A Response to 'An Open Letter to Journal Editors'

The problem in doctoral education is not students writing scholarly articles; the problem is the dissertation and the publishing process

Quinn Dombrowski / Creative Commons

October 15, 2014

Earlier this month, Leonard Cassuto penned an open letter proposing that editors of scholarly journals should stop publishing graduate-student submissions because they: (1) extend time to graduation, (2) detract from writing the dissertation, and (3) weaken scholarship by rushing ideas into publication too soon. As a graduate student and editor of a peer-reviewed academic journal that seeks to take a different approach to the publication process, I found Cassuto’s logic flawed. In my view, he is implicating the wrong actors.

Instead of punishing graduate students, his argument would have been better focused on graduate faculty members, graduate-education structures, and the publishing process broadly.

Cassuto acknowledges the realities of the academic job market: that obtaining a tenure-track job is impossible without publications (and even with them). Our neoliberal universities have destroyed full-time faculty lines and increased the adjunct pool. That has flooded the tenure-track market with candidates who are doing everything they can to attract attention from search committees. We have to publish, at minimum, one article and have one or two more under review to even get an initial interview. It is not that graduate students don’t want to spend their time working solely on their dissertations; the problem is that the job market demands that we don’t. And even though some of us wish to resist the capitalistic nature of the career market, we have to play along to survive.

I take issue with Cassuto’s analysis on several fronts. First, he seems to believe that doctoral students can’t balance both a dissertation and additional scholarly pursuits, as if we all had poor time-management and life skills.

But graduate students are not a monolithic body with singular experiences. Many of us work or have worked full-time, balancing family and other responsibilities. Some students are older, with years of life experience that can help them be successful in graduate school. I have many peers in various fields who work as research and teaching assistants, consult, collaborate with community organizations, go on speaking engagements, and are primary investigators on their own research projects. They’ve all gone on to timely degree completion. Faculty who assume that students are incapable of being agents of their own lives are working from a paternalistic framework.

More important, the focus of job-market reform should not be on limiting publishing opportunities for graduate students but on improving faculty skills as mentors. Faculty should be guiding students through a manageable dissertation process that allows them to graduate in a timely manner. Advisers should be helping graduate students locate grant money to support their education so that they do not have to interrupt their program to work odd jobs just to reduce their increasing debt levels.

Cassuto seems most worried about the dissertation. But the dissertation is part of the problem here. A dissertation is a singular, extended Medieval hazing ritual whereby graduate students spend countless hours engrossed in a singular topic that itself "encourages ‘hasty specialization’ and a loss of ‘a period of exploration, risk-taking, and learning from mistakes’"—problems that Cassuto found were the result of students publishing in journals.

But doesn’t publishing in scholarly journals allow graduate students to gain experience in writing for publication? And isn’t that important since it’s a requirement for tenure? Don’t students receive critical feedback on submissions and published articles that helps expand their knowledge and introduce them to new bodies of literature?

Generally we can count on a single hand the number of times a dissertation has been read by somebody other than the student’s committee members and family. And judging students on a single piece of work says nothing of their intellectual scope and scholarly interests, particularly if faculty are concerned with a candidate’s ability to be creative and broad in specialization. A more beneficial discourse about graduate education and the job market would begin with meaningful, radical reform of the dissertation process and form itself.

The second component of meaningful reform would be to discuss with journal editors a change in the publication process. As it stands, it can take upwards of two to three years for a manuscript to go from submission to publication in some of the top-tier journals. Authors may succumb to never-ending back and forth with editors and reviewers who are providing conflicting suggestions that are difficult to reconcile. The whole process wastes precious time, with no guarantee of publication and little accountability between author, reviewer, and editor (as blind reviews are the norm in publishing).

All of those circumstances add up to a process that forces graduate students to spend what little time we have working on multiple manuscripts and taking on additional responsibilities so we don’t enter the job market with a blank CV.

Journals such as the one I edit, the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, not only aim to change the type of work that is considered scholarly knowledge in our field, but we created it to challenge the way that scholarship is produced in education.

The journal is an open-access, open (nonblind) peer review, graduate-student-run journal. We work under an aggressive timeline, a strict ethic of care, and a developmental framework. We encourage authors at all levels to submit, and we work vigorously to engage with readers in order to help authors develop the requisite skills to publish. This type of publication process, I contend, is more humane and actually produces scholarship that is timely and consequential. It may also allow students in graduate programs to "mature" in their thinking and writing.

Meaningful reform requires meaningful suggestions. As one astute commenter to Cassuto’s column noted, his letter was "a solution in search of a problem." There is a problem, but the problem is not graduate students submitting to journals, and the solution is not journals banning graduate students from submitting.

The problem is the dissertation. The problem is the publishing process. The problem is graduate education broadly. I applaud Cassuto for continuing the discussion around time-to-completion, but I do not believe that his solution provides any meaningful, radical reform. Let’s start a real conversation below.

Dian Squire is a third-year doctoral student in higher education at Loyola University Chicago and editor in chief of the Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs. HisTwitter handle is @diansquire.