Zoë Lang’s Guest Blog: Musicological Dear John Letters
When I first announced to one of my (non-academia) friends that I had at long last landed a tenure-track job, he noted that at long last, I could relax for a bit. ‘Not at all!’ I replied, ‘Now it’s only five years until tenure review!’ Indeed, it is difficult to forget that getting the job, a formidable challenge, is the first of many steps. I suspect that I am not the only early career scholar concerned that when I have to present my case, my publications will fall short of the mark. My lack of success so far at getting my work published has done little to abate this anxiety. I would like to take this opportunity to share the headaches that I have run into to date. Unfortunately, I cannot offer any panacea, as my work has not yet graced the pages of a journal. Since misery loves company, though, perhaps you, gentle reader, can find solace in knowing that you may not be the only one unpublished – and that lack of prolificacy may not be wholly your fault.
The benefits of submitting my work to a journal, I thought, far outweighed the possibility of a negative outcome. Ideally, of course, the article would be accepted and after a few harried corrections, it would be published. Alternatively, I might be asked to revise and resubmit, thus strengthening my submission when it actually appeared in print. Even if my work were rejected outright, I would still get valuable reader comments so that my article would be better for the next attempt at publication.
My utopian view of journal publication was quickly shattered after the first journal rejection. Editor #1 offered only potentially deprecating comments about my work with little helpful feedback. The opening line, stating that the article was ‘pedantic yet supposedly well researched,’ inspired little confidence that this editor had taken my work seriously. Editor #2 was less vitriolic, stating that the article was an interesting one, but not musicology. To this day, I am still not sure what this comment means. Certainly my work is closer to cultural history, but I would not classify it as outside of the discipline entirely. At any rate, a lesson was learned: research the journal more carefully prior to submission.
For the second attempt at publication, I made several amendments to the article, taking out the section analyzing the piece (which Editor #1 of Journal #1 had found extraneous) and toning down some of the more speculative sections. I also had a colleague read it over prior to submission, hoping that a new set of eyes might provide a better perspective. Off it went, only to be rejected five months later. This time around, according to the reader, I had not provided a sufficient political context for the piece – a comment that struck me as odd since much of the article argued against politicization until a far later date in its reception history. A quick glance at the editorial board clarified the comment. One of its members has done work examining the politicization of music that overlaps with the time and place I discuss. Another lesson learned: along with researching the journal, consider precisely who will be asked to assess the article.
One of my mentors from grad school pointed out to me at this point that three journal rejections was a bad sign. Her practical sagacity was undoubtedly true, but I felt that another round of revisions and the advice of another colleague, this time around the article was stronger than ever. It was more concise, less speculative, and presented a clearer case. Furthermore, the complaint of pedantry leveled against it by Editor #1 of Journal #1 had been addressed. The venue for publication I had chosen was headed by a scholar who had long advocated for cultural context in musical studies; even more promising was that his scholarly interests matched the time and place as mine. I optimistically attached the revised article and sent it off via email. The editorial assistant assured me that a decision would be made about the article within three months by the editors and if viewed as a potential match for the journal, then passed along to outside readers for assessment.
Imagine my surprise seven months later when the article was rejected outright because it was not what the journal is looking for at this moment. No additional feedback was provided. This situation was my dystopia of publication, the absolute antithesis of what I had imagined when sending out this article a year and a half prior. After receiving the rejection I asked the editorial assistant if there was any chance at getting some more concrete feedback. I’m still waiting.
My impassioned Facebook status about the situation garnered the sympathy of friends in academia. One bemoaned that her article had been rejected on no concrete grounds (in fact an editor had commented that it was quite good) but likely because her topic was unfashionable. A social scientist produced statistics demonstrating that a mere 0.6% of articles submitted to the most prominent journal in his field were accepted. Another agreed with my assessment that the journal had behaved in a socially unacceptable manner, adding language that would likely be rejected by most academic journals. In short, I was not the only one.
The challenge and worries still remain. I have another article that I hope to submit soon, but conflicting comments from my mentors (one loved it, one did not find it convincing) have me concerned. If my story demonstrates anything, it is that handing the right article to the right person at the right time can ensure publication, but many factors can derail the process. To paraphrase the rejection email sent by journal #3: it’s not me, it’s them. Such an answer, though, does little to alleviate concerns that without publication, there will be no tenure. Or maybe it is me…