Wednesday, July 29, 2015

An article that isn't very memorable


I think I fired off the following post to hastily. I took the time to actually read/skim the paper in question, and its really not too bad! In fact, I think it does a good job in synthesizing quite a bit of material on state formation in Postclassic Mesoamerica. So I have posted the paper in case anyone is interested.

I'll leave the post unchanged below. I think it points out an issue about scholarship and publishing that doesn't get discussed too much: the emotional side. I am emotionally invested in my research and publishing. I am a scholar. This is what I do, and I have strong emotions connected with my publications. Most of these are positive. But sometimes when there are unpleasant experiences associated with writing or producing a written work, I end up with a vague negative feeling about that work. In the present case, an unpleasant experience with the edited volume (which tapped into long-standing resentments about how Old World scholars ignore the New World), led me to almost forget about a paper I wrote just a couple of years ago. Hence the post below.

Having a strong emotional investment in one's research is usually a positive thing. It spurs one on, keeps one interested and working, even when rewards are small and obstacles are large. But such emotion can also be a negative force, if a scholar gets so strongly invested in a particular idea or interpretation, a pet theory, that he or she is willing to cut corners and even commit academic fraud to support the notion. Just see the blog Retraction Watch for some of the fraud that goes on in the sciences. So as scholars we need to be constantly vigilant to not let our biases or emotions get in the way of our scholarship.  Well, enough rambling. Here is the initial post:

.      We've all seen papers that don't seem interesting or useful. They look boring and superfluous, and you don't want to read them. I have better things to do!  I just came across such a paper, a book chapter saved as a pdf on my server. I looked at it and tried to figure out why this was published and why I should care. The odd thing is, I am the author! I read the title of the paper and thought, "Yes, this is something I might have written." So I paged through and tried to remember writing this paper. I figured it must be 10 or 15 years old, and that's why I had forgotten. But then I looked it up in my  Endnote file, and found that it was published in 2015! Oh yes, now I recall.

Here is the paper:

Smith, Michael E.
2015    Mesoamerican State Formation in the Postclassic Period. In Expanding Webs of Exchange and Conquest, 500 CE - 1500 CE, edited by Benjamin Kedar and Merry Wiesner-Hanks, pp. 598-624. Cambridge History of the World, vol. 5. Cambridge University Press, New York.

I tend to black out negative experiences. I don't remember them as well as more positive experiences, and I think this is probably a normal psychological strategy. When I was invited to contribute to this work, I was honored, because historian William McNeil was involved. He is a big shot in the field of world history, and the author of one of my favorite books of comparative history, Plagues and Peoples. The volumes are organized by time period. Each volume has one or more prominent editors, and each sponsored a conference to get the authors together. Norman Yoffee edited an earlier volume, which had a bunch of chapters on early cities. He had good authors (many archaeologists), and he did some innovative things with his conference and volume structure. I am jealous of the authors in that volume!

I was not familiar with most of the authors in my volume, all historians. But when paper drafts were circulated, I was appalled. A number of the chapters were syntheses of themes that were supposed to cover the entire world for the target period (topics like education, migrations, demography, gender, courtly culture, and the like). The authors were European historians who either ignored the New World entirely, or else wrote mostly about the Old World with some bad coverage of the New World thrown in. (This seems par for the course in many textbooks in "global history" or "world history") One paper draft had silly, inaccurate, and demeaning descriptions of a New World culture, and the main cited sources were elementary school curriculum materials posted online! I am still astounded that a professional scholar could even think that such a source was acceptable for a publication (particularly when there is in fact a published literature on the topic in question among New World societies in that time period).

I fired off a letter of complaint to the editors, and threatened to withdraw my paper if they couldn't do better than that. Perhaps I should have followed through. When I was invited to their conference, in a nice foreign city I wanted to visit, I turned down the invitation. These were not people I wanted to hang out with. I went ahead with my chapter, and then the book came out I saw that at least the worst problems in the comparative chapters had been fixed. I guess I had my chapter scanned (it turns out it was only a month or so ago), and now I am wondering if it is worth posting online with my other publications.

I should probably read the paper and decide whether to post it or not. My hope is that the chapter is not too bad, and that my negative associations have to do with the volume itself, with the early chapter drafts I saw, with my reservations about "world history," (see prior posts here,   here,   and here) and with my jealousy for not being in Norm Yoffee's volume. Maybe it will turn out to be a memorable paper after all.

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