“Deeper Reasons”: The Politicization of Academic Publishing

Duke Pesta

Effective January 1, 2017, Judith Curry resigned her tenured position as Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Curry cites a number of reasons for her decision, but concedes that “the deeper reasons” have to do with her “growing disenchantment with universities, the academic field of climate science and scientists.”1 While Curry’s distinguished career as a climate scientist and her formidable research credentials speak for themselves,2 she has nevertheless run afoul of the climate change establishment for daring to argue for greater accommodation for scientists and scientific research skeptical of consensus positions. In 2010, for instance, Curry published an influential open letter, “On the Credibility of Climate Change, Towards Rebuilding Trust,” that frankly addressed the damage done by the “Climategate” scandal of 2009.3 Curry is in no practical sense a climate change “denier.” But she understands that in situations where conflicting data and research exist—especially regarding issues of such magnitude as climate change—skepticism is both intellectually healthy and necessary to ensure that consensus does not inhibit or undercut competing research agendas. Although a rudimentary aspect of the scientific method, Curry’s plea has set her up for remarkably unscientific derision from politicians and fellow researchers.

A key concern for Curry has been how to mentor up-and-coming student researchers who share her commitment to unbiased research and who practice skepticism regarding questionably scientific concepts such as “consensus”:

A deciding factor [in my retirement] was that I no longer know what to say to students and postdocs regarding how to navigate the CRAZINESS in the field of climate science. Research and other professional activities are professionally rewarded only if they are channeled in certain directions approved by a politicized academic establishment—funding, ease of getting your papers published, getting hired in prestigious positions, appointments to prestigious committees and boards, professional recognition, etc.

How young scientists are to navigate all this is beyond me, and it often becomes a battle of scientific integrity versus career suicide.4

Although few have approached these issues with Curry’s grace and candor, such challenging realities remain at the forefront of any discussion about how to fix our broken universities. Given the ideological corruption of peer review, the politicization of academic presses and journals, the gaming of research grants in order to privilege certain methodologies and prefigured conclusions, and the pressure to conform exerted on graduate students and untenured professors, it is difficult to imagine viable solutions emerging from the echo chamber of modern research universities, bound by political correctness and constrained by the desperate pursuit of federal money.

Unlike research into high-profile scientific subjects such as climate—where money and political influence drive the agenda—the politicization of publishing in the humanities has had a more fraught, if less bemoaned, trajectory. Many outside (and within) universities pay little attention to scholarship from disciplines such as English, history, philosophy, and religious studies: a cursory comparison of grants available to scientific versus humanistic researchers underscores the point. But to ignore the fate of “research” in the humanities, the way it is generated, vetted, and published, is to lose sight of what ultimately drives attitudes toward research across all disciplines, including in the sciences.

In fact, what my students “know” about “climate change” has little to do with science or scientists. When queried, they cannot name a climate scientist or articulate a scientific position with any degree of understanding. Their knowledge is based almost exclusively on what they have learned in freshman seminars, writing classes, and the burgeoning catalog of environmentally themed courses in their general education programs, from ecocriticism in literature to “nature writing” in creative writing, and from “green” philosophy to the history of environmentalism, or issues of sustainability, in the Bible. In other words, research and teaching in the humanities disproportionately influence how students process “science” as it is framed by humanities professors with no training, credentials, or expertise in scientific subjects. At my own university, for instance, “sustainability” has become one of three “signature questions” to be applied across general education courses that all students must take. The quasi-scientific nature of sustainability studies, in the hands of humanities professors, inevitably politicizes these discourses for undergraduates, leading to very unscientific, even harmful, results.

Many of the problems addressed by Curry—in brief, the politicization of science that led in part to her retirement—are the result of how humanities professors conduct research, and how successfully they co-opt subjects such as science, sociology, and anthropology. The ubiquitous application across the humanities of postmodern theoretical approaches such as deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and ecocriticism—approaches that subordinate the study of art, literature, history, and philosophy to the imperatives of progressive political thought and advocacy—has reduced research and teaching to little more than an extended exercise in leftist political agitprop. What Curry recognizes in her own field has been the norm in the humanities for well over thirty years.

As a professor of English who began graduate school in the late 1980s, when this theoretical revolution was well underway, I have long been alarmed at the swift acceptance of postmodern premises. How did nakedly political and activist methodologies become entirely mainstream, accepted unquestioningly by teachers and students working in universities that pay lip service to freedom of expression and diversity of thought? All the sanctioned ways we study and publish in the humanities—all the methods we use for processing the literature, history, philosophy, and theology of the past—are cynically partisan, political, and thoroughly biased.

For science and the humanities, the key to controlling the norms of teaching and research is academic publishing. Peer review-based university presses and academic journals determine what areas of graduate study are most pursued, who is likely to be hired, who accesses academic grants, and, ultimately, who attains tenure. For well over three decades in the humanities, the vast majority of presses and journals have published books and essays that adopt the politics and activist proclivities of postmodern theoretical approaches. I vividly recall as a graduate student the young professors advocating for “a place at the table” for these new progressive approaches to the study of literature. They decried the hidebound traditionalism of literary criticism, and sought but to participate in a dialogue with more established scholars, to diversify and expand the discourse. And within a decade, the Young Turks of postmodernism had all but purged the profession of alternative voices and approaches. I will never forget taking a graduate seminar on literary theory in which the newly minted Ph.D. teaching the class insisted “that the only thing written worth reading in the twentieth century is postmodern literary theory.”

Seemingly overnight, as the 1980s became the 1990s, everything changed. The canon was criticized, then savaged, and then replaced. The premise of our studies ceased to be mastery of subject or facility with genre, form, or aesthetics, and the curriculum morphed into the incubatory stage of what we now recognize as “social justice” education: the reduction of all historical, literary, and critical values to the single-minded pursuit of progressive activism. As a graduate teaching assistant, I marveled as literature was banished from the writing courses that were my responsibility, and fretted when the teaching of grammar, syntax, and sentence structure was jettisoned in favor of touchy-feely essays about progressive social topics, where grades were doled out on the basis of student sympathy to the cause, not writing ability or clarity of thought. The department stopped offering graduate seminars on Shakespeare, Milton, or Donne, and offered instead “New Historicist Approaches to Shakespeare,” “Deconstructing Paradise Lost,” and “Feminist Readings of Donne’s Songs and Sonnets.” Always, the rationale was the same: These approaches alone would get you published, secure a job, and guarantee tenure once you got hired. Senior faculty adapted to the new models or retired, and incoming graduate students were selected exclusively on their commitment to the new orthodoxy.

These shifts in publishing and teaching also changed the day-to-day ethos of departments. As a TA who taught in dress shirt and tie, and who argued for aesthetics, the canon, and the tradition, I was on the outs with other grad students. Seven times the cardboard nameplate on my office door was ripped into pieces. I had a small picture of Shakespeare by my name on the door, and came in one morning to find the picture gone, replaced with a long, anonymous letter demanding that I justify placing a dead white male on my door without including the image of a female writer. During one seminar taught by a classical liberal, we discussed the literature of World War II. One radicalized graduate student ranted about how horrible it was that the warmongering Americans entered the war in Europe. What business was it of ours? she intoned. The professor stood at the front of the class in stunned disbelief, then turned to the board and wrote in huge letters HITLER. The lesson did not take.

And so, leaving graduate school and beginning my career in the academy coincided with these shifts in how humanities professors published. I sent my scholarship—rooted in history and mindful of the literary traditions of my area of specialization (Shakespeare and Renaissance literature)—to major journals in the field. Sending an essay on Hamlet and sixteenth-century natural philosophy to a major journal in Shakespeare studies, I received a spritely reply: The essay, wrote the editor, was well-written and researched, but would not be forwarded to outside reviewers because “it was not sufficiently feminist.” Similar responses followed from other journals: the essay does not engage this or that “-ism” or theory. Across the profession, critics had suddenly superseded artists and politics trumped literature. The more journals filtered submissions through postmodern lenses, the more graduate seminars were transformed into treatises on sociology, and the more undergraduate classrooms became sites of quasi-Marxist indoctrination.

About this time I began working on a book conceived in graduate school and co-authored with a like-minded colleague. The book engaged exactly this issue: how the study of literature was jeopardized by an ahistorical application of progressive politics, and how the history of Western culture was being colonized, forced to speak postmodern “truths” instead of its own. The first chapter rebutted the familiar argument of gender critics that Shakespeare’s stage was “homoerotic” because boys played the roles of women. Never mind that the boys were chosen to play those roles as a way of avoiding too close contact between men and women during intimate moments onstage. Somehow, according to the gender theorists, boy actors kindled lust in the hearts of male spectators, creating a theater more comfortable with homosexuality than heterosexuality. Yes, that’s right: “homo-social” sixteenth-century English audiences preferred the spectacle of adult male attraction to boys, and set up their theaters accordingly. Predictably, and despite marshaling significant evidence from the period to counter such historically disconnected readings, finding a publisher was not easy. We eventually published a shortened version of the first chapter, titled “Redressing Cross-Dressed Shakespeare,” in the Summer 2003 Academic Questions.5 After including the article on my CV, I was instructed by my department chair “never to publish with Academic Questions again,” as it was “not an appropriate venue and my colleagues would not recognize it in considering my case for tenure.”

Thirteen years later, after navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of dozens of university presses and “blind” peer reviewers, we finally found a publisher in Routledge.6 The book’s tortured path to publication confirms that peer review is anything but blind, and that editors seek out works that endorse their ideological biases. No surprise there. Even in the best of circumstances publication is highly subjective, and many manuscripts that align with the prevailing ideology never see the light of day. Rather, it was the nature of the evaluations that so clearly illuminated the problem of unscholarly bias.

University presses often pay outside reviewers hundreds of dollars per reader report to evaluate manuscripts. The vast majority of evaluations we received consisted of one or two paragraphs of vague comments and generalizations about the manuscript, which was over three hundred pages. Reviewers did not engage with evidence or argument, and offered no examples to challenge the thesis or suggest alternative explanations for our claims. Evaluators focused on one sentence in the preface or one argument in the opening pages and ignored the rest of the manuscript. In many instances, it was not clear that evaluators had actually read the manuscript, but rather that they seemed simply to dismiss it on the basis of our approach, or, in one instance, on the chapter titles.

We were surprised at how personal some of the evaluations were, how thoroughly “non-blind” the readings. Some reviewers intimated specific connections with our previously published work before minimizing it and the manuscript before them along ideological lines. In a few instances, even the editors who sent the book out for review expressed surprise and concern about the lack of professionalism and interaction with the manuscript reflected in the evaluations. In the final chapter, we challenge the modish critical argument that the primary focus of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is colonialism, and that Caliban is some sort of Native American. The trope has become so common, so utterly reflexive, that the play is seldom researched or taught in any other way. In an ironic moment of honesty that encapsulates the current state of academic publishing in the humanities, one nonplussed evaluator conceded the legitimacy of our arguments and lauded the “impeccable” nature of our research, but nonetheless refused to endorse the manuscript for publication because the thesis we demonstrated—if widely circulated—might hinder the march of postcolonial studies through academe!

And so we come full circle to the reflections of Judith Curry about the ways climate change dogma threatens original research and undermines the integrity of scientific scrutiny. What’s happening now in the sciences has long been the status quo for the humanities, where ideological purity and political advocacy reward the orthodox and punish the apostate. The migration of this debasement of scholarship to the sciences in part accounts for the curious rise of courses in “feminist biology,” “sustainable math,” and “green chemistry.” And while humanities departments continue to experience decreases in enrollment and funding, their research methodologies and ideologies continue to influence, adversely, academic research and publication in the sciences. As Curry concludes, “[P]eer review is not really the point; provoking people to think in new ways about something is really the point. In other words, science as process, rather than a collection of decreed ‘truths.’” 7 It is telling and tragic that Curry feels she must remove herself from campus in order to pursue this commonsense approach to research.

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