June 5, 2014 by Lo
So as academics all know, but most regular people might not be aware, when you publish with a University press your work goes through peer review which means sending it out to at least two readers (3 in my case), people who are expert in the field and have no prior involvement with the author or the project. The readers are anonymous in theory, although it’s not too hard to figure out who they are (especially since they are selected from a list composed by the author and editor). They make comments, suggestions, and criticisms which the author is supposed to acknowledge and consider.
I found my read reports to be very helpful, on the whole. They were very complimentary, first off, which was very nice. In particular it was nice that the same things they praised about the book were the things that I intended to be good about the book: it is well written, it advances a new interpretation of Louisiana’s attachment to the American republic, it busts certain longstanding myths and exaggerations about New Orleans. As far as criticisms, they catch errors of fact, repetition (like a whole passage that was repeated twice!) and passages where I have failed to acknowledge some important scholarship. The third reader, in particular, balanced his compliments with a whole raft of, I must say, rather nitpicky criticisms and corrections. Moreover, as I worked through these nitpicky points, I was forced to conclude that my reader was in fact wrong, and I was right, on many of these points. But that raises an important issue: you don’t have to obey your readers and make the changes they ask for, only to acknowledge and consider them.
Readers #1 and #2 both zeroed in, as I’d expected they would, on the issue of Jeffersonian antislavery and my overestimation (as they see if) of the antislavery sentiments of the Jeffersonian generation. I’m afraid that my treatment of the subject in the final text probably still won’t satisfy them. But I definitely think it will be more thorough, more nuanced, and better supported and illustrated than it was in the original version. And that’s the real benefit of good criticism. You can stick to your guns and argue your side, but you do so better in the face of the criticism, and it makes everybody’s ideas better. There are many annoying things about academia, but the peer review process is a wonderful thing when it works right, and it is going to make my book a lot better.