Revise and resubmit

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about an article of mine that had just come out, and its very long road to publication. At the end of it I blithely wrote that “The next article I publish should be out rather quicker—though the gestation time has been almost as long.”

Detail of front cover of Humanity, volume 10, number 1 (2019) 1This was both correct and incorrect. The next article I published did come out much more quickly, but it wasn’t the one I was talking about. ‘Humans and animals in a refugee camp: Baquba, Iraq, 1918-1920’ was submitted to the Journal of Refugee Studies in November 2017, went through peer review and revision that winter, and was published online in May 2018 (and in print this week). But the article I was actually referring to, on the history of humanitarian evacuations, didn’t come out until the end of April 2019. So I was wrong about it being published more quickly, but I was right about the long gestation time: I’d started drafting it, in early April 2013, based on research done over the previous couple of years, and I first gave versions of it as a seminar paper in November 2013 and January 2014.

This isn’t an unusually slow turnaround time for publishing an academic journal article in history. One thing that added to the delay is simply that the journal it came out in has a crowded publication pipeline: by the time I got my final acceptance in early summer 2017, the contents for all of the issues through to the end of 2018 had already been set. But what I want to write about here is peer review, another routine part of the academic publication process.

Peer review often gets a bad press: just google ‘Reviewer 2’ and you’ll see what I mean. (Perhaps you already belong to the public Facebook group ‘Reviewer 2 must be stopped!’, which at time of writing has 19,602 members.) No-one likes a rejection; no-one greets a critical review with glad eye and open heart; and I doubt that many people relish revising an article that they’d hoped was off their desk forever. I certainly didn’t. Between 2013 and 2017 this article was drafted, submitted, rejected, redrafted, submitted to a different journal, reviewed, accepted ‘with revisions’, revised, edited sharply down, and ‘finally’ accepted. That final acceptance made me very happy, not just because it meant the article was going to be published, but also because by then I was—to say the least—ready to see the back of it.

But I’m also absolutely certain that the published version is much better than the version of it that I first submitted. Even in a humanities discipline like history, which tends to presume (/idealize) single-authored work, getting a piece of work to publication is a much more collaborative process than the single name beneath the title implies. Often, we read other people’s work as if they’d simply sat down one morning and dashed off a print-ready piece to a response of “Grt thx will publish!” from the editors of a leading journal—while we bash our heads against multiple drafts, and nervously await reviewer 2’s stiletto. But any piece of work that’s been published in a reputable journal should have gone through a peer review process, and been improved by it. Plenty of good or excellent published work has been rejected at some point along the way. So this post tries to demystify the process, and show how much effort by other people is being alluded to when a footnote thanks “two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful critical comments”. It’s aimed especially at people who are writing their doctoral dissertations and getting feedback on draft work. As supervisors, I’m not sure how well we explain the fact that our own work gets the red-ink treatment from peer reviewers all the time, and it’s not simply a hazing ritual: it makes our work better. There are plenty of blog posts out there discussing what happens when peer review goes wrong, as it often does. This one is about what happens when it goes right.

The first draft

Algae and seaweed trailing from the bottom of a small boat recently lifted out of the water.
Approximate length of main text : length of footnotes ratio (first draft)

In its first draft, my article told a story: how French forces, as they withdrew from Cilicia in what is now Turkey in November-December 1921, grudgingly evacuated many thousands of Armenian refugees. I’d done tons of archival research, and the story spread across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, so writing the article took a while. I also needed to keep in mind three overlapping but distinct audiences: historians of the Middle East; historians of refugees and displacement; and historians of humanitarian action. This meant that the text grew footnotes the way a ship’s hull grows barnacles and seaweed the longer it spends in the water: in some cases, bibliographical mini-essays summarizing the literature on, say, the history of Cilicia up to the first world war for the benefit of readers with no prior knowledge of the region, or the history of first world war–era population displacements across Eurasia for historians of the Middle East. (The footnotes were also for my benefit, of course, like a pair of stabilizer wheels on an unconfident child’s bike.) Still, I was pretty happy with it, and friends and colleagues working in several different areas read the draft and offered broadly positive feedback and helpful suggestions. So eventually I felt I’d told the story well enough, and in the early spring of 2016 I sent it off. I thought I might as well try for a biggie: the American Historical Review, perhaps the leading journal in the discipline. I mean—it was an interesting story, right?

The rejection (well: revise and resubmit)

As the most prominent English-language journal in the discipline, the AHR has a larger full-time editorial staff than most. This means they have a somewhat different review process than most other journals I’ve encountered (in history, area studies, and refugee studies). Before the editor sends submissions out for peer review, they’re read by a member of the editorial staff, who writes a report recommending whether they should be sent out or not. Given the volume of submissions, this reduces the burden on (unpaid) peer reviewers, who don’t have to spend time reading and commenting on articles that clearly aren’t suitable, or aren’t good enough. The articles that are sent to peer review therefore get through it more quickly, while people whose submissions are not sent for review find out promptly rather than having to wait months for a rejection.

I was in the second group. No more than a couple of weeks after my submission was acknowledged, an email from the AHR editor arrived, with two attachments. One was a letter informing me, quite kindly, that my article would not be sent to peer review. The other was the reader’s report explaining why not. (With the permission of the editor and the anonymous reader, you can download it here [PDF].)

The letter was a ‘revise and resubmit’ rather than an outright rejection: my article wouldn’t be sent out for peer review at this stage, but a revised version would be considered. The editor suggested what the main revisions should be, and said that “the fix required is rather simple… and can probably be done simply by moving a few paragraphs around”. The report, which ran to nearly a thousand words, critically and incisively summarized my article, outlining why it wasn’t ready for peer review at the AHR yet. Publishable in a specialist journal, maybe, but “the AHR’s readership expects the kind of conceptual or analytical innovation that can transfer across fields of historical inquiry”.

Specialist readers might be intrigued in the regional history or the humanitarian history, but the vast majority of the AHR’s distinctive comprehensive readership spanning all fields of historical inquiry would most likely have felt alienated and deterred from reading very far into the piece.

If the letter was the good cop, the report was the bad cop.

A ‘revise and resubmit’ is always discouraging, and on reflection I was more discouraged by this one than I should have been. But I can understand why. When this email arrived, I hadn’t published anything other than book reviews since my own book came out four years earlier: a worrying gap. A few months earlier I’d submitted another hefty article to a different big-name journal, which would eventually publish it—but I didn’t know that yet, as I was still waiting for their reviewers’ response. These were also my first submissions to general history journals rather than more specialist Middle East studies journals. So I was, frankly, doubting my ability to write publishable work in history. (I’m now in a history department, not a Middle East studies department: there were institutional as well as intellectual reasons why I wanted to publish in non-specialist journals.) It was also the back end of a busy spring semester, and I was feeling as fraught and teary as usual at that stage of the teaching year. So I set the whole thing aside until the Easter break, by which time a positive response for the other article had allayed my catastrophizing. But it had also requested some minor revisions, which—since they would definitely lead to a publication—took priority as the spring turned to summer.

The revised draft

It wasn’t until later that summer that I returned to the article about humanitarian evacuations, and read through the AHR reader’s report again. Bad cop? More like correct cop. The gist of it was that this draft told the story of the Cilician evacuation at length, but I’d only really explained why I was telling the story at the end, and hadn’t offered nearly enough to convince a non-specialist audience of historians why this story should matter to them. Rereading the draft, I could see how right they were. I’d stayed too close to the archival material, giving a forensic but descriptive reconstruction of the historical events without analyzing them or making an argument for their larger significance. The report challenged me to do better:

[C]an the author front-load in the submission a decisive argument that bespeaks an original and innovative contribution to the historiography on humanitarianism, beyond simply the addition of the factor of evacuations earlier than expected? […C]an the author draw out more from the subject and the case study?

The first draft had said I wanted to use this story to establish humanitarian evacuations as an object of historical enquiry. Great. But it didn’t say why, or do much more than present an early example. Reframing it for a revised draft meant introducing the policy and practice of humanitarian evacuations, sketching out their history, and reviewing the available scholarly literature—limited, and mostly in the social sciences—to say why historians should study humanitarian evacuations. It meant stating more clearly the significance of humanitarian evacuations. And it meant more rigorously using ‘my’ case study to set out a comparative framework for understanding other evacuations, or failures to evacuate.

Illustration of an iceberg showing how much of it is below the surface.
Approximate main text : footnotes ratio (second draft)

All of this took a while. Friends helped, providing suggestions and references: the footnotes proliferated still further. But the AHR report had given me a clear idea of what needed to be done, and once I’d worked out how to do it I made steady progress. By late 2016 I had a revised draft, and a friend who works for Médecins sans frontières had read it and confirmed that it did a better job than the first of explaining the significance of the topic and providing directions for future research. I sent it off—but not to the AHR. This was partly out of insecurity: I still wasn’t sure I’d done enough to make the article relevant to a discipline-wide audience of historians. But having revised the article, and ’embedded’ it in a wider literature on humanitarian evacuations (and evacuees) in a number of different disciplines, I was pretty sure that I’d made the story relevant to historians and other researchers who are interested in humanitarianism. So I submitted it to Humanity, a newish journal dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of human rights, humanitarianism, and development. Because that other article of mine was by now in press with a mainstream history journal, I no longer minded going for a more specialist journal for this one.

Then the wait began, again.

‘Accepted with revisions’

It wasn’t too long. In January 2017 I got an email from the editor with good news: Humanity would like to publish the article—subject to some revisions. One of the peer reviewers had been on the fence, while the other had been enthusiastic but also pointed out that there was some existing literature that I ought to have cited. The editorial collective had liked it. So the editor suggested particular areas for revision based on what the reviewers had said.

This was all ‘good practice’ in peer review. If reviewers’ reports are contradictory, or suggest varying degrees of revision, the author of an article should be able to get a steer from the editor as to which points they should prioritize in revising the article. In this case, I didn’t need to ask: the editor made it clear in his email how I should approach the revisions. And, while being asked to go and revise the article again was a bit discouraging—we do get sick of things we’ve been working on forever!—this was quite different. I knew the article would be published if I made the revisions. I also basically agreed with all of the reviewers’ suggestions.

What do I mean by that? The editor suggested “reframing the intro… so that it is less around when the origins [of humanitarian evacuation] were and more around what the political logics were”: this was pushing me a bit further in the direction I’d already been travelling. I’d reframed the article for the revised draft, but I’d still spent more time than I needed to discussing when things happened and not enough saying why they happened then. The lukewarm reviewer pointed out that it wasn’t good enough to say that my sources didn’t allow me to reconstruct refugees’ own experiences, and they were right. This was a key methodological problem that I’d tried to grapple with (it’s something historians of refugees run into frequently). I couldn’t fix it—at least, not without extensive further research in several different countries requiring languages that I don’t speak—but the comment pushed me to make a more explicit argument about what the absence of ‘refugee voices’ in the French archives tells us. The more enthusiastic reviewer had several helpful suggestions for readings (more footnotes!), including one book that had, shamingly, been lying unread on my table throughout the research and writing of the article, and picked out several points where I needed to provide more information about certain people and organizations or more support for a point of argument. So this revision was much quicker than the more comprehensive rethink and reframing I’d had to do between the first and second draft. It still took a few months, because I had an exceptionally busy spring and summer in 2017. But in early June I sent off the revised version, along with a document explaining how I’d incorporated the reviewers’ suggestions—or why I’d decided not to.

Image of spiral galaxy M51: a bright centre with great swirling arms
Main text : footnotes ratio, third draft

The editor was happy with the revisions. There was just one problem: the article was now a monster, with the main text coming in at just under 10,000 words but the footnotes taking the total closer to 18,000. (Most journals ask for articles in the range of 7–10,000 words, notes included.) Could I please get it down to a more publishable length—say, 14,000 words?

To my own surprise, I could, and pretty quickly: this savage-sounding edit—over a fifth of the total length—took no more than a morning. The successive rounds of comments and revisions had helped me clarify the argument, so I could now see which details were essential and which were interesting (to me) but unnecessary. The immense scaffolding of footnotes had been keeping hold, at each stage, of yet more information that might come in handy for a revision: this could all go. It had also introduced several sets of readings to different potential audiences, but now I knew which audience the article would be read by and could trim accordingly. And that was the version that got the ‘final acceptance’ email, and is now published. It’s still pretty long, but it’s no longer a monster. So now other people can read it, decide what they find useful about it, and explain in their own work what I got wrong.


This, believe it or not, is a somewhat condensed summary of the peer review process. I haven’t done justice to the contribution of five friends who read drafts of the article and sent extensive comments; I haven’t explained how helpful the ‘reverse outline‘ technique was when I revised the draft. But I hope it shows how two rounds of peer review, one unsuccessful and one successful, helped to make a better article—and gives an idea of just how much work other people put into that. (The comments I got from friends, colleagues, and reviewers probably total about the length of the article’s main text.) I’m very grateful to them.


Quotes from correspondence with the editors and from readers’ reports are given with permission: thanks to the current editors of the AHR and Humanity for helping to arrange this.

Click images for source.

Landscape for a good book

The date on this post, and in the URL, is out by nearly two weeks because it took me a while to finish.

View east from Beinn a'Chochuill
Reading books the David Gange way

The weekend before last I headed for the hills, inspired by some former colleagues of mine at Birmingham. David Gange, first of all: I’d just read his lovely long blog post about not being able to get to the Scottish mountains recently, and since the weather forecast was perfect I had to make the most of it. (David was busy doing other things this weekend, like chatting to the Brazilian minister of education, and posing for photos on a Saõ Paulo rooftop.)

David’s the reason I own a bivvy bag in the first place. He’s also the reason why I packed some history books in my rucksack: his own formidable breadth of reading has partly been accumulated thanks to his ability to carry sackloads of heavy (in both senses) books up mountains and, at the end of a long day’s walk, settle down to read for most of the night, by the light of a headtorch if necessary. I’m still getting to grips with this combination—a short trip to Mull with Giorgio Agamben in December only went ‘well’ because the weather turned so bad I was stuck in a cottage for almost all of it—but I figured I’d at least have the train journey there and back.

The other inspiration came from two posts that appeared on the Modern British Studies Birmingham blog in December. As part of a series of ‘Desert Island’ posts, staff were asked to name the most thought-provoking book they’d read; and on the basis of that, the postgrad-led reading group there chose their first book. I got around to buying a copy of that last week. So as well as packing a book I have to read for a somewhat overdue review, I brought along Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a good woman. It’s very short, but I was still surprised that I got through all of it: partly on the train, but out on the hillside too, a long chapter sitting with my back against a rock at the top of Beinn Eunaich and a lot more once I’d pitched my bivvy bag a couple of miles along the ridgeline by the summit cairn of Beinn a’Chochuill and was waiting for the sunset. In another post David argued that ‘ideas acquired in distinctive atmospheres embed themselves in the mind and develop differently from those read-up-on in familiar surroundings’, and this should do it. I finished it on the train home.

sunset from beinn a'chochuill
It was worth waiting for

Thought-provoking indeed. Steedman’s book is about her own childhood, and her mother’s, and their relationship. But it’s not a memoir, or not just. Steedman wrote the book out of a sense that social histories of working-class Britain had failed—or hadn’t even tried—to explain how working-class women (in particular) develop in childhood a sense of self, and a sense of their place in the social and political world: influential historical and cultural studies produced by men like Jeremy Seabrook or Richard Hoggart were interested in class, not individuals, still less individual women, and there was no place in their pages for a Conservative-voting working-class woman like Steedman’s mother—angry, secretive, dominant within her family and a confident wage-earner outside it; filled with a longing for something, material or otheror for Steedman as the daughter of such a woman.

Steedman set out to make a history that could account for women like her mother, and explain a childhood like her own, using tools borrowed from psychoanalysis. But she recognized that while this methodological toolkit could help, using it carried its own problems—because the empirical base against which psychoanalytical theory was first devised and tested represented a narrow and privileged slice of the Viennese haute bourgeoisie of the decades around 1900. So the book uses psychoanalysis to stretch and remake the social history of the English working class, but uses the lives of working-class Englishwomen in the early and mid twentieth century to stretch and test some of the classic tropes of psychoanalytical theory against a quite different empirical basis. Feminist theory makes a third side of the triangle.

This is all way outside my own areas of empirical or methodological expertise as a historian: I don’t research or teach British history, nor childhood; the subjects I’ve studied so far, and the sources I’ve used, don’t immediately offer much traction to psychoanalytical techniques. So, unlike those former colleagues of mine (modern British historians all), I couldn’t set Landscape for a good woman against a body of historiographical literature that was familiar to me, and see where it had come from or how it had shaped the field over the following thirty years—though I did do a bit of reading around once I was back in Glasgow. A quick look on Google Scholar shows that the book has been cited by other scholars—in all sorts of fields—over a thousand times. Reviews when it came out give a sense of how the book quickly marked out a place for itself, with people recognizing it was important even if they were uncertain what to make of it: a very positive review by Julie Abraham in the Women’s Review of Books; one with some important reservations by Hettie Startup (quite a name!) in the Journal of Oral History; and a really interesting one by Raymond Williams in the LRB, with praise and questions:

[I]t would be an evasion to give it only the simple acknowledgment and welcome which it deserves. What it most deserves, for its exceptional openness and honesty, is hard questioning: against some of its implications and seeking to develop others.

Some later, longer articles put the book in a wider context: in the relationship between feminist history and psychoanalysis, by Sally Alexander; as an instance of feminist autobiography in the 1980s, by Regenia Gagnier; or among historians on the autobiographical frontier, by Jeremy Popkin.

There beneath the blue suburban skies
Mass car ownership, ‘right to buy’, and double glazing transformed these streets

But before I did this reading-around, when I was still on the train back from Taynuilt, I’d already realized that it wasn’t as a historian that I read this book. I read and responded to it (strongly), first, as the child of a mother, and grandchild of a grandmother; and, second, as a product of the same history, though a generation further on. My mother is almost exactly the same age as Carolyn Steedman, and followed a comparable trajectory as an ‘eleven plus’ working-class child in the 1950s—though when she applied to Sussex in the early 1960s she didn’t get in, and I’m not sure if she realizes how keenly the disappointment still comes across in her voice over fifty years later when she mentions it. (She went to a teacher training college instead.)

And my grandmother—my mother’s mother—was born only three or four years later than Steedman’s mother (1917 rather than 1913), about forty miles away, in a different part of south Lancashire: her name, Agnes, like that of Steedman’s mother, Edna, dates her to the generation. She lived much longer, and she never migrated to London as the unmarried partner of a man who left a wife and child behind, but she did grow up in the industrial northwest in the 1920s and leave school for uncertain employment between clerical work in the Jacob’s biscuit factory, the service sector, and marriage.

Jacob's Biscuit Factory 1927
The Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, Walton, in 1927, a few years before my grandmother went to work there

There are other parallels, too. Certainly it was my mother’s complex and difficult relationship with her mother that most shaped her sense of herself and her place in the world (something I could say about my relationship with her, though I’m a son). It surprised me, looking back at the Desert Island Books page, that one of the people who suggested Landscape for a good woman said ‘Not discovered through work, this was given to me by my mum’—the two of them must have a good relationship for such an uneasy book about mothers and daughters to be given by one to the other.

It’s one of the marks of how strongly the book affected me—one of the marks of a good book—that I could immediately think of several people I wanted to give copies to, and discuss it with: my mother (though I’m a bit hesitant about that); a friend whose relationship with her mother has become increasingly difficult since she had children of her own; another friend, a historian, whose powerful and path-breaking research on contemporary Algeria has an inner (which is not to say hidden or unacknowledged) psychological motor, a need to understand the unhappiness of her father and his generation of her family. The relationships are somewhat different—the brothers and sisters were more numerous, the sibling relationships perhaps more intense, and the key parental figure a monumental paterfamilias—and the setting, Algeria at the end of the French colonial period and through the early decades of independence to the ‘black years’ of the 1990s, is much bleaker and more violent. But some of the questions are the same, and many of the methods could be the same too.

I’ve spoken to all of them about the book in the last two weeks. Now I need to send them copies, and see what they think once they’ve read it. And then I’ll need to head back into the hills with my own copy in the top of my rucksack again.

Landscape 3
It was cold in that bivvy bag




Little plastic bodies

Stuart Elden is a professor of geography and political theory at Warwick University (UK) and Monash University (Australia). His fearsome appetite for hard books is charted at his blog Progressive Geographies*, which also includes all sorts of useful resources, from bibliographies on Boko Haram and the Ebola crisis to compilations of material by and about Foucault and Lefebvre.

9780226202570He’s also recently published a Big Book: The Birth of Territory, a history of a key concept in political geography from the classical to the early modern period. I’ve just bought a copy: some of my current research on refugee camps involves thinking about them in the Foucauldian terms of population and territory that Elden explores. (I’ll be reading a lot more work in geography over the next few years, I suspect.) It’ll be interesting to see what impact it has in history departments, but it’s already made a splash in geography: published in September 2013, by April 2014 it was the subject of a special forum at the American Association of Geographers annual conference. The appraisals presented there, and Elden’s response to them, have just come out in an online pre-publication version in Political Geography (you’ll need a library subscription to read them, unfortunately).

And that, in fact, is the point of this post: not to write about Elden, but to salute Juliet J. Fall, professor of political and environmental geography at the University of Geneva (and no slouch herself), who gave her comments on the book in the form of a short animation made with her children’s Playmobil and Lego figures.

Worth watching and thinking about—and admiring Prof Fall’s bravery in doing something different in the heavily formalized context of an academic conference (‘I cannot pretend that I wasn’t shaking’). In the printed version of the forum she also has some thoughtful words about that.

We all know our academic lives and performances are largely ritualized and standardized, and that perhaps we end up believing that this familiar environment provides a safe grounding for our independent thinking. We learn – differently, it turns out, in different academic cultures – how to write, to argue, to critique. We are carefully schooled in how to behave in such a world. You don’t, usually, throw toys at a milestone.

She borrowed the children’s toys again for a presentation on feminist political geography last October.

*Charmingly, the title Progressive Geographies is a declaration of musical affiliation as well as a political statement.

Click image for source

A small start

I’ve managed—unexpectedly quickly—to do a reading list that repeats Sara Ahmed’s experiment by not citing any white men. It’s for a single class, so it’s a small start (and an easy win), but still.

Femme Algerienne 1960Later this term I’m doing a session for a master’s-level course entitled Gender, culture, and text, which I agreed to do a while back to get me out of my comfort zone. I could have done something on refugees—that’s what I do research on now—but as I’m the only person in the department with expertise on the Middle East, the course organizers were quite keen to have something on those hot-button topics, women and gender in Islam. This is one subject where the books that come to mind are not by white men, and nor (I discovered) are most of the books next to them on the library shelves. So I came up with a shortish reading list with titles by Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, Saba Mahmood, Fadwa El Guindi and others, including Katherine Bullock, an Australian-Canadian convert to Islam and proponent of veiling. The only book by a white man I consciously rejected was Douglas Northrop’s Veiled empire: gender and power in Stalinist central Asia, which does actually look really good, but I don’t know enough about central Asia to bring it usefully into the discussion anyway.

One white man does make an appearance, but in the list of primary sources: Marc Garanger, for the ID-card photos of unveiled Algerian women taken when he was an unwilling conscript in the French army in 1960. These are a pretty powerful back atcha to the white male gaze, though not a simple one, so I thought they could stay. But I’m also pointing the students towards Princess Hijab, the duo NiqaBitch, and Aliaa Elmahdy.* I considered using one of Elmahdy’s pictures in this post, but chickened out.

*Princess Hijab, who may have been a man, appears not to be active any more, and if their dormant—but not deleted—Twitter account is any guide NiqaBitch are defunct too. The internet bears their traces, however.

Click image for source


Let’s not cite ourselves

Sara Ahmed is a feminist killjoy, and quite right too.

Sara Ahmed twitter profile pictureI came across her work a day or two ago, in the course of an initial skim of Google Scholar for stuff on ‘embodiment’. I’m going to a conference soon and I’ve rashly proposed to do a paper that will use theoretical work on embodiment to analyze the history of a refugee camp in British-occupied Mesopotamia circa 1920. I don’t know anything about embodiment as a theoretical concept, but figured that this was a good chance to learn.

One of the first books the Googlebot turned up was Ahmed’s Strange encounters. A bit more searching led to her departmental homepage and the Feminist Killjoys blog. There’s an excellent post there entitled White Men, a bracing and necessary read. It struck a particular chord with me for several reasons. First, recognition: what we see when we look at the senior management team of a university (or rather, who); how the buildings of a university get their names; how conferences and workshops are put together—pretty much every problem she identifies in this piece is one that’s familiar to me from my day-to-day working life.

It has become old-fashioned to mention that only white men are speaking at an event but not old-fashioned to have only white men speaking at an event.

Second, education. By drawing the connections between these different things and naming them for what they are—a system—Ahmed helps me make sense of them. Along the way she introduces a bunch of useful concepts that I might not otherwise have come across, in ways that make their meaning, and usefulness, immediately clear to me (Nirmal Puwar’s ‘somatic norms’, for example).

Sara Ahmed twitter page tiled imageAnd third, guilt: not because I happen to be a white man by birth, but because like many white male academics I claim to find these patriarchal and racist systems objectionable, but allow myself to be carried along by them nonetheless. (From a follow-up post: ‘some are not required to push because the system is doing it on their behalf’.) I’ve taken some specific, conscious actions to address a number of the points Ahmed identifies: when writing references, attending job talks, or organizing academic events, for example. But the bibliography of my book is mostly by white men (I’ve recently noted elsewhere that you won’t find many women in the index), and the reading lists for my own courses could most charitably be described as works in progress on this point. I’ve also watched in some dismay as a new team-taught first-year history course that I’ll be convening has turned into an exercise in building a white curriculum.

Which brings me to the title of this post. In 1950, Lucien Febvre gave his fellows and students in the Annales school a famous instruction: ‘Citons-nous!’* Canons are established, and academic careers are made, by citations. Febvre rightly saw that citations were a crucial tool if the Annales school was to be anchored in the mainstream of historical scholarship, and its key texts (especially those written by one L. Febvre) made canonical. Hence his command: ‘Let’s cite ourselves!’

Citation practices aren’t always so explicit. But the implicit practices are more prevalent. ‘White men’, Ahmed writes in her post, ‘cite other white men: it is what they have always done; it is what they will do; what they teach each other to do when they teach each other.’ Those words had the uncomfortably resonant clang of a truth spoken about myself.

Ahmed explains that in the book she’s writing at the moment, Living a Feminist Life, ‘I thus have a strict and explicit citation policy. I will not and do not cite white men. And you know what: it has been really easy! You should try it!’ And I should. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s an excellent thought experiment, an exercise in defamiliarization that can help me recognize how, consciously or unconsciously, I’m perpetuating systems of exclusion and inequality that I say I find objectionable.

I call upon white men not to keep reproducing white men; not to accept history as a good enough reason for your own reproduction.

If you’re a white man in a British university, nothing and no-one will ever oblige you to take up that challenge. Which is the best reason for taking it up.

*I read about Febvre’s remark in the London Review of Books, in a review by Richard Evans of a history of the Annales school: you can easily find it online if you’re interested. But neither Evans nor Febvre needs another citation, and the LRB, however much I like it, has this problem in spades.

Click images for sources