Editorial Responsibility

Thought I would share a few comments that I left on the last post surrounding the exchange in Reviews In American History between Professors McDaniel and Stauffer.  First, I am in no way attempting to alleviate Stauffer of his having to take responsibility for his outrageous charge of homophobia.  Stauffer must now take ownership of what is a well-documented pattern of behavior when it comes to working out professional differences with fellow historians.

That said, I have to wonder whether the editors at RiAH dropped the ball on this one.  Why didn’t they approach Stauffer about his response to McDaniel?  Did they approach Stauffer about it?  Both the charge of homophobia made against McDaniel and the commentary regarding the website page on how to manage large reading loads have absolutely nothing at all to do with the substance of his critical review.  It’s just the kind of review that I assume the editors at the journal are looking for.  I would love to know why they believed it was appropriate to print Stauffer’s review in its entirety.  As I pointed out in a comment, isn’t there a danger of the journal losing the opportunity to work with certain historians who might now justifiably be worried about being treated in a similar manner?  This whole incident could have been so easily avoided.

What do you think?

29 responses... add one

You are correct, the journal should never have allowed the accustations of this sort into a book review. The editors should be blamed as well as Stauffer. There was a similar incident many years ago with Gary Wills. One of his books was subject to a round table review in WMQ (I forget which book) and the reviewers each took issue with parts of Wills’ work. Wills blasted back in such an unprofessional manner that his reputation as a professional historian never fully recovered.

Kevin-I think the editors do have a responsibility or RiAH is nothing more than a vanity press, printing verbatim whatever is submitted. The homophobia charge not only never belonged there, but it is totally unprofessional to accuse someone of homophobia for questioning the “Lincoln was gay” claim. I couldn’t care less what Lincoln’s sexual orientation was. However, it is absurd to base a claim that he was gay based on a series of assumptions consisting of little more than bedsharing, a very common practice in America for much of its history, a belief that Lincoln’s unusual height at a young age indicated something, a few anectdotes, and, in Stauffer’s case, a belief on when Lincoln could have afforded to buy his own bedding. BTW, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin shared a bed on a trip as Congressional commissioners to respond to a peace overture (not much of one) from the British. Of course, they spent most of it their time together arguing over whether the window should be open (Franklin) for health or closed (to shut out the well-know foul, illness causing miasma-Adams’ view.) I don’t think anyone sees them as potential lovers.

you think the fact that they argued on trip means they never became lovers? I take it you’ve never seen “It Happened One Night” (1934)??? 8-) “Adams and Franklin: Their Forbidden Love” tonight on the history channel after Monsterquest and Bible Prophesies.

I work as an editor (for a math journal similar to RiAH), and I agree the editors messed up.

RAH introduced this exchange format when Tom Slaughter recently became editor. I participated in one last September when Edwin Perkins and I reviewed Marc Egnal’s Clash of Extremes. I love the idea behind the exchange and the scholarly mission of RAH overall. The journal devotes sufficient space to critique books in a way that may actually elevate the profession to higher standards of research and writing. I encourage everyone who cares about such things to read RAH regularly.

The dialogue about how we read history books is very important because it relates to whether we equate history to art or science. I would have welcomed more discussion of that issue. Unfortunately, Stauffer eclipses this valuable insight with the “homophobic” comment. I’m not going to try and guess why the editors allowed this statement. Even if they didn’t initially consider it a personal attack because Stauffer calls McDaniel’s analysis (not McDaniel) homophobic, McDaniel took it personally, and the whole situation could have been resolved in house prior to publication.

The tenor of authors’ responses in general (see Egnal’s reply to my review) speaks to a larger deficiency among historians—we don’t debate well. Historians often use emotions to add heat to the debate, perhaps hoping that approach will draw attention away from the intellectual weaknesses of both their work and debating skills. Philosophers know how to debate. They probe the theoretical and empirical claims of scholarship and leave personal, political, and other extraneous issues alone. I know; I’m married to one. Philosophers are trained this way. Historians are not. Keep in mind I’m not saying that philosophical debates lack emotion. They can be extremely emotional, but they use emotional intensity to add light, not heat, to the subject.

And, in case it comes up, I have never met McDaniel or Stauffer. McDaniel was hired by Rice after I graduated.

Jason,

Thanks for the comment. You may be right that historians need to be taught how to debate or that more attention ought to be given to the art in graduate school. I am not really in a position to know whether that is the case.

I have a different take on Stauffer’s comments re: how we read history books. I read that as part of his personal attack; Stauffer didn’t mean to raise this for serious consideration. He was suggesting that McDaniel hadn’t read the book closely enough and it implied that he didn’t need to take his critique seriously. That stands in contradiction to the goals of the journal. I do agree, however, that the issue is worth discussing.

There is a very strong reason to publish the letter that goes to the heart of the goals of the journal. An author’s response often gives clues to how they handle their evidence and the quality of their argumentation, and isn’t the point of a book review to evaluate how far a reader (particularly one who is a non-expert) can trust the author’s judgment in those regards? So without condemning or condoning Stauffer’s comments , does his response speak to how well he establishes the context of the information that he uses, as well as his willingness to seriously and sincerely evaluate evidence and views that do not necessarily comport with his own?

Anon,

I disagree. The historian has the responsibility to showcase his/her analytical abilities in a critical review. I don’t believe that journals are in the business of testing authors along the lines you suggest but in giving them a forum to engage critics by defending their argument. If they can’t handle that responsibility than they should not be involved in professional dialog. Now that Stauffer’s response has made it to print it ought to signal to others that he can’t be trusted in such forums. But again, that is not the responsibility of the journal to make this public. I like Wayne’s suggestion.

This is a toughie. In the end I think RAH made a serious mistake, because if they want to encourage scholarly exchanges over reviews, they should have understood that this exchange will discourage that goal, because no one wants to be submitted to such a personal, snide, and condescending tirade. That said, John Stauffer appears determined to behave in a certain manner, which we’ve seen at various moments, and all he’s done is to inflict damage on his own reputation. McDaniel handled himself well. There’s a way to express scholarly disagreement, and this isn’t it. That said, you see this all the time on the internet, and the boorish behavior isn’t limited to scholars. Indeed, this sort of behavior is one reason why scholars shy away from the internet.

One of the problems we face at Math Reviews is that a critical review often generates very ugly defensive correspondence, which we (the editorial staff) have to deal with. On the other hand, we often get reviews along the lines of “I don’t understand how this paper got through peer review…,” and it is our function, in large part, to inform the community, so we should let folks know that drivel is, well, drivel. ISTM that RiAH is trying to deal with this problem by allowing dialogues about stuff, but they should do a better job of policing the content. Just MHO.

As a journal’s naive book review editor, I initially tended to give people a great degree of freedom to say what they wanted to say. It was their reputation and their review, I concluded, not ours. Plus, I was determined not to be a censor. That policy came back to bite me, and I learned the lesson that for the good of all, editors have to proactively confront pettiness and personal pay-back long before items get into print. I guess that’s why I confess a certain degree of sympathy for the editors, who hopefully have learned their own lessons.

I wonder how the editors at RiAH select the titles for these ‘exchange’ reviews (e.g., are they looking for books they deem controversial, flawed, particularly ground-breaking, etc.), and if their instructions to reviewers for these differ in any way from those given to the writers of the journal’s more ‘traditional’ reviews.

I think that the editors are certainly at fault in this situation, but Stauffer shouldn’t require someone to censor his inappropriate comments. He is a professional in the field and should act as such.

It’s really unfortunate, Black Hearts of Men is such a great read.

Editors are supposed to, well, edit. It’s pretty clear that there should have been pushback from the editors for a statement like that. If an author refuses to remove a line like that, I would even go as far as to say that the editors should add a note making it clear they asked the author to remove the offending line, but because he or she refused to do so, they will have to put it in print. That avoids the issue of censorship, but also makes a stand with regards to standing up for scholarly norms.

Just out of curiosity, what would we say if the accusation had been about race? In other words, let’s imagine that Stauffer accused McDaniel of being a racist. Would that have been flagged by the editors?

I knew we were becoming a ruder society but I am appauled to see such behavior in the area of Academics.

I guess I’m always amused at observations that academics should be held to a higher standard of civility than other people. This becomes especially amusing when the people who make that claim are non-academics who have no interest in being civil themselves (I’m not accusing IR Vick of being among that particular group). Sometimes the observation comes from someone who’s just finished taking personal shots at the academic. Of course, sometimes the offender in question is a failed academic (especially on the internet). I would think this is an issue of mutual respect and civility for all, regardless of professional status.

The fact is that Stauffer’s done this before, and he’s been called on it before … on this very blog. The odds are that his explosion on this blog took place at nearly the same time he was composing his response to McDaniel’s review. The blogosphere can get more heated and direct for various reasons, but Stauffer’s reply in RAH is deliberate, calculated, and with forethought of malice.

I like Wayne’s suggestion on this issue.

Even more interesting is that in all likelihood Stauffer composed his response to McDaniel at the same time the two took part on the same panel in a conference at Yale back in October 2009.

Now I wonder what Stauffer’s original reply looked like. I wonder if it was toned down by the editors.

Also, did anybody else raise the “homophobic” defense (and I use the term very loosely) for the Lincoln’s male lover story…

My recollection is that quite a few partisans of the “Lincoln was homosexual” argument raised homophobia as a charge against their critics. It didn’t work then, either: it’s the quality of the evidence and the sustainability of the argument which matters. As McDaniel quite correctly noted, those who were not convinced by an extended monographic argument aren’t likely to be convinced by a short digression which adds no new evidence; and that’s true for almost any topic you care to name.

Yes, I like Wayne’s idea. It seems to me that every profession demands a higher level of civility in the workplace. That’s part of being “professional.” Academics are at a disadvantage in this respect when they post to blogs because that posting may be considered a form of professional activity for the scholar while it’s not for the irate accountant who savagely attacks the academic’s work.

My first post wasn’t calling for more civility (though that’s always welcome); it was calling for more intellectual substance. Personal attacks are not only uncivil, they’re anti-intellectual. The bother me for both reasons.

A good editor who can read for both technical (typos, grammatical errors, etc.) and content is invaluable.

Interesting. The January 17 2005 issue of “The Weekly Standard” (not my usual reading material) has an article by Philip Nobile, Tripp’s original co-author, who split with Tripp over his insistence that Lincoln was gay. It is available via ProQuest for anyone interested and might make a good case study for studying how letting your conclusion drive your research can distort history.

The more I think about it, the more I think Stauffer had an easy way to make his response that would have been both professionally responsible and useful. Stauffer is in the department of History of American Civilization (which would be called American Studies at any other university). He could have written an essay on the different evidentiary bases history and American Studies use, and the different approaches to evidence each discipline uses. He would then have had the opportunity to explore his work from an AmStud perspective, which he could have used to blunt some of McDaniel’s critique. It would have been polite and useful to the rest of us who sometimes have difficulty understanding just precisely what it is that AmStud people do. I’m willing to bet this is what the editors had in mind when they put a literary scholar and an historian together to review this book.

That doesn’t absolve the editors of responsibility for printing that screed, though. I still find that unconscionable.

I find it a little strange that such an erudite and thoughtful group as read this blog would dismiss the charge of homophobia as prima facie absurd – not even worth discussing seriously.

Stauffer’s tone and approach was the opposite of tactful, of course, and self-defeating. But I wonder: would McDaniel have been so quick to dismiss the Lincoln/Speed digression if, instead, Lincoln had been sharing his bed with a friend of the opposite gender? When two men share the same bed we go to great lengths to deny even the *possibility* that they were intimate. Yet if he had been bunking with a woman friend, wouldn’t we at least concede that intimacy was possible, if not plausible?

Such bias does in fact point to a certain homophobia in our broader culture – a failure to even entertain the notion of a broad and fluid spectrum of personal intimacy, then and now. As professional scholars we should interrogate this bias and ask why even the mere suggestion of a fluid sexuality in the Lincoln/Speed case is so touchy.

Many historians have found problems with Tripp’s thesis about Lincoln and his sexuality, but that implies nothing about their own phobias. Your counterfactual is irrelevant since there is nothing about McDaniel’s critique that warrants an accusation of homophobia. Read McDaniel’s critique in its entirety. He definitely “entertained” Tripp’s thesis and provided reasons to set it aside. That’s what historians do.

Stauffer didn’t cite a “certain homophobia in our broader culture”: he accused McDaniel himself specifically of being homophobic, in spite of the actual historical discussion McDaniel offered, which borders on libel.

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