TIFU … or 11 years ago, and I survived.
So I promised that my first post in this series would be of a piece of work with which I now disagree. It is – it is about my first book (and second publication), Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq. I decided to write about this for a few reasons … in order: 1) the anxiety people have about sending something imperfect out for publication ; 2) the worry people have about early publications defining careers; and 3) the idea that people have that admitting weakness constitutes failure. I’m going to talk about all three of those in some detail, but, first, to what I don’t like about this book almost eleven years later …
Many people would tell me that the biggest mistake of this book is the publisher, Lexington Books – I signed a quick contract with a commercial publisher rather than wading through the difficulties of the University press revision process while a 1L in law school. While it might not have been the best move in terms of impressing those who might hire me, looking back at the reviews I got from University presses at the time, I don’t think that responding to them in depth actually would have fixed the problems I now have with the book. Others would wonder if it is the literature-review-like quality, or the immaturity of the writing, that make me now unhappy with it. While part of me does wish that I’d had a decade’s worth of academic experience when writing that book, I was 25 and 26 – and it sounds a little like that. That’s fine. My disagreement with it now is both better (that is, not an embarrassment over the outlet or writing) and worse (that is, substantive).
That is, I now think that the argument is wrong. Particularly, I think that there are two serious issues that I did not see at the time: 1) that just war theorizing may well not be worth saving; 2) that the problematic relationship between jus ad bellum and jus in bello means that I see just war theorizing as self-defeating if not war-justifying. This post probably is not the time for deep discussion of either of these points, but a couple of sentences will help show the depth of my current disagreement: at the time, a memory of classics classes in college and an interest in religious philosophy made me think that just war theory was a-ok, and just needed feminism to make it better. The question of whether it was fixable or not never occurred to me. Which brings me to the second one: the idea of a just cause, and of levels of justice of a cause, seems to me, in ‘real war’, to inspire unjust in bello behavior proportionate to one’s conviction about the justice of one’s cause. That is – just war discourse, I think, is complicit not only in inspiring wars but in inspiring their brutality. I’ve written a little about this with former graduate student Jessica Peet.
The point isn’t whether 2006-me or 2016-me is right. In fact, I’ve found more people susceptible to convincing by a refined version of the older argument than by the newer one. The point is having published something with which I now have both serious intellectual and serious normative issues – is that a bad thing? How do you look forward? What do you do? Does this mean I should sit on other ideas I have rather than put them out there? What does it mean for professional development. I have some ideas …
I alluded to this before – would I still disagree with the main argument in this book now if I’d held the book for another year or two before sending it out and ultimately publishing it? I don’t think so. This is not an argument for doing careless work. I don’t think Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq is careless. In fact, I would stand behind it as quality scholarship, even though I now think that it is substantively wrong.
But I write about thinking it is substantively wrong because I think that this is something that affects a lot of people when they think about sending out work, especially work early in their career. What if Reviewers laugh at it and hate it? Perhaps worse, what if it makes it through peer review and its not really what I wanted to say? What if, ten years from now, I look back and am like … I … wrote … that?
So, in some sense, this is that fear come true. I failed to realize it was a possibility at the time, and therefore failed to fear it. But it doesn’t make this any less the result that a lot of people fear when they’re sending stuff out.
So, 1) The anxiety people have when they are going to send imperfect stuff out.
The biggest tip I ever give people when they ask about how to publish is to write stuff down and send stuff out. Of course, I’m partly being tongue-in-cheek. But many publication problems come from the failure to finish writing things, and failure to send stuff out. While I don’t think that people should send out half-baked ideas with half-assed writing, often, (especially junior) academics err on the other side of this coin – where they work and rework stuff because it still feels imperfect. Even if it feels perfect and ready, you’re going to get criticism from reviewers. And, as an editor, a lot of the stuff I get actually suffers from being overworked – the ideas are made overcomplicated or too much is crammed into one article. So, in my view, the trick is to send it in when its polished enough (say 85-90%) and good enough (say, the main idea is clear and important even if there might be some details to work out). That won’t be a failsafe against regretting or disagreeing with the publication later. But neither will waiting until you think its perfect. My current disagreement with Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq is not one I would have found by pouring over it 100 more times. It was an idea that only occurred to me reading work on intentional civilian victimization published after the book was, and probably also took a significant change in thinking from me. I have met plenty of senior scholars who now disagree with some of their early work. Almost none of them talk about that as an error or sending something imperfect out. Almost all of them suggest that it is more about intellectual development or changes in the world, a sentiment consonant with my experiences. Everyone who sends something out thinks it is imperfect; anyone who doesn’t is delusional. But holding stuff doesn’t assure you’ll ultimately think that the work was correct, and ultimately finding it incorrect is not the end of the world.
2) The worry people have about first publications defining careers.
Some people’s first publication is awesome. I mean, who doesn’t want to be the person whose dissertation-book was Man, the State, and War? Ok, bad example – because the answer to that is pretty much anyone who is not a white, American male. But the point stands – we’d all love our first article or first book to be something that is amazing, and that we’re crazy proud of, and that defines us as the person to go to on a given issue. And that happens to some people. I’ll avoid tagging some of my friends to save them the embarrassment. When that happens, its not a coincidence – some people’s dissertation-book or dissertation-articles really are field-changing ideas that are well-written and the field is ready for them and the reviewers line up and it just works out.
But that doesn’t _need_ to be you for you to have a decent, good, or even wildly successful career. Plenty of people wrote their best stuff as a second or third project. Plenty of stuff you don’t think will be a hit is; plenty of stuff you think will be a hit misses wide right. Plenty of people publish enough to get by early in their career and figure it out later. Some people even don’t publish enough to get by early in their career, get denied tenure, and figure it out in the second shot. Those who are searching for their big hit before they send anything out are treating this like something other than a job. The stuff that’s not perfect, not path-breaking, not your star moment, or even, in my case, ultimately not the direction of your career – that stuff pays the bills, keeps the lights on, keeps beer on the table … etc. If you don’t send anything out, no beer on the table. The failure to calibrate to the reality that some of what we do is grinding through the imperfect often costs people the time and space that the imperfect buys us to have and develop the very pathbreaking ideas. So its not a disaster if something you send out gets rejected, or if it gets published and no one reads it, or if something get published that you ultimately don’t see as your best work or even a correct expression of your voice. Its just a normal day at work instead of a spectacular one. And life is filled with normal days at work. Even stars have normal days at work. The high-pressure, high-competition talk of our field would lead some new to it to believe that normal days at work are a problem, but they’re not. That brings me to:
3) The idea that admitting weakness constitutes failure.
The cut-throat nature of what we do, combined with the egos some academics carry with them (perhaps yours truly included, at least some days), means we don’t hear a lot of people admit that some piece of work wasn’t perfect, or that they were wrong, or that they struggled with some part of the job. The political science world is full of annual reports that make too much of something, or CVs that trumpet mediocre things, clever tricks to avoid showing things that did not work out, and people to blame when stuff doesn’t work out. And don’t get me wrong: sometimes, a little thing takes a lot of effort; things that look mediocre feel like our best work; sometimes, those tricks keep us alive; and there are a lot of people whose fault stuff is. But the culture of fear and the culture of the need for perfection that we work in drive all of those exaggerations, and make admitting we were wrong, or imperfect, or something like that look scary. And I realize I’m admitting I was wrong from a position of privilege -one not only with a tenure-track job but with tenure. And I’m not encouraging disclosures or declarations of wrong and failure everywhere – especially not as a compliment to impostor syndrome. But I am suggesting that the only way to change the idea that the work needs to be, or for that matter, can be, perfect is to point out its imperfections. The imperfection (at least in hindsight and probably at the time) didn’t make for failure, or no career, or a bad career, or the end of anything. It just feels that way because what we do is broken – and not because of the imperfection of any given article or book.
So, today (or 11 years ago), IFU, and I lived 🙂