Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers June 2006
vol. 2, no. 6
This week I came across a terrific book called The Geopolitics of Academic Writing (2002). In a fascinating mix of personal anecdote and scholarly research, the Sri Lankan professor of literature and composition A. Suresh Canagarajah describes the challenges facing scholars from the periphery in getting their work into mainstream journals in the United States and Europe. It is not a book of “complaint” he says, but a book about how knowledge gets produced and who gets to produce it. It's the best thing I have read about Euroamerican academic writing conventions.
As one of his first examples, Canagarajah details his own process of getting an article published in a U.S. journal. The sheer number of economic constraints he labored under will be familiar to my non-Euroamerican Flourish readers. Canagarajah had to leave his first draft behind when fleeing his war-torn village and later had to purchase paper on the black market to type it up. American editors informed him that he must submit the essay on white paper in print from a laser printer, both impossibilities. In fact, he had earlier debated handwriting his submission since it was clearer than the ancient departmental typewriter's ink.
The deeper obstacles, however, were differences in discourse, argument, and intellectual style between Sri Lankan academics and American ones. Canagarajah reproduces his first U.S. readers' reports, deconstructing their perspectives on his work. He is not hostile to them, he just shows how radically their opinions differ from his own intellectual tradition. At the time, he agreed to most of the reviewers' suggestions and revised the article according to the standard Euroamerican academic writing conventions, drastically reducing the personal commentary and political statements. It then got published.
The story does not end there, however. The published article then circulated among his colleagues at his Sri Lankan university. They thought the article was anemic, boring, and arrogant, pointing in particular to the passages that he had added or changed for the Euroamerican reviewers. Canagarajah then addresses why his colleagues perceived the article as poorly written and describes Sri Lankan academic culture.
This is a beautifully written book about the interaction of periphery and center discourse in the global marketplace of ideas. I highly recommend it. Canagarajah has written a number of other interesting books as well and he is now teaching in the City University of New York system at Baruch College.
Readers Write In
A Flourish reader responded to the May newsletter's topic of deadlines:
So, I have been thinking about writing in, and the Samuel Johnson stuff last month really hit home. I have had a number of invitations to submit book chapters and special issue articles and have found just what Johnson did: the deadlines help me actually write. For awhile now, I have had the goal of publishing one or two pieces per year in such venues. Given my work in clinical faculty lines and/or teaching universities, this level of production is actually pretty good. The deadlines and the sense that someone is waiting for my piece in order to pull together the book or special issue have made the writing process feel more social and less isolated. Often, these venues have some form of in-house editing so the editor or others involved give feedback on drafts. I find this especially helpful when my position is not "research focused." In the end, I will always remember your quote, when I took your course, about how few U.S. university faculty spend more than four hours per week on reading, writing, and/or research. It's kind of like investing money: little bit, by little bit, it adds up. I hope my few hours here and there add up over time to a body of work.
Authors also need to know how to tell a real rejection from a request to revise. If a journal editor writes that a paper has been rejected but they would consider a revised version as a new piece, they do want to see it again. From years in an editorial office I can say that such revision requests were not an effort to let the author down lightly -- we really were asking for a revision. So, if you get a rejection letter very soon after submitting the article and with no suggestions for improvement, that is a straight rejection. If you got a rejection letter but it took a long time, this means there was some serious consideration, possibly including outside referees. It's probably a good idea to go over the paper with others, or present it at a seminar or conference for feedback, thoroughly revise and submit to a different journal. If you get a rejection letter with a suggestion to try another journal, do it! Author's failure to match the treatment of a subject with the journal's audience is one of the most common reasons for rejection. It is not just their way of saying that the article is too thin. If you get a rejection letter, but the editors ask you to revise and resubmit it "as a new piece," do it if you can, and tell them if you aren't willing. If you get an acceptance letter, but the editors ask you to make some changes based on the referee comments, you don't have to do all of them, but make sure your reasons for not doing any are clear. If you get an acceptance letter with no request for changes, this is very rare, the smallest category of response letters, so congratulations!
A Flourish reader forwarded an article from the satiric online newspaper The Onion, titled “Heroic Computer Dies to Save World from Master's Thesis”:
WALTHAM, MA—A courageous young notebook computer committed a fatal, self-inflicted execution error late Sunday night, selflessly giving its own life so that professors, academic advisors, classmates, and even future generations of college students would never have to read Jill Samoskevich's 227-page master's thesis, sources close to the Brandeis University English graduate student reported Monday.
The brave laptop, even after fulfilling its mission, steadfastly resists a technician's data-recovery attempts.
"This fearless little machine saved me from unspoken hours of exasperated head-scratching and eyestrain, as well as years of agonizing self-doubt over my decision to devote my life to teaching," said professor John Rebson, who had already read through three drafts of Samoskevich's sprawling, 38,000-word dissertation, titled A Hermeneutical Exploration Of Onomatopoeia In The Works Of William Carlos Williams As It May Or May Not Relate To Post-Agrarian Appalachia.
To read the rest (and you definitely want to read the rest, especially the punch line), please go to The Onion (May 17, 2006, issue).
News from the Editor
In gearing up for my annual teaching with the UCLA summer program for graduate students, I have been working once again on revising my writing workbook. I usually set it aside during the academic year but return to it over the summer, starting in May. I have been getting lots of emails about it and reports of previous versions circulating as photocopies (against copyright rules I might add!) so I am trying to really push through it this summer.