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 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 sought to discredit what they call “grievance studies”—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 and got seven of them accepted in 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 compared how often they accepted similar behavior with female dogs. Supposedly it documented a 97% rate of breaking up male-on-male dog sex (the authors declined to judge from a human-centric standpoint how many of these sex acts were consensual and how many were rape) but only a 32% rate for male-on-female—although here again how much was “oppression based upon (perceived) gender” was unclear. 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 supposedly 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.”
Intriguingly, Hypatia (the most respected journal mentioned by the Times, although the authors tried and failed to break into comparable ones) accepted a fake “feminist critique of ‘unethical’ hoaxes.” The Times offers no details about the argument, although the authors’ self-report seems to presuppose that objections to the ethics of their own project are ripe to be mocked as self-evidently bankrupt. The most valuable part of the Times’s discussion addresses the ethical issues at stake—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 the 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. Far 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 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 disconnect between “refereed” and “worthwhile,” and underlining how a logic of publish or perish and 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 already 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 proved that parts of “grievance studies” are lame. Congratulations, everybody knew that, just as they knew the same about parts of… well, how shall we label the alternative? 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 a piece 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 to be “on the left”—and for that reason justified in using deceit and mockery 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 undertows created by such trolling and the lack of collegial respect that swirls around it. Once I was asked to referee by a journal falling midway between top-ranked venues and the 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 (option A) I was reading a novice graduate student’s poorly executed but sincere and (with revision) promising exploration of a hot-button media discourse—several of its levels of meaning ironic and open either to highly disturbing or reasonably commendable interpretations. Conversely (option B) I wondered if someone was pranking the journal. In the latter case trumpeting the disturbing parts out of context could have been explosive. I keep these details vague because a revised version of the article was published, and I would like to believe the author was sincere. Still I advised the journal to reject the article until they could be certain they were not being “Sokaled.” By extension I fear that I bitterly and unjustly insulted a young author.
Another time I could not tell if a young scholar had received bad advice when, for background evidence, s/he used a textbook that I know well and 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. This was in a context where accusing this young academic could have done serious damage to her entire career.
In such cases, it matters a great deal whether scholars can work from a baseline presumption of trusting the good faith of colleagues and interlocutors—as opposed to constantly being on the defensive against “trolling for lulz” or transforming ourselves into police with the mission of hunting cheaters.
Relatedly, the interpersonal flows that make teaching energized and resonant can take on a sickening weight if, every time a student writes a lucid and interesting sentence, I must pause to consider whether to check for plagiarism, rather than simply 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 group of students could expose much plagiarized bullshit turned in for A grades, analogous to what the hoaxsters did with the journals. And certainly the problem of plagiarism is real. But the point I have stressed on this blog is how a logic of assessment, in practice, mainly functions to transmute valid learning priorities into something cheaper. 98% of the time, more assessment results in a faster race to the bottom in standards. Young teachers face pressure to dumb down classes and offer students maximum benefit of doubt—which in turn makes it easy to game the system. (And who cares, as long as students produce a desired numerical result anyway? Isn’t that all anyone notices? Is this not the lived transmutation of what “educated student” and “successful teacher” mean?) In such a context, a hoax to expose plagiarism—even if well-intended and not only “trolling for lulz”–-might function to deepen an overall rot.
Let me now emphasize something critical that we could easily forget.
Standards are not solely an issue in niche journals for people with “grievances.” I also referee for top-of-the-field journals. From time to time 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 contributed to a train of thought that was unfortunate in the first place. Perhaps they started from half-true premises and then floated along in a wrongheaded way on a stream of habit. Safely hedged in these premises—let’s shift our metaphor to “stuffy” and imagine authors suffocating but unaware that they need to break windows and let in fresh air—they reinforced a minor point dovetailing with weak habits of thought.
Such writing is more typical than uncommon in the world of non-hoax, non-marginal-journals. Also common, in my experience, is learning that my negative referee’s reports—if centered on rationales like the one I just offered, premised on a notion that quality work should do more than grind forward in a mediocre way—have been overruled.
All this is before we turn to the career risks 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, and one can easily be swept into a riptide. Consider how grade inflation is rampant and no one can change it alone (you can’t give F’s for work that would earn B+’s in competing courses—if you tried, your class would wither away). Or consider how the harshest thing one can safely say in a recommendation letter (unless one wants to be heard implying blunt non-recommendation) is “although this student was not in my highest cohort, she was well within the top 15 percent.”
A variant of this same dynamic dovetails with today’s main topic—the proliferation of self-described refereed journals that do not always publish high-quality work. Everyone knows about this. But the question is what to do about it that doesn’t make things worse.
I was provoked to write this essay when the Times threw gasoline on the fire burning in my previous post, which is closely related to the question I just posed. Both sides of the coin I’ve held up today—dubious standards in all-too-much in the world of “niche refereed” and the mediocrity of much “establishment refereed”—further underline my earlier points. Two continua–one running between interest/quality/value and the lack of it, and another between “refereed” and “not refereed”–have a largely random correlation. My core argument (about many continua of judgment, all independent variables) is unchanged. Yet one hopes that my dog park examples made it slightly more entertaining. Plus we have added a continuum of “grasping Haraway’s points or not” to beef up the “quality or not” continuum.
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 more bullshit in niche journals. But after that, what is quality? Is it something stultifying or wrong-headed, but with many footnotes, in a prestigious journal? Or is it something published in a niche journal with fewer footnotes but thoughtful innovations—say, breaking the above-mentioned window?
Simply counting “refereed or not” is blind to all this and introduces crazy distortions. We need our universities to transmute back toward, not move further away from, a more open-ended way of setting priorities. This is not a mind-set of counting beans and policing cheaters. It is a mind-set of building collegial trust 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 that needs no exposure anyway) might make classroom dynamics worse, so also this latest hoax by our “new Sokals” seems likely to enflame the dual trends of non-collegial meanness and intensified police mentality. It makes the serious problems it mocks more entrenched.