One of the most undervalued, but arduous forms of academic work is editing: organizing knowledge, judging quality, finding emergent themes, and forging connections. Editing is a form of synthesis that works at a thematic level beyond the scope of individual research, and it requires a collaborative and sometimes unhappy interaction with authors; it moves beyond the fetishized role of individual authorship or the long lists of co-authors, making editing into a form of meta-authorship that can move a discipline in a direction with a power that very few individual authors can achieve. But for many reasons, good editing is an endangered practice.
Given the importance of editorial labor, it is odd how little it counts in the official accounting of academic merit. Editing a book—particularly one with multi-lingual authors, can be more work than actually writing one, and it certainly requires a lot more correspondence and inter-personal skill. Good editing requires different talents from writing—mostly in identifying emergent themes and bringing out the best in the work of others. There is always something selfless to the process, to the point where truly excellent editing is almost invisible. And it is indeed invisible to most tenure and promotion committees, who interpret editing as “service” rather than research. But, imagine what the process of research and publication would be like without editing—an avalanche of garbage with a few hidden gems.
Good teaching also requires a form of editorial work. Putting together a good syllabus is a matter of choosing themes and selecting the best possible teaching materials. In many ways, it is just like editing a reader on a particular topic. I still have on my shelves some of the readers I put together for classes back in the pre-pdf era, and they were good preparation for two co-edited collections published later. Another form of editing is the time-eating process of correcting and grading papers, which is also a critical and highly undervalued form of academic labor. Good dissertations also require editorial work from graduate committee members, work recognized only by mention in the acknowledgments, rarely by any salary committee. When you come up for tenure, should editing a book count as“service” or “teaching” or “research/creative activity”? At its best, it is all three.
Where do we get the time for editorial labor? Only through auto—exploitation. Editorial work is often done from some combination of moral obligation and personal commitment. Even best-selling edited collections might pay an editor only a few hundred dollars, no more than a few cents per hour for endless concentrated attention and work. Some universities still provide editorial assistance and course relief to the editors of flagship journals, but this is the kind of support deans are always looking to cut when budgets are under pressure. And, the vast majority of the editorial labor that goes into a journal issue, including the comments by reviewers, is donated free of charge (usually to the benefit of a profit-making publisher), at the expense of a personal life.
Editing is the difference between self-publishing on the Internet and the prestige of a recognized journal article or book chapter which counts for tenure, merit pay or promotion. A journal editor has little control over what kind of papers are submitted, but selecting reviewers and acting upon peer reviews require a great deal of judicious thought, some research to find referees, comparative reading, and a broad knowledge of a field. Editors need to read a paper deeply, but they also need to read the reviews carefully and with knowledge of the position of the referee. When anthropology was a smaller and less diverse discipline, being asked to edit American Anthropologist or other major journals was a great honor, a recognition of major contributions and an expression of the direction of the discipline. In 1994, in the midst of the science wars, when Barbara and Dennis Tedlock (associated with psychological, symbolic and cognitive anthropology) were chosen as editors of American Anthropologist, a significant number of science-oriented anthropologists objected loudly, and there was even a motion to unseat the editors at the AAA Annual Meeting that year (a controversy I was inadvertently dragged into).
It is hard to imagine a similar level of interest in the same editorial position today, though the job continues to attract outstanding scholars. The labor of editing anthropology journals has, if anything, become more complicated as the discipline has diversified in many directions. At the same time, we need good editors now more than ever before. The Internet is an infinite stew of non-knowledge and unsupported opinion, a cesspool for lies and deceptive practices. At one time journals and publishers were thirsty for content, constantly on the lookout for new work and new ideas, and excellence in scholarship. Editing at that time was a form of gatekeeping. Now however, content is not the problem. We are overloaded with content, bombarded with new ideas, case studies, and data, as well as idle speculations, border violations, and inadvertent or intentional plagiarism and outright theft.
To some extent we have all been forced to become editors, to screen out and winnow the chaff, avoid distractions and digressions, and find the nuggets. Fortunately, there are also selfless people who devote their time to collecting, ordering and distributing newsletters and blog posts that review and call attention to content and sites on a particular theme or topic. We are entering an era of editorial emergency, and it is far past the time that we assert the value of editorial labor in the academic workplace, and demand that it be recognized as a form of creative work.
Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.
Feature image photo credit: WordPress.com
Cite as: Wilk. Richard. 2017. “On Editing.” Anthropology News website, December 22, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.728