In the last six weeks I have received nine meaty emails from a white, male full professor at a top-tier research university who would like his book published in the series I edit. Three of these emails, over four days, came after I rejected his manuscript. Six came during the month it was under consideration; I sent him one, stating the book was still under consideration. Even before his manuscript was rejected, this professor argued in lengthy missives that I misunderstood the purpose of the series I edit and that his manuscript deserved to be nearly twice as long as a typical monograph.
Before I took over the series, aimed at setting the scholarly agenda in religious studies by showcasing cutting-edge theories and methods, the last eight monographs published in it were authored by white men. I am sure these gentlemen did not all email with a jackhammer, but communication practice stands in for a broader set of habits that accompany privilege, and that make perpetuation of privilege the default. This, I am certain, was not due to the bad intentions of my predecessor. Rather, it was simply due to following the path of least resistance.
The vice involved in complacency is a familiar and intimate one, present in us all regardless of our relative privilege. Ethical work on the self never suffices to extirpate the vice of complacency, and so the fact of complicity. Rather, to oppose structures of domination in an academic discipline, we must undertake risky experiments aimed at cultivating new habits. Instead of accumulating and disseminating “best practices,” we must dream up preposterous new practices—Hail Marys aimed in the direction of justice—that just might change scholarly habits.
One experiment I have helped with: At the journal I coedit, we made a commitment two years ago to use at least one female peer reviewer for each submission. Some objected quite reasonably that it would create an extra service burden on female scholars in the field, but it also exposed the editorial team to new experts, expanded the journal’s community of potential readers and contributors, and placed scholars who may bring a new set of experiences and concerns to the field in positions of authority.
Instead of codifying best practices, what if we dreamed up and shared new experiments? For example:
- Aim not for proportional representation of racial minority faculty, students, or workshop invitees, but for over-representation by a factor of two.
- Only publish, and contribute to, edited collections where more than half of the contributors are women.
- Include work by a nonwhite author at the start, somewhere in the middle, and at the end of every class.
These are sure to result in objections, and there may be good reasons to reject them. Domination is not dismantled by being reasonable; domination and the rules of reason are entangled. Such experiments may or may not turn out to be helpful. The nature of domination—of patriarchy, racism, capitalism—is such that there is no clear path to bring about its end. Reasonable reforms may reduce harm, but the only hope for domination’s end is wild experimentation.
In the broader culture and in the academy, we have moved from naming bad people to also naming privilege as a problem. Now it is time to disrupt our scholarly habits.