To those of you who are also my Twitter friends, I apologize: I said I was finished with this issue and moving on, but it turns out it is still going around in my head and needs a bit more sorting out–not because I feel aggrieved (that, I’m basically over), but because I think it is symptomatic in ways that are worth further disucssion.
My immediate situation is this: I was invited to participate in a panel on ‘knowledge dissemination in Victorian Studies in Canada’ at the upcoming British Association of Victorian Studies conference. Specifically, I was asked to present a paper about my experience as a blogger and how it connects to broader issues about research, writing, and ‘knowledge dissemination.’ I was also invited to propose a workshop for graduate students on academic blogging (or, as I like to think of it, blogging as an academic). Naturally, I think this is all good. For one thing, it is encouraging to find that my blogging seems interesting and significant enough to other academics for them to want to hear more about it. Also, it seems like evidence that this activity of mine, which is not by any conventional definition “scholarship,” can nonetheless open a door for me into an event like this–at least to the organizers, that I have been blogging was a reason to include me in this gathering of scholars, not a strike against me. The panel was duly accepted by the conference organizers, and I spent some substantial time last month putting together the materials required to apply for funding to cover travel expenses and the conference registration (which in this case is quite a substantial sum, as it includes on-campus accommodation as well as a registration fee). Times are hard and budgets are tight, but participation in conferences is a recognized professional activity, the kind of thing we are supposed to do, to share our ideas and learn about other people’s. I do it rarely, because my experience is often disappointing, but BAVS is just the kind of conference that promises to be really worthwhile. Our attendance at international conferences also does a little to raise the profile of our home institutions–though in this particular context, I think it’s worth pointing out that my blog, where my name and institutional affiliation are clearly displayed, also does this. (I think it’s safe to say that many people who read my blog had never heard of Dalhousie University before they came here–though perhaps I underestimate the successes of our PR team in getting the word out. I’d actually be interested to know from readers if I’m right about this.)
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that the institution I sort of work for that I don’t regularly name here, the University of King’s College (please don’t ask me to explain the Dal-King’s relationship–nobody can do it–let’s leave it at saying that I’m a member of the “Joint Faculty”) promptly coughed up the money I asked them for. Since they are a small institution and in particularly challenging financial circumstances right now, their commitment to supporting faculty research and conference travel is particularly appreciated. Thanks, King’s! But they have a cap on these grants, and just getting to the UK is very expensive these days, even though it’s a modest 5-hour direct flight from here to Heathrow. Luckily, there’s a special fund available through Dalhousie for international conference travel, specifically intended to help with the likely shortfall between a standard-sized travel grant and the real cost of even a short trip. I applied for a modest additional sum from this fund, to make up the difference between the King’s grant and what I anticipated the whole trip would cost. This application was turned down.
This is perhaps an unnecessarily long preamble, especially since the real point of this post is not to complain about this outcome–or at least, not exactly. I understand that universities do not have enough money to pay for everything, and I’m actually readier than most of my colleagues to point to conference travel as something that ought to be more rare than it is, given the multitude of ways we can communicate with each other for free, or at least for no more than the already budgeted overhead costs for internet access. I myself last attended a conference in 2009. (That doesn’t mean that there is nothing valuable about bringing a community of scholars together, though, and providing the occasion and support for focused and also serendipitous face-to-face engagement.) Given the shortage of funds, I also see that applications have to be ranked and there will be some that aren’t ranked as high as others. I do think the rationale for these decisions should be explicit and transparent, so that we put in the best applications we can and can realistically assess our chances of success before going to the trouble of applying again. So on getting the bad news that I wasn’t getting any more money from my university towards this trip, I fired off a request for the reviewers’ assessments of the application, and here’s where I got my knickers in a bit of a twist, because the single negative comment in the two otherwise perfectly positive evaluations was, under Quality of Applicant,”The applicant’s publications record is spotty.” Given that neither reviewer objected to my budget or to anything about the conference or to my proposed participation in it (“the conference and the applicant’s contributions seem noteworthy,” remarked the same person), it doesn’t seem far-fetched to conclude that the “spotty” publication record accounts for the relatively low rating assigned the application by Reviewer #2 (of course they are anonymous, though my application wasn’t) and its mediocre overall final rating. Did that perception “cost” me the grant? I’m not sure, since I don’t know precisely where the cut-off point was for the fund/don’t fund decision, but something did, and that’s the only clue I have about what it might have been.
But here’s the thing. Yes, absolutely, my publication record over the last 5 years (which is what they asked about) is “spotty” if by that you mean that I haven’t published a peer-reviewed academic article since 2007. My anthology of Victorian writing on the novel did come out in 2009: I’m not sure where editorial projects rate on the whole academic prestige scale, but I can tell you it was a pretty big undertaking and included a fair amount of original scholarship, particularly of the “reading things from old periodicals and figuring out if they are somehow significant, based on research into secondary materials about Victorian theories of the novel” kind. During that 5-year period, though, I have also published 5 essays and 4 book reviews in Open Letters Monthly. Actually, those are all since October 2009–so in the past 18 months or so, I have been more active as a published writer than during any previous time in my life. Because the application asked us to highlight publications especially relevant to the proposed conference, I listed my essay on Ahdaf Soueif as well as my review of Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love and my pieces on Felix Holt and Vanity Fair (remember, the panel is on ‘knowledge dissemination in Victorian Studies’). Though the blog is discussed in the description of my paper I submitted for the panel (included in the application file), I did not attempt to declare it a “publication” on the application form, even though it is in fact the writing most relevant to a paper about my experience as an academic blogging in Canada. As a blogger, there’s nothing “spotty” about my record at all: I have posted 2-3 pieces (sometimes more) every week on my blog since 2007, for a grand total of 600 posts (601, counting this one!). Some of them are incidental, some of them are substantial. Some reflect original (if sometimes incomplete) thinking about scholarly problems, many of them address critical and interpretive questions. I think I could make the case that on this occasion, I have every right to identify this material as in an important sense a relevant “publication”–but I didn’t. There’s no place on the form, after all, to justify doing so, and the package overall is pretty clear about the relevance of blogging because that’s what I was invited to the conference to talk about. Maybe I made a tactical error in trying to avoid directly confronting the whole “a blog is just meaningless self-publishing” thing, but you’d think a careful reviewer might have thought a little outside the box provided and seen that in this case, that “spotty” comment was kind of missing the point.
I did, however, present my Open Letters pieces as publications, though I did not put the little asterisks next to them to indicate “peer-reviewed.” I think this is where the “spotty” comment really comes from, and here’s where I think our reliance on (or our faith in) peer review does a disservice, not just to those of us doing other kinds of publishing, but to the principle that what matters is the quality of the work, not the system that grants it (or doesn’t grant it) an extrinsic stamp of approval. Nobody is going to actually read any publication I list on something like this, starred or not. The task of deciding whether I’m doing good work or not has been outsourced to the readers of academic journals. I’m sure I don’t have to tell an audience of bloggers that there are serious flaws with peer review (see here for lots more about it). There’s no good reason (except efficiency and habit–and I don’t underestimate the weight of these) to assume that the little asterisk means “job well done” while its absence means “not a real contribution to the academic enterprise.” Or, we shouldn’t assume that if we understand “the academic enterprise” a little more broadly than perhaps many people do. Consider the panel topic again: “knowledge dissemination.” That’s an ugly coinage, but basically doesn’t it mean getting the word out about what we know? Who says that the only important thing is getting the word out to other academics? (Indeed, who says that other academics get their information exclusively from academic sources?) In fact, though probably the humanities were not at the forefront of anybody’s mind when worrying about this, there’s been a national discussion in recent years about the importance of communicating scholarly research beyond the traditional frameworks (for example). My review of Brenda Maddox’s book has been viewed 561 times since it went live. As academic blogger Alex Reid has reported, statistics show that 93% of humanities articles go uncited. That doesn’t mean they aren’t read, but if they were serving the purpose they are supposed to, e.g. furthering academic understanding and debate, their citation rate would surely be close to their viewing rate. I can’t know what the results were of those 561 “hits,” but it seems fair to say I disseminated something there. My essay on Gone with the Wind has been viewed more than 9700 times since it went live, and though you would have to read it to know, it offers an extensive ‘expert’ reading that is enmeshed in my work on fiction and ethics, as well as on historiography: it just presents that expertise in an accessible, jargon-free (well, nearly!) way. The Ahdaf Soueif essay has been viewed a modest 282 times–but reading it over, I am convinced it makes an original contribution to our understanding of Soueif’s novels, and 282 is not bad if Alex Reid and his respondents are right that the average readership for a humanities article is somewhere between 2 and 7. Why would it be better if I had padded it around with footnotes and laid it to rest in the Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures? Of course, I realize it might have been rejected if I had sent it to the Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures. The whole thing would have been a much slower process, certainly: not just writing the kind of paper that can compete for space in such a publication, but waiting to see how I did. Heck, I waited 5 months for a reply to a preliminary inquiry about submitting it to another journal, one that claims to ‘welcome’ such inquiries and even to recommend them prior to our undergoing the full submission process. By writing it on my own terms, subjecting it not to academic peer review but to the scarily rigorous review of my co-editors at OLM, and then publishing it there, I seized an important moment and, yes, disseminated my knowledge. The only way in which I think it would be preferable to be in, say, JMEL, would be that an essay there would be found and cited by other scholars working on related topics in a way that probably the Open Letters piece won’t be–it won’t show up in the MLA bibliography, right? That said, any scholar with anything on the go these days will do a range of searches including a web search, so someone writing on Soueif is surely bound to find my essay if they are doing a half-decent job of research.
I can’t help but be aware, though, that to some extent I am rationalizing my own recent choices, the way I have prioritized my time. It has turned out that for me, it is not possible to do everything. One rationale often heard for academic blogging is that it can further a ‘proper’ research and publication agenda. This has happened for me to some extent, especially in the early days of my writing about Soueif and while I was contributing at The Valve, but that’s not really how I have been using my blog for some time. Instead of writing posts about Victorian literature, or Victorian studies, I have been writing about Vera Brittain and Elizabeth Bowen and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo–and Salley Vickers and Jennifer Egan and Morley Callaghan and Brian Moore. I have chosen to do this, as I have chosen to write essays and reviews for Open Letters on both Victorian and non-Victorian topics, in the full knowledge that I have only so much time for reading and writing and that these are not the kinds of reading and writing that will serve me best professionally. I know perfectly well that the kind of writing I’ve been doing doesn’t “count”; I feel guilty and inadequate and defensive about not having been equally productive at the kind that does, and I can hardly pretend to be surprised that there are consequences to this.I have thought often about how my decision to use the security of tenure to experiment with the parameters of my work as a critic will affect my chances of any further promotion: it’s ‘research and publications’ (that is, research that leads to academic peer-reviewed publications) that will count for that, no matter how enriched my teaching is as a result of my other intellectual explorations, or how good and even well-respected my non-academic essays might become.
A couple of my “tweeps” have kindly suggested that it’s not easy being “in the vanguard” or being an innovator in a system that is as rule-bound as academia (I’m extrapolating a bit from their 140-character replies to my venting!). I think that without making exaggerated claims for the value of the writing I’ve been doing, it’s safe to see the reviewer’s response to my profile as symptomatic of something like this. The categories and labels in use are no longer sufficient; the boxes we are given to fill in do not fit what all of us are doing; the patterns we are expected to follow need to be altered. A productive, respected (if I may?) blogger presenting a paper on blogging at a panel on knowledge dissemination should not need a string of unrelated peer-reviewed publications to prove herself.
And that really is my last word on this incident! (Well, except for any responses I might have to comments. And any follow-up tweets …. )