Music: Indochine: Wax (1996)
First, I wanted to have an MP3 of “Southern Air” by the immortal sage, Ray Stevens, playing as a soundtrack for this entry. It’s a song about a no-frills airline that flies both people and livestock at the same time, with bails of hay as seats and Minnie Pearl as the stewardess. It’s hee(haw)larious, but I only have an audio tape of the album, and I cannot seem to find it for download. Ah, well, you’ll just have to imagine the banjo . . . .
Although I do not regret my suggestion that scholars should avoid publishing in The Southern Communication Journal, I do rue the impression anyone developed that this has anything to do with the editor-elect, whom I respect and admire very much. Apparently my call came at the moment the new editor issued a call for papers on CRTNET, which I knew nothing about (the UT spam filters delay CRTNET posts by hours, sometimes days). Because my respect for the new editor, I wanted to set aside some space and time to explain more of the reasoning behind my call, which is admittedly better contextualized as part of a years-long, growing dissatisfaction with the Southern States Communication Association, of which I was a member for four years, and who publishes SCJ.
First, I think the recent problem I had with SCJ has less to do with specific people and more to do with a larger structural issue within SSCA, of which SCJ is a symptom. If there are specific people to hold accountable for six months of delay, a lack of communication to authors during that time, a failure to explain to authors why there was a delay, and a failure to deliver feedback on essays that were rejected, then it would be the guest editors: Robert Ulmer and John Patton. Yet Patton and Ulmer were appointed the editorship by the normal editor, and by extension, the SSCA leadership, and the problem was allowed to continue for a year under apparently no-one’s watch, and so on. I just don’t think the embarrassment is reducible to any specific person, but rather exists in a larger discourse—a set of norms, expectations, way of doing things, practices, and so on that are typical of any organization. Now, I do think the decision to empower the new editor elect represents smart thinking and a desire to change this culture, but cultural change is going to take more than one person.
So if the recent failure at SJC is a symptom of this larger cultural issue, what other symptoms do I have in mind: (1) my last publication with SJC also encountered issues with a different editor, taking three years to come to print from the moment of acceptance with a previous editor; (2) winning an SSCA award but being unable to receive it because I could not afford to pay for the conference (I was a fresh assistant professor and, as everyone who is or was one knows, those first few years are very tight, we only got $400 bucks a year for travel at LSU, and I had just done a very expensive NCA conference); (3) SSCA conferences are in consistently bad places (a bad part of Birmingham, a worse part of Baton Rouge, then the strip mall-land in Denton?); (4) not receiving my regional journals for almost two years, despite having paid for them through SSCA, and despite numerous phone calls and assurances from SSCA leadership I would receive them (I never did); and I could continue with any number of complaints, but they’re all the same kind of thing. Working with/through Southern four years and going to the conferences, it became clear a small clique was “running the show,” as they say, and in my opinion this led to very insular opinions and a gradual decline in the quality of the conference, and obviously some administration issues. I know I’m one of at least a dozen folks I’ve talked to who feel the same way, and I suspect this will be reasonably reflected in a decline in conference attendance in the past four years.
I was speaking with a colleague recently, who reminded me of what has happened to the American Communication Journal, which used to be the premiere (and pioneer!) online journal for Communication Studies with a respectable editorial board and very good research. Now the journal has become the equivalent of Ray Steven’s “Southern Air” airline—and boy, do I have some stories about this too. The organization that presumably “runs” the journal has ballooned with leadership positions aplenty. Perusing the ACA website there seems to be stuff going on, conferences and such, but why is the journal defunct? What, exactly, does the ACA do now? Accredit departments? Apparently an organization who cannot seem to maintain and edit an online journal will stamp your communication program with a seal of approval for a modest fee. An easier alternative to SACS, perhaps?
With ACJ in mind, I think of SCJ in a similar way: it’s a symptom of the organization who publishes it, and rightly so, as flagship journals are supposed to “reflect” or “represent” the interests, concerns, leadership, and so on of its publishing organization. Admittedly, I was (and remain) angry about how scholars were treated by the special issue editors and there is no way to rationalize away my emotion from my subsequent call to avoid the journal. The only thing that kept me from posting about this on CRTNET was a phone call from one of the editors. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend scholars send their work to SCJ for the above stated reasons—at least not until the new editor “cleans house,” as they say, and something changes with the larger governance and leadership of SSCA. And to be fair, I must admit I also discourage rhetoric folks from sending work to Communication Quarterly, after one of my former students had a critical media analysis rejected without review because the editor said it was “not related to communication.” After a few unfortunate experiences with Communication Studies, I also don’t recommend our ilk send work there either (it seemed to have gone into the “social science only, please” mode). That leaves only The Western Journal of Communication, which is thankfully quality and open to all kinds of research (as is Communication Monographs, by the way, under the new editor). I think regional organizations are important, and I cannot speak for the conferences of Western, Central, or Eastern, as I have nothing but the journals to go by, but I’ve left Southern, and I don’t encourage students to attend their conferences.
What I will really miss about Southern—what I definitely missed last year—were the good people whom I get to see when I go, especially the LSU mafia and my friends at Georgia State. But I cannot justify going any more.
Finally, my comments here are party to a larger, discipline wide conversation we’ve been having about “our” journals and representation. As Communication Studies struggles for wider recognition in the academic world and the “public,” for better journal ratings, and so on, there is a move afoot to “educate” peer reviewers. Peer reviewers need to provide constructive feedback in a timely fashion (duh!), and fortunately, the new editors of our national journals are imposing review deadlines for their various editorial boards. I personally review things within a two-week frame, sooner if I’m not swamped, sometimes longer (though very rarely) if I am swamped. But I hope this process continues. There are also workshops for new editors, and so on, that are contributing to this larger effort to sail tighter ships.
Nevertheless, reputations for fields are built on the quality of their journals and how they are run. At happy hour last week, I was talking with a colleague who publishes in a more established, social-scientific field and we were sharing stories about working with journals. He laughed somewhat hysterically when I told him about the special issue situation with SCJ, and my recent publication experiences with QJS and its previous editor. “That’s an embarrassment,” he said. We were lamenting about the reputation, or lack of reputation, Communication Studies seems to have from the perspectives of political science, psychology, and so on. The issue is not the length of time it takes to get reviews back (which can get loooooonnnnggggg in a lot of fields); the issue is professionalism, finding the right reviewers for essays, and communicating with authors and reviewers in a timely way. He suggested that perhaps we should move to the model of other major journals in social science: associate editors are four in number (not simply reviewers as they are in Comm Studies), and handle their own specialized areas of expertise with the power to accept, reject, and so on. This might solve the divide some editors seem to enjoy forging between the humanities and the social sciences in our regional journals. I dunno.
Regardless, the ACJ model is a very bad one to emulate, and one worries—I worry—that our field might be seen like some of us see ACJ: it’s “Southern Air,” with piglets running around and chickens clucking. Given the early history of our field, this view is somewhat justified and part of our own internalized feelings of inferiority. Could it be, perhaps, that this sense of inferiority is self-perpetuating?