U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (4/26/2012): A New Blog, "Secular Humanism," LGBT History, Chuck Colson, And The Problems Of Peer Review

1. A New Blog Of Interest

Two names familiar to USIH readers—Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and Michael Fisher, both of whom attended last year’s USIH conference—now share space on a three-person blog originating in the Syracuse-Rochester corridor. The blog’s title is Longing For The Real, and it has been in existence since January 2012. Thus far the content ranges far and wide, but I expect USIH topics to appear.

2. What Is “Secular Humanism,” And How Is It Used And Abused?

Rick Perlstein tackles these questions in his latest Rolling Stone installment that serves as a shot across the bow, for Democrats, in relation to the upcoming election season. Some of us have had a lively discussion on Andrew Hartman’s Facebook page about Perlstein’s article. We’ve been trying to think through the Culture Wars to figure out which part of the Christian right benefits the most by trumping up fears about “Secular Humanism.” By the end of the article one is left wondering about the difference between “deeply held beliefs” and the “invention[s] of hucksters with right-wing agendas.”

3. USIH, Chicago’s LGBT Community, And Public History

This article explores recent leadership problems with Chicago’s famous Gerber/Hart Library. Before reading this piece (today), I would have recommended the Gerber/Hart Library to any intellectual historian with ambitions of understanding the recent history of Chicago’s non-hetero community. Now I wonder whether that recommendation can be made, due to disarray in the organization and in relation to potentially supporting a renegade leader who appears to be thwarting the LGBT community’s wishes in relation to holdings. It sounds like a public history nightmare. And it’s complicated by the fact the public history (in a different sense of the phrase) of this community is new—still evolving. My heart goes out to those involved because, as a former resident of the area who lived steps away from the Library, I was proud on behalf of the LGBT community that they had created a public space for holdings and gatherings. In addition, one of my good friends spent YEARS volunteering at Gerber/Hart, helping them organize their collections. I fear for my friend’s hard work.

4. Chuck Colson: Delivered Or Disguised?

Our own LD Burnett wrote on Colson’s passing last weekend. She noted that “Colson’s conversion to charity — and by ‘charity’ I mean both ‘philanthropy’ and ‘Christian love’ — did not seem to dull his political instincts.” This theme was echoed and expanded upon in polemical-historical pieces by Francis Schaeffer, Jr. and S-USIH member David Greenberg. Schaeffer’s entry is more autobiographical, but his message is clear: Colson used his redemption for nefarious ends. Greenberg seconds that point, and argues further (not precisely in these words) that (a) Colson’s conversion seems to be at least partially a sham, (b) Colson should’ve removed himself from politics, and (c) Colson simply continued his pre-Watergate/pre-Nixon political initiatives, particularly with regard to faith-based org-gov’t partnerships, but with a post-prison Christian conversion stamp of approval. Colson used his deliverance to disguise a latent thuggishness, so says Greenberg, and continued his ongoing concerns. So who is the real Chuck Colson?

5. What Are The Goods Of Peer Review?

The deceased historian, Princeton graduate (under Dan Rodgers, I believe), and former Chicago Reader contributor Cliff Doerksen asked this question in a September 2010 Reader piece. Here are some salient passages:


In the eyes of its critics, anonymous peer review sucks because it’s slow, undemocratic, and hostile to new and potentially game-changing ideas and arguments. Advocates of the new approach [open review] discussed in the Times propose “using the Internet to expose scholarly thinking to the swift collective judgment of a much broader interested audience.” It’s an interesting and attractive idea, and one rife with potential for unintended consequences. There’s no question that the existing review process is slow: an article can take years to reach publication. But it’s not clear, at least not to me, that it really disfavors innovation by empowering unaccountable gatekeepers who select against new and threatening ideas. That’s because academics are fundamentally creatures of consensus. 

It’s hard to pick a fight around an academic conference table because every step of the industry’s socialization process after admission to graduate school stresses playing well with others. When newly minted PhDs totter off to their first job interviews, they’ll be lucky if a single person in the department to which they are applying has read so much as the title page of their dissertations. “On-campus” interviews, during which the candidate is typically entertained by his prospective employers for 48 hours, are simply protracted exercises in mutual butt-sniffing, designed to determine whether the prospective hire will fit harmoniously into the polyamorous marriage that is an academic department. 

The field of academic book reviewing is likewise a pillow fight. Few reviewers care to freely speak their minds when they know that an uncensored takedown might do real injury to the reviewed author’s prospects for tenure or other advancement—and might piss off the author’s friends and allies in the bargain. (Fun facts: Amid the thousands of academic book reviews accessible through Project Muse, a gargantuan database of 393 peer-reviewed journals, only nine books were deemed “poorly researched” by their reviewers. On the other hand, 374 were found to be “magisterial”—pretty much the warmest plaudit in the humanistic vocabulary.) 

On the odd occasion when scholars do get out their flick knives, it tends to happen outside of class and out by the bike racks.

Getting back to the issue of double-blind peer review: Theoretically the anonymity of the process creates conditions in which an academic referee can vote his or her conscience. In practice I question whether double-blinding really makes much difference, any more than the acquisition of tenure reliably turns your average prudent career academic into a fearless speaker of truth to power after years of careful self-censorship. …By and large I have to agree with Professor Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, when he asserts that “there seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.” And keep in mind Dr. Rennie is referring here to the scientific precincts of scholarship, where especially robust standards of proof and argumentation supposedly prevail. 

So what then might we anticipate from a brave new protocol of scholarly review premised on the idea that anyone with access to the Web is entitled to an opinion? Probably something pretty interesting, and at least as dysfunctional as the mess we have now.

 Comments, praise, and disparagement are welcome! – TL