Monday, May 11, 2009

The Darker Side of the Discipline

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)


Karl Steel said...

Thanks very much for this, for your reminder of the poison of "speaking from on high." Also, I hear you as making room for disagreement, debate, for the bad feeling, for the need to love difficultly. If we refuse, say, to be embraced, to be smothered in love, let us do it as a dialogue, or, choosing an etymologically more promising model, let us do it in conversation, which, remember, comes from con + versatio, a "turning around together"; or think of what that "con" gets us if we think of it as an intensifier.

(Maybe I shouldn't, but your post reminds me of this somewhat well-known cartoon.)

This old world is a new world said...

You know, I still think there is sometimes a place for anonymity in refereeing. I take the point about it sometimes serving as a mask for unwarranted cruelty and gratuitous insult -- though as you observe, there are some folk who don't need the mask to deliver that, either. But in one of the cases we were thinking of, we actually learned a lot about what people couldn't and wouldn't say in public about the discipline, so it added a depth and dimension to our discussion of medievalism that we wouldn't have had access to if everything had been open and signed. I think I still like the idea of there being layers of anonymity and voicedness in the way we read and write and talk about each other's work, so long as it's done with professional courtesy. I think there are only a very few people who would only ever say things about a person that they would say to that person's face. And that's ok, too: I wouldn't expect otherwise.

Rob Barrett said...

I guess I got lucky this year at the Zoo: at all of the panels I attended, I saw graduate student speakers and their ideas treated with respect by many of the Big Names (tm) in the room.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl: definitely. The conversation etymology goes right to the heart of what I was ruminating upon: conversation's turning potentially changes the position of all interlocutors. Disagreement with each other, challenging each other, is ethically necessary (and I almost never say things like that); what matters is mode, intent, and mutuality.

Stephanie, I don't know. Maybe that is because I think I'd say face to face anything I would say in a report -- because it is OK by me for someone to tell me that I am completely wrong or that I have misunderstood and then to reorient me. I actually enjoy that process. I had in mind, though, the many stories I collected this Kzoo of anonymous reports that were abusive (ie "Abandon this project") and boundary-drawing. I would also emphasize, though, that 95% of anonymous readers reports do what they supposed to do, and do it humanely. The problem is that the minority that do not are the ones that tend to stick with you, especially when you are in a vulnerable position.

Rob, along these same lines: most senior colleagues do treat graduate students and junior colleagues (and other senior colleagues) with the respect that they deserve ... but I had a sufficient number of sobering conversations to realize that is not universally the case.

Rob Barrett said...

I wonder to what extent lack of training is a factor here: i.e., the fact that I have never heard of a graduate program that trains students to conduct themselves as colleagues. Our programs offer courses and workshops explaining how to write papers for conferences and journals, how to prepare for the job market, how to interview, and so on. But these are all ultimately very self-centered forms of training: they teach you how to present your *self* to the larger world. What we lack is advice on how to consider others in the course of executing one's professional duties. Our students get jobs and suddenly find themselves having to review manuscripts without any advice on how to do so. The temptation to just turn the review into a variation on the graduate seminar "evaluation of a secondary source" assignment is great--and we all know how such assignments tend to turn into hatchet jobs if the seminar leader doesn't take care to show the students how to be constructive.

None of this lets senior scholars off the hook, of course. But it does seem to me to be an area in which neglect allows some junior scholars to turn into the senior colleagues you've described in your post.

Myra Seaman said...

Thanks so much, Jeffrey, for helping me to process ideas and concerns that have been churning for a couple of days now, mosty unproductively. I appreciate very much your point, Stephanie, about how such moments can help us to get an honest view of certain parts of the profession that we would never get otherwise, an opportunity very useful to those of us who are sufficiently established to know what small voices they really are, but very threatening to those who aren't there quite yet. I fear most the situation Rob highlights, where junior scholars are encouraged to turn into this sort of senior scholar. I watch that happening in horror.

prehensel said...

All: I so wish I had something intelligent to say in response to this post and comments (especially yours, Karl--you've said exactly what I've been trying to articulate for a few months now). But my brain is still mostly mush, so all I can manage is a "thank you" to all smothered in love.

Rob Barrett said...

One way I combat the tendencies I've mentioned in my comments is to require all of the graduate students in my seminars to submit a research paper proposal to the entire class for feedback. The students read all of their peers' proposals; then, at a pizza party at my house, we workshop our way through the proposals. (I explicitly instruct the students that their job is to suggest ways to improve the planned paper, not to discuss how it fails as an idea.) The authors hear commentary on their ideas and then leave with the marked-up copies of their proposals.

I deliberately make this session an extra-hours, at-home meeting to take it out of a classroom atmosphere and to put it into a collegial one. In addition, because I don't ask the students to write up formal versions of their responses to the other proposals, they have to make their comments in a face-to-face manner at the workshop--owning their words.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

So I say, following the beautiful paper by Cary Howie (aka, as Heather nicknamed him, "The Real Troubadour"), PRAISE the dark side, NAME it in love. For it also, along with the the trees, the chirping birds, the guy taking notes in a bathrobe, and the non-existent creatures, is there for you (whoever that is).

Hail! to the angry, the unkind, the unlovely.
They too become alluring by our vicarious contemplations.
Bless the spears springing from envious eyes (cf. Jessica Rosenfeld's paper on Margery Kempe at the Mystical Affect panel).
Their sharp heads are questions unsealing old wounds of love.
Give thanks for the poison slipping from unfriendly lips.
Kisses know it is only rare honey.
All praise to the Anonymous!
Today you will be with me in paradise.

Eileen Joy said...

I was thinking of writing my own post on this subject, then thought we should confine [as much as we can] the "darkness" here in this thread [reserving the posts to follow for more convivial and friendly matters], which I am hoping, actually, we can sustain a little bit, insofar as it might help us, and really, help *me* to think through what it is I think can be and should be accomplished in the criticism of others' work, whether at a conference or in a refereed journal, and the like. And how fortunate I was, indeed, to spend most of the Sunday after the conference, first with my friends Michael Moore and Travis Neel, and then just with Travis as we drove home to Saint Louis together, because in the quiet peace of the time we spent together we were able to talk, a lot, and about all sorts of things. This talking, and really, this endless talking that started after Michael's 10:30 am Sunday session and went into the wee hours of the evening, was important to me, primarily because of who I was with: Michael, who was once my colleague at Southern Illinois, and without whom I could have never conceptualized the career to which I am currently devoted, and Travis, Michael's and my "student" [thought I hesitate to use this word, which, more and more, I just detest], who just before Kalamazoo defended his M.A. thesis on Aelred and friendship, and who will be starting the PhD program in medieval studies at Ohio State in the fall. But really, this conversation happened among three friends who care very much, not only about history, but also about the future of medieval studies, and even more, of the humanities, and perhaps even, of the human.

It struck both Michael and I, quite insistently, actually, how much some of the distress we were feeling about the "darkness" Jeffrey illustrates here kept bringing us back to the "Glossing Is Glorious" conference, organized by Nicola and the new journal "Glossator," at which we all congregated a few weeks ago in NYC [Michael, me, Nicola, Karl, Anna, Dan, Nic, etc.] and to the ways in which the question of commentary *as* care and also *turning* kept coming up. There were, of course, the usual exertions over what constituted the differences between "criticism" and "commentary," and likely, the differences often blend into each other, of course, but even on a very basic level, I was okay with the distinction that, while criticism is a "vertical" enterprise, going deep into a text in order to burrow into its sources and meanings [and here I am also thinking of that wonderful line from Thoreau's "Walden": "My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills"], commentary is a "horizontal" enterprise which unfolds a text's latent and other dimensions--its method is expansive, accretive, extensive in time and space, etc. I have this rubric in my head of what I wish I saw more of in [some] responses to papers at Kalamazoo and in responses to work submitted to journals, book publishers, etc.:

if not for each [named/faced] other, then for who?; if not now, then when? criticism as commentary, commentary as care

At the "Glossing" conference in NYC, several papers [Dan's especially] highlighted the idea of commentary as care or shelter--an enterprise that would even provide space for what the author of a particular work might not even realize was/is ever there, allowing it to, as Dan put it, be "returned to itself" [oh . . . Dan, this is a real thing, a real thing, Dan: when we were in NYC together and you outlined a commentary that would be *in* and *for* the world and that would return that world to *itself*, I will be honest and say I wasn't 100% sure what that meant, I mean, returning the world to itself, but now, after Kalamazoo, I actually get that, I get that, I get that, especially after Karl's Kalamazoo paper which outlined a state of affairs in which animals are allowed to grieve for themselves and only for themselves, where they allowed to be "subject" only to themselves and not for anyone else].

Let's pause: the return of the work to *itself*. When we encounter someone else's work--their poem, their prayer, their exegesis, their scholarly argument, etc.--we are confronted with a thing that has a right [a *right* I will insist, over and over again, a fucking *right*--yes, I'm mad--and echoing Karl's beautiful paper at Kalamazoo in Anna's session] to only be for itself!!! For itself, for itself, for itself. In other words, the work is not yours--you who are listening in the audience--although there are certainly opportunities for it to be shared together, for it to be offered for you to receive it, for me to give it to you, and for *us* to hold it together, to have it in common, to love it [or not] together, but . . . bottom line [and again]:

When we hear a paper at a conference [or referee an article for a journal], our criticism should be a form of criticism [it goes deep, as deep as it can into the question of: what does this paper want to *mean*?] that would also be commentary [it seeks to unfold dimensions that inhere in what is already there, not in what I, perversely, wish was there instead, while at the same time these dimensions might be things even the author was not aware of but would love to be aware of, if only, if only, if only] and this would be a criticism as commentary that *cares* about the work, but even more so, about the person who has risked [and it *is* a risk] sharing it, and we should care, moreover, to help this work/person be the best it/she can be, but along its own lines of need/desire/inquiry/direction, etc., while also recognizing that all of these things, through commentary as a process of mutual regard, can be *turned* and redirected again, and numerous times; in other words: we never really know where this work is going, but if you're going to jump on my runaway boat with me, help me rig the sails and turn the rudder, and sing to me of what you know while we are sailing under the fretwork of fire--I mean the stars--that send to us the signals of other, possible worlds and by which we navigate.

Sing to me, sing to me of what you know, and do it sweetly, while also taking on the difficult task of loving difficulty, as both Karl and Jeffrey illustrate here. Let's turn around together, as Karl writes here, in conversation and mutual regard, in love, in friendship, and in the knowledge that, at the end of the day, none of us knows anything, not anything at all. I can only know a place, then, a place I want to be, and that is with you.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I hesitated to post this, so I'm happy that it has struck a chord. Word to you Eileen on that: and wasn't Karl's presentation the best he has ever given? (That is really saying something, I know).

Rob, that kind of out of classroom interaction goes a long way towards fostering more humane and less hierarchical communities.

Myra, I know you are talking about me. I will strive to do better so that you may cease to behold me in horror.

susan morrison said...

While at Kalamazoo, I was thinking a lot about Michael Uebel and not only because he coined the term "Fecopoet[h]ics" for me (a play off of my "fecopoetics"). I was thinking about his reader's report of my book on excrement for Palgrave, an originally anonymous report. It was a report that carefully read my manuscript and offered gentle guidance on other works I might look at, not to short circuit my own ideas but to enhance them.

A short time after I had received that report, I asked to find out the name of reviewer and Michael was happy to share his name; we then had a profound exchange of ideas.

As I emailed Michael today: what Eileen says in her post about criticism as commentary that cares about the work under discussion is just how I felt about his report about my book. He was what I would call "ethically loving" in his care of my book draft and I wanted to thank him for that.

I shared with him Jeffrey's post and told him what happened in Kalamazoo. I also shared a review of my book []
that is funny but embracing of my book. Michael asked me to post his remarks about that review: "I especially enjoyed the Times piece with its phrasings in the spirit of your work. That's one place I would myself talk about ethics and care--a kind of linguistic compassion, if you will, whereby the care one might take to turn a phrase is a tribute to the work in question."

I think that best articulates what I was trying to say in the discussion that ensued on Friday after the panel's remarks: that a reviewer should write from a position that TRIES to see things from the point of view of the writer of an article or book, even if the approach the writer takes is anathema to the reviewer. Many thanks to everyone for the important and deeply resonating conversation that continues here.

Holly Crocker said...

Hi all—

To me, Jeffrey’s post is very important for a particular reason: it is good to acknowledge that everyone—no matter how impressive the scholar —is subject to negative appraisal. I missed Stephanie and Tom’s paper, but I think they perform a true service to their juniors, myself included, when they talk about their experiences with less positive/more challenging reviewers. It also seems valuable to realize that groundbreaking work, like Jeffrey’s, met initial resistance from wary readers. Such resistance, I’m as convinced as everyone else, has the ability to make work stronger.

In all this, however, Stephanie’s emphasis on professional courtesy seems paramount. I think it is good, even healthy, to recognize the moment when a reviewer fails to respect the work under scrutiny. Indeed, I’m glad to hear that Rob is training his students to internalize the difference between conceited and constructive criticism (even unnecessary cruelty). And I hope we also teach our students to have the confidence to reject a review that violates basic protocols of professional courtesy. But, and even as I write this, I feel a twinge of doubt: I mean, how hard is it to say, “I’m simply not listening to this review because the person has no respect for the fundamental aims of this project”? In fact, I doubt many of us can do that. Even in those moments when I’ve been kicked the hardest, I find myself poring over a negative critique looking for ways to satisfy even the most skeptical of readers. In the most extreme instance, when I knew the reviewer had been unethical (even violating standards of blind review to do it), I sought to revise my work in ways that might stave off such an attack by “similar” readers (all the while hoping that other such trolls were a figment of my fearful imagination). But even in regular circumstances, I often find myself writing the “in case you are a misogynist, elitist, or otherwise a jerk,” footnote, clause, sentence, or (sometimes) paragraph, which seeks to justify the very grounds of what I do to people who will probably always hate what I do anyhow. It has become part of my professional repertoire. That’s pretty sad.

When we talk about the productivity of negativity, then, it is with the assumption that this basic professional respect is operative. I know everyone in this conversation thinks that (because many have said that, in one way or another). But this attitude should have consequences. When a reviewer shirks her responsibility, it is the job of a good editor to neutralize such poison. Those scholars shouldn’t review again, and those reviews should be trashed. Leave those scholars to themselves; where they dwell is surely a very negative, very lonesome land.

Cheers, and good to see everyone, h

gabriel gryffyn said...

Thanks very much for the panels this year. I somehow made it to my 5th year as a grad student at the 'Zoo without exposure to the open collaboration ideas that you and BABEL promote. I always suspected I was missing something in academia, and I reckon I've found it.

Rick Godden said...

Rob, I love how you try to address this question with your graduate students. And I do think that some of this stems from a lack of training--a lack of training on how to be a good colleague, a good member of a community. I think the embrace of a negative form of criticism/response starts very early. For example, it seems especially common when it comes to composition.

Whenever I conduct workshops with my students, their mindset sometimes slips into the mildly adversarial. They want to fix and reshape. We spend an entire semester thinking and working through different ways of reading, and of responding, but when the pressure comes on, they relapse back to these older modes. In some ways I think it's an easier approach, but I have to wonder if how they are taught to approach writing in High School doesn't encourage some of this. (We can't of course fix everything, and I'm by no means indicting High School teachers.)

I see it too in some teachers, where they give comments that judge and prescribe rather than guide.

I love what Susan wrote below: "a reviewer should write from a position that TRIES to see things from the point of view of the writer of an article or book, even if the approach the writer takes is anathema to the reviewer." All of this echoes for me the current conversation about "empathy" and picking a Supreme Court judge. What does it mean for Obama to consider "empathy" in picking a judge? Quoting from Obama (there's a good article on Slate about this, and I'm pulling the quote from that article): "Empathy … calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision." We want readers who are empathetic, who will try to consider or inhabit a subjection position different from their own. Of course, I'm drawing a bit of a false comparison by relating the rationale of picking a supreme court judge to the issue of anonymity in scholarly review, but the two do share a certain ethical dimension.

Limited vision is indeed a darker side.

Rob Barrett said...

Much of what I've written here (as well as much of what I do in the graduate classroom) is driven by my own observation of graduate school at Penn--it was largely a positive experience, but there were definite moments in which I realized that I was being interpellated as part of a longstanding cycle of abuse.

Rick's point about commentary on student essays is a good example of what motivates me to be different: when I was starting out as a TA, I once unintentionally drove a male undergraduate to tears with a set of comments that were not necessarily insulting, but were certainly not written from a collegial, collaborative perspective. I was lucky that the professor I was working for in that class chose to treat the incident as an educational opportunity instead of a punitive one.

Since then I've tried in my grading to couch my comments in terms of helping the writer to realize his or her vision--even if said vision is only implicit in what's exactly on the page.

This is also why I've tried to avoid turning my dissertation advisees into carbon copies of myself. Since my first two advisees both did dissertations on hagiography (St. Edmund and St. Catherine of Alexandria respectively), I like to think that I'm succeeding in this effort--the next advisee entering ABD status is working on prophecy and gender. Not a regional identity/early English drama project in the bunch!

M. Foys said...

Word, JJC.