Friday, October 18, 2013

And for my next trick....

For the better part of 20 years, I have worked to write like a historian.  For the last 7 or so, I've worked to write like a historian who wants academics in allied fields to read their work.  My interdisciplinary writing group has helped with this -- pushing me to reconsider some conventions in my field, to explain things that I wouldn't need to explain to an audience of historians, to adopt some new practices in presenting my research.  I think I've been somewhat successful in this.  I've published more interdisciplinary and multi-discipline journals than in traditional history journals since getting tenure.  But now I'm wondering if I have over-stepped my abilities.

Last year I started working on using one of my history projects (on gender-based harassment in public spaces) to connect to current policy and practice on public transit.  I submitted an abstract to the "Women's Issues in Transportation" conference and got encouraging responses from reviewers.  The questions they raised helped me draft a full paper, which my writing group then helped me work into something I could submit.  Now I am faced with three more sets of comments from conference reviewers, asking for revisions before the final round of papers is picked for the conference.

I've never been through this intense a process for being accepted to present at a conference.  I've never even had a full paper draft reviewed, let alone multiple reviews calling for revised drafts.  The reviewers' comments have been rolling around in my mind for weeks, but today is the day when I intend to roll up my sleeves and start the revision.  But I'm feeling a bit stuck, still finding myself feeling defensive in response to some of the comments.  The requests for a clearer definition of harassment is fine, a desire for more description of methodology is annoying but familiar (how do you write "I read everything can find, think about it, make lots of lists, and write until I think I have some insights to offer"?).  The one comment that gets me, though, is this: "It needs to be framed more like a scholarly paper."

Hackles up.

The implication that textual evidence is some how not real data, not scholarly, seeps through this reviewers' comments, even though they are trying to be supportive (they did say the background of the project is "interesting").  The reviewer then goes on to tell me what a "traditional" paper should look like (intro, theory and method, findings and interpretation, discussion...).  I've read my fair share of these kinds of papers.  I even written one, but they don't work well for qualitative research.  I've got an 8,000 word limit; I'm going to use the bulk of them to explore the evidence, not describing the process.  I'm going to show you what I found.  If you want to know how I found it, read the footnotes!  Gah.

I guess part of my frustration is that I was conscious that this conference is full of quant people and I intentionally "scientificized" my early drafts, but apparently not enough for some.  It is not currently a paper many history people would recognize as standard history writing (or topic).  For example, I actually make suggestions for new policy.  Gasp!  Historians never tell you what to do.  That is your job (after we've told you how we got to this place and what other people have done).  But, apparently, it is still not a fully social science paper.

I could follow the scientific paper structure, but I feel like a fraud.  This is not how I was trained to write or think.  More than that, this structure works against what history can bring to the table (the whole point of my paper!).  I'm trying to write about how we got here, bring lessons from earlier generations of activists to current issues, to fill in around and contextualize the numbers.  X women may report being groped on a subway car.  But what might those experiences mean to women, transit officials, or society?

So... here I go to try give them just enough that they will see me as "scholarly" while selling them on the idea that narrative-based arguments add value to their numbers.