American Historical Review, in a new column announcing changes to the journal.

While there “will be failures and limitations, and the pace of change may not satisfy everyone,” he wrote, “my fervent hope is that by the time my editorship ends in August 2021, I will have set the journal on an irrevocable course of change.”

The American Historical Review, the academic publication of the American Historical Association, is one of the discipline’s most revered periodicals, publishing work across subfields. But it made -- in the eyes of many critics -- a major blunder in early 2017 in asking a scholar who has expressed arguably racist views to review a book on inequality and urban education.

In that review, Raymond Wolters, professor emeritus of history at the University of Delaware, both praised and criticized the book in question, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits. Specifically, Wolters said that author Ansley T. Erickson, associate professor of history and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, had done her research but he challenged her argument about metropolitan busing programs to promote racial integration in schools.

Most significantly, Wolters chided Erickson for not considering “sociobiology.” To Wolters’s critics, the term blew like a dog whistle endorsing racial hierarchies.

Wolters has defended himself, saying that sociobiology is a well-established concept that, in his words, “focuses on the way biology (including genetic adaptations to evolution in different environments) affects the social behavior of humans and other living beings.”

But the AHR, as the journal is known, quickly apologized. Robert A. Schneider, a professor of history at Indiana University and AHR’s then interim director, said he should have “lingered longer” over the sociobiology plug, and that the journal was previously unaware of Wolters’s views on race and white identity. He also promised that the journal would review its policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents going forward.

Less than year later, Lichtenstein is apparently making good on that pledge. “Rather than simply apologize and move on,” he wrote in his new column, “I have come to believe that the AHR should take the risk of confronting its own potential complicity in the inability of the profession to divest itself fully of its past lack of openness to scholars and scholarship due to race, color, creed, gender, sexuality, nationality and a host of other assigned characteristics.”

Lichtenstein said that he and the journal’s Board of Editors decided AHR will take a series of initial steps to make it “more responsive to the exciting new voices that are challenging the historical profession to live up to its responsibilities to a diverse society.” These response include:

  • Recommending to the AHA Council that the editorial board be expanded to 16 members, from 13, with an eye to diversity and a “far less rigid adherence to defining board slots solely by geographic and chronological ‘field,’ as has long been the practice, with such appointments based instead on thematic and/or topical criteria.”
  • As recently mandated by the AHA Council, nominating new associate review editors to diversify and oversee the journal’s “Reviews” section (in which the Wolters piece was published).
  • Collecting data on submissions, reviews and publishing patterns to be shared during a session on professional diversity and the AHR at the historical association’s next annual meeting.
  • Changing criteria for reviewers of books and other media so that they need not have published a monograph to be considered. Potential reviewers must instead have published a peer-reviewed article and a book review in a historical journal and have a “larger scholarly project of some kind in the works.”
  • Asking members of the board to serve as “AHR ambassadors” and encourage submissions at diverse academic conferences.
  • Creating an ad hoc committee to address diversity and the AHR on a regular basis.

Lichtenstein noted that the list does not include revising procedures for evaluating article submissions. “That’s because I believe that our thorough process of blind peer review, far from setting up barriers, is in fact highly democratic,” he wrote. “Our large number of reader reports (five or six) and multiple requests for revision (the average number of revisions made is four, and some articles will be revised five or six times before acceptance) reward scholars willing to work closely with the anonymous readers and the editors to improve their article and speak to as wide a scholarly readership as possible.”

Ideally, he added, “this creates a fruitful dialogue about a manuscript, rather than serving an elitist gate-keeping function.”

More Than Diversification

Lichtenstein’s called his piece “Decolonizing the AHR,” because, in his words, making a commitment (even a well-intentioned one) to diversity alone means, primarily, “adding extra flavors to the stew.” By contrast, he said, decolonization “is about changing the recipe altogether.”

So far, Lichtenstein’s column has garnered an “enormously positive response,” he said Tuesday. “In general, people seem to feel that these are very productive and long overdue changes.” Historians have offered particular praise for his action items, rather than a general statement, he added. Attendees of the Committee on Minority Historians reception cheered when he announced the less restrictive criteria for book reviewers at the historical association's annual meeting earlier this month, for example.

That said, Lichtenstein noted that some constructive critics have argued that his pitch for “decolonization” -- or transformative, structural change -- is anchored by an at least preliminary agenda that continues to use the language of diversity.

“In part this is semantics; in part this is the nature of gradual change; and in part it is not giving enough credence to my clear statement that I see this as more than just efforts at ‘diversity,’” Lichtenstein said in an email. “Whatever terms I may use to describe some of our initiatives, I think the aim and the potential effect is substantive procedural change. But that remains to be seen, of course. Like tax cuts, change is slow in the journal world. Initiatives we take now may not be truly visible for 12-18 months.”

Lichtenstein stressed that the review was not prompted by a single controversy alone, but rather "transformations in the scholarship itself, and by the growing significance of a younger cohort of scholars who feel that they are not fully represented in the journal."  As for process, he described it as "deliberative and collective," involving members of the AHR editorial team, the Board of Editors and the historical association's research division. He said he also hopes the process is ongoing, not a "one-off effort."

Crediting the efforts of previous editors, Lichtenstein also argued that AHR “hasn’t done so badly over the past several decades” in terms of content. He this week stumbled on a 1983 issue, for instance, and “found four articles on African history. But one of the reasons we want to do a deep dive into back issues is to collect some data to demonstrate the pace of previous change, its exact contours, and its limits.”

Erickson, the author of the book reviewed in AHR, said she was pleased with the editorial review thus far. Noting that Lichtenstein called decolonization not only a challenge for the journal but for the field, Erickson added, “That implies ongoing and profound work. I hope these changes will be steps in that direction.”

AHR was not the only journal to weather controversy from within this year. In philosophy, division over calls for the journal Hypatia to retract a paper comparing transgenderism to transracialism led to the resignations of top editors and the suspension of the associate editorial board. And Third World Quarterly was widely criticized for publishing an opinion-style piece called “The Case for Colonialism.”

Vijay Prashad, now director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, was one of a large of editorial board members to resign from Third World Quarterly last year after that flap. Among his concerns was that the board was not consulted before the publication of so controversial a piece. He approved of AHR’s plan, saying, “Why would journals want to remain mired in their colonial habits? Isn’t it time to rethink the falsely universal presumptions not only of history writing but also of the social sciences, viz sociology, political science and economics?”

Such fields should be “introspective about the colonial categories that remain at their core.”

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