Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Day -01 (Round III) "In the trenches" (blind-review edition)

Well, here we go again. For reference's sake, here are links to this time last semester and the semester before that.

When I began the "Trenches" series (an increment-by-increment recounting of the daily tasks that cross the desk of a musicology professor), I hadn't any intent of continuing it past a single semester; it was more in the way of a semester-long snapshot of what we do and how we might think about it (part of the "being a public intellectual" role I've blogged about before). But, I've continued to find it useful and challenging, and, ideally, valuable for others, and so I continued into a second semester, and am now looking down the barrel of a third.

One way I know that's true is that my sleep patterns have fallen apart. There was a time when I could sleep almost anywhere nearly at will, but as I've gotten older, I've found I sleep a lot lighter and wake much more readily. And, with the range of stuff to think about that the new semester brings, if I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the john, I have to say mantras just to keep myself from starting to problem-solve. And it doesn't always work. And then I'm usually up for a couple of hours. I've learned that, at that point, the best thing I can do is just suck it up, get out of the rack, and go do some work. But you have to watch out: if you work 'til you're ready to fall back to sleep, and then do, the REM fog will persist through the rest of the day.

So to today. Went to bed around midnight, got shocked awake by some noise around 3:45, and decided, since I was stressing about looming deadlines, I might as well get out of the rack and start working on at least one of those looming projects: a requested chapter for a collection on depictions of Southern US culture in film. It's an outgrowth of a paper I gave a couple of years back at a professional organization's national conference, focusing on portrayals of the blues in Hollywood film, and in the wake of which the collection's editor approached me and asked for a print version. As sometimes happens, the editorial team wasn't able to give very specific or concrete guidelines for the various authors, because the shape/profile/tenor of the collection was going to be revealed only after the various topics were finalized.

So one had to go off and expand the reading text, essentially writing in a vacuum, because there wasn't any guidance. So you say "well, they came to me on the basis of the reading text, so I guess something that expands on that fundamental approach is most likely to be right." And, of course, in the event it turned out not to be what they wanted--at least initially. Which would be OK, because sometimes you as an editor don't know what's right until you get some things that are not-right.

But, I gotta say, what frosts my bacon is when the editorial team comes to me, says "we'd like a version of the paper you gave," you develop the article based on that paper, and then they say "well, we think this isn't what we want, but we don't really know anything about this topic, so we're going to farm it out to anonymized outside readers." Which would still be OK, because after all anonymous reviewers are a fundamental part of the process--there's no other way to ensure that personal relationships are kept out of the author-reviewer dynamic.

The problem is that this doesn't always work. For some reason (maybe it's the venerable jobsite syndrome), there's a small percentage of those anonymous readers, on any given project, who just cannot keep their own biases out of the review. For years--decades really--I resolutely declined the opportunity to review CDs, even though I was repeatedly asked and I knew lots of folks who did it for the free discs, because I couldn't see any way to be both a recording artist and a recordings reviewer--the conflict of interest just seemed too flagrant.

Eventually, after years, I agreed to write a book review here and there, in AMS's principal journal, because the format allowed for really extensive and detailed essay-reviews. And even there I spent weeks working on those reviews, and re-drafted multiple times, because I so much wanted to do justice to the books and present as balanced a perspective as possible.

And so I don't really understand why some blind reviewers interpret the job, not as editorial critique, but rather the attempt (usually biased and not-very-well argued) to convey, almost literally, "I don't like your article because it's not the article that I wanted to read". My great mentor Peter Burkholder had a metaphor for this: he said that, in almost any Q&A session in almost any scholarly meeting, you could sub-title almost any question posed: "Me." "Me." "Uh, Me." "No, no, no, Me."

Now, the fact of the matter is that, in a live, Q&A-type session, such transparent egocentricity is something you can cope with: if you get one of those patented, pedantic, egocentric inquiries which is more accurately troped as just one more opportunity for the questioner to draw attention to him/herself, in the live situation you can come right back at them. I actually relish those situations, because I like to be able to counter and riposte, and I am enough of a Socratic adherent to believe that point/counterpoint does actually make you think better.

But the anonymous reviewer situation is not that: it's more like you're hung out there on the fence, and some jackass who resents the fact that you got tapped for the article, instead of him or her, can take manipulative potshots at your work without any accountability. It's not that I can't take the critique. I love being edited: I was raised in a hard, brilliant school, by people who were some of the great writers, full stop, in the history of my discipline. But this idea of using the blind review as a cheap-jack opportunity to take fundamental issue with somebody else's work, simply (and transparently) because you resent them, is weeny and stupid and exemplary of the kinds of petty tyrannies that make people outside academia look on us with contempt. You want to reach through the fibre-optic cables that brought the anonymized comments, grab the reviewer by the throat, and say "motherfucker, tell me where you don't understand, tell me where you don't agree, tell me where the structure or expression or usage or explanation fail; that helps me. But keep your envy to your fucking self, OK?"

It's tougher to do this because, sometimes, the sniping manipulative bullshit I'm talking about is interwoven with critique, from the same person, which can solid, acute, and essential. You just have to learn to weed out, and distinguish between, the bullshit cheap shots (or cheap motivations), and retain, and respond constructively to the apt criticisms. It's a fine line to walk but, as with so many things, it's a hell of a lot easier when and as you learn to separate the ego whose feelings are hurt from the intellect that can actually benefit from the critique.

And I love getting stuff off my desk.: vastly, densely, word-for-word revised draft goes in tomorrow.

And, oh, by the way: this is post #1000: three-and-a-half years (first post June 8 2005, on "Radical Pedagogy") later, it's been an interesting progression.

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