Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

In this post, I mentioned my displeasure at a journal that took five months to reject a note with a one-line email. Such sloth and discourtesty is, it seems to me, a symptom of a very serious problem in academia that is not regularly addressed but is near the heart of the discontent that so many people (inside and outside) seem to have with academia: the keepers of many of our key academic institutions are failing in their duties.

I think this is as big a factor in the stress and discontent of junior faculty as the job crisis itself: when the keepers of important institutions (journal editorships, society presidents, press directors, chair holders) don't do their jobs efficiently, they don't pay the price: junior faculty do (when a press drops the ball and takes years too long to publish a book, it doesn't hurt my tenure prospects; if an article is out for a year, or gets accepted last year for the 2007 issue of a journal, I can wait. Not so for junior faculty).

If there is a backlog of work (which we've all had happen), then it is incumbent upon those who hold substantial privileges to buckle down and plow through the work. If there is such a backlog at presses and journals, then that fact should be made public so that we can have an academy-wide debate about what to do (rather than just letting the backlog lengthen).

Here at Wheaton there is, right now, a lot of the standard end-of-term griping from junior faculty (well, from everyone really, because it is end of term, but I've happened to notice the junior faculty griping). Because I am currently the chair of the Educational Policy Committee, I feel like I have to look into this griping to see if there are any real grievances. Almost every thing I've been able to track down has the same source: people not doing their jobs in a timely manner and thus putting more stress on others (and if you think junior faculty have this bad, you should see what faculty obliviousness about deadlines does to the staff).

Where does this problem come from? See the title of this post. There's almost no supervision (which is good) and no recourse (which is bad). The system is supposed to work because scholarly peers, also of advanced standing, put pressure to do a good job on those who are also high up in the system. But no one wants to be the bad guy, no one wants to be the heavy, and so everything just slips (and I will say that Wheaton is about 500 times better than any other place I've been).

What to do? Herewith a few simple rules of thumb.

1. The deadline actually does apply to you. [Faculty whine constantly about students missing deadlines but then constantly miss their own. And I mean all the time.]

2. Return phone calls within 24 hours and emails within 48.

3. 30 days for straight rejections/acceptance from a journal. Any later and the person gets a reader's report.

4. 90 days for rejection/acceptance with a reader's report. If your readers can't turn things around that quickly, get some new readers and fire the old ones. Book manuscripts may take a little longer, but you have to inform the person who submitted when the decision will be made.

5. Let people know when they have failed at the above (i.e., being collegial is important, but give feedback like "I'm really glad you accepted my article, but making me wait eleven months was a little out of hand, don't you think?" -- this kind of thing is hard to do, but it's essential. People respond to social pressure; the squeaky wheel gets the grease).

Or, to sum up: Do your job!

I think that following my few rules would do an enormous amount to pull angst out of the system and make people a little happier in their jobs (and to do these things is just a tiny bit easier than revising the entire academic labor system, by the way)

[Readers might reasonably ask "Drout, you have tenure. Why don't you name names?" It's a good question, and I had thought about saying that Notes and Queries was the journal that couldn't be bothered with a timely response or a reader's report. But to make specific charges against specific individuals would require a new level of research that I don't have time to do. For instance, if a journal loses an article or a reviewer takes eleven months to return a reader's report or a contributor bails out from a project three weeks before the deadline (after having eleven months to do the work), I have a right to be irritated, and I can assemble this material into a pattern and comment on it, but I don't want to blast the single person or institution and then find out that the specific example I've chosen happens to have a new baby or a financial crisis or, God forbid, a serious illness. I'm sure that not all of the people/institutions failing to do their jobs have these problems, but I don't know which ones do, and that makes naming names problematic.]

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