by J J Cohen
At once exhausting and invigorating, ICMS 44 (AKA the Zoo) offered bracing panels, enjoyable discussions, the transformation of germinal inklings into projects, indulgence and libation, crises, epiphanies, and a dance. I can't reduce the fullness of those days to a pithy post, but I will share some highlights this week. I typically emphasize the affirmative, and eventually I will do so here at ITM ... but first I want to share something heavier, the weight of which has been upon me for some time.
Though Kalamazoo remains for me in the main a cheerful place, I was reminded repeatedly this year of the profession's dark edge. The BABEL panel on ethics and seriousness, for example, touched upon anonymity's lures, especially in reader's reports to which no name is signed. Stephanie Trigg and Tom Prendergast observed that this absence of attachment enables the dissemination of words that no one would ever send into the world under their own signature. Few scholars would be proud to own the cruelty, pettiness, and the boundary enforcement that can so easily be unleashed in that form. As Susan Morrison observed, since they arrive without a knowable sender such reports can seem the Judgment of the Field. Attachment to a specific scholar has a salubrious diminishing effect.
The worst choice in the face of such a blow would be to change one's scholarship to satisfy this unknown master -- and I say that with such confidence because, had I chosen that path in the past, few of the projects I have undertaken would have come to completion. I have therefore always found myself conflicted about peer review. I know that blind review is the gold standard of knowledge imprimaturing, yet I have seen repeatedly the succumbing to a temptation to basest instincts that the severing of words from person enables. My own philosophy is to abstain from the process as much as I am able. I inform presses and journals to ensure that their origin in JJC is attached to the reader's comments I compose, so that this ownership can be passed to the author. I share with those for whom I examine tenure materials that I am one of the outside evaluators, typically with a reminder of why I think the work they are undertaking is important.
My difficulty with unnecessary cruelty -- with the license some self-grant to be inhumane, mistaking such action as a good -- is even more acute when it comes to how the field treats its most vulnerable members.
I spend as much time as I can at Kalamazoo with graduate students and with those young in the profession. They are, after all, the most important people who attend any conference: they are undertaking the work that will give the field its future. This year I was constantly reminded of the ways in which the profession can eat its young, subjecting them to useless hierarchy (often for the sake of keeping in place a structure of authority that was inherited from disciplinary forebears), or can make them believe that "getting ahead" demands conformity over openness. When senior scholars punish those younger in the discipline by ignoring them; by making demeaning remarks about work that is unfamiliar methodologically rather than engaging in a conversation about what is at stake in such projects; by informing them that they are arrogant or incoherent or unimportant because they are in fact challenging extant modes of being a scholar; by demanding that they conform to preset critical parameters without articulating why this need be so; by failing to recognize the personal investment that scholars have in their work and the devastation a withering comment can engender (no matter how amusing it may seem to disseminate such seeming bons mots) well, such is the discipline at its worst.
Don't get me wrong: if you cannot with enthusiasm challenge someone to bring their project beyond its assumed ambit, if you cannot urge them to think through with you an issue or a theme or a problem, if you feel you cannot do anything but pat on the back and say all is well, then you have drawn a limit that will circumscribe both you and your interlocutors. But if you can listen with an open mind to the articulation of possibilities and approaches that are not preknown and inherently comfortable, if you can own up to your words and acknowledge the power they have upon those who receive them, if you can discern that the pleasurable agony of writing and teaching is not detachable from the pleasures and the agonies of a specific life, if you can imagine a world in which scholarship is an inherently collaborative and unfailingly dialogic enterprise ... well, then, in such a utopia the risk of entering the discipline might cease to be despair.
(written for two people who will know when this letter arrives, and written for anyone for whom the chord of this post resounds)