Continuing thoughts on what would professional associations 2.0 look like, what would the job of editing look like? Let’s look at what it’s like now.
Right now the editor of, say, the American Historical Review gets lots of submissions. He/she reads them ( I assume) and then decides whether or not to send them to reviewers. The reviewers agree to review, then read the article, comment and return the article to the editor, who then tells the author either forget it, congratulations, or “revise and resubmit.”
The process can take, literally, years. As a reviewer, your labor is basically uncompensated. You don’t even get much intellectual satisfaction, because typically you make your comments and then you’re done. You might see the article in print and recognize your uncredited contributions, but just as likely you never see the work again.
The editor can choose to hide behind peer reviews, and use them to dismiss work that’s not congenial, or choose to ignore them, both of which seem reasonable. In some traditions at least an editor is supposed to edit, to shape taste and to shape their field: that’s the good part of being the editor.
But peer review is a crushingly slow, turgid process. Established in the age when mail was delivered in horse cars, and no one expected or anything like fast communication, it coasts along on an earlier generation’s low expectations. Peer review is hard work for the reviewer, and more important, it’s both uncompensated and, for the most part, extremely unrewarding. You get nothing for your efforts except perhaps some books and a thank you. It’s a professional obligation, not a professional pleasure.
Book reviews are the same thing—not only do they take your precious time, they offer you no intellectual rewards. You get asked to write the review, you put it off, you finally write it, and then sometime far down the road, it appears in the journal. That’s it. Maybe at a conference, someone tells you they liked/hated your review of that new book about the pipefitter’s union. But most likely, that’s the end of it.
What should we get? We should get what we most want: participation in a lively intellectual discussion. And what should the editor get? The capacity to shape the nature of the debate.
Suppose the editor were more like a moderator–someone who set an agenda, or a subject, and then oversaw discussion?
Take a look, for example, the Civil War blogging done by Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic. Most of the posts are collected at this link. Coates is not an historian, but he’s a smart guy committed to learning. He often blogs on classics of Civil War history, like Roll Jordan Roll or Battle Cry of Freedom. He establishes a topic, or a problem, or a point of view, and then lets commentators have at it. If you’re skeptical, just look at some of the threads in that link. Or this one. Or this one, on the well-known Jourdan Anderson letter.
Coates actively moderates the discussion, pruning out cranks and the uncivil, commenting frequently. The result is not academic history, but it’s a stunningly high level of historical discourse conducted in real time. The reviewers—the people who post comments—have the satisfaction of participating in a live dialogue rather than a dead archive. Coates, the “editor,” gets to foster real collaborative education.
Suppose the job of editing and commenting looked more like this? Moderated, live interactions, and an ongoing discussion among peers. An editor might choose one article a week. He or she would post the article with a comment on its merits/weaknesses. Readers could then comment in real time, acting as peer reviewers, with the editor acting to “prune” and police the comments. All readers would see opinion evolving, and see the process of peer review in action.
Or suppose the profession adopted the model used in “layer tennis.” Dan Cohen has blogged about this: in this model a graphic designer sets up a problem in design, an then two graphic designers bat designs back an forth. Designer one posts his version, designer two posts his: they engage in a dialogue about the design and their goals. The exchange is moderated, designs commented upon; new versions submitted, and the process continues.
In this model, three main participants would engage a question in history: the moderator/editor and two contributors. The “audience” could comment as well, offering critiques an suggestions. The moderator/editor would keep things civil and weed out useless comments.
Imagine, for example, two leading historians with divergent accounts of a given subject, publicly engaging each other and their field in this way. Things we now do in the slow slow print form–reconsiderations of famous historian X’s career; anniversary of famous event Y retrospectives; “forums” on topic Z: all these things could be accomplished in a more dynamic from, with input from peers making a real visible difference.
Exactly what advantages does the present model confer?