Crowdsourced Peer Review in NY Times

The Times this morning did a piece on the Shakespeare Quarterly New Media issue that Jonathan Hope and I participated in. We received some terrific feedback, mostly from Shakespeareans, on the article that was posted to Media Commons–feedback that helped us rewrite the essay for the print edition which will be appearing this fall. There was also a piece on the process by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle for Higher Education, itself the topic of an opinion piece in the Chronicle’s Brainstorm section.

The idea of open peer review in the humanities raises basic questions about the “specialized” nature of our knowledge in the humanities. Could simply anyone weigh in on a debate about a particular text and its interpretation? Wouldn’t that, in principle, be a good thing? I assume that knowledge in the humanities is in principle available to all. But it is also clearly specialized. The word “allegory,” for example, has a deep history and set of contextual meanings that you just couldn’t pick up from a good dictionary. Our research does expand what is known about certain literatures, cultures and writers, and in this sense, we look like a science that aims to extend the range of objects that are understood. We also refine our terms of art and build communities around these terms (i.e, différance, queering, hegemony, subaltern, hybridity, racialization). One could learn to throw these terms around, as Alan Sokal did in his famous hoax and as graduate students do every day in their seminars, but a good critic or editor should be able to say whether or not the writer really understands the terms. (This is where the editors of Social Text failed.) Perhaps if the paper Sokal submitted to Social Text had been vetted through crowdsourced open peer review, the article would have been rejected. In any event, the hoax itself provides an interesting limit case with which to evaluate the promise of open peer review: a writer acting in bad faith, either as author of the article or peer reviewer.

One last thought: the trajectory of learning in the humanities is intensive rather than cumulative. This is what differentiates us from, say, molecular biology, where you must learn certain things first (organic chemistry, cell physiology) in order to understand other things later (gene transcription). Within the humanities, acquiring expertise might mean re-orienting our approach to existing works rather than expanding the range objects that can be known, although the latter is always possible. But the underlying assumption – that in the humanities one can make qualitative advances in knowledge that do not necessarily fit into a progressive sequence – makes any comparison between the humanities and sciences difficult.

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