“I am sure that there are many voices that are being excluded because they can’t surmount some invisible hurdle that we don’t necessarily have justification for.” On power and privilege

This post is the fourth in a series of four sharing Amanda Nichols Hess’s story with publishing, peer review, and thoughts on open peer review. (Her first chapter, “Did I just get a dissertation that is completely worthless…” discusses feelings of imposter syndrome both as a newer writer, and as an experienced one. Her second chapter, “I think in seeing other people’s work it’s reinforced in me what I find as an author to be valuable” elucidates her approach to refereeing. Her third chapter, “Peer review should be a formative feedback process”: collaboration and mentoring, discusses her view of peer review as mentorship.)

Amanda and I spoke in late July, 2020. She was the first person I interviewed this summer, after I re-opened a call for interviews. In this concluding chapter, Amanda reflects on power and privilege as it is reflected in peer review.

Amanda Nichols Hess

Amanda Nichols Hess

Pronouns: She/her/hers

Position: Coordinator of Instruction and Research Help/ Liaison Librarian for the School of Education & Human Services

Institution: Oakland University Libraries

Fun Fact: Today, November 3, 2020, Amanda will be working, for the first time ever, as a poll worker. She’ll be working at the county level to count absentee ballots, which will be critical in her battleground state.

Emily: You said something I want to circle back to. You said something about how your colleague mentioned that your writing style was more – you didn’t use the word informal, but you did say that it was just reversing sentences. And this is something that I think about a lot. I feel like in academic writing we have to perform with this privileged way of talking and I think it very much does come back to power and privilege. There’s one thing when a sentence isn’t clear and you are struggling with clarity. But the voice, to me that’s very frustrating for me to hear that it’s almost like you had to perform for a particular kind of writing style in order to get your work noticed or seen and published That, to me, is also back to that elitism of what we see in the top journals. And then who do we exclude when we do that? So I don’t know if you have any thoughts or reactions to that.

If I was a new librarian, a librarian who perhaps is in an underrepresented group who has heard their whole life that they “don’t write in an academic style” or they don’t have the voice that one is supposed to use or they’re not using correct grammar or whatever, I could see that having a much more detrimental effect or more long-lasting effect.

I do think there’s a distinction—whether that should be the case or not is arguable. If we talk about elitism and who’s being excluded by voice and tone and narrative style, I mean, I am a cis white woman in a very female-dominated profession. So you want to talk about privilege. I’m at one end of the spectrum, right? The very privileged end. If I’m being excluded because of my occasional way of flipping my sentences around, and that’s what people see as serious grammatical issues throughout an article, then I am sure that there are many voices that are being excluded because they can’t surmount some invisible hurdle that we don’t necessarily have justification for, or we don’t necessarily explain or state clearly. An idea that, “this is the way the writing should be done and this is why and this is the value that it has.” Because I think some of it’s just stylistic. It truly is stylistic. Maybe my peer reviewer who said that would have something different to say on the matter, but I agree with you. And for me as someone who, at that point had published a good amount of articles, had experience, it was something that I was able to rebound from. I could go into a toolbox and say, “okay, here are the personal reflective tools that I know work for me, so I’m going to take a step back. I’m going to take all their notes out and put it in a separate document where I’m compiling. Then I can see the comments that each reviewer had in summary about different sections, and I won’t see it as a person is attacking me in this way or criticizing me in that way. I’m going to talk to colleagues.” But these are tools that I have developed over a period of time. If I was a new librarian, a librarian who perhaps is in an underrepresented group who has heard their whole life that they “don’t write in an academic style” or they don’t have the voice that one is supposed to use or they’re not using correct grammar or whatever,  I could see that having a much more detrimental effect or more long-lasting effect. It wouldn’t make someone think, “I can publish peer-reviewed scholarship” or “I belong in this profession” or “I belong in this kind of a job. I can make it work in a position where I’m expected to do this kind of a thing.” Yeah, I agree with you and I can absolutely see the power dynamics there are maybe invisible to some, but probably just those who have privilege like me and like the reviewers of various journals.

Emily: I don’t have any data to back this up, but a way I’ve started thinking about it is that academic writing is a performance of whiteness—in our profession maybe not as much, but maybe—if you look at the gender breakdown in academic librarianship there are certainly more male-identified people in academic librarianship than in public librarianship. At least the last time I looked at the data. But I think it’s also a performance of maleness. So I feel like academic writing is a performance of white maleness, whiteness and maleness. I am also a cis whitish woman. There’s that Jewishness in there which is what I call ‘provisional whiteness.’ You’re only white until someone says you’re not white. But I did grow up with parents who are academics and so I’ve seen people performing this my entire life. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be someone who — regardless of race or ethnicity or gender identity– just didn’t see it performed their whole life. That is a barrier in and of itself and then you add all of the other things. Yes. We’re in agreement there.

Can you tell me what you know about open peer review and if you have an opinion of it, and where you see it fitting into our community?

I don’t know much about open peer review other than that I can figure out what open peer review is by context–knowing what peer review is. I think in a lot of academia in general — not just librarianship, because I’ve done peer review for different conferences whether it’s a university conference on teaching and learning or other conferences where they’re looking for peer reviewers for their submissions — I just think there’s this attitude sometimes that there’s a malicious intent that’s assumed and it’s not always the case. Now, in other disciplines maybe that is the case, but I actually feel in librarianship we’re so conscientious and we’re so, “Oh, I want to make sure there are no conflicts of interest here.” I would be totally fine if, let’s say tomorrow I submit to CIL and they say, “Your peer reviewers are this person and this person.” Or, “This person or this person, this article was written by Amanda Hess and she works at Oakland University.” I mean, the fallacy with peer review often is, for example when I talked about that one article that I reviewed that was all over the place, the first one that I did that helped me really think more critically about how a peer reviewer would look at my article. I was like okay, you’ve blinded this but you haven’t really blinded this.

All of the things that you’re saying about your institution I can figure out what your institution is. I can figure out who you all are. I’m a librarian. I know how to search the internet, okay? I can figure this out. So I think it’s like saying, “oh, I wrote my dissertation on Midwestern University.” We’re like yeah, I can see where you work so I know that’s where you’re doing your research. It’s this layer of distance that we think gives us some unbiased writing or some impartiality and that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist.

I just think if we said, “Okay Amanda, you’re reviewing this article by Emily Ford and here’s the article as it was written.” Then I can say, “Oh, let me see what she’s really talking about at Portland State or what else she has written on this topic.” And I could say “Oh, this gives me a fuller picture of this person’s work” and I could maybe give more targeted feedback, more beneficial feedback or I could understand her scholarship in context. So maybe that’s a one-way blind, so maybe you don’t know who I am. But then I think if you then know who I am, and I know who you are then we can have a conversation about it. So, I could say, “Here are my comments. Bob and I’m cc’ing Emily. Emily and Bob, if you guys want to talk together about it or Emily, if you want to talk with me about it you have what I have shared with him. He has what I’ve shared with you.” Everyone is looped in and I understand that maybe that would create more work for the reviewer but I also think it’s not necessarily not meaningful work. I think for me as someone who is a peer reviewer the value I get is thinking, “Okay, I’m helping these people.” Not every peer reviewer is like that, but I almost feel like if you opened it up and you said yeah, this might be a little bit more work for you if you have to be accountable to somebody else when you’re like, “Hey Emily, that was uncalled for and mean that comment that you made about me. That wasn’t constructive. That was just criticism.” I think you have to be more cognizant about what you say and you also have to be willing to stand behind your comments. Then you have to say, “Yes, I stand by it, and here’s why.”

I know that there are issues. I know that sometimes I’m very Pollyanna, and I’m seeing this as “this could be beneficial and I’m sure say we’re all conscientious, ethical librarians.” We’re not all conscientious, ethical librarians. There’s always baggage and issues — this person did this to my friend, or this person is this way, or this is what I’ve heard about this institution. I mean, I know there are issues and I know that there would be conflicts, but I think open peer review could really help address some of the issues that I think people complain about librarianship. Like,“We don’t have enough rigorous scholarship. It’s all these case studies or there’s not this real deep research like you see in other social science disciplines.” The way to build capacity, I think, is through processes that help people learn and grow and develop. And if you don’t want to build that up then you’ve got to value other forms of scholarship. If you want something different, you’ve got to do something different. Or if you don’t want something different, then you’ve got to accept what it is. I would be absolutely willing to submit to a peer review process that was open, and I would absolutely be willing to be an open peer reviewer, for people to know Amanda Hess is the one who reviewed my article. I think that would help me be probably more constructive in my comments even though I try and always be constructive. I could absolutely learn from that process, too, as a peer reviewer but also as someone who’s being peer reviewed.

Emily: I mean there’s so much behind that too. You have tenure now so it’s different for you. You mentioned that with something else where you could put the articles away for a while and think about them because you felt safe. There’s so much of that. I guess in my experience open peer review has been the more robust feedback. I can have a conversation with somebody. And I appreciate that. Certainly there’s issues with it as well. The fallacy of opacity. It’s not really true. I guess we’re coming up on time but I don’t know if you had any other things you wanted to say or thoughts….

I don’t think so. As you can see, I’m not shy. Maybe I’m a reviewer because I’m like, “I’ll share my opinion!” I joke with all my colleagues when they ask, “Will you look at my article?” I’m like “Yes, you know I love to give you my opinion on everything.” Even if you don’t ask for it, I’ll be like here, let me tell you what I think.

Emily: That’s also protected by tenure.

Yeah. You better integrate my feedback if you want a good letter of evaluation. [laughing] No, I think it’s really interesting, and I think the way that you are talking about sharing this information about peer review in a way that is like, “This is who said this. This is what this person’s experiences have been.” I think that’s really intriguing to me and, I think, really powerful.

Emily: I think one of the things that I am a little bit concerned about with this is that I’m opening up these conversations. I want to put your name on it. I want to be able to say “this is Amanda. Amanda works at this place.” I’m wondering if the fact that you’re willing to share your identity is because you have the privilege of all of your privileges. Your whiteness, your cis-ness, you’re a woman in a woman-dominated profession, your tenure. I’m struggling with that a little bit because my ideals of “well, we should all share openly!” Who am I excluding by doing that? I guess my hope is that by seeing people share openly and honestly that people who feel maybe less safe because of tenure status, because of being a minority in our profession or whatever, my hope is that they also feel comfortable sharing. I don’t know, we’ll see. I don’t know if I’m going about it the right way. I don’t know. I can change it up later.

I am comfortable talking about a lot of these things because I have tenure…

Well I absolutely agree. I think part of the reason that I am willing to share my name, where I work – I mean even when I’m talking about I’m a peer reviewer for this place, I mean, you could figure it out. I think it’s on my bio page. I am comfortable talking about a lot of these things because I have tenure, because I have gotten past the imposter syndrome, research insecurity kinds of feelings that I’ve had. But yes, five years ago even, certainly nine years ago I would not have been able to say, “Yes, please share my name or share my information. I don’t care.” I agree that there are probably people whose voices maybe are not being shared, but my hope is that people with privilege who share and who put themselves out there in everything. People with privilege need to put themselves out there to make it safer for people without that privilege. And to check that privilege and to hopefully diminish some of the privileges that come with various statuses and various identities.