On Having an Ax to Grind

“Productive scholars have an ax to grind.” That was a lesson imparted on me by one of my undergraduate mentors, Brian Murphy. We were walking across campus during my senior year, and I had been talking about the possibility of pursuing some kind of graduate degree, at the time in Literature. Brian was narrating how, despite enjoying the scholarly work he had done throughout his career, he never felt particularly driven to participate in the arguments motivating many scholars in the discipline. (Little did I know that the postmodernism debate was in full rage mode at the time.) Frankly, I didn’t really know what to do with the advice at the time, but I tucked in away.

A man comes to get his ax ground, sometime in the Middle Ages? (From Married to the Sea)

While I was working on the Master’s degree that followed (in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool), I had things I was interested in, but the work was driven more by curiosity and expediency than having a real argument to make. Over time, the thesis I wrote there developed more of an argument and ended up being publishable as a couple of articles about superhero utopias and the role of law and capital in superhero comics. But to this day, I’m not sure I have much of an ax to grind when it comes to superheroes.

It was while working on revising that content that I received a second piece of advice, this time from Hai Ren, a faculty member I worked with at Bowling Green. Hai suggested that to write a dissertation, one needed “three theorists.” Hai’s point, as I understood it, was that you need some parameters on the ideas that you’re working with, and that having three theorists — who, he suggested, one reads in their entirety (queue up the qualifying exam reading list) — gave a writer the ability to play off differences and consensus between sets of theory. If I wasn’t sure what ax I had to grind, Hai gave me a way to craft one.

I’ve made the same recommendations to students over the years, but I add that the theories that one adopts should really be ontologically compatible. So monists and dualists don’t go together, nor do communists and free marketeers, nor biological determinists and social constructionists, etc. I had started thinking about this after reading Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power, where she draws together Freud, Lacan, Bourdieu, Foucault, Kristeva, Irigaray, Hegel (and others, I’m sure, but memory fails me). Butler’s “toolbox” approach struck me as eliding the profound differences between a thinker like Freud, who really believes in some form of biological determinism, and Foucault, who really does not. You can put them together, but you can’t really build a sound theory out of them because the ontologies don’t fit together. That is, unless you find ways to treat some thinkers as existing within an ontological paradigm developed by others who you take more seriously (e.g. Freud’s use of biology is a form of Foucaultian discourse and not really materially reductive. But I’m skeptical.).

If you go look at the introduction to The Slumbering Masses, I’m pretty explicit about using three sets of theory and having an ax to grind: I’m trying to work through the overlap between Bruno Latour, Bernard Steigler, and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, and I’m trying to bring them to bear on how we conceptualize the interaction between medicine and capitalism in the U.S. That means, in part, that I’m rejecting medicalization as a way to think about human nature and its interactions with capitalist forms of medicine (which you can read about here).

That doesn’t mean that I’m only working through the theories that come out of those four, white, relatively elite, able-bodied, heterosexual French men. I’m intensely aware of who these men were (and are), and use their monism to engage with other thinkers (especially Genevieve Lloyd and Moira Gatens, two Australian Spinozist philosophers) and the subfield interests I have (especially science and technology studies and feminist medical anthropology). Those engagements helped me suss out things from the theories I was using and guided me through my interactions with those rather large fields of literature. It also gave me a way to talk about things like my “contributions” to the field and the “significance” of my research (scare quotes to denote my general skepticism of that kind of grant-speak criteria). In saturated areas of study, being clear about your theoretical commitments can also make clear what you’re doing differently than other people working on the same topic or area of study.

I try and get students to think about what they believe. Stop thinking through the ecumenical polytheism of graduate study, and consider what kind of world you want to make with your scholarship. What is the ontology that you’re committed to? And who are the right thinkers to join to that project? It shouldn’t just be people that you enjoy reading, but people (and sets of theories) that you fundamentally share a common sensibility with. In committing to a set of thinkers, what differences can you map out between them and how might they guide your interactions with key concepts in your field? That can provide a ton of grist for the mill, both in terms of the initial dissertation, but also in articles and other spin-off projects.

I have other axes to grind — especially around racism in science and medicine — and those too are informed by my theoretical commitments. Having a pretty solidly determined ontological commitment gives me a framework to engage with whatever springs up. And, over time, I’ve changed the people most central to the projects I work on now. But having a set of theoretical commitments helps to guide what and how I read as well as the kinds of questions I ask about the phenomena that I’m drawn to work on.

It took a while, but now I have axes to grind…

Diversifying the Network

In one of the first meetings I had with my dissertation adviser, Karen-Sue Taussig, she recommended that I read Catherine Lutz’s “The Gender of Theory” and “The Erasure of Women’s Writing in Sociocultural Anthropology.” (If you haven’t read them, go read them right now.) Lutz makes two interrelated points: despite the number of women working in sociocultural anthropology, they tend to get cited less frequently than men, and when they are cited, they’re cited as providing empirical evidence that supports an argument rather than theory that can be tested or employed. (And if you think that was a problem of the 1980s and 1990s, you can read the follow-up, “The Problem of Gender and Citations Re-raised in New Research Study” [although the link doesn’t seem to be working…] and then mull over what’s really going on in pieces like this.) At the age of 25, and a few years into my graduate studies, I might have been in just the right frame of mind for such an intervention. It resulted, immediately, in a hyperawareness of my citational practices — and shaped the kinds of questions and projects I wanted to pursue.

One of those projects has been steadily diversifying the network, both personally and professionally. In 2017, I was asked to comment on an early version of Nick Kawa, José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L. Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty’s “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities,” and reading its final version was a stark reminder of just how much work is to be done. If you ever wanted evidence of that, here’s Kawa et al.’s data rendered in one handy image:

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A network analysis of Ph.D. placements of tenure-track faculty based on where their degree originates and where they were hired. See more here.

Here are some practices to consider if you want to disrupt the reproductive tendencies of the discipline at every level. My guiding principle is that power is meant to be subverted, and whatever meagre institutional and reputational power I have should be used to make more inclusive social and institutional networks.

Every year when I’m pulled back to the American Anthropological Association meetings, I make sure that I participate in two panels. One has to include a majority of people who I’ve never been on a panel with before; and one has to include at least 50% recent Ph.D.s (or in-progress ones) and contingent faculty or “independent scholars.” Sometimes both of the panels meet both of the criteria. I’m not sure that I have much draw on my own, but whatever draw I have should be shared with less secure or established scholars than myself. Beyond that, I want to be exposed to ideas and research that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I can read my friends’ work any time, but curating a panel with strangers on a topic of my choice lets me engage with new content and publicizes it for others. It also means that my network grows in these AAA-related spurts, and I’ve watched my network permanently diversify over the years through this practice.

If you keep having the same conversation with the same people, something is wrong. Even if those people are diverse, if the network stabilizes, it’s not being as inclusive as it could be. It can be hard to exclude old friends from conferences, workshops, special issues of journals, whatever, but if the collective project is to diversify the network, they should be doing the same thing to you. And this leaves you open to be included in other people’s efforts. Stale networks are pretty obvious, both from the inside and the outside. My guiding rules are a place to start to disrupt reproductive tendencies, and I’m sure that employing them will help refine a system that works for other people.

If someone asks me to do something and I can’t, I suggest a junior scholar or someone at a non-elite institution (or both). If I can’t do something — a talk, peer review, a conference panel, whatever — I always try and make sure that I provide at least three names of people who might fit the role. My preference is always for younger people than me, although I’m very sensitive to my ability to say “no” and the obligations younger scholars fell toward saying “yes.” That said, I will commit to doing something even as over-commitment if I know that the next person to be asked is someone who isn’t as diversity-focused as I am. Better a white person with an eye towards diversification than one who isn’t diversity focused (or at least that’s how I console myself).

I don’t just count citations; I also consider how a citation is being used. This is true for syllabuses and publications. I tend to start syllabuses by piling up books and articles that I’m sure I want to include in a class, and at that point make sure that the foundation of the class is diverse (i.e. at least 50% books by women, with attention to minority status ensuring that 50% of the books are also from authors from underrepresented backgrounds). After I put the rest of the syllabus together, I go through it and make sure that it’s diverse throughout. In cases where I have to include a dead, white, male writer, I make sure that the texts around that person are by other kinds of writers. I tend to make sure that 60% of a syllabus is comprised of non-white male contributors. I also try and make sure that theory and evidence are supplied equally by all of the contributors to the syllabus. (If you think that teaching the canon means only teaching dead white guys [or living ones], just remember that it’s not in the canon if it hasn’t reached the point that non-white, non-male scholars are discussing it!)

In terms of publications, I tend to make a first pass through the manuscript citing as few people as I possibly can. Part of that is pragmatic — I don’t want to get hung up on inserting citations, and if there’s a lot of new stuff I’m planning to cite, I prefer to do all of the data entry and management during the revision process. But the other part is that I learned in the past that I over-cite. I would tend to cite too many things and then have to remove them to reach the word limit I was shooting for. I found that having to remove citations was harder than having to put them in afterwards, and that working this way helped to see who I really needed to cite. Moreover, it meant that when I was inserting citations, I could be more deliberative about who I was citing for what. Like with my syllabuses, when I do have to cite a dead white guy, I try to ensure that the citations around him are more diverse. And when I have to engage with a lot of white guys, it’s usually because I’m doing some critique…

All of these citational practices are aspirational, and I’m sure that not all of my publications meet the criteria I’ve set for myself over the years. That might be hypocrisy, but it’s also due to requests from peer reviewers and editors to cite certain work and the stark reality that working in some corners of academia means there are limited sets of scholars to engage with. The solution to the latter is to develop frames for one’s work that are capacious and bring in perspectives from feminism, critical race studies, disability studies, class-focused research (not just Marxism), and postcolonial studies. The solution for the former — sometimes — is to just not cite those people, despite requests (which gets easier to do with seniority).

When serving on hiring committees, one of the implications of Kawa et al.’s research is the need to make sure that the committee is institutionally diverse. One sure way to at least contest the dominance of particular departments in the placement of Ph.D. holders into tenure track jobs is to have people who aren’t from those institutions serving on hiring committees. If your department lacks people that fit this criteria, have a faculty member from another department serve in a non-voting, consultative role. I served on a committee like this years ago, and it was helpful because the person from outside of Anthropology couldn’t have cared less about the institutions that people were coming from since his discipline had different elite institutions; he helped to focus other committee members’ attention beyond institutional backgrounds. If that sounds uncomfortable, you could have someone go through all of the applications and redact institutions, people’s names, and acknowledgement sections. (If there isn’t an Adobe macro for this, there should be…)

I’m convinced that underlying a lot of the resistance to change in the academy is a fear of being displaced in the present and the future, especially in the context of fears about the end of the tenure system and job scarcity. Wholesale displacement is unlikely, but some marginalization is inevitable. But that’s in relation to a century and a half of dominance in the university by white, male voices, so it’s relative to total dominance. Incrementalism can get a bad rap, but when the allies in power are faced with their own potential obsolescence, a gradual approach can make important headway while ensuring that the threats to individuals are mitigated. Changing institutions is a long game, and keeping the end point in mind while addressing the concerns of the present is one way to ensure that change will come, however gradual it might be.

These practices are a start towards diversification. If you have other suggestions, post them in the comments or provide links.

“But What Should I Publish?”

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Last year, I posted a series on article writing, offering a method for the novice on how to approach writing an article in six steps. But one of the questions I’ve left a little unanswered is what one should publish early in an academic career. I’ve previously suggested that the primary consideration here is the job market, and that it’s useful to think strategically about what kinds of jobs you’ll be applying for and what kinds of journals exist that would make evident your expertise in those jobs. For example, in cultural anthropology, jobs tend to be posted that call for expertise in particular geographic regions and topical subfield. If you do research in Latin America, there’s the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology and if your work is about medicine, then there’s Medical AnthropologyMedical Anthropology Quarterly, etc. In other disciplines, period can also come into play. But identifying journals isn’t enough — there’s also the question of what, exactly, you should work on publishing, and why.

So, here are two ways to think this through:

The Nagging Anecdote Method

By ‘nagging anecdote’ I mean any kind of case, data, or event that you’ve turned up that continues to be something you think about — maybe without any real resolution. It might be something that you talk with people about when you discuss your research, or just something that sticks out from your research. Probably the reason why the case sticks out for you is because it shows something about your research that’s novel in relation to your field.

The challenge with this method — and probably the reason why the anecdote is nagging at you in the first place — is that you have to figure out what the anecdote actually shows and whether it has any legs. Sometimes an anecdote can be just that: a quirky case, data burp, or event that other people will find kind of compelling to think about. But if it doesn’t actually show much, it’s not worth hitching an article to — it might best to relegate it to a conversational hook. If it does have legs, it’ll be because it helps to show something in relation to existing literature, which is either theoretical or topical.

The next step is to put the nagging anecdote alongside some other, less nagging evidence. So, answer this question: if this nagging case is the exception, what does the rule look like? You might have two or three more normative cases that help the naive reader to understand what the nagging case is of deeper interest. These other, more normative cases might not only be yours — they might be drawn from existing scholarly literature, which might lay the basis for a literature review. If the data is coming from your own research, you might be establishing the broad outline of the evidence that will be the heart of the paper.

The challenge at this point is figuring out what kind of contribution you’re making to your field. It can be modest — your set of data can confirm how widespread a particular set of circumstances are or how common certain outcomes might be. It can also be a much more profound contribution, if the cases you have are really exceptional. In either case, this kind of article really depends on knowing the topical literature well and making an argument that’s based on a shared understanding within your audience of what’s normative in a particular research context.

The Medium-Sized Debate Method

In any field, there are theories that people use to think through their research material. In subfields and area studies, the theories that people are using aren’t usually as macroscopic as they are in the flagship journals in any field. So, for example, in the social study of medicine, ‘medicalization’ is a theory that is widely used, whereas in the discipline of anthropology more generally you have bigger debates around ideas like ‘globalization,’ ‘culture,’ ‘neoliberalism,’ ‘ontology,’ etc. Anyone who has successfully completed their qualifying exams should be able to identify these smaller, subdisciplinary or area-focused debates — it might take a little time, and you might have to go back to your reading lists, but the knowledge is there (and the debates haven’t changed much since you did your exams). It might be worth writing down a list of relevant debates in your areas of study, and then figuring out which ones you have something to say about.

Having something to add to a debate can be really straightforward: you can really focus an article around providing further proof of a concept in a different context than its initial elaboration. You can also argue against a concept by its inability to fit in a particular context. And you can do something in-between, simultaneously accepting a concept and showing how it might need revisions based on a particular set of circumstances (which are the basis of your research). So, to go back to ‘medicalization,’ you can provide an set of examples of it working along the lines that Peter Conrad has elaborated the idea; you can show how it’s not the logic underlying a particular set of circumstances (which is what I try to do in ‘Natural Hegemonies‘); or you can work to extend the concept based on its insufficiency in a particular context (e.g. Adele Clarke et al.’s Biomedicalization).

Once you have a list of potential debates to contribute to, the challenging part is figuring out the right data to match up with those debates, and what this data might show. Probably the safest place to start from is the assumption that your work will confirm whatever theory you’re working with, and you might set about figuring out how it does so. You might get to one of the other positions (let’s call them ‘contradiction’ and ‘complementarity’), but in the beginning, assume that you’re working to confirm the theory.

Break the theory down into its constituent elements. So, to continue the medicalization example, the basic idea is that what was once accepted as natural human experiences are now treated as medical disorders and in need of medical attention. In the case of my research on sleep, sleeping in more than one period was once considered normal, but is now often thought of as insomnia — or, in some cases, narcolepsy. With the categories of insomnia and narcolepsy, particular medications are identified as being helpful, which necessarily involves medical professionals. With treatments being prescribed for individual patients, the medicalization process is complete — although when you take the perspectives of patients into account, the process gets a little upset. This is the basis for an article of mine that could be useful to look at. But, basically, you need to tease apart the theory and then find evidence of yours that matches up with the component parts. This might sound a little schematic, but if you’re really working with a particular theory, this is a good way to demonstrate to your peer reviewers that you know what you’re talking about. It will also help you see whether or not you’re complementing the theory, contradicting it, or confirming it, since a variation in your evidence from any of the theory’s components will be pointing you down either the contradicting or complementing roads…

Finding a journal to send an article like this to should be pretty straightforward: since it’s a theory that emerges from or is particularly relevant to a subdiscipline or area-studies interest, you should be able to identify a journal that fits under one of those rubrics. Before you have the whole manuscript written — but after you have a sense of what it’s going to be about — make sure you take a look at the journal’s submission requirements and to take the time to analyze a model article from the journal you’re planning on sending the article to for review. Taken together, the submission requirements (like word count) and the model article should give you a clear sense of what an article should look like for the journal you’ve identified and how to put it together.

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I’m more of a Medium-Sized debate writer than a Nagging Anecdote one; but some Nagging Anecdotes have appeared in my work over the years. More often, I feel like what I write about are pretty modest topics that gently expand theoretical perspectives. But I know a lot of people who are definitely in the Nagging Anecdote camp, and that works just as well.

Whichever route you pursue, forethought is critical: what you don’t want is an article manuscript that has a hard time finding a place to fit. If that’s what you end up with, you’ll need to go back to the manuscript to get it into the right shape for the journal you end up identifying as your first target for peer-review. The more you know about a journal and what its editors are looking for, the better the odds of your work being accepted for publication there. A little upfront research will save you lots of time rewriting to meet the editorial and audience expectations of any journal.

If your article doesn’t make it through peer-review at your first pick journal, don’t get discouraged. Take the peer-reviews into account, do some rewriting, and send it out for review again. Journal articles can take years to find the right editors, peer reviewers, and audience — so, again, knowing the right journals to send things to is critical.

 

Three Pathways to Publication (Excluding Deals with the Devil)

In this post, I discuss three of my articles and what the experience was of getting them through peer review and their ultimate publication. Some of the details are a little foggy — in some cases, it’s been upwards of seven years since I started work on the articles mentioned here — but most of what I want to convey is that getting a manuscript to publication depends on two things: 1) don’t take criticisms and rejection too seriously, and 2) make sure you’re writing for the right audience. If you’re doing the second, the first should be minimized anyway…

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I should say at the outset that I’m leaving names of journals out, since editorial shifts happen frequently and my experience of any of the journals I’ve interacted with in the past isn’t predictive of your experience with the same journal or editors. I’ve also kept all of my peer reviews, editorial decisions, and other paperwork from all my publication efforts, and I draw on them below.

So, first off is ‘Natural Hegemonies.’ I had written it as a job talk back in 2006, and presented it in a few of different versions as colloquium talks and workshop presentations. It’s sprawling, and covers a lot of the content from my dissertation — and later, book — in summary format. It was usually well received by audiences, and so it seemed like the good basis for an article to send to a flagship journal. After some fine tuning, I sent it to an anthropology journal generally seen as one of the top of the field. It spent a long time in peer review, and when it returned to me it was returned as a revise and resubmit with five reviews. The reviews were generally positive, with a couple very glowing reviews. The editors had a series of revisions they were seeking, and I set to work on them; they also, in retrospect, had deep philosophical disagreements with me, and if I was reading clearly at the time, I would probably have pulled up stakes after the first round of reviews…

After revising it, I sent it back, and this time it was under review for even longer than the first time. When it was returned to me, it was sent back as a rejection, despite having generally positive reviews. Reviewers said things like ‘I found just about every aspect of this text compelling and thoughtful. I urge publication of the manuscript in its current form’ and ‘This is a great paper, which I enjoyed reading immensely. The paper is engaging, flows, and connects together a series of seemingly unrelated themes together in such a way that they appear in retrospect to be inevitable and one wonders why one never thought about it before. This is the hallmark of a very engaging and persuasive argument, one that appears impossible at the outset and inevitable in retrospect. I’d certainly publish it.’ But the editors disagreed. Which, ultimately, was fine. I worked on the manuscript for a couple of hours — addressing only the big things pointed out by reviewers from the last round of review — and sent it to Current Anthropology the same day it was rejected from the other journal. After a round of peer review, it was accepted with minor revisions. I set to work on those revisions, and it ended up coming out in 2011.

What I realized in working on ‘Natural Hegemonies’ was that the kind of article it was — sweeping in its empirical scope and making a pretty theoretical argument — just wasn’t right for the first journal I sent it to. Despite the peer reviewers, the editors saw the mission of the journal as promoting a different form of anthropological scholarship, which my manuscript didn’t quite fit. But Current Anthropology offered a more ecumenical approach to the discipline, and the article fit right in there.

A more straightforward path was that of ‘Therapy, Remedy, Cure.’ I originally wrote it as a colloquium talk around the publication of my book, and presented it a couple of times over the course of a year. Because it was largely ethnographic and developed an argument I saw as of potentially broad appeal — about time, capitalism and medical treatment — I decided to take another stab at publishing in a flagship anthropology journal. Based on what I had seen in the journal recently, I thought the editor would be interested in the piece, and work with me on revising it as needed. But the editorial reigns had just been handed over, and the new editor seemed to have different tastes, including kinds of reviewers to send things to for review.

Of the three reviews that were returned to me, the first was principally concerned that my methods section was a footnote rather than in the body of the article, which would seem easily remedied (and was an artifact of the paper as a presentation). The second reviewer had a number of suggestions, and asked for revisions prior to publication. The third reviewer wrote a three sentence — and extremely positive — review. Despite the reviews, the editor ‘definitively’ rejected the piece. Not to be dissuaded, I sent it out the same day to Medical Anthropology, a journal I had published in before and always had excellent experiences with.

At Medical Anthropology, the piece received favorable reviews, and was accepted pending revisions, most of which were minor. In my experience, sometimes minor revisions are the hardest to make, since they’re usually just to satisfy specific peer reviewer concerns, and they always stick out to me as being just that. But I set down to work on the manuscript, addressed what I needed to, and sent the article back for review within a couple of months, at which point it was accepted for publication. Again, although I thought the argument would be of broad disciplinary interest — maybe it is? — the best home for it was a subfield journal where the kind of evidence and argumentation that was the basis of the manuscript was easily recognized and supported.

Maybe the easiest — yet longest — experience I had was with ‘Where Have All Our Naps Gone?‘ The meat of this paper was in my dissertation (which focuses on various experiments with sleep over the 20th century), but it didn’t really fit into the book version. Being largely historical in its focus, I decided to send it to history journals. Over five years, I sent it to five journals. Maybe it was even more than that. Of those journals, a couple times it was rejected without peer reviews — the editors simply thought it wasn’t interesting and right for their audience. A couple other times it underwent peer reviews, and was ultimately rejected for one reason or another. I was asked to present something at a workshop on sleep in the 20th century, so I dusted the manuscript off and presented it there, where it received a favorable response — which reaffirmed my sense that there was something to the argument, but that maybe it just wasn’t right for historians.

I was asked by Peter Benson and Rebecca Lester to guest edit an issue of Anthropology of Consciousness on sleep, and it dawned on me that maybe this would be the right venue for the piece. Instead of writing a lengthy introduction to the issue, I asked for the article to go through peer review for consideration in the journal. The review process was relatively painless, which may have been because it was a special issue, or because I had been working on the manuscript on and off for so long — or maybe because it finally found the right audience. At Anthropology of Consciousness, the article ended up winning the annual ‘outstanding article’ award — something I didn’t even know existed, but it made it evident to me that the article had finally found its audience. Maybe historians will get turned onto it sooner or later…

Over the years, I’ve learned to not take rejection as an indictment of my abilities, my research or my writing. The biggest help on this front was peer reviewing other people’s work, often that of people I knew and respected. Critically reading through other people’s work with the goal of helping them publish also helped me see some of the mistakes that I was making. Going through peer review and doing peer review significantly changed my thinking about writing and how finished something needed to be before it could be sent out — a three-quarters finished manuscript might risk rejection from an editor, but it also gives reviewers a lot to respond to and help you work through.

My general rule is to write a new article manuscript every year. Part of my reason for doing so is that I don’t like presenting the same material as colloquium talks more than a few times, so I’m always looking towards the next presentation. The other reason for doing so is that it takes the burden off any one manuscript to get published. If something gets hung up in peer review for a year or two, like ‘Natural Hegemonies’ did, I know some other stuff will make it through to publication in the meantime.

But, generally, rejection is no big deal. This isn’t to say that you should ignore why things are getting rejected, but that rather than over think why things are being rejected, you should take the criticisms seriously, address them as succinctly as you can, and move on. Targeting the right audience will reduce your overall rejection rate, but it’s absolutely normal for an article manuscript to be rejected once or more on its way to eventual publication…

N=1 Article Writing Challenge

Are you up for a bit of a challenge? And interested in some professionalization advice testing? Do you want to see how quickly you can churn out a short article manuscript? Then you might be up for my inaugural summer break article writing challenge. Starting July 1st and ending July 14th, I’m asking people to read my series of blog posts on preparing article manuscripts and to provide me with feedback on their experience of following my advice. If you’re interested, send me an email and let me know that you’re on board.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been posting a series of entries about the production of academic articles, largely intended for first-time article writers, but applicable to us all. Over six* steps, I discuss identifying the right journal, analyzing an appropriate model to base your manuscript on, writing introductions, literature reviews, your evidence, and conclusion, and the final steps to prepare the manuscript for submission to a journal (but not in that order).

These posts grew out of an alternative spring break I’ve begun to offer for anthropology graduate students in the University of California system to spend a week talking about and concentrating on writing an article manuscript — a week-long event that has grown out of my ongoing professionalization workshop series (which you can read summaries of here). By inviting everyone everywhere to participate in this writing event, I’m hoping to gather feedback to add to and revise the Six Steps in future blog posts and professionalization events (which may be coming to a conference near you sometime soon).

As a means of thanking people for helping out in testing my advice, I’m collecting names and will facilitate peer review for those people ready for feedback by July 14th.  That is, if you email me and let me know that you’ll be participating, when your manuscript is complete, I’ll email it to another participant so you can get a round of peer review in the revision process. Before you email me, take a few minutes and read about publishing strategies and Step 1 and send me the name of the journal you’re planning on targeting. As we collectively work through the Six Steps, you can either email me your feedback on each step, or respond to the steps in the comment sections of the relevant post.

I’m looking forward to the challenge, and hope you’ll join me for it.

*It’s actually 7 steps, but the first step — on publishing strategies — was published a long time ago.

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 6 — Fine Tuning

After writing your conclusion, literature review, empirical evidence and introduction, you have a full article manuscript in hand, and it’s time for some fine tuning before you send it off for peer review to your journal of choice. Fine tuning is really about being deliberate and making sure that the whole manuscript works as a piece of sustained argumentation. More than anything else, you want to make sure that your manuscript is consistent. It doesn’t need to be perfect — peer review is there to get it as close to perfect as it can get — so just make sure it’s 85% complete and that there aren’t any huge gaps.

sand-patterns

The biggest challenge in sending a manuscript out for review is coming to terms with it not being 100% complete. But, fundamentally, a manuscript is never done — and it’s up to the peer review process to help you finish it (at least enough for it to be published). An article isn’t a definitive statement, but rather part of an ongoing conversation (or maybe a conversation starter). As such, the burden is just to carry the conversation forward — not to bring it to a conclusion. Accept that an article is never complete, and get ready to send it out for peer review.

With that in mind, here’s the checklist:

1) Make sure that your argument is well articulated and flows throughout the manuscript. Along with that, make sure that keywords that appear in one part of the text appear throughout (e.g. if you’re talking about biopolitics in the conclusion, make sure that it’s in your introduction, lit review and cases). Read it through once on paper or in some other not-easily modified way and take notes on what to fix (editing at your computer can descend into lots of new writing, and you should avoid that at this point). Maybe take a day or two off and read it again. And then sit down to work through the corrections on the manuscript. I tend to find that having someone else read it during this time to be helpful, as I get a little myopic in my reading of my own work after working on it closely for a while. So a fresh reader can be a great asset, especially when it comes to seeing the inner workings of an argument.

2) Verify that there aren’t any non sequitors or holdovers. Hopefully you haven’t done a lot of copying and pasting into the manuscript, which usually increases the number of these kinds of artifacts. In any case, read through the manuscript and make sure that everything you say will be done is actually attended to, and that you don’t make any presumptions of what happened early in the manuscript at late points (look for those telltale ‘as mentioned above…’ and ‘below’). And make sure that you don’t refer to any evidence that isn’t in the manuscript.

3) Check your citations and bibliography. Make sure that everything that should be cited is cited, and that the citations appear in the bibliography. It’s always a headscratcher as a peer reviewer to check a citation that’s unfamiliar to find that it doesn’t appear in the bibliography…

4) Ensure that the manuscript meets the journal’s formatting guidelines. Every journal should have this information posted on their ‘For Authors’ or similar page, including their bibliographic style preference and other style concerns. Make sure you follow these as closely as you can (although sometimes things slip through the cracks — which isn’t anything to worry about), and know that the more closely you can follow them, the more clearly you demonstrate to the editor that you’re serious about publishing in his or her journal and have done your homework. The most important thing here is to make sure that you meet the word limit requirements, usually a little short of target so you have room to revise when it comes time for that.

5) Write your abstract, pick keywords, and write a cover letter. The length of abstracts can vary quite a bit, so make sure you know what you’re shooting for — they tend to be anywhere between 150-250 words. I usually find it helpful to take a summary paragraph from the conclusion of an article manuscript and whittle it down into an abstract. Such a technique ensures that you’re talking about all the things you need to: the argument, the evidence, and the structure of the article. Remember to pick keywords that aren’t in your title (which would be redundant). And prepare a cover letter that briefly states the source (e.g. your dissertation research), intent and word length of the article manuscript. (This all might be worth an additional post…)

If you can, try and do a peer review swap with a friend before you send your article out for review. Make sure that your prospective peer reader is aware of the journal that you’re sending it to and the subdisciplinary or regional debates you’re entering into — you don’t want them to read an article as a ‘general’ reader, since that’s not exactly who you’re writing for. Instead, make sure they’re reading like a specialist. You want to make sure the comments they’re giving you are relevant to your immediate needs, and although a general perspective can be helpful, when you’re targeting a specific journal, such comments can often be a distraction.

So that’s it. Get to work (or keep working), and know that it can be anywhere from 3-12 months to hear back from a journal’s editor. Don’t sit on your hands and wait though, get to work on the next article manuscript

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 5 — The Introduction & Argument

It might seem a little perverse to wait until the penultimate step to discuss introductions and arguments, but like I mentioned in step 2, it’s often helpful to work through most of the other material in an article manuscript first, so that when you get to the introduction and argument you have a clear sense of what your argument actually is. So, if you’ve worked through steps 1-4, getting down to the brass tacks of your argument should be a lot easier than if you try and start with the argument — which can be daunting and freeze many writers in their tracks…

intro(In case you want to know what my chalkboard writing looks like, here’s the diagram from my alternative spring break.)

Often, in cultural anthropology at least, articles begin with a little ethnographic vignette — some kind of hook to get the reader’s interest piqued. As I mentioned in step 4, these vignettes are usually linked to the cases that make up the evidence in the rest of the article, and tend to be about a page or so long.

A successful introduction — ethnographic vignette or not — should give your reader a sense of why she or he should keep reading within a page or two, and a good rationale to keep reading is a question or quandary that’s of broad appeal, but which you can provide the answer for. So, it might be an ethnographic vignette, or some other compelling set of data posed in a way that begs questions rather than provides answers, or it might be a question about the existing scholarly literature, or a case from popular media or current events (although I tend to think that current events don’t stay current for long…). Regardless of what your introduction is comprised of, it needs to be returned to later in the article — and where you return to it should make sense based on what the introduction is (i.e. if it’s an ethnographic vignette, continue the vignette in one of your cases, if it’s a problem in the literature, return to it in the literature review, etc.).

After you have your reader hooked, what will actually keep the reader reading is a well articulated argument. One of the most critical things is to not bury the lead — which is to say, make sure your argument appears by the end of page two of your article manuscript (which means it will be on page one of your published article). If your argument comes too late, you risk losing your reader, or, at the least, having your reader begin to wonder why they’re reading what they’re reading. A good argument, posed early on, will do a lot of work for you and ensure that your reader keeps reading — so don’t get carried away with your introductory hook.

What makes a good argumentative thesis? That’s probably the hardest part of this whole project, and it really takes time and experience to develop a solid thesis that you can substantiate with your evidence. I can’t tell you specifically what will make a good thesis for you, but I can give you a few guidelines, some of which are going to seem like no-brainers:

First, a good thesis is motivated by your evidence. This might sound totally crazy, but one of the biggest mistakes I see in articles I peer review is that the thesis makes evidentiary claims that aren’t supported by the evidential cases in the article. My sense is that this is due to people writing articles linearly, starting with the introduction and thesis and then moving onward, and failing to bring the cases in line with the thesis. But if you tend to your literature review and cases before turning to your thesis, you should have a clear sense of what your contribution to the literature in your field is and how your evidence relates to it. One way you might start here is by writing a sentence like ‘Based on [Case 1] and [Case 2], we see that X is actually X1,’ where X is a particular theoretical concept or assumption about a region and X1 is your claim about the same. Once you have that clunky sentence in place, you can work on revising it into something a little more eloquent…

Secondly, a good thesis poses causality. I’m using ‘causality’ here in the broadest sense of the term, mostly because I need some kind of shorthand for all of the kinds of interpretive work that you might do and need to embed in a thesis. In fact, you might be talking about causality (‘X is now X1, because of Y’), but it might also be a little more subtle than that (‘Attending to Y shows that X is actually X1.). Try a sentence like one of those, where Y is what you’re focusing on in your cases. If your two cases are different from one another, then you probably have two sentences here to explain the nuances that each of the cases adds to your claims.

Third, a good thesis engages with questions in the existing literature. Since you’ll be tackling the literature that’s relevant in your literature review — which is coming up very quickly — you don’t need to get into fine details here, and you can often get away with theoretical shorthand, i.e. you can just use keywords, as long as you return to them in your literature review. The right keywords will often motivate a reader long enough to get them through the introduction — as long as you sincerely engage with them as theoretical concepts and make it apparent to your reader how the terms relate to your argument.

It’s often difficult to capture all of these qualities in one sentence (and unwise). It’s best to break them up into sentences in their own right, or at least to start that way and work towards integration. In the end, you should have a paragraph — and it might be a short one — that brings all of these concerns together and gives your reader a sense of the stakes of what you’re focusing on and a clear sense of why she or he should give you the next 30 minutes of her or his time. The weaker or less articulated the thesis, the less likely your reader is going to stay motivated for the whole article…

After your thesis paragraph, you should take the time to detail your methodology in a paragraph. This paragraph can be difficult to write — mostly because it’s difficult to be excited about it — but once you have a good methods paragraph, you can copy and paste it with minor variations for every article you write thereafter. A good methods paragraph lays out the duration of the research, where the research was conducted and what those contexts were like, and what the sample size was (which, for cultural anthropologists, is the number of people interviewed, events attended, etc. — the stuff that makes up your cases). This paragraph might also legitimate methodological choices in reference to key theoretical-methods literature, particularly if the methods are unconventional or experimental for the audience of the journal.

After your methods paragraph, you should turn to your literature review. By now, you should have a pretty clear sense of why you’re discussing the literature that’s in your literature review, so working through it again to revise it is worth the time. Given your argument, tighten up your literature review, both cutting some literature that’s no longer relevant to your argument, and also making sure that you’re highlighting what you should be about the literature that you’re keeping.

The last paragraph in your introduction should be a transitional paragraph that lays out the content of the article in relation to your thesis. So, often what you’re doing is moving from the fairly broad claims in your literature review to the specific content of your cases and surveying them in a sentence for each case. But this is all preceded by a recapitulation of your thesis in a shortened form. ‘As I will demonstrate in the following, X is due to Y resulting in X1. This can be seen in Case 1, where X is A. Further, in Case 2, X is B.’ That feels a little symbolic-logicky, but hopefully you get the idea. You should also explain what will occur in your conclusion, so there are no surprises, i.e. ‘In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of X as X1 for [subfield or regional interest].’ Basically, you’re once again motivating your reader to carry on reading the article, and also ensuring that there are no substantial surprises — your reader needs to be able to anticipate everything that’s coming up (without all of the nitty gritty details). Anticipation is motivation.

All told, your introduction should be about 5 pages long (maybe up to 7, but rarely any longer than that). Five pages might seem really short, but a good introduction shouldn’t be too long (it’s an introduction, after all) — anything longer than 7 pages is really going to tax your reader, and she or he will be wondering when they get to the good stuff (outside of your opening couple of paragraphs, your introduction isn’t so much ‘good’ stuff as ‘necessary’ stuff). Strive for brevity, knowing that it will help your reader stay motivated. And, when the peer reviews come back, know that you’ll have a little wiggle room in your introduction to address the concerns of your reviews.

Once you have it all weaved together, adding your new introduction to your cases and conclusion, that’s your article manuscript. Easy, right? Now it’s time for some fine tuning