Against Peer Review

I've recently made the decision to say no to requests for peer reviews (outside of editorial boards on which I already participate, of course). While in the future, I may reconsider on my terms, I am finding at least one request a week for these and I think that it would be useful for to explain why this is so. 

Obviously, I am well aware that peer-reviewed work is part of system that academics established in order to verify that work is up to scholarly standards and that it plays an important role in the tenure system. But the peer review system, as presently constituted, is broken.

First, there are far too many requests going around. Given the pervasiveness of global telecommunications, I get requests not just from the US, Ireland, and Lithuania, but from worldwide. Some of them are from entirely different systems and I am so far outside of the context that I have no framework to accurately respond with. If a dissertation is done badly by the standards that I would apply to it, is my evaluation appropriate if the person's work is head and shoulders above that of their own peers? How do I evaluate such work? 

Moreover, academics asking for peer review are asking for free labor, time spent away from my work and my family. In an ideal world, this is communistic in which we all participate equally and do so for the mutual good of the system.

But my own position, outside of the tenured framework with have no sign that this will change any time in the near future, is the norm today. During the last decade, universities eager to engorge themselves with administrative staff have done so at the expense of tenure-track and tenured positions. If in the past, tenure-track was the rule, it is now the exception. The vast majority of my colleagues are not tenured or even tenure track. Most of us are not evaluated on the basis of peer-reviewed accomplishments, so asking us to peer-review work is to ask us to provide free labor for a system we are excluded from, and frankly that adds insult to injury. 

Nor is this something that can simply be fixed. For every ten people who get a tenured position, I hear at least one unbelievable story of tenure denial. I couldn't think of a denial that I know of that has hit the press and therefore I can mention, apart from this famous one (ok, they have some grounds in denying him, no question), but if you are in academe and don't have friends who have been scarred in the process, then you are either a student or should still consider yourself "freshly minted" in the lingua franca.  

Finally, Lyotard is right. We speak in incommensurable languages and, particularly in the messy realm of digital and network culture, we often have no way to evaluate each other's work. For example, the trumpeting of sources, in which a pastiche of names is strung together with nary an argument, is endemic in certain strains of sociology, but it would get a failing grade from a student in one of my courses. How do I evaluate it fairly? In another strand of geography, writers constantly refer to how their feelings about a place and the way that the ground feels under their feet. Normally I try to weed that out of my students like so much poison ivy in a yard. What am I to do with a review request regarding that sort of work?

I don't mean to say that these strains of academia should be snuffed out like old candles whose wick has burned down, although I suppose that I enthusiastically urge that on, but given that I have encountered this sort of work recently in reviews, was it appropriate to have a reviewer like myself on board? I'll leave it to your imagination as to how I might have responded to such requests, but obviously I have to balance being objective about the quality of the work with the fact that there is another person on the other side, no matter how ill-informed. In my own case, my attempt to find balance is informed by having been the victim of reviewers who I still think of as unqualified to be considered my peers. A long wihle back one of my articles was rejected for publication in one venue only to win an award in another. Another piece that I submitted as a talk to a conference was turned down because "the author's is derivative of research being done at the Center for Land Use Interpretation." This so-called peer was not sharp enough to fathom that the work was not derivative but was rather done in collaboration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation! Given that the submission was to be anonymous, I did not find it appropriate to list the Center any more than I would have listed the university I teach in. Another peer reviewed a project negatively and their decision stood even though the editor said it was quite clear that they had not actually read what I had submitted (believe me it perfectly was clear to me!). And so on.  

Peer review is broken and I have no good ideas for fixing it, but more than griping my experiences with it or making excuses about why I am not responding to over-the-transom peer reviews, I want to put this complaint on the blog, and therefore, in public as a political statement, as a call to openly discuss the failings of this system. 

Finally, I really miss Lingua Franca. If you are too young to have read it and you are in academe or planning to be, check out that link. Lots of grist for the mill there. 

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Ivory Towers of Debt

Javier Arbona has a new piece up called “The Sorrows of Finance Capital,” in which he asks how it is that a university system in crisis can afford to build snazzy new buildings with vertiginously high budgets.

This is something that has bugged me a great deal lately. The credit crash has led to budget-tightening in universities, but the college building boom just keeps going. Whether it’s at SFSU—which as Javier points out, can’t afford an urban studies major anymore but can afford neomodernist digs—or at the University of Limerick, which during my at last visit a couple of weeks ago was sprouting more cranes than ever—it’s been a striking feature of the Great Recession.

As Javier points out, although the university brags that the building is funded by a $10 million gift, some $258 million (!) will have to come from construction funding. Now all this is—no surprise, alas—something that the press has chosen not to report on, and even seems to find hard to comprehend, as a series of Twitter exchanges between a newspaper critic and Javier on the above site demonstrates.

Universities have let a Wall Street mentality infect them. As a recent report by the Tellus Institute concludes, colleges and universities not only embraced risky investment strategies with their endowments, they continue to gamble with their money even after the 2008 crash. Tellus concludes that these universities “have been as much contributors to the financial crisis as they were victims of it.”

Part of the problem is that, as Karen Ho points out in Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, investment banks operate on ever-smaller time horizons. Lasting value is scoffed at in favor of immediate profits that can drive annual bonuses. With university boards populated not by faculty and researchers but by “leaders” in business, universities look at their endowments not so much in terms of sustainability and social responsiblity but rather as investments from which to wring maximum profits.

No wonder, then that university presidents are enamored with flashy construction projects which are much easier to justify to boards than equitably-paid faculty or low tuition for students (indeed, both of these are at odds with the sort of mentality that Ho observes on Wall Street: employees are always disposable and any university that keeps tuition down must be failing to charge apporpriately for its services).* After a few years at a university, the building-enamored president moves on to bigger and better digs, leaving faculty to struggle to get grants to fill buildings that shouldn’t have been built in the first place.

As a byproduct, universities issue bonds and, so long as endownments keep flowing in, can service them. It’s a giant ponzi scheme with little of value for students and, as Harper’s described in a notorious graphic about the consequeneces of overbuilding in Brandeis (Brandeis has threatened a lawsuit and has accused Harper’s of slander and libel over this piece), can collapse precipitously during times of economic crisis. But while bonds were hot, Wall Street couldn’t have enough of them, so universities eagerly complied.

With regard to Javier’s exchange with the critic, there’s been a lot of chatter lately about the effect of the Internet on the field and I suppose that for whatever reason, I’m going to have to add to that chatter on Tuesday at “Critical Futures” an event at Storefront. In anticipation of that event, I’ll conclude by observing that when design critics are unable to confront kind of issues that Javier raised in his piece, then we should be asking just what merit the field has in the first place, unless its merely cheerleading for the next building boom.

* At one institution that I once worked at, the director told the staff one year that cost of living increases were not possible due to poor finances. After delivering the news to the board that he had held staff salaries down, the chairman—a local businessman—moved to raise the director’s salary.

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