Thursday, August 29, 2013

I already know what happened and I wasn't even there

While the opinions expressed here are mine alone, I want to thank Natalia Cecire, Alex Gil, Adeline Koh, Tricia Matthew, and Roopika Risam for helpful comments.

As a scholar who studies feminist periodicals, both academic and activist, I am well aware of the long history of submissions by women of color being lost, or edited without their consent, or solicited and then rejected as “not good enough.”[1]  These historical resonances echoed through my mind, as I read updates from Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam about the DHpoco special section for the Journal of Digital Humanities September 2013 issue for which I revised a co-authored piece.  

Adeline Koh has outlined what happened here. To summarize, four troubling issues emerged:
●      We [DHpoco special section editors] appeared to be the only special section ever singled out for external peer review
●      JDH promised us [the editors] one process, but then insisted upon another on
●      All of our essays had been published on the Internet through blog posts, the #dhpoco website and the summer school. This meant that any external review could hardly be blind. Why did JDH think that this would be blind, given that names and previous forms of our essays were already freely available online
●      If blind peer review was not possible, why did JDH want to appoint a blind reviewer? Since it is an experimental journal, we would have been amenable to an open peer review.

As I stood in Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies this week, it occurred to me that the material I was teaching my students applied to JDH's situation as well.   While discussing Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking, I brought up a well known article “Doing Difference” in which the authors argue that the same action performed by people with different “identities” often results in different reactions or consequences.[2]  These differential reactions or consequences highlight the situations where we should look for racism, sexism, or evidence of other Isms.  

In this case, the publication of guest edited sections by JDH is a well-established pattern.  Adeline and Roopika received an outline of the publication process that did not include external reviewers.  From conversations with other JDH guest editors, it would seem that in the past, editors of sections have functioned as the reviewers and have not been asked to undergo blind external review. Why have the editors of the DHpoco section been asked to?  What is the difference at work here?   

The decision to shift, mid-publication schedule, to a different editorial model, in a special section that questions the DH community itself for being insufficiently inattentive to identity issues, is, unfortunate seems inadequate to cover this situation. In a world where discrimination exists, decisions must be understood within that context.  It is the privilege of some groups not to understand that.

The shift from discussion based on the agreed upon procedure for editing the special section to one of meritocracy is especially distressing in light of the long history of academics dismissing work by people of color. [3]  The title of my blog post was inspired by Tricia Matthew's email to me when I alerted her to Adeline's post.  Tricia's work on tenure and rank in academia, along with many other books, amply documents the "good enough" challenges face by academics of color.  As Tricia so succinctly put it, "I know EXACTLY what happened, and I don't even know what happened," so familiar are experiences like Adeline and Roopika's.[4]

Play by our rules or go home is the message of most journals,  and by and large most academics suck it up and play by the rules.  [See Martha Nell Smith's fabulous comment on why those rules suck in general.].  Then at least, let’s keep the rules consistent.   Academics with guest editing experience are well aware that different journals have different policies and that those policies are spelled out in advance precisely to avoid situations like the one the JDH now finds itself in. [As Natalia Cecire notes, intent isn't necessarily the issue here].

That the Journal of Digital Humanities is an evolving publication is clear.  It is new and purposefully experimental.  However, the idea that its ever evolving, flexible policies extended to blind external review in the midst of the #DHPoco special section is deeply troubling. As Siobhan Senier noted in a comment on Adeline’s blog,

A flexible and contingent editorial policy is, yes, probably ill-advised; when the bar is suddenly raised for two guest editors who just “happen to be” junior women of color, you have a pretty damning embarrassment on your hands. It doesn’t matter whether this is intentional or not (and to be honest, it’s kind of boring to have to point that out. That’s how racism and similar forms of exclusion work: systemically. We’re supposed to be thoughtful enough at least to TRY guard against it, through constant self-questioning and conferring with others.)

Siobahn’s comment, as well as the many tweets about the flexible and experimental evolving publication policies of JDH, reminded me of Jo Freeman's classic article “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” in which she noted that in the early years of women’s liberation movements in the United States

[w]omen had thoroughly accepted the idea of "structurelessness" without realizing the limitations of its uses. People would try to use the "structureless" group and the informal conference for purposes for which they were unsuitable out of a blind belief that no other means could possibly be anything but oppressive. … structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.

The "flexibility" and "experimental" nature of JDH are another form of structurelessness with the same results.  The call for greater transparency in JDH editorial policy is motivated by precisely Freeman's point:  a plea to make clear the relations of power.  

As Freeman explained 
the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules … must be open and available to everyone. 
JDH could certainly negotiate editorial procedures as needed with guest editors, and when dictated by experimentation, adapt, but these procedures should be open (published with the journal issue) and agreed upon in advance.

[1]Recall Bell Hooks’ being told  “"If Black women are not here, it is not because Yale is racist, it is that Black women are simply not good enough.” [bell hooks, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1991), 163]. For the history of race in feminist journals see Patrice McDermott, Politics and Scholarship: Feminist Academic Journals and the Production of Knowledge (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), passim.
[2] Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker, Doing Difference. Gender and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 8-37.  There are definite problems with this essay that are highlighted in “Doing Difference by Candace West; Sarah Fenstermaker” Patricia Hill Collins, Lionel A. Maldonado, Dana Y. Takagi, Barrie Thorne, Lynn Weber and Howard Winant, Gender and Society Vol. 9, No. 4 (Aug., 1995), pp. 491-506.
[3] See examples in everything from the essays in Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 2nd ed. (Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1988) to Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2012).

[4] Gaëtane Jean-Marie and Brenda Lloyd-Jones, Women of Color in Higher Education: Changing Directions and New Perspectives (Emerald Group Publishing, 2011). Harriet Curtis-Boles, Diane M. Adams, and Valata Jenkins-Monroe, Making Our Voices Heard: Women of Color in Academia (Nova Science Publishers, Incorporated, 2012).

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