JAMS as Symbol

June 26, 2009 at 9:29 am

As anyone who follows the AMS e-mail list, AMS-L, know, this spring has been a heated one in terms of questioning the identity and purpose of the American Musicological Society. Nick Chrissochoidis’s highly provacative article in the Chronicle of Higher Education online site was merely the first round. Debates raged online about whether and how AMS had failed its younger scholars.

I’m not particularly interested in entering that highly contested fray. But I did want to draw attention to one surprising theme: the unchallenged assumption by many voices in the debate that the Journal of the American Musicological Society, JAMS, is somehow singularly positioned as the representative journal of the discipline – and that AMS holds the analogous position as a society.

Several pointed out that JAMS has 9 articles a year – and have taken that as evidence of an ideological narrowness. Others have noted the recent appearance of colloquy within JAMS, as a more inclusive format for scholarship. Still others have argued that the (allegedly) monolithic nature of most JAMS articles led to hulking, ossified research, where as sleeker, shorter articles could lead to more scholarly points of connection.

Now, I’m happy and proud to have had something published in JAMS early in my career, and I’m familiar with at least the authorial end of the editorial workflow (at least while Bruce Brown was editor-in-chief; I haven’t heard anyone suggest that Kate van Orden – or any other editor-in-chief – has put a readily discernable “stamp” on JAMS during their tenure in that position).  In the course of preparing my submission, I was aware that I was doing some things that struck me as keeping in line with the goals of JAMS as I understood them. But then again, I would hope that authors consider carefully the prevailing style of any journal the submit to. Perhaps my footnotes were longer than they might have been if I had submitted to another journal – perhaps my appendices were lengthy by the standards of a discipline-wide average. On the other hand, the actual body of my article was 30 pages and roughly 10,000 words – hardly groaning under its own weight, which, I think, is an unfair characterization of many (but, of course, not all) recent articles in JAMS.

Furthermore, I think it is an unfair claim that there is somehow a plutocratic board of editors that polices JAMS in a way that is categorically different from other journals. In Ives scholarship, for example, I could probably guess at the identity of the reviewers no matter where I submitted. For any given speciality, I would expect that a scholar familiar with the discipline would be able to put together a list of, say, a dozen people (at the most) who would likely read article submissions. (This, by the way, is anecdotal evidence of why revisions are usually worth doing if one musicology journal doesn’t accept your work and you take it to another one – it is likely the next journal will ask at least one of the readers from the first to review it again).

But I think all of the hubbub that has happened on AMS-L this year has lost sight of the fact that JAMS was, and still is, one journal among many. There are several top journals in our field, including (but not limited to) the Journal of Musicology, Acta Musicologica, and the representative flagship specialty journals (like 19th-century music).

In short, I think that the present debate has emphasized JAMS’s position in the symbolic order, rather at the cost of a consideration of its position in the scholarly order. I don’t deny that it retains a certain cachet symbolically, but I do know that there are many scholars who have gotten along just fine without a JAMS article. I also think that to place JAMS on a pedestal too high surrenders a lot of intellectual responsibility – as if the anonymous referees of a single journal are the sole arbiters of what is “worthy” scholarship.

I am sure some readers are rolling their eyes now, and saying “well of course Drew is going easy on JAMS, he’s not the one who just got a rejection letter.”  And I’m sure my perspective would be different if I really had my heart set on JAMS for an article and still hadn’t made any headway. But I’ve gotten my fair share of rejections, too, and as time goes on I see more and more that they (typically) aren’t personal or ideological in nature.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I find attacks on JAMS a little bit out of proportion with its role as an outlet for new scholarship, given the number of different outlets available to scholars, young and established, working on all kinds of music that are available now. I agree that the burden that AMS and its journal are expected to bear in terms of representing the discipline should definitely be questioned. At the same time,  they aren’t the only show in town, and that seems to be an important fact that hasn’t totally been folded in to the present debate.

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