The Hunger Games: Publishing in Academia

On Thursday night (2/6), I made a knee-jerk decision to tweet about the rejection I’d just gotten. I was feeling a lot of things, including, as the tweet left mentions, sadness, embarrassment and disappointment– yet, I forgot the most important reaction of all: confusion.

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I’ve written more times than I can actively recall about rejection. It happens, with abounding frequency. When writing and publishing is involved, it is inevitable that you are denied, and it’s no surprise that rejections can be brutal.

And yet, when my latest rejection landed in my inbox, I was taken aback. I had submitted an abstract to a special issue, which was accepted. The wording in the initial abstract acceptance led me to believe that, yes, there were a lot of accepted papers, however, logistically, they, the editors, would find space for everyone.

So one could imagine my surprise when I received a brief rejection with no feedback, instead of revisions.

The initial tweet sparked conversation. Over 50 people replied with their own reactions to the situation. Some academics, including a journal editor, expressed shock that this was a possibility:

Others mentioned that this is an unusual, though not unheard of, possibility, that relies on very clear communication:

Still others offered suggestions, from reaching out to the editors and asking for feedback to shopping the piece around to other journals. Many offered words of encouragement, but several showed their solidarity by sharing equally jarring rejection stories:

The division amongst those commenting were striking. There were actually several divides and sides to what folks recognized as the issue. Many newer scholars, that tended to be from marginalized communities, had never heard of this practice. However, senior scholars tended to begrudgingly admit that rejecting a manuscript after the abstract has been accepted is not an unheard of practice. There were divisions between whether this was an issue of lack of clarity and transparency, that no feedback was offered, or that it had happened at all.

And while there was at least one comment that suggested that the fault of this was my own for not asking adequate questions and also a reflection of lack of mentorship, most people, regardless of what they saw to be the issue, were in solidarity.

Clearly, there are some things we need to discuss about academic publishing.

While I am a new scholar, I am not completely new to the academic publishing process. I spent my first year in grad school as an apprentice with a scholarly press that published had both a quarterly journal and a books division. I spent two solid weeks in apprentice training learning the ins and outs of academic publishing. Of course, much of what I absorbed during my training and the subsequent year of work did not sink in until I started to hear peers speak about the process and I began to undergo it myself. I began to have a clearer idea in my mind about what terms like peer review and revise and resubmit meant.

This experience has also clarified ideas about transparency in the processes we must undergo in the Academy. This is the number one reason why I started, and maintain, this blog. I recognize that much of this journey is opaque. Another twitter user, Jameelah Jones, reminded me on Instagram that the structure of many academic journals is not meant to ensure the success of new scholars. There are invisible, gatekeeping rules and constraints that, like spiderwebs, of which you are unaware until you run headlong into them. And unlike those who learn their lessons and fall into complacency, I will continue to fall and record my errors (and triumphs) so those who come after me won’t have to make my mistake. The success of future generations of scholars matter as much to me as my own success.

To ensure the success of future generations of scholars in publishing, it is advisable that we drop the unspoken rules of the Academy that uphold a status quo and begin to operate with transparency. This means: we must be clear about expectations and processes, rather than depend on assumed knowledge. We must actively encourage the growth of emerging scholars, which in this case can mean ensuring constructive critique on pieces of writing. We must lift as we climb.

Publishing does not have to be a gatekeeping practice. It should be an institution that stands for new ideas and the dissemination of new knowledge, rather than a shield that protects the old guard. Given that academic publishing can tend toward being more harmful than helpful, it’s no wonder why newer scholars have invested their time and energy in projects that seek to cultivate their voices, often of their own making.

In some ways, I should be grateful. If not for the state of academic publishing and the tendency of academic structures to both reject and overuse contingent faculty, I wouldn’t have Contingent Magazine. The feeling of shouting into a void with publishing that often reaches a very small audience propelled me to begin writing for online magazines. Lack of transparency has birthed a network of graduate students creating their own infrastructures for each other and those who will come after, just look at #CiteASista, #FirstGenDocs, Blk + In Grad School, and Blackademia. Just look at this site.

I now believe that a large part of my scholarly intervention has been through the creation and curation of this blog, the conversations I can start and cultivate, the people I connect with that have become integral parts of my journey.

And I firmly believe in the possibility and potential the conversations changemakers have, in person and in the digital, to foster new forms of knowledge production and dissemination.

So maybe, the question isn’t even: how do we fix what’s broken?

Perhaps it is: what’s next?

“Agented!”: Writing Across Genres

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you’ll know that I recently announced that I am now represented by Leah Pierre of Ladderbird Literary Agency. I’m super excited to begin working with her and hopefully get my words on a bookstore shelf near you.

That said, I’m sure there are questions, so I figured a quick Q&A would be helpful!

  1. How did you find your agent?

One morning in October, I woke up to find there was this Twitter pitching contest happening, #DVPit, which happens to specialize in connecting marginalized voices with agents and editors. I had finished drafting Love in 280 over the summer, so I thought, well, may as well give it a shot. I got interest from three agents, two of whom I submitted queries. When one of the agents passed on my manuscript in December, I actually emailed her to ask if there was anyone else on her team that’d be interested– I’d been doing a lot of reading about Ladderbird and wanted to be there. Incidentally, this agent had been trying to forward my manuscript to Leah, and maybe a month later, I got my offer from her.

  1. Why do you need an agent?

You don’t necessarily need an agent if you’re doing academic writing and publishing, but I write novels and am interested in trade publishing, which is much harder to enter without an agent. Many editors, particularly at bigger publishing houses, don’t acquire manuscripts from unagented writers. So, if I want to have a larger audience, having an agent means I have a better shot.

Also it’s great to have someone who loves your words in your corner to advocate for you and help you navigate the industry. I am absolutely transparent about the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing in the Academy and also in publishing, but I’m just writing what I need to write, the way it needs to be written, and worrying about whether it will find a home after.

  1. What happens next?

Now we do some edits to the manuscript before we start sending it to editors. I’m unsure how long this process will take and there’s always a chance we can’t sell the book, but even getting this far is exciting to me.

  1. Why are you writing across genres?

It’s just right. I’ve always written novels and short stories as long as I can remember. I used to write novel length stories about what I thought my friends’ lives and my own would be like in twenty years. I wrote Harry Potter fan fiction and X-Men stories to entertain people. I entered NaNoWriMo every year (and won) for about five years. I used to write comics and whole newspapers for my family. I’ve blogged for years and found homes for my words across the internet. I have always been a creative writer and trying to tell myself that I was only ever going to write academic pieces for the rest of my life was disregarding everything I had ever done in my life up until this point.

I write across genres because different stories require different forms or containers to be most effective. Some ideas require an article, others a short, still others a novel. And within those forms, I’m still going to experiment and push boundaries because that’s just what I do.

This is me walking in my purpose. This is right.

  1. How do you balance it all, your academic writing and creative writing?

I get this question a lot, actually.

It’s all about time management. I know that my academic writing pays the bills, so to speak, so I prioritize that. I set a weekly writing goal, which I then break down further. If my goal is 1,250 words per week, I need to average 250 words per week day. It only takes me an hour or so per day to get there, so I have the rest of the day to read and research, and work on my other projects.

One thing that happens is that I often get carried away by my creative projects and I can write a lot more and faster than I write my researched work. I usually cap a day’s work at 1,000 words for creative projects, and try not to write much more than that on a give day so I don’t get carried away.

Remember, some people work better with word limits/guidelines, others with time limits. Find what works best for you and work with that.

(I really should hold a time management webinar; if you’re interested leave a comment below.)

  1. Are you happy?

Yes.

New Decade, New Me: Post-Student Life and Embracing Candidacy

January– the start of a new year and a new semester. This semester is a little unusual for me because this will be the first semester since I’ve started graduate school that I have “off.” The deal is that if you are a teaching assistant (TA) or a teaching fellow (TF) one semester during the academic year, then that semester of work for the entire year. This is absolutely an institution-specific thing, a program-specific policy even. I have friends in another department at my school who have some sort of graduate assistant duties each semester, no matter what. However, they’re guaranteed at least one full year of funding where they have no obligations except to write. It all varies.

So much feels like it’s changed since I last wrote. Last semester (Fall 2019) seemed like the end of an era in a lot of ways. It was the first, and likely last, time that I’ll be a teaching assistant; the next time I set foot in a classroom for an extended period of time, I will probably be teaching my own course. It also marked the end of a series of trials and tests; with coursework, comps and prospectus behind me, as well as the experience of getting my feet wet with pedagogy under a tenured professor, I finally feel ABD (all but dissertation). I feel like everything I do from here on out is for me, on my time, on my terms, and I can begin to craft my career the way I want to, as opposed to satisfying the whims of others.

 

I’m not a student anymore.

And that means I’ve been spending a lot more time than usual thinking about how I want my career to look, studying the careers of others, reaching out, daydreaming, and hustling. A lot of things have been put into motion that I can’t necessarily say much about at the moment, but in the last few months of 2019 and into this first month of the new decade, I feel myself finding my footing as I begin to walk in my purpose.

The one thing that’s abundantly clear is that I want to write. It seems so obvious to say, but nothing feels like writing for me. Nothing feels like the moment when I get the first words down on a new document or in a new journal; nothing like working through rounds of revisions; and nothing like seeing those words find a home and make their way out into the world.

An important note is that I want to be a writer with range; I recently got to see Lamar Giles in conversation with Meg Medina and the discussion about range has stayed with me. My scholarship, my blogging and my essays are starting to find homes and an audience. I want that for my fiction, too– my novels and short stories. And one day I want to write a comic. I would love to write lots of comics, but let’s just start with one. (I won’t say who I’d want to write but let’s just say her initials are LL.)

One day, I’ll write a post about how I balance all the different types of writing that I do/want to do. For now, just assume I spend a lot of time juggling and dropping the various balls.

As I get further down my path and closer to aligning myself with my own goals, I have come to resent grad school less and less. Yes, I could write a book about what’s wrong with higher education as it stands, but the time I got to hone my thinking, develop my writing, read widely, meet people– specifically, authors and writers…those are skills I can take with me, no matter where I end up. I don’t think I ever would have wrote the novel I drafted last summer if I hadn’t been in grad school, day-dreaming about digital Black girlhood, blogging and writing. I maybe wouldn’t have made the time, or perhaps never even had the idea.

Things happen for a reason, and they’ll reveal themselves in time.

At any rate, there’s still the practical business of having a semester off. What will I do? Well, I still have plenty to do. I still have a whole dissertation to write, research to do, stuff to read to get there. I’ll be making some appearances at conferences: Chesapeake DH in February, SXSWEdu in March and the Lemon Project Symposium later that month. I’m still the graduate advisor of the Africana House on campus so I’ll be working a little more closely with the students this semester. Of course, I’m already back to yoga, but I’m adding in a new cardio class for fun. And I’ll probably be writing across the internet (I’ve already had pieces in Black Youth Project, Wear Your Voice, and ZORA) in addition to my dissertation work and noveling.

I have some cool projects and news dropping soon, too, so stay close to the blog (and Twitter) to be the first in the know.

I’m so glad I’m finding my magic in this liminal space between life as a student and a lifetime as a scholar.

My attempt at joining the Academy