A junior scholar had been waiting months for a response on an article she had submitted to a good journal. One day she happened to be visiting a colleague’s office, as the colleague was bemoaning being hassled by an editor, having missed the deadline to “review this damn paper.” The title was visible on the colleague’s computer screen. “But that’s my article!” the junior scholar cried. There followed a moment of rather awkward silence, followed by some nervous laughter. The colleague, shamefaced about his tardiness as a reviewer, hastily dispatched a friendly critique of the piece to the editor.
If the colleague hadn’t realized the article was written by someone he knew, he probably would have put it off even further. In the ideal world, the review process is perfect, but unfortunately it involves the actions of humans.
We’ve all received scathing reviews of our pieces by anonymous reviewers. (Or at least I have. Perhaps the gentle reader has only ever received fulsome praise for his or her scholarly efforts, and if that is you, possibly you should stop reading here.)
But for those academic mere mortals still reading, we all know the harsh review, which often contains unfair criticism. (Exhibit A: “The author of this article did not make reference to Smith’s groundbreaking research in the field” -- never mind that Smith’s research has yet to be published, and there is no chance, none whatever, that the author of this significant piece is the person writing the review). Or the more usual reviewer disagreement: Referee 1 says the article has too much brown and not enough purple, Referee 2 says it has too much purple and not enough brown, and Referee 3 (to whom it has been sent to break this deadlock of opinion) says that this interesting article on feudal Japan doesn’t include enough about Richard Nixon. The ideal behind blind review places the reviewer as impartial Justice, but it is much easier to swing a sword than look at a scale when you’re blindfolded.
After a particularly blistering referee’s report (I find these best read with a bloody mary in hand; the reader’s experiences may vary), I’m sure I’m not the only one who has fantasized about kicking that referee’s shins at a conference. Of course I don’t know whom to kick. The distressing thing is there’s a good chance they know who I am.
Somewhere back in the mists of academic idealism, there was a point where scholars’ work was unknown until they presented it for publication. But now that we all leave trails of our research all over the web, the idea behind “blind” reviews seems quite naive. Googling a title will often yield a conference program, or a researcher’s departmental website. How many academics are so pure in their approach that they would AVOID looking up the topic of the paper under review? After all, it may be relevant to catch up on other literature on the topic in order to situate your review of the article in question.
For those of us who work in broad areas, it’s still the case that we will be asked to review (and be reviewed by) people completely unknown to us. Part of blind review’s theory is to avoid the conflicts of refereeing the work of friends (or enemies). But those in small subfields can already guess pretty closely who wrote an article they are asked to review. How many of us wouldn’t be more kind in a review of a piece we knew was written by a friend?
Which brings me to the issue of workshopping papers in public. I’ve heard people wonder whether doing so damages peer review. To which I would respond, no more than the Internet has damaged it already. With two articles of mine, I tried an experiment: posting my drafts on Google docs. I then posted links on Twitter and asked for anyone who was willing to comment.
(I realize that in STEM fields, posting paper drafts on ArXiv and other repositories for comment is more common, but in the humanities we don’t have this type of culture. We simply informally ask friends for comments.)
Getting colleagues from around the world to comment on my work made it stronger. And rather than feeling guilty about buttonholing the same few overworked friends to look at an article draft, the infinite generosity of my Twitter followers gave me volunteers. And they wrote constructive, useful things.
Some time ago, Daniel Lemire (a computer science professor at the Université du Québec) made the argument that blind review should be eliminated because work should be evaluated as part of a scholar’s broader career.
I’m not sure I agree with that, not least because I have my suspicions this already happens to the benefit of some Silverbacks, who manage to get pieces published that, had they landed on the editor’s desk as the work of an unknown Ph.D. student, would have been eighty-sixed in short order. However, I think it’s right to wonder how the current situation is actually operating (as opposed to how it “should”).
Lemire raises some interesting research that suggests rather than helping those outside the academy get published (which in theory it should, as supposedly the work itself is being judged rather than the author) in fact it works against them. Blind peer review is the standard by which we mark the quality and rigor of our scholarship. I do believe research needs impartial vetting but I’m not sure the current system should be it.
[Wondering about what happened to my friend’s article, mentioned at the start? It was not accepted by the journal, as the other referee had written a much harsher assessment.]
Katrina Gulliver is a lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales. Her site is http://www.katrinagulliver.com and you can find her most of the time on Twitter @katrinagulliver.
Are you frightened by shrinking enrollments in literature courses? Does the crisis in the humanities induce heart palpitations? Do you experience nausea when reading about the decline of reading? To anyone suffering from these symptoms, I recommend a rejuvenating travel to the East: attend the Jaipur Literary Festival.
The festival begun less than 10 years ago as part of a heritage festival in this medium-sized town in Rajasthan, about 170 miles from Delhi. The brainchild of William Darlrymple, a British writer on India, and Namita Gokhale, an Indian writer and publisher, it has become one of the places where one can watch world literature happen.
The road to Jaipur is a nightmare. Cars come at you the wrong way, flashing their lights; trucks decorated with beads and murals demand that you honk at them ("Horn Please!"), as if drivers here need that encouragement. Seemingly unperturbed by the cacophony are the animals wandering blithely across the road: cows, camels, goats, donkeys, elephants, sheep, hogs, and dogs. Literature? Here?
As it happens, only humans attend the festival, loads of them: 1 lakh, as one organizer boasts, using the convenient word for 100,000 that has become part of South Asian English. Jaipur in January has become the favorite watering hole for publishers, agents, and authors. Tourists following the endorsement of their Lonely Planet guides join in. But above all, the festival is for a species that might as well be called The People. I talked to a car mechanic who has used a neighbor's motorcycle to drive in from the countryside; an engineering student who has taken a day off from work; and a rickshaw driver who combines business and pleasure. "Obama — very good; Bush — very bad; is a monkey face," he screams as he honks his way through the crowds.
Some of the people are attracted by celebrity. Last year, Oprah Winfrey came, causing a spike in attendance ("Oprah very nice lady — dark skin like me" the rickshaw driver says). Others seek out Bollywood stars and talk show hosts. The inside crowd is scavenging for invitations to after-parties and private dinners at luxurious retreats in the countryside with an intensity that I have seen trumped only by Cannes. But amidst all the jostling, literature holds its place, and most people have made the journey to be in its elusive presence.
Not all the buzz has been positive. Two years ago the festival went through its most severe crisis when Muslim groups protested the planned attendance of Salman Rushdie, whose novel Satanic Verses is still banned in India. When Rushdie decided instead to Skype-in his talk, a dangerous-looking crowd gathered outside the festival, and there were rumors of planned violence. The organizers decided to pull the plug, but a few speakers recited from the novel anyway, an illegal act that ultimately forced them to flee the country.
Few people mention that crisis this year, although it is not forgotten; here and there one hears thinly veiled concerns about freedom of speech in India ("You mean Rushdie" one speaker says; "I am not afraid to say his name"). But the prevailing atmosphere is one of celebration. People eat from stands offering delicious street food and drink spiced Masala chai served in traditional clay cups. They chat and watch and mill about. At night, the festival turns into a huge music stage, with bands from India to Morocco enlivening the night.
And of course there are the talks, readings, and discussions, which take place in large tents. It's not always easy to hear and see; there are just too many people. But it doesn't matter. The official program feels almost like an afterthought or rather like the occasion that allows the festival to happen. What matters is being here, being part of the celebration of literature. It's a true festival.
Some of the discussions up on stage are predictable anyway. There is the well-meaning hand wringing (in English), about the dominance of global English and complaints (by Americans) about the dominance of American fiction. In the good old theory days, we used to call this "performative contradiction"; now the technical term my students use is "ironic." But in any case, the festival itself tells a different story. There are relatively few Americans and instead plenty of Brits and N.R.I.s, non-resident Indians, in addition to South Asian writers.
What does world literature looks like, Jaipur-style? What hits you first is the exciting richness of India's diverse language traditions from Tamil in the South to Himalayan languages in the north, cutting across religious affiliations. Salma, who writes under that name about growing up in a Muslim community in a small South Indian village and who has become a strong voice in Tamil poetry, is something of a poster child for this form of diversity at the festival.
Another theme that emerges is travel writing, especially the strong British tradition, which is relatively unknown in the U.S. The biographers of Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor, the two paradigmatic 20th-century travel writers, are in attendance, as well as Geoff Dyer, a genius at the deadpan takedown (when a panelist "admits" that he would stop writing if offered a large sum, Dyer starts bargaining him down and offers to take up a collection). In response to the travel theme, William Sutcliffe, a British novelist, makes a strong case for the travel novel as the master genre of world literature today.
What is most striking, perhaps, is the absence of writers from China, India's Asian rival. Many here see America's exclusive focus on China as too one-sided. "It would make much more sense for the world's oldest democracy to forge closer connections to India," Maya Jasanoff, a historian, observes. The festival is a reminder just how much India and the U.S. share. They are the two largest democracies and pride themselves on their diversity; and they both came into being through hard-won independence movements from the British Empire, to whose vestiges they remain tied, above all through language.
India's ubiquitous call centers are only one part of this story; the other, is literature. It is difficult to imagine something like the Jaipur Literary Festival in China, and not just because of state censorship there. Jaipur is made possible by the democratic diversity of India (despite its limits, as the Rushdie case shows), but also by the deep roots that tie India to the Anglophone world.
The animals and the gridlock on the road make one worry about the limits of India's economic development, but the festival is a reminder of its cultural power.
As a writing and communication instructor, I read emails from my students with great curiosity, trepidation and, oftentimes, a feeling of helplessness. Whether the email contains a confession (“I’m going through a difficult time…”), an apology (“I’m sorry…”), an assumption (“I’m sure you’ll understand…”), a plea (“Please, please, please…”), or a promise (“If you grant me this extension, I swear I’ll…”), the student hopes to persuade me.
In the instances where a student’s email is unclear and unpersuasive, a harsh voice in the back of my mind asks, "Does this email reflect my failure as a writing instructor? Have I failed to communicate how the rhetorical knowledge gained through coursework can be transferred to other contexts and forms, including one of today’s most common forms of writing?"
These self-critical questions stem from my desire to empower students. College and university instructors hold a reputation for persuasive scholarship, as well as political and social advocacy. But do we value persuasion and self-advocacy in the classroom? Do we encourage rhetoric from students that could challenge and persuade an authority figure? That could persuade us?
I want my students to not only transfer knowledge across the curriculum, but beyond it. Rather than passively requiring explicit instructions on how to communicate effectively in every situation, I want students to proactively harness their rhetorical confidence when advocating for themselves in a variety of contexts. And yet, when I read a fragmented and/or unpersuasive student email, my typical response is not pedagogical. I give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the student’s request, and move on. My behavior resembles a busy manager rather than a concerned teacher.
Understandably, for many students, email is a venue of freedom and distance from academic considerations. An inbox with messages from family and friends, advertisements, and spam for vitamin supplements hardly seems a venue for thoughtful, intentional writing. In turn, as a teacher, it’s easy to read student emails as separate from the content of the course, an extracurricular and social exchange. After all, student emails are not part of an assignment with specific guidelines or a grading rubric.
I am by no means proposing that instructors add a “how to write emails” unit in their courses. It is the absence of formal instruction on “email writing” that provides us with an exciting opportunity, a voyeuristic glimpse into how a student writes beyond the confines of specific assignments. The email sheds light on the student’s rhetorical awareness, or lack thereof, amidst a moment of self-advocacy.
While the majority of instructors likely respond to student emails with an appropriate and fair response, in other instances we have a tendency to read student emails with suspicion or react with condescension. Many articles written by instructors about student emails reflect this mindset, with titles such as “More (Unintentionally) Funny Student E-Mail Messages to Professors” (Chronicle 2008). Much of the writing on student emails stresses the… well, the stress and annoyance caused by the high volume of “inappropriate,” “unprofessional," “impolite” emails.
Studies have examined teachers’ reactions to student emails, such as how politeness can impact a teacher’s perception of the student’s competence and character (“You are such a great teacher and I hate to bother you”, Communication Education 2014; “R U Able to Meat Me”, Communication Education 2009), but there are no studies that have explored teachers’ pedagogical responses to student emails. I wonder how many instructors intentionally provide constructive feedback on the persuasiveness of their students’ emails? How would this impact our students’ ability to advocate for themselves in the future?
Rather than bring the emails we receive into the virtual teachers’ lounge where we snicker or sigh, there might be great benefit for our students if we as communication instructors not only respond to the content of student emails, but also engage students in a discussion of their rhetorical choices.
Time is likely the biggest obstacle for instructors. Responding to student emails on both a practical and analytical level would push many of us beyond the limits of our days. Though perhaps a plausible starting point, a self-piloted project for this term, would be to offer five unsuspecting students who send me an email the opportunity to discuss their rhetorical awareness and transference. Sure, this form of guerilla teaching would catch these students by surprise, but that would likely make the interaction all the more memorable.
Jared Berezin is a lecturer in the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.