How to Pass Academic Peer Review

An unfortunate paradox of academic writing is that, if people can read and understand your argument, then they will assume that you have done no intellectual labor. Conversely, if your reader has trouble approaching your writing, they will assume that your work is difficult because of the sophistication of your ideas. In order to publish your work in an academic venue, it is therefore necessary to create artificial barriers that serve to make your writing inaccessible.

Based on my study of the writing of respected and highly cited scholars in my field, as well as my numerous experiences with peer review, these are my suggestions.

(1) Long sentences

Many people drawn to academia think in complex sentences with multiple subordinate clauses and, when lecturing, may take several minutes to finish a single thought. When translated into writing, this style of intellectual processing is generally edited for concision and clarity.

Your job is to reverse the general philosophy of editing and make your sentences longer. The more clauses the better. Commas are largely unnecessary, but you should use as many semicolons as you can get away with.

(2) Large paragraphs

After a certain point, long paragraphs become needlessly difficult to read. This is why writers are encouraged to construct paragraphs of roughly five to ten sentences, with each paragraph beginning with a clear opening sentence that introduces and sets the tone for the material that follows. Writers are also encouraged to begin a new paragraph if their presentation or argument begins to head in a different direction.

In academic writing, however, you need to lose the reader, not help them follow you. It’s therefore important to keep your paragraphs as long as possible. When combined with longer sentences, large paragraphs will ensure that your reader skims the material instead of reading it closely.

(3) Walls of plot summary or decontextualized infodumps

A major element of writing nonfiction is the ability to present your information or opinion in a way that is carefully curated and summarized so that the reader can understand the most important points. The frequently referenced adage “kill your darlings” is an injunction to remove material that may be interesting to you but irrelevant to the reader.

Meanwhile, the goal of academic writing is to force the reader to perform intellectual labor by refusing to curate or structure information. You should therefore attempt to include as much raw information as you can by presenting facts with no contextualizing details or analysis. Extended plot summary filled with minute details is ideal, but you can also occupy space through prolonged references to secondary sources.

(4) Incoherent structure

In order for writing to be comprehensible, it needs to be structured in such a way that a sequence of events or arguments can be understood according to a chain of logic, with Sentence B acting as a natural outgrowth from Sentence A. This also applies to larger divisions such as paragraphs and subsections.

In academic writing, however, each unit of language should exist as independently as possible. Each sentence should be a world unto itself with no immediate connection to the sentences that precede and follow it. In addition, needlessly long paragraphs will help to ensure that the reader will struggle to understand the purpose any given sentence. Many first drafts display this lack of cohesion simply as a result of being unedited, so it’s often best to leave your first draft as it stands, especially in terms of weak or incomprehensible structure. Again, your goal is to make the reader perform intellectual labor.

(5) Unexplained (and potentially misused) specialist terminology

This should go without saying, but the one of the easiest ways to render your writing inaccessible is by employing as much specialist terminology as possible. A writer interested in communication will introduce specialist terminology, contextualize it, apply it through concrete examples, and use it in a consistent manner so that even a reader who has never encountered the terminology before should be able to understand it by the end of the essay.

In order to maintain intellectual superiority over the reader, however, you should keep your specialized terminology as decontextualized as possible. If you have succeeded in creating an incoherent structure, your reader will not be able to ascertain whether you’re using the terminology in a meaningful way, so it is not necessary that you understand the terminology yourself.

(6) Unexplained (and potentially misused) references

Along with decontextualized specialist terminology, you need to reference other scholarship in a way that is opaque and difficult to follow. As with specialist terminology, it is not necessary that you understand the scholarship you’re citing. It’s probably not necessary to read it at all, in fact. Rather, all you have to do is figure out whose names you need to drop and then do so as frequently as possible.

If you feel uncomfortable with this, it’s important to remember that many prominent theorists have large and complicated bodies of work that require years of study to understand, and that few people have the resources to do so. To give an example, you may not feel confident citing the work of someone like Franz Fanon or Judith Butler without reading or understanding it, but you need to pretend as though you have total understanding so that your peer reviewers can feel satisfied in being able to sustain the fantasy that they have total understanding as well. It’s very much an “emperor’s new clothes” situation, so use this to your advantage.

(7) Incohesive incorporation of feedback

If your manuscript is returned with suggestions for revisions, do not attempt to make sense of them. Address each item in a single sentence, and insert these sentences into your writing at random intervals. Each sentence is a world unto its own, after all, and a lack of cohesive editing will help to keep paragraphs long and incomprehensible so that the editor can’t be bothered to question your revisions.

If a reviewer recommends that you cite something, do so, and make no attempt to incorporate it into your existing argument. Remember, you do not need to have read and understood something in order to cite it, and you most certainly don’t need to agree with it.

(8) Uncritical incorporation of racist and misogynistic scholarship

In my first book, I wrote about how many of the dominant academic treatments of gender in Japanese popular culture don’t account for a female audience or accept the reality of women as anything beyond a philosophical construct. I argued that, if we can acknowledge the existence of female and queer writers, artists, and readers, then our understanding of contemporary transnational media cultures has the potential to be transformed in interesting and exciting ways. This project met with strong resistance at every step of the process, with peer reviewer after peer reviewer telling me that I wasn’t citing enough Western male scholars in my discussions of Japanese female creators. Even more curious, the theorists and scholars I was expected to cite were often men with opinions about race and gender that, to say the least, have not aged well.

I also realized, during my time as a tenure-track professor, that academia as a whole is frustratingly conservative underneath its mask of progressivism. Moreover, a not-insignificant amount of English-language scholarship is essentially a celebration of white heritage. There is unfortunately very little solidarity between women, queer people, or people of color when it comes to peer review, as many “outsiders” tend to justify their inclusion by overcompensating as gatekeepers. You therefore have to – you have to – cite white men who were (or still are) openly misogynistic and critical of “the lesser races.” If you are disgusted by this, as I am, and if you try to resist it, as I did, you will be perceived as not respecting the methodology of your discipline and not taking the enterprise of scholarship seriously.

A careful and experienced writer will be able to fix most of the stylistic issues (and issues regarding inclusion and cultural sensitivity) common to academic writing during the process of editing. If you want to pass peer review, however, you need to emphasize and perhaps even exaggerate such problematic elements. Again, the goal is to make your writing difficult to approach and understand so that you seem more intelligent.

You may be thinking that this “advice” is parody. Please allow me to assure you that it’s not.

As much as I wish this weren’t the case, I’m dead serious. I started off as an extremely “scholarly” writer, but I gradually trained myself to be more “accessible,” a word that’s almost always used as a passive-aggressive insult within academia. Unfortunately, I found that my success with peer review diminished in direct proportion to the growth of my skill as an editor. I therefore had to retrain myself to produce performatively esoteric writing, and I recently had two articles accepted for publication only after “revising” them according to the guidelines I listed above. No one knows more than I do just how utterly absurd this is, and I am very tired.

Perhaps you find academic writing and the process of peer review to be elitist and exclusionary. Perhaps you may also suspect that the fundamental structure of academic publication actively works to silence and discredit diverse voices and opinions. If this is the case, let me ask you the question I’ve been asking myself almost every day for the past year: Why are you so invested in academia, then?

Anxiety in the Age of COVID-19

This week I invented a fun “adult” game to play with my partner. It’s called:

“Can you please sit on the couch with me and help me write emails because I am riddled with anxiety and have somehow managed to convince myself that every single word I write is bad and will cause everyone to lose respect for me and hate me forever.”

I’m currently struggling through a wave of anxiety, and it’s both intense and completely irrational. For example:

– An amazing colleague sent me a nice email expressing admiration for something I published recently, and I think I’m going to die.
– Another amazing colleague wrote to ask if they could put an unpublished essay of mine in a book they’re editing, and I think I’m going to die.
– I got a few new submissions to a zine I’m editing, and they are wonderful, and I think I’m going to die.
– A stranger who seems like a cool and interesting person sent me a message on Instagram inviting me to submit a comic to a zine they’re putting together, and I think I’m going to die.
– Someone sent me a message on Etsy telling me that they love my art, and I think I’m going to die.
– An artist I admire tentatively accepted an illustration commission for a novel I’m writing, and I think I’m going to die.

I feel awful, as if I’m an asshole for tricking these people. Like, they don’t know that I’m actually a terrible person, but they will find out. Nothing bad has happened, but bad things may potentially happen in the future.

When I was at my previous job, my older male department chair asked a female colleague to sit me down and tell me that anxiety doesn’t exist, and that it’s just a matter of me changing my attitude (or something). I keep thinking about this in an attempt to explain to no one in particular that I don’t actually want social interaction – even positive social interaction – to make me feel like I can’t breathe and might need to go to the hospital.

Emotionally I want to communicate and connect with people, especially friendly people doing cool things who it would be fun to work with. Intellectually I know that the worst thing that could happen is me making a silly typo or me eventually having to apologize for submitting something a few days late. Physically, however, I feel like I’m watching a grisly scene in a horror movie, except I can’t close my eyes until it goes away because this is my actual life.

Despite feeling like I’m on the verge of a coronary event, I’m going to ask my partner to sit on the couch with me and help me respond to some emails like a normal adult. This shouldn’t feel like I’m walking into battle, but it does and I hate it.

I’ll get through this, of course. It might take me a bit longer than it takes other people to respond to emails when I’m dealing with anxiety, but I’ll definitely get through this. I’m grateful to have a partner who supports me, and I’m very lucky that my colleagues (and students!) in my new department are accommodating. I’ve started being honest and upfront about what I’m going through, and everyone has been surprisingly kind and understanding.

I’m sharing this in the hope that it makes someone out there feel less weird and alone. There’s so much ambient stress and bad news in the world every single week, and I think a lot of people are experiencing this sort of anxiety at this level of intensity for the first time. It’s normal to feel physically sick, and it’s normal to feel mentally paralyzed. After experiencing wave after wave of negativity, it’s totally normal to have this sort of reaction even to positive events. So be kind to yourself, and let other people help you! You can get through this.

Tenure in a Time of Crisis

On Wednesday of this week (March 25), the city of Washington DC declared a month-long quarantine. The same day, George Mason University decided to send me a letter telling me that my tenure case has been denied.

I knew this would be the case since January, when I got a letter from the university tenure committee, but the timing of the formal notification could not have been worse. On the same day, the university sent out an email saying that all tenure-track faculty would have an extra year to apply for tenure. The university wants to be “accommodating” during these difficult times, apparently.

I was going to wait until the current academic year is over to publish my thoughts on what happened, but maybe saying something right now, when a lot of academics are paying attention to the tenure system, might be a good opportunity to make a difference.

There’s a lot going on in my particular case, but what basically happened is that I got very sick during the Spring 2019 semester. I was open about this with everyone and even went to HR and the CDE Office (the Office of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics, which handles things like Title IX and ADA resources) to formally register a disability at the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester, but the process was prohibitively convoluted and took much longer than it should have. It also ultimately ended up backfiring by causing certain people, specifically my department chair, to become extremely upset with me. In fact, my department chair met with my tenure liaison immediately after meeting with the CDE Office. This was extremely unethical, and the resulting backlash was such that it didn’t surprise me at all when I learned that the university’s tenure committee unanimously voted to deny my case.

The letters from the committee and from the dean both consist of multiple pages saying “this person has done excellent work” leading to a final paragraph stating “but this is not true excellence.” The rationale for this decision seems to be that my book isn’t out yet, but this makes no sense, as its publication met with an unexpected delay but was still on track to come out in time for my field’s major international conference in March (although it’s been pushed back again due to the pandemic).

To me, then, this feels like discrimination on the basis of disability, especially given the acrimonious conversation my department apparently had during my tenure vote despite strong support from my departmental tenure committee. Apparently, although I look like an excellent candidate for tenure on paper, I am lazy and irresponsible. I was always friendly with everyone and never caused any trouble prior to getting sick, so this came as a huge shock. I have no way of knowing the details, unfortunately, since this process is completely opaque, but my department chair later had the only woman on my tenure committee sit down with me later to explain that sickness and disability are not “real,” and that people resent me for “not pulling my weight.”

It’s therefore extremely frustrating to have gotten so many emails from the university about “support” and “accommodations” and even “self-care” during the past two weeks. If the university really cared about these things, why wasn’t I granted a basic level of “support” and “accommodations” earlier this academic year when I asked openly and in good faith?

And this isn’t just me – there’s been a lot of talk on social media about how hypocritical the behavior of universities has been as they bend over backwards to try to appear supportive and accommodating. The following screencap, which comes from (this post on Tumblr), is a good example.

I’m hurt and scared, as many of us are right now, and now I’m also out of a job and have no health insurance. I was able to find a position at another university, but they’ve just put a hiring freeze into effect, so who knows what will happen. It’s strange for me to be in this situation while still devoting an extraordinary amount of energy to keep up with the work required by the online classes that I’m also having to build as quickly as I can.

This situation is awful, and it’s entirely unnecessary. The university could always have pushed back someone’s tenure application because of exceptional circumstances at any time, because the tenure system is completely arbitrary. Why did it take a global pandemic for universities to acknowledge that this is a reasonable and compassionate policy?

Anyone can become sick at any time, and a “disability” can happen to anyone, even to someone who has previously been (and perhaps still continues to seem) healthy and productive. We’re all currently dealing with exceptional circumstances, but I think this is a good opportunity for universities to set a precedent of accommodating diversity by understanding and respecting the fact that “difference” means that different people are working under different conditions, many of which may be entirely out of their control.

Although it no longer affects me, I am obviously in favor of giving faculty the option to push back their tenure applications by a year due to exceptional circumstances, and I hope this crisis can create an opportunity for universities to become more tolerant of diversity and more humane to the people whose work contributes to and supports their communities.