Build Your Dissertation-Writing Superego

I recently ran a dissertation writing workshop for the Society for Cultural Anthropology–and, if you missed it, you can play along at home. The workshop was basically group therapy, and I took turns asking participants the following questions. You can answer each of the questions and compare answers with friends (and maybe with members of your dissertation committee!).

Why are you writing a dissertation?

Who are you writing a dissertation for?

What do you want the dissertation to be?

What would be a successful outcome for the dissertation writing process?

What circumstances would lead you to walk away from your dissertation writing permanently?

What are the three key theories that animate your dissertation?

Who are the three key scholars that you are in conversation with?

Who are the constituencies (subfields, disciplines, etc.) that you are seeking to address in your dissertation?

How will you know that you’ve successfully addressed these theories, scholars, and constituencies?

What chapters does your dissertation have to include? What are the topics, key bits of evidence, and key theories involved in each chapter?

If you have time to write your dream dissertation, how would it differ from the necessary dissertation? That is, what additional chapters would it include?

What elements does a successful chapter include?

What is the right balance of evidence and argumentation?

What makes a bad chapter?

Having a clear sense of the answers to these questions–or even a muddled sense that you can refine over time–and writing them out for reference can be very helpful in providing a resource to check in with and ensure that you’re staying true to the mission.

Here’s an exercise: What nagging experience do you keep returning to in your thinking about your fieldwork? It can be an interaction, an event you attended, an interview, something else. Write up that experience. Try and provide as much detail as possible–and don’t worry about how it fits into your dissertation as a whole. Don’t do any analytic work–just the empirical description of the experience itself. Aim for ~5 pages of content.

Now, swap your write-up with a friend and answer the following questions about their write-up. Compare notes.

What are the key elements that resonate for you in this piece of writing?

What anthropological concerns do these elements relate to?

If you had to make an argument about these elements and their relationship to the evidence at hand, how would you structure that argument?

Given what you’ve read, what else would you like to read–what would help this make more sense, move across scales, or address specific scholarly concerns?

My Most Common Peer Review Suggestions, Compiled

The end of summer always brings a flurry of peer review, as I work through all of the submissions and resubmissions that editors sent to me over summer break. I often find myself making similar suggestions to authors and thought that compiling them might serve as a resource for article and book authors to work through before they submit something for peer review. This is a little geared toward qualitative researchers in the social sciences (and specifically anthropology), but might be generalizable.

Situate your research. Who are you? Where are you writing from? Why are you writing what you’re writing? What’s your comparative framework? I read a lot of stuff that assumes the US as the comparative framework for the discussion, but doesn’t discuss the US directly or assumes that American social forms and cultural expectations are universals. I would guess that my most recommended text in peer reviews is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations for his discussion of “North Atlantic Universals.” (There are people who read that book and it shapes everything they do; and then there are people who don’t read that book, and…) Beyond that, the critiques of objectivity that came out of feminist science studies in the 1980s are still true and you can’t ignore them by not situating yourself in relation to your research–the effect is that a paper comes across as trying to tell an ahistorical story that might strive toward universalism. All research, whatever its context, is necessarily historically situated and explaining why something is important to research in this moment is critical in framing the contribution of the work to its audience.

That theoretical concept has a more complicated history and set of usages than you’re letting on. Literature review sections don’t give authors a ton of space to develop their engagement with key ideas in the field, but if there are multiple genealogies of a concept, be sure to address each of them and spell out their differences. As an example, I am often reading manuscripts that engage with the affect literature–but they only address one side of it (Silvan Tompkins or post-Deleuzian materialism) and make assumptions about the interconnections between the two schools. The same goes with “relations” and “interdependence” and so many more concepts. I might be especially persnickety, but I imagine that anyone deep in a theoretical literature that you’re engaging with will want some equal time paid to each of the represented traditions of thought–even, and especially, if you disagree with them. Detailing those distinctions is a good way to ensure that one’s contributions are well spelled out. And if you think there’s only one genealogy to a concept you’re using, take the time to make sure!

Diversify your citations, please. It’s well established at this point–thanks to Cite Black Women and Catherine Lutz’s work on the “erasure of women’s writing“–that women and minority scholars are cited at lower rates (and in different ways) than men, and especially white men. Checking one’s bibliography to ensure that there is significant representation of non-men (and non-white men) is a first step toward more inclusive citation practices. Even more importantly, working through the literature review and argumentation to ensure that non-white, non-men are being engaged with as part of the theoretical scaffolding of the paper is critical. This may require reframing the contribution of the paper, but the process of addressing what’s happening in other scholarly circles ensures that the work will reach broader audiences.

The evidence/argumentation ratio is askew. This tends to be a problem that I associate with early publications on a project (which can happen at any career phase). When an author is too close to the project and really swamped by the details, they tend to put too much evidence into a paper and don’t do enough work to motivate the evidence in relation to the argument; when people are on the other end of a project, they tend to put too little evidence in and too much argumentation. In the former case, it seems to be because the connections between the evidence and the argument are assumed by the author and they don’t take the time to clearly detail how the evidence and argument relate. They also tend to put in more evidence than an argument tends to need–in most articles the ratio is probably something like 1/3 argument, 2/3 evidence. This is something that people forget late in a project, when they’ve been writing about something for several years and have come to feel that a claim has become common sense–but still need to provide some evidence for a novice reader. This can all change based on the audience, but as a general rule of thumb, if the introduction is getting too long–or if it’s too short–something is out of whack.

Remember your audience. Do people need to know this? Asking that question about any evidentiary section or discussion of literature is always helpful in reducing the amount of extraneous and digressive stuff in a manuscript. Where you’re seeking to publish something will necessarily shape who your audience is; if it’s a subfield or niche journal or book list, you can make more assumptions about your audience than if you’re submitting something for a much more general audience. Niche audiences will also be more keen on the nitty-gritty of the evidentiary details of your research. You can’t know who you’re actual audience will be, but if you submit something to a general journal or book list, expect to be read by peer reviewers who have no intrinsic interest in the evidence itself, whereas niche reviewers will be more likely to care about the details. As a peer reviewer, I try and make sure I’m wearing the right hat for the peer review project and work to ensure that I’m playing specialist or generalist as needed to make the right kinds of recommendations for an author.

Hopefully these suggestions provide a quick reference for making sure that a piece of writing is ready for peer review. I don’t always follow my own suggestions, so this might also be a reminder to myself to pay more attention to these elements in my own writing… If you have common peer review suggestions you make, feel free to share them in the comments.

My “Ask a Journal Author” Answers, All in One Place

Early in 2021, Ilana Gershon asked me to participate in a series of “Ask a Journal Author” columns for Anthropology News. I’m reproducing my answers here in the form that they originally appeared (as opposed to broken into a series of topical posts) in the “interview” because: 1) it’s like an actual conversation, 2) having them in one place makes it a little easier to read, and 3) the sequence of their posting in Anthropology News didn’t follow the original sequence of the questions and answers. I’ve linked to where the answers appear on the Anthropology News blog, so you can read other peoples’ answers (which make some of my answers seem controversial); I highly recommend checking out how other people answered the same questions.

Ilana Gershon: When does deciding an article’s “home” become important for you during the writing process? Do you write an article knowing the potential venue(s) that it might be published in or do you just write an article first and then figure out where it could be published?

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: I start thinking about homes for articles pretty much as soon as I start writing them. As the structure of the piece starts to come together, I consider where I might send it and then continue to work on it with that journal—or a few journals that are similar in their generic requirements—in mind.

This has changed a lot for me over the last decade. Pre-tenure, I was really focused on publishing “enough” rather than publishing in specific journals. That led me to mostly publish in journals that I knew well and knew would be supportive of the kind of stuff I was working on. For me, that meant a lot of journals focused on medicine and the body. But it also included more intra- or interdisciplinary social science journals whose audiences I knew I could write for in compelling ways. 

After tenure, I decided to target all of the flagship journals in cultural anthropology, particularly those hosted by Anthrosource. I would study a year’s worth of issues to get the formal elements of articles published in a particular journal down so that I could write to form. That necessarily also shaped the content—i.e. did it start with an ethnographic anecdote or not?, how much of a literature review did articles have?—but it was all in the service of adhering to a particular generic form. At the time, I was also working with the archive of material that made up my dissertation, some of which ended up in The Slumbering Masses, but a lot of which ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. That allowed me to try and match specific kinds of outtakes and arguments with journal interests.

These days, where I send an article is more after-the-fact. I tend to write a talk each year—either a colloquium talk or a set of conference papers that, once strung together, make up a long-form talk—that ends up turning into an article. Once I have it in hand, I think through the various journals it might fit with. Because generic forms at journals are pretty glacial in how they change, the work I did in studying journals continues to pay off.

One of the things I’ve learned that no one ever taught me is to pay close attention to who the editor of a journal is when you’re considering submitting something to it. Because my work can be a little unconventional, both topically and content-wise, I’ve found that identifying editors that are sympathetic to the kinds of projects I do helps a lot. It means they know the right reviewers to ask and that they know how to work with the reviews they receive.

[Read more answers to this question here.]

IG: When you receive a revise and re-submit, how do you typically approach the reviewer’s comments? How much of those comments should be included in the revised draft (Note: it might help to talk about an example)?

MWM: I just wrote a blog post about this. Revision is a pretty visual process for me—I highlight parts of the peer reviews and editor’s letter that are important to address, sort them into an ordered list as to how they will appear in the manuscript, and then cross them off as I go.

That said, and maybe one day I’ll write a book about it, I tend to get some pretty…different reviews than most of my friends. This became apparent to me early on, but I didn’t know it was a trend until much later. It was especially the case with the sleep project that people would kind of free associate with the content, often not really offering critical comments on the content of the article so much as working through their own thinking about sleep—maybe for the first time. I had to learn pretty early on how to parse that kind of therapeutic process for peer reviewers from the stuff that was germane to the article and its future. And that’s something that I needed to learn to be able to conceptualize. Generally, we think about peer review as being about the author of the article and that peer reviewers serve as a kind of superego. But I’ve come to see that sometimes the peer reviewer is going through their own introspective process when they confront something that they haven’t thought about before. That can come out in pretty different ways, only some of which are generative for revisions.

That trend of weird peer reviews has continued with the projects on communication disabilities and fecal microbial transplants. In looking at friends’ peer reviews, it’s pretty clear that when people work on areas where there is a lot of interest in Anthropology or cognate fields, they get recommendations from other specialists on that topic—which makes a lot of sense and can be usefully detailed. But, because I often work on stuff that doesn’t really have a lot of specialists within Anthropology, it gets sent to specialists in medical anthropology or psychological anthropology or science and technology studies. Which is all great, but it often means that they can’t speak to the matter at hand as directly as specialists might. I often recall looking at a friend’s peer reviews for an article on HIV/AIDS. All of the peer reviewers were experts in the social study of HIV/AIDS and they knew so much technical and scholarly material that they helped point my friend toward. But for me, I often get very general kinds of suggestions, I assume because the reviewers I pull don’t know the small literatures that my work comes out of.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: How do you react to a piece that has been rejected? Do you burst into tears, curl up into a ball, fume at the editor and reviewers, get back to the drawing board – the possibilities are endless…

MWM: Frankly, I usually just send it out to another journal within 24 hours. Unless there’s something in the peer reviews that is really critical to rewriting the piece, I’ve found that working through the peer reviews for a journal that rejected the piece is largely a waste of time. If it’s just going to be sent out by another editor, there’s going to be a new set of reviews with their own concerns (which might counterpoise the old reviews). 

That was a hard-learned process and in the past I spent way too long revising manuscripts that were rejected before sending them elsewhere only to receive even more reviews to work through. I’m sure I learned a lot in the process of working through those revisions, and that that has sped up the time-of-submission to time-of-acceptance for later articles. But most of what I learned is that a rejection is usually not about the content of the article but its fit at a particular journal with a specific set of readers. 

In terms of incorporating peer review feedback, there’s one piece in particular that I always think about in relation to this kind of question. A reviewer asked that I engage with an author that I didn’t think was particularly germane to the argument. I did, but placed the discussion in an endnote. It went back to that reviewer and they were pretty insistent that the discussion should be in the body of the article, which it now is. It sticks out to me, and I imagine that it does for other readers too, but maybe not. Over time, I’ve really come to understand that my relationship to peer review has changed. In the beginning, peer review was really instructional for me and helped to learn how to write better articles, steered me toward literatures I didn’t know, and made me more explicit in my claims. But now a lot of my engagement with peer review might be better thought of as negotiating compromises. It’s not so much that peer reviewers surprise me anymore but that I need to find a way to move between my plans for the piece and the needs of readers.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: At what point do you decide that it is better to try and publish a piece in a different venue instead of trying to re-submit a revised article to the same journal? 

MWM: The closest that I recall coming to this kind of experience takes a couple different forms, which, maybe strangely, both have to do with editorial shake-ups.

The first is with a couple of pieces that took a very long time to work their way through peer review. One was because of an editorial transition at a journal where it got lost in the shuffle. But that shuffle took something like a year to work itself out, and when the new editors finally got up to speed, they accidentally sent out the original version of a manuscript that had been substantially revised. When it came back to me, I considered pulling the piece and sending it to a new journal, but the new editors worked really hard from that point forward and made things move pretty quickly. 

The other time I actually pulled a piece wasn’t because of the content of peer reviews (which were pretty supportive), but editorial concerns. I had sent something to Hau and received the reviews just as #Hautalk was emerging on Twitter. It quickly became clear to me that publishing with Hau was the wrong thing to do, so I quietly pulled the piece from consideration there and sent it elsewhere.  

[Read more answers here.]

IG: When working on a book, what are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing the chapters individually as articles as you work on them?

MWM: For The Slumbering Masses, I basically dissembled the content of the dissertation and repurposed it as a set of articles and then proceeded to dissemble the articles and write the book. Only part of one chapter appeared as a slightly shortened version as an article. Otherwise, although a lot of the empirical content was the same, it appeared in very different ways in the book. Which is all to say that getting feedback on the article manuscripts was helpful, but not necessarily for the purpose of turning them into a book.

With Unraveling, I only sent out one piece that would later end up in the book—again, a shortened version of a chapter. It took longer to get through peer review than the book manuscript did and ended up coming out about six months before the book came out. A second piece got sent out when my editor told me I was 10,000 words over for the book manuscript, so I snipped out a roughly 10,000 word section of a chapter that could stand alone and got it under peer review. And then a third piece was assembled from some leftovers.

That set of experiences really has convinced me that books are books and articles are articles and parsing them out isn’t really worth it. Because I’m at a point career-wise that I don’t have to write articles for tenure or promotion, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to write books as books and save the article writing for putting together leftovers from the book writing process or writing to target specific audiences. Being able to conceptualize a book as a unified whole means that it can really be a different kind of object that a set of reworked articles.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: Is there any merit in thinking about an article submission as a way to get feedback on a work in progress?

MWM: Absolutely. As I was working on Unraveling, I had a talk that I would give and always get some…mixed feedback on. It was all about Anthropology’s fixation on the speaking subject as an ethnographic object and basis of subject formation. It was really the kernel of the critique of at the heart of the book and I used the opportunities to engage with diverse audiences to see what kind of feedback it elicited. At the same time, I sent it out for peer review to a few journals, basically fishing for peer reviews. Don’t get me wrong: if an editor was excited about it, I would have pursued publication. But they universally weren’t (which I’m not going to read too much into), and it never came out as an article. Even in the book it’s very different than the talk I would give or the manuscript I sent out. So it was really helpful to get a wide swath of peer reviews to a pretty serious critique of Anthropology’s dependency on speech. I’m deeply appreciative to all of the reviewers and audience members who weighed in on that piece—it made the book much better.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: What are the spoken and unspoken metrics of publishing in your experience? Do some types of publications or venues count more than others?

MWM: This has changed a lot thanks to the internet and databases like Anthrosource. It seems to me that the esteem that people have for the flagship journals is really an artifact of the bygone era of people receiving paper copies of journals in the mail and the limited real estate in those journals—so getting something into one of those journals really meant getting it in front of most anthropologists in the days when every AAA member received a copy of American Anthropologist. But now, every Wiley journal (and more) are available through a quick search on Anthrosource, and that really seems to have leveled the field in many respects.

The outcome is that it’s less important where one publishes and more important that what one publishes is accessible to people in the field. I’m sure that some tenure and promotion and hiring committees still value publications in some journals over other journals, but in terms of impact it seems increasingly less important that one places a piece in a particular journal and more important that they place it in a journal where it will be read by the right people.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: To what degree does publishing either in another language or an international, non-English publication count towards your standing as a scholar or tenure and promotion in anthropology?

MWM: German is my only other language and what I work on isn’t German-based, so I’ve never sought out publishing in another language. That said, my work has been translated into a few languages (Serbian, German, & French) either because someone identified a piece they wanted to translate, I was invited to give a talk and then it was translated, or I was invited to write something that someone else was going to translate for me. In the case of Germany, that seems to have led to further opportunities to give talks and publish in German, which has been great.

Those pieces have all been superadded in the sense that I had already met the expectations for tenure and promotion, so I wasn’t spending precious time working on translations. As a pre-tenure scholar, I would be very wary of publishing in translation unless I had a clear indication from all of the people in my department that it was valued the same as publishing in English. Watching friends publish in their field languages and in journals hosted in the areas in which they work has made it clear that not all tenure and promotion committees really value that kind of work and those kinds of publications—it might be best saved for later in one’s career.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: What are the pros and cons of publishing outside of anthropology?

MWM: There’s obvious stuff—reaching wider audiences, pushing oneself into new conversations—but in my experience, the best thing about engaging with different disciplines is getting a richer sense of how other disciplines conceptualize what counts as evidence. Anthropologists are so committed to certain kinds of Geertzian description and Butlerian accounts of the self that it’s really helpful to call that into relief sometimes. We all know that we work with relatively small samples sizes, and the generic conventions of contemporary ethnographic writing work with those limitations (or obscure them!), but becoming aware of how else one can make a compelling argument with the evidence at hand—or better, how to rework evidence to be compelling to other audiences—can be really intellectually satisfying.

I used to give talks to sleep scientists and health care workers and what I always enjoyed about it was drawing lines between their and my ways of knowing. Because a lot of my work on sleep can be read to be pretty critical of American sleep science and medicine, being able to work on those connections with live audiences who weren’t shy about providing feedback was really helpful. It meant that when it was time to publish those critiques, I already had a sense of how to make them compelling to non-anthropologists.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: How would you approach the process of publishing something in a non-anthropological journal? What are some strategies to think about prior to submitting an article for review?

MWM: Over the last couple of years, I’ve started publishing in bioethics journals. I read a lot in bioethics, and teach some of it with regularity, but it was with some trepidation that I started to target publishing in bioethics. Formally, the articles are very different, and the content can be pretty different too. I set about reading through a couple volumes each of a few of the bioethics journals and then wrote to their expectations. After years of writing for anthropologists, it was kind of refreshing to write for a different kind of audience—and to get totally different kinds of peer reviews! I learned pretty quickly that bioethicists are up for a disagreement, they just want to have the disagreement be robustly argued. So I received peer reviews that were like “I totally disagree with this position, but the evidence is compelling and you should publish it,” which I honestly can’t imagine getting from an anthropological audience.

Bioethics as a field is also really in need of anthropological thinking, and there’s a recurrent call from a small set of critical bioethicists that bioethics needs more empirical research (and more capacious ethical frameworks), so it seemed like a real opportunity and challenge to address that. We’ll see what comes of it, but increasingly I see targeting Bioethics journals over Anthropology journals for a lot of my work.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: Do you have any suggestions for how to approach writing and publishing pieces that are more theoretical instead of more ethnographic?

MWM: I’ve found that theory-heavy article manuscripts are slow to publish. I don’t mean the kind of “here’s a new idea to think about” or “let’s take Foucault to the field” kind of theory pieces, but the “here’s what Deleuze and Guattari mean by ‘minor science’ and how it applies to Anthropology” kind of pieces. 

It seems to me that what readers usually actually want is a novel twist on a familiar idea, particularly with a good ethnographic case study. What they have a harder time with is an obtuse idea that challenges anthropological conventions, including familiar forms of empiricism and evidentiary claims. Which is all to say that theory in articles is usually a pretty limited tool, constrained both by the process of peer review and the word count of a typical article. The one caveat I would make about this is that the further one is into one’s publishing career, the easier it is to publish something explicitly theoretical. That’s a function of style and reputation more than the content of an article—anonymous peer review just becomes impossible over time, at least for careful and attentive readers. It also just becomes more possible to make bigger claims when you can cite a lot of your other evidentiary work to support it.

[Read more answers here.]

IG: Any suggestions for co-authoring articles?  Are there useful strategies for dividing up the work?  What kinds of agreements do you like to make when beginning the collaboration?  

MWM: I’ve co-authored a couple pieces with then-current grad students, Celina Callahan-Kapoor and Chris Cochran, both of which were a lot of fun to work on. Chris was enrolled in a graduate seminar with me and everyone had to co-author a paper. He was the odd man out, so we teamed up to work on a paper together. Celina and I had talked about doing something together for a while. In both cases, I basically had a framework for an article I wanted to write, had written a pretty long introduction, and then worked with the co-author on developing case studies to support the theoretical portion of the piece. In one case, it ended up being two parallel cases (one from me, one from my co-author); in the other case, it was a really long case from the co-author. Cultural anthropologists don’t regularly co-author stuff, but I found it a really important mentoring opportunity and hope more people take similar approaches.

I learned a lot about writing together through two pretty formative relationships—first, with a cohort mate in an MA program, Davin Heckman, then with my dissertation adviser, Karen-Sue Taussig. Davin and I wrote a ton together, particularly while we were editing an early online cultural studies journal, reconstruction. Later, Karen-Sue and I put together a special issue of Medical Anthropology and co-authored the introduction. In both cases, I really learned that what’s key is to give space for other people’s expertise—and really, to know who you’re writing with and what they bring to the table. That all said, I also learned to have a designated reviser: before peer reviews come back, make sure you know who’s going to take the first pass at revisions.

If I can make a closing statement about publishing articles—and maybe books too—developing a certain level of disinterest in the process is vital. So often, we are encouraged to conceptualize our writing as an extension of our self: my research, my ideas, my style. Criticism a manuscript in the form of editorial comments and peer reviews then feels like a criticism of us as a person. Paul Manning once described academic articles as the PowerPoint presentations of our business. I think about that a lot. At once, we’re told that publications are integral to our place in the profession, but then we’re also told that very few articles are ever read by anyone other than their peer reviewers. Academic publishing is kind of like playing the lottery—are you going to publish the thing that breaks from the pack and gets widely read and cited? You can try and play that game, but there are psychological and emotional costs, and being widely read and cited aren’t necessary for being hired or promoted or entry into the scholarly community. Dispassion is difficult to nurture, but going through peer review—and doing peer review—can be a step in the right direction.

[Read more answers here.]