On blind review

1 Gaps and generics in the blind review process

Journals intend reviews of submissions be blind in order to ensure non-biased treatment of the material under consideration. The main assumption supporting this approach is that when work is presented anonymously, reviewers will set aside judgments concerning the race, gender, age, professional status etc. of the author considered. To provide an image of the reviewer’s mind on this model, it is as if one found an empty space where one previously found opinions about such matters. Call this the gappy thoughts model of blind review.

Blind reviewers do not have gappy thoughts. The content that otherwise would have been associated with an author remains filled. But it is filled generically.

Suppose a professor teaching a mixed graduate and upper-level undergraduate course grades course materials anonymously. Suppose further that in this class, upper-level undergraduates outnumber graduates by a factor of roughly 2 to 1. In this situation, for any given paper, the professor will be somewhat more likely to assume the work he is grading was written by an undergraduate, unless content strongly suggests otherwise. And so, for instance, sentential ambiguities will be more liable to be understood in a way that assumes less, rather than more understanding on the part of the student.

Similarly, if a reviewer assumes that most submissions to the journal requesting her feedback are term papers written by graduate students, she will be more apt to suppose grad student authorship in ambiguous cases. Conversely, if the reviewer assumes that only established scholars contribute to the same journal, she will be more apt to assume – perhaps consciously, perhaps not – that the paper written on topic x by so-and-so’s doctoral student was written by his mentor.

More generally, the practice of blind review doesn’t essentially contribute to the diversity of philosophy, if by this we understand something more than the adoption of majority standards by non-dominant groups. Instead, it encourages non-dominant groups to conform to the style and substance of the dominant group: it encourages conformity to the generic. Thus, blind review tends toward a stronger kind of equality than its intended aim would suggest: sameness.[1]

2 The situation of blind review with respect to the author and authorship

Anonymity tends toward irreverence. For proof of this, see the internet. Therefore, work encountered anonymously that does not conform to the standards of the philosophical community is more likely to be judged as failing to meet those standards than challenging or surpassing them. This is part of why authors try to subvert the blind review process in all the ways listed here. Established scholars may do so, for instance, via conspicuous self-citation. Less established scholars may do so by circulating their work among more established scholars, or by publishing drafts on sites like academia.edu, where they can get feedback from interested readers.

Two likely consequences follow.

First, to the degree that it is flouted, blind review may end up hurting the very people it intends to help: less established or otherwise marginalized scholars without strong connections to others in their field, given that such people are the most likely victims of the irreverence frequently accompanying anonymity.

Second, assuming that the values of a group are more likely to be internalized by those on the margins seeking its acceptance than those squarely in it, marginalized members would be less likely to do things that might undermine the egalitarian ideals the process of blind review intends to support. And so, for instance, they would be less likely to do some of the very things that would help them – for instance, sharing their work with others – for fear of undermining the aims of the blind review process. In this way, we witness a tension between two growing aspects of both academic philosophy and culture at large: the strong egalitarianism embodied in western liberal notions of fairness, and the strong communitarianism present in the ever-increasing connectedness of our world.

The hidden link tying together the whole process may well be this: the ideal of the scholar as solitary genius. This is likely the background assumption without which it makes little sense: to discourage interaction, rather than encourage it; to assume that reviewers will take a positive, reverent attitude toward an author, rather than a more vulgar stance; to expect inspired but remarkably different viewpoints to traditional questions to be celebrated rather than denigrated.

[1] This isn’t to say that blind review should be abandoned. It may still be the best viable alternative among many bad options.

On teaching as authority and mediation

In its fourth chapter, the Chicago Handbook for Teachers (2nd edition) advises the following when lecturing:

“Speak loudly and forcefully, both to ensure that everyone in the room can hear you and so that you do not seem tentative or unsure…Look directly at your audience as much as possible…be sure to speak in a deliberate and unrushed way…Change your inflections and even your pace as you move from one kind of statement to another…And finish on time.” (43)

Overall, the above advice leaves the following impressions:

  1. For the purposes of teaching, it is best that the teacher be both knowledgeable and confident. But if the teacher is lacking in either of these areas, feigned confidence is on the whole preferable to candid disclosure of one’s weakness.[1]
  2. A skilled lecturer ought to be able to control his environment. This is partially achieved through the speaker’s ability to make his presence known through voice[2] and through eye contact.[3]
  3. Though the pace of the lecture may change slightly,[4] the overall mode of presentation should be grave.[5]
  4. The lecture must have a beginning, a body, and an end, fit into the confines of the time allotted. There must be a kairological unity not only to the semester, but also to the individual lecture units that make up a semester.

The authors conclude the above section with the following two maxims:

  1. “In the end, however, the success of a lecture depends on its content, and on your ability to deliver it convincingly.” (45)
  2. “The only things that all lecturers have in common are being clear and articulate, being organized, and being engaged.” (45)

This implies the following:

  1. A lecture is divisible into two components: content and presentation. The content will have its own draw: the lecturer is responsible for the presentation of that content.
  2. The job of the lecturer is to “convince” his students. More adequately, the lecturer serves as a medium whereby the content itself convinces the student.
  3. As a consequence of this intermediary role, the lecturer must retain an element of invisibility: he must be “clear”. The ability of a lecturer to fulfill his function depends on his ability to fit well within this hierarchy: he must be “organized,” not merely in the sense of being well prepared, but more than this, to be well prepared to fulfill one’s role within the systematic transfer of knowledge—i.e. to be “organized” in the sense of being oneself in one’s right hierarchical place.[6]

On the whole, these statements place the lecturer in a tendentious position: the lecturer, qua mediator, tends teleologically towards his anonymity: the role of the lecturer is self-effacing in the face of the knowledge it seeks to communicate. Thus, in an age of the immediate transferability of any kind of knowledge, even the best lecturer can be viewed not so much as a medium as a barrier to knowledge. The lecturer’s ability to serve adequately depends on the keeping in place of certain material conditions. But as technology demures from these conditions—e.g. microphones ensure that audiences can be larger, and media such as YouTube allows a lecturer a certain ubiquity vis-a-vis his audience—the lecturer’s job security and relative importance catches up with the self-effacing nature of the vocation itself. Thus, the peculiar importance of the lecturer as a mediator of knowledge is denied more and more as other avenues of information exchange open up. This can lead to anxiety and/or loneliness.

On the other hand, the lecturer is, in different sense, opaque: his personal life must remain largely hidden to his students,[7] and even his pedagogical ability is occasionally obscured in order to maintain a position of authority.[8] Thus, while the lecturer is anonymous from the standpoint of the knowledge conveyed, he is fully present in his ability to control the flow of the lecture through rhetorical force—i.e. through his ability to deliver information “convincingly.” Thus, the lecturer’s sense of self-importance is often not composite with the self-effacing telos of his office. This misconstrued relationship can lead to resentment of students, colleagues, and/or “the system.”

If one seeks an academic career, one must instead find a way to navigate this tension between knowledge and force, rhetoric and invisibility. How this is to be done depends on understanding the lecturer as both mediator and authority.

[1] One ought not to “seem tentative or unsure,” even if one, in fact, is.

[2] “Speak loudly and forcefully.”

[3] “Look directly at your audience as much as possible.”

[4] “Change your inflections and even your pace as you move from one statement to another”

[5] “Be sure to speak in a deliberate and unrushed way.” By “grave” I do not mean “deathly serious,” nor do I intend anything about one’s comportment while lecturing. Rather, the word is taken here as recommending a slow but sharp cadence in speech, more reminiscent of Roman gravitas than English gravity.

[6] The hierarchy of knowledge alluded to here is not identical to the institutional hierarchy of the university itself. What is alluded to here is that the teacher’s role as mediator between knowledge and the student.

[7] “Do not…allow a lecture to become the occasion for elaborate explorations of your personal history” (44)

[8] “You can obscure a great deal of your own anxiety simply by speaking emphatically and clearly” (43).

Does this blog post rest on a mistake?

I received a journal alert today for the latest issue of Phil Studies, and saw that one of the articles in the issue is titled “Does empirical moral psychology rest on a mistake?” The author thinks so, and I don’t really work on the topic. So, being a collegial philosopher working diligently on his plot of philosophical space, and recognizing the need for specialized division of labor in philosophy if any decent work is to get done on a given question, I figured the most reasonable thing to do on this matter was to trust that the author is probably right.

After thinking about this for a bit, I realized that there might be scores of topics that I care about to some degree, which have also been shown to rest on a mistake – in which case, I’m wasting needless emotional energy on these matters, which probably makes me a less efficient philosopher overall. So to rid myself of this anxiety, I did a Philosophers’ Index search on “rests on a mistake?” to find out where this energy was being expended, and have, since this morning, purged myself of any interest in these topics. Here, then, for your benefit, is a list of fields and topics we can all safely stop working on.

  • Metaethics
  • Kelsen’s notion of legal normativity
  • The defense of free speech
  • Naturalism
  • Higher-order music ontologies
  • Theories of consciousness
  • Origins of life research
  • Non-cognitivism
  • Modern moral philosophy
  • Twin earth[1]
  • The Husserl/Heidegger feud
  • Philosophy of action
  • Epistemology
  • Moral subjectivism
  • Business ethics
  • The idea of niskama karma
  • The traditional treatment of enthymemes
  • Ontology (twice!)
  • The free will debate
  • An inferential role semantics (which one?)
  • Environmental ethics
  • The Grisez-Finnis-Boyle moral philosophy
  • Moral education
  • Analytic aesthetics
  • Action theory
  • Foundationalism (did you catch the irony in this one?)
  • American philosophy (should we stop, then? Or just expatriate?)
  • Liberalism
  • The Gettier problem
  • Applied ethics
  • The philosophy of induction
  • Cognitive psychology
  • The logic of preference
  • Moral philosophy (also twice! Guess the second article ought not to have been written)
  • Recent moral philosophy
  • The principle of substitutivity
  • The analysis of religious language
  • James’ ethics of belief
  • Negation
  • Modal logic
  • Traditional aesthetics
  • The neo-intuitionist theory of obligation
  • Christology

Man, I feel like a Turing machine.

[1] Note: not ‘the twin earth thought experiment’, but twin earth. So either XYZ was a really bad idea, or we’re in some trouble.