Tag Archives: peer review

Do the Humanities have Impostor Syndrome?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick opens her book ‘Planned Obsolescence’ exposing anxiety over the supposed decline of reading as anxiety over a perceived threat to the form of the book, which is a status-laden cultural token. From our previous readings, I gather the humanities community had a similar defensive threat response to the waxing digital humanities. The digital humanities have not obviated the existence of traditional humanities so much as cut into their degree of cultural power. Yet casting the threat to the humanities as critical created a protective reflex to maintain the status quo through the implied threat of extinction.

What do the traditional humanities have to be so anxious about? From the first section of this book, it sounds like plenty.

The humanities are anxious at the increasingly common requirements from administrations and funding sources to show empirical processes and/or quantified results (p47).

Humanities scholars have also failed to apply the very critical thinking they claim as their vital contribution to society to their own academic practices and norms, as evidenced by the long-time lack of challenge to traditional peer review (p10).

Why might humanities scholars have avoided interrogating the peer review process that had such heavy influence on their professional lives? Fitzpatrick proposes five reasons.

  1. philosophical slipperiness around what “truth” is
  2. insufficient empirical skills to prove the disutility of traditional peer review
  3. resistance to self-analysis due to anxiety about self-exposure
  4. resistance to changing traditions
  5. fear of loss of power and prestige

Fitzpatrick also tells us that traditional humanities work, more than other fields, happens in isolation. Collaboration is relatively uncommon. Humanities scholars are in general therefore unused to navigating the sharing of credit or open sourcing of work, and may have anxieties around the implications of doing so to their academic identities.

Taken together, this reads to me like the traditional humanities may have a case of impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome, per Wikipedia (deliberately chosen as a source, as it was in the reading), is “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”

Let the record show I do not think the humanities are fraudulent. Only that they seem to be behaving in an overly fearful and slightly neurotic way. How to alleviate this counterproductive mindset?

Fitzpatrick exhorts the reader to embrace an elevation of the community product and good over that of any individual. The traditional humanities may be happy to realize that working collaboratively balances the risks to any one individual. With the input and support of a community, loner scholars no longer need to fear being caught out. New methods can be seen as new opportunities for collaboration. The digital humanities cease to be a threat and become a new playing field.

Peer review + power dynamics in Planned Obsolescence

Keeping in the spirit of Sandy’s post on collaboration vs. “ownership,” I wanted to mention Fitzpatrick’s idea of peer review, share my hesitancy about her diagnosis of the problem and solution, and hopefully hear what everyone else thought about it.

In Planned Obsolescence, Fitzpatrick considers From Book Censorship to Academic Peer Review by Mario Biagioli (full text at http://innovation.ucdavis.edu/people/publications/Biagioli%202008%20Censorship_review.pdf) to describe how “peer review functions as a self-perpetuating disciplinary system, inculcating the objects of discipline into becoming its subjects” (Fitzpatrick 22). As Biagioli puts it, “subjects take turns at disciplining each other into disciplines” in academia (12). This concept makes sense across types of peer review; Biagioli focuses on the royal academies and the associated “republic of letters” as a way to conceptualize peer review beyond a singular project, and I am also thinking of contemporary practices that are designed to evaluate and recalibrate a power dynamic (like the time I realized that the department head in the back of a classroom was actually there to evaluate the instructor).

This entire process of peer review, but particularly familiar version that Fitzpatrick considers in her first and third chapters in detail, is wrapped up in notions of who counts as a peer. We have discussed the idea of collaboration throughout the semester, starting with the notion that DH projects often accommodate, even require, a variety of skills and contributions; Sandy’s post speaks to this point and flags the critical “decision point about whose contributions to include” in the first place as a good place to start for identifying a project’s collaborators and expanding our notion of a peer. All of this points to a more inclusive notion of the peer which, in turn, aligns with a field like DH that strives to be participatory and democratic in multiple senses of the words.

The peer review process that Fitzpatrick outlines in Chapter 3 seems like a good place to start putting this expanded idea of the peer into practice. She compares how digital commenting functions as one level of peer review for projects such as “Holy of Holies,” Iraq Study Group Report, her own article “CommentPress: New (Social) Structures for New (Networked) Texts,” Expressive Publishing, and a digital release of The Golden Notebook (112-117), describing a spectrum of options from an entirely open commenting feature where any reader could leave a comment to relatively closed off systems where only select readers could provide feedback. As I made my way through this chapter, the phrase “the wisdom of the crowd” (which we first encountered in the context of The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 as described in “This Is Why We Fight” by Lisa Spiro) kept coming to mind. From my perspective, this notion underlies Fitzpatrick’s model for online peer review, which strives to be a social, open process while “managing the potential for chaos” (117). (Granted, this chaotic or more generally negative mob/mass/crowd was much more familiar to me from French history, Romantic literature, early urban sociology, and general concern about trolling, but I have come around to the idea that the crowd can be a force for good in so many DH contexts.)

However, Fitzpatrick also notes that the author of  Expressive Processing experienced that “the preexistence of the community was an absolute necessity” (116) to make its comment structure useful. This experience logically translates to other projects: peer review that turns to the “wisdom of the crowd” can only be as helpful as its crowd. I see how the crowd might offer more variety of feedback and how a more expansive notion of peer review in general could magnify the voices of individuals who may not have gotten the chance to participate in the process otherwise, whether because they fall slightly outside of academic circles, have not yet acquired the prestige to “do peer review” for a publisher, or any other reason. But to become a member of that peer review community or crowd — one of the seven women with commenting privileges on The Golden Notebook, for example — in the first place, I see the same social and technical barriers to access that we have talked about in class. As a result, I am struggling to see how a more democratic comment structure in digital spaces changes the disciplinary power dynamic of peer review. In your reading, does Fitzpatrick’s proposed version of peer review (in certain contexts) adequately address this power dynamic?