In my last post, I argued that “refereed” does not equal good, nor “non-refereed” bad—but rather “refereed or not” and “quality scholarship or not” (alongside other factors) are independent variables with approximately random correlation, at least in the intellectual networks where I do my work.
I did not expect to see slam dunk support for my arguments in the New York Times. But opening the Times last weekend, I read a high-profile story with the clickbait of “dog park sex” in the title. It concerns three writers—a mathematician, philosophy instructor, and journalist—who set out to discredit what they call “grievance studies”—which is roughly a mash-up of identity politics and cultural studies jargon, with special animus for the idea that intellectual standpoints and contexts matter in debates about truth and meaning.
These authors wrote twenty fake articles, seven of which were accepted for academic journals. One began from a premise that sports are “fat-exclusionary” and valorized “a new classification within bodybuilding” for “fat-inclusive politicized performance.” One interspersed passages from Hitler’s Mein Kampf with academic jargon. Another discussed how often humans separated male dogs “raping/humping” other male dogs as opposed to tolerating or laughing at similar behavior with female dogs. Supposedly it documented a 97% rate of breaking up male-on-male dog sex (the author declined to judge from a human-centric standpoint how much of this was consensual and how much rape) but only a 32% rate for male-on-female—although here again how much was “oppression based upon (perceived) gender” was unknown. Apparently these writers lied about a lot of made-up data sets, as a different duped editor wrote in to complain; the authors themselves claim that their fabrications were so flagrant that anyone should have understood that they were a joke. In any case the dog park “findings” were framed by “black feminist criminology” (thus, on the face of it, trivializing or mocking the issue of pervasive sexual violence in prisons) and embellished with phrases like “queer performativity… among dogs,” “disrupt[ing] hegemonic masculinities,” and creating “emanicipatory spaces.”
Most intriguingly, Hypatia (the most respected journal mentioned in the Times, although the authors report failures to break into other comparable ones) accepted a fake “feminist critique of ‘unethical’ hoaxes.” The Times offers no details about the argument, but the authors’ self-report seems to presuppose that they framed objections to their own project as a sort of self-evident joke. In any case, the most valuable part of the Times’s discussion addresses just this matter—the morality and probable real-world consequences of the hoax.
It is easy to predict two morals that some people will draw from the hilarity: First, that “grievance studies” and/or “identity politics” and/or “postmodern theory”—not in their most questionable exemplars but their structural essences—fall somewhere between the pathetic and the contemptible. Second, that “adults in the room” concerned for standards should ratchet up their policing of valid vs. illegitimate scholarship. The authors support both moves when they call for “separating knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.”
The path of least resistance for such policing does not include interrupting a logic of quantification along a “refereed or not” continuum; more likely are intensified bean-counting strategies to specify which refereed journals should weigh more than others. Never mind that the spectrum of “quality or not” is probably wide across the range of articles in most of these duped journals.
If my predictions prove true, the two aspects of this hoax that actually have some potential value—dramatizing the frequent disconnect between “refereed” and “worthwhile,” and underlining how a logic of publish or perish and the mania to count articles (not solely from “grievance studies” but from all scholarly areas!) distorts the university’s mission—will have catalyzed moves in precisely the wrong, counterproductive, direction. (In fact, during the time I have been drafting this essay, a thoughtful op-ed has appeared in the Times making related points.)
Stated another way, we could add another vector to the various independent variables I suggested in my last post, alongside the vectors that stress how merely being “refereed” tells us extremely little about quality.
Sadly a continuum, “grievance studies or not,” is not helpful. The hoaxers showed that parts of “grievance studies” are lame. Congratulations, everybody knew that, just as they knew about parts of… well, what shall we label this? Does “complacency studies” sound precise enough to our hoaxsters? Still, as Donna Haraway famously said,
“Some differences [read: grievances] are playful [read: not without interest but possibly trivial] and some are poles of world-historical domination. Epistemology [read: the exercise of academic judgment] is about knowing the difference.” (From her “Manifesto for Cyborgs” reprinted in many places.)
So perhaps we could re-jigger a “grievance studies or not” vector into something worthwhile: “Grasping Haraway’s points or not.” I have long felt this was implied in “quality or not” but I see no harm in splitting it out for emphasis.
Anyone who was in academia during the 1990s realizes that this hoax is a retread on the “Sokal Affair” in which a physicist pranked the journal Social Text with an article that in the Times’s summary “mix[ed] postmodern philosophy with the theory of quantum gravity.” More precisely, it mixed quantum theory with an abstruse straw version of Haraway’s feminist analysis of the cultural politics of science.
Now as then, the hoaxers consider themselves “on the left”—and for that reason justified in using weapons of mockery and deceit toward the greater good of defending warranted truth against pathetic “critical constructivism.” In practice, Sokal revealed that he either failed to understand Haraway or did not care to debate her strengths and weaknesses with honesty, nuance, or generosity. Likewise, this quote (from Twitter, highlighted by the Times) seems well matched to the recent evidence: “What strikes me is…[the stunt’s] fundamental meanness….No attempt to intellectually engage with ideas you disagree with; just trolling for lulz.”
There are everyday consequences from the undertows created by such trolling and the lack of collegial respect that swirls around it. I was once asked to referee by a journal that falls midway between top-ranked venues and the main targets of this hoax—what the Times calls “interdisciplinary journals in highly niche fields” such as Fat Studies and the Journal of Poetry Therapy. I was unsure whether I was critiquing (option X) a novice graduate student’s poorly executed but sincere and (with revision) promising exploration of levels of meaning in a hot-button media discourse—several of these levels ironic, but all of them open either to highly disturbing or reasonably commendable interpretations. Conversely (option Z) I wondered if someone was pranking the journal, in which case trumpeting the disturbing parts out of context would have been explosive. I am keeping details vague because a revised version was published, and I would like to believe the author was sincere. Still I advised the editors to reject it until they could be certain they were not being “Sokaled”—and thus I may have bitterly insulted a young author. Another time I could not tell if a young scholar had sincerely received bad advice when s/he used a certain textbook that I know well for background evidence, and then had proceeded (still in good faith) to paraphrase it clumsily—or conversely whether this was shoddy cut-paste-rephrase plagiarism. My call came down to a coin flip, in a context where accusing this young academic could have done grave career damage.
In such cases, it matters a great deal whether we can work from a baseline presumption of trusting the good faith of our colleagues and interlocutors—as opposed to living on defense against “trolling for lulz” or turning ourselves into police with a mission of hunting cheaters.
Relatedly, the intellectual and emotional flows that make teaching energized and resonant can take on a sickening weight when, if a student writes a lucid and interesting sentence, I must all-too-often wonder if I need to stop and check for plagiarism, rather than being happy for my student’s brilliance and the joys of engaging with him/her.
Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that a half-determined team of students could expose plagiarized bullshit turned in for A grades, analogous to what the hoaxsters did with the journals. And certainly there is a real plagiarism problem. But the point I have stressed on this blog is how a logic of assessment, in practice, primarily functions to transmute valid learning priorities into something cheaper, so that 98% of the time, more assessment results in a faster race to the bottom in standards. Young teachers face strong pressure to dumb down classes and offer students something approaching full benefit of doubt—which in turn makes it easy for students to game the system. (And who cares, as long as students produce their desired numerical result anyway, right? Isn’t that all anyone notices? Is this not the lived transmutation of what “educated student” and “successful teacher” mean?) In such a real-world context, a hoax to expose plagiarism—whether intended as fighting rot or as mere trolling–could easily function to deepen an overall rot.
Let me now emphasize something critical to the discussion that we could easily forget.
Standards are not solely an issue in niche journals edited by people with “grievances.” I have also refereed for top-of-the-field journals, and often I have rejected manuscripts not because I found them insincere, nor lacking in fine prose or ample non-plagiarized citations—but because they had no intellectual “value added” or, worse, they added momentum to a train of thought that was unfortunate in the first place. Perhaps they started from half-true premises that floated along in a wrongheaded or boring way on a stream of habit. Safely hedged in these premises—let’s shift our metaphor to “stuffy” and imagine authors suffocating but unaware of how badly they need to break windows to let in fresh air—they reinforced a minor point dovetailing with such habits of thought.
Such writing is more common than not in the world of non-hoax, non-marginal-quality journals. Also fairly common, in my experience, is learning that my negative feedback as referee—if bolstered with rationales like I have just offered, premised on the idea that quality work should do more than grind forward in a mediocre way—has been overruled.
All this is before we consider career implications of reviewing harshly, supplying less-than-ecstatic book blurbs, or failing in other ways to enact the maxim “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.” In today’s job market there is little margin of error in this regard, and one can easily be swept into a riptide. Consider how grade inflation is real and no one can change it alone (you can’t give F’s for work that would earn students B+’s in competing classes—even if you tried, your class would wither away). Or consider how the worst thing one can say in a recommendation (if one does not wish to be heard implying non-recommendation) is “although he’s not in my highest cohort, he is in the top 10 percent.”
This dovetails with today’s topic—a proliferation of self-described refereed journals that do not always publish good work. Everyone knows this. But the question is what to do about it that doesn’t make things worse.
I was provoked to write this little essay because the Times threw gasoline on the fire burning in my previous post, which is closely related to the latter question. Both sides of the coin I’ve held up to examine today—dubious standards in all-too-much of the world of “niche” refereed and the mediocrity of all-too-much in the world of “establishment” refereed—further explain why the continuum “interest/quality/value or not” and the continuum “refereed or not” have a more-or-less random correlation. Today my main argument is little changed– but perhaps the dog park examples make it a little less dry, plus we have added a “grasping Haraway’s points or not” vector to beef up the “quality or not” vector.
Quality is the decisive issue—how to defend spaces for worthy intellectual exchange. Everyone can agree to valorize brilliant interventions in top journals; no one wants to wade through even more bullshit in niche journals. After that, what is a quality intervention: something stultifying or wrong-headed, but with many footnotes, in a top journal, or something published in a niche journal with fewer footnotes but thoughtful innovation—say, breaking that above-mentioned window?
Simply counting “refereed or not” is blind to all of this and introduces crazy distortions. We need our universities to transmute back toward, not transmute further away from, a more open-ended framing for setting priorities. This is not a mind-set of counting beans and policing cheaters. It is a mind-set of building trust among colleagues and seeking warranted quality in response to needful priorities in particular social contexts.
Unfortunately, just as my imagined hoax by students seeking “lulz” through exposing plagiarism (which needs no exposure anyway) might move classroom dynamics backward, so also this new hoax by our “new Sokals” seems likely to enflame the trends of non-collegial meanness and intensified police mentality, making the serious problems they mock slightly worse.