A Letter from Andy Shankman on the JER’s new Statement on Service

Dear Colleagues,

Recently Co-Editor Johann Neem and I decided to add the statement below to the Penn Press webpage and front matter of the Journal of the Early Republic (JER); the statement will appear in all future volumes of the journal:

Serving the Journal of the Early Republic as a member of its staff or editorial board is a privilege and a trust.  Those doing this work must make consequential decisions scrupulously and thoughtfully, and with the welfare of the scholarly community their uppermost priority.  Only scholars whose actions demonstrate their commitment to SHEAR’s Statement of Values about Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment will be trusted and invited to fulfill these obligations.

Johann and I believe that adding this statement is necessary.  Below, I have decided to explain the various issues I considered, and the conclusions I drew, as I thought about making this precise statement in the journal I co-edit. In doing so, I am explaining only my own thinking.

Some time ago, news broke in the press and on social media detailing carefully researched and extensively documented charges of sexual harassment committed by a scholar of the early American Republic, a scholar who has published in the JER.  This scholar is not the first and will not be the last person in our field to behave this way.  After publication of this information, a scholar in our community publicly asked the JER about our policy and stance regarding scholars who we published prior to any general knowledge of their unacceptable behavior once their behavior became known.  Would we, the scholar wondered, print a retraction of the scholarship, or make a statement of some kind?  One of the scholars harassed by the person whose behavior provoked the question quickly endorsed this public query.  As both an editor and a person, I was unable to stop thinking about the question; I felt obligated to answer it.

My immediate thinking was that I would not retract or disavow the scholarship, and that remains my position.  But I would like to explain how I judge and evaluate scholars and their personal behavior once there is reasonable reason to conclude that they have harmed people who trust and rely on them, once they have abdicated their responsibility to those entrusted to their scholarly and educational care.  I am fortunate and privileged never to have experienced such betrayal.  I am not a member of any population that typically does experience it.  To try to feel something like what those asking me for an answer are feeling, I thought about how I could imagine this suffering and the impact it has.  To do so, I considered the relationship at the core of these experiences—the doctoral adviser and advisee. In the days after first seeing the question, I thought a great deal about the obligations that shape that relationship and the duties of decency and respect that we owe to one another, duties that are crucial to scholarly development, a process that depends on trust and nurturing encouragement as we begin the terribly difficult work that requires us to expose our unprotected and vulnerable intellectual selves.

And so, I thought about my relationship with my adviser, John Murrin, a man who was very dear to me.  Professor Murrin’s commitment to me, and his confidence in me when I had so very little in myself, was essential as I made my first efforts to think in ways that might matter to scholars.  As a graduate student I was (and often still am) racked with doubt, fearful that I had nothing to contribute, nothing of value to say, full of anxiety that I could not do the work.  But I could and did say to myself “Professor Murrin thinks I can.”  It was crucial beyond measure truly to know that, never to doubt it.

What would it have meant had I come to believe that John Murrin did not truly think that?  What if he had behaved in a way that caused me to wonder whether his interest in me was due to something other than the scholarly promise that he saw in me when I could not?  What if he had acted that way not to me but to another student, causing me to fear that he was capable of dishonesty in his judgements and assessments?  Losing my faith in his genuine confidence would have been devastating for my intellectual development, so important was his confidence for my building the courage to take the risks and brave the public exposure our profession requires.  Had John Murrin betrayed me, I would not have produced as I did; very possibly I might not have had a career at all.

Knowing that there are young scholars who experience this sort of loss saddens me greatly.  Consider how deep and painful their loss must be in that moment when they come to doubt their mentors’ motives.  I fear the doubt is lasting, and likely makes it unfairly difficult for a costly time to regain the confidence they had before the doubt first came.  How many colleagues do we lose, how much scholarship goes unwritten, I wonder, because of the time and energy consumed overcoming that doubt, if indeed it is overcome?  That was how I tried to understand somewhat better what, through my great good fortune due to the humanity of John Murrin, I never experienced.

I believe the damage done by scholars in positions of power and trust when they violate these essential relationships is unpardonable.  The damage is destructive to those who receive it directly and to their immediate cohort of colleagues who also rely on these relationships.  Damage is also done to our broader scholarly community, which likely suffers much loss of work not completed and other contributions not made by people who often for a time do not function as well as they could do had their mentors been respectful stewards and faithful trustees.

As editor, I support a statement that holds me to account, and that promises to remove me or others from the position of trust we hold at the JER should we ever damage others and the world of scholarship by behaving in ways that cast doubt on our fitness to serve.  But I distinguish between the privilege to hold such a position of trust, to be considered someone who merits this trust, and the scholarship we produce.  I would not support a betrayer of this trust serving the JER in any public capacity.  Just as fervently, I would never remove or disavow the scholarship produced by that same person.  Further, I will never deny any subsequent scholarship submitted by such a person access to the peer-review process that our journal does so well.

I realize many will disagree with the distinction I am drawing between revoking the privilege of public-facing service and my obligation to provide all with the process of peer-review, so I will do my best to explain my thinking.  I believe that being allowed to serve the journal as a member of our editorial team or editorial board means that our community of scholars has expressed confidence that it can expect the highest and most scrupulous standards of fairness, honest and unencumbered commitment, and absence of all personal rancor.  Those of us who serve the journal must be beyond reproach to the point where we give no occasion for any reasonable concern that we are falling below these standards.  Somewhat analogous to conflict of interest, even the reasonable appearance or suspicion that we are doing so will erode the trust of the community necessary for us to function.

I have equally exacting but different standards for the scholarly work we publish.  Literally, through our double-blind peer review process, we remove the author’s identity from the process.  We remove so that the junior scholar will not be reticent to provide frank criticism to the senior scholar of power and influence, and so that the senior scholar will not know who has provided probing criticism of the sort they may no longer expect or be happy to receive.  We remove so that no author is prejudged based on rank, standing, reputation, or connection.  Each time I engage with the process, I am newly brought to something approaching joy as I witness authors and reviewers working so seriously and with such devoted purpose to improve scholarship.  Ideally, (it is always my hope) the process leads to publication in our journal, though we all understand that publication cannot always be the outcome.

We all do the work of making others’ scholarship better because we all depend on the scholarship of our collectivity.  The criteria for serving the journal in a public capacity include recognition and considered judgment of a scholar’s identity.  The criteria for publication require anonymity and ignorance of that identity but searching judgement of the scholarship itself.  We are all citizens of the scholarly community, and we are also all scholars.  While the two identities often overlap, in this instance I believe they do not.  The scholarly community is harmed when we betray trust, and by doing so we should forfeit the privileges and accolades that come with publicly serving the community.  The scholarly community is also harmed if we lose the scholarship written by dishonorable scholarly citizens that our anonymous process finds advances our understanding of the past.  The criteria for judging whether a citizen of the scholarly community is fit for public-facing service are different from those determining whether that scholar’s work merits our attention.  I respect our anonymous peer review process too much to disavow work that has met the criteria for publication.  For the same reason, I will always bring all work I receive to that process in order to subject it to the same exacting criteria.

Yet there is one point still to make, which requires honestly revealing that I consider it the most vulnerable part of my position, and that I have no good solution for it.  For of course I know when a submitted piece comes from a citizen of the scholarly community who is unworthy of our trust, and who is unfit for public-facing service.  Yet the scholar’s peer reviewers will not know until we publish the piece.  I very well might involve peer reviewers who would choose not to participate if they knew the scholar’s identity.  Those who I involve could very likely be outraged (or perhaps worse) when they realize what I have involved them in.  I have no good answer for this upsetting prospect. Drawing the distinctions as I do, my criteria for peer review will continue to be finding the three readers that I feel can most help to improve the scholarship.  I simply don’t know how else to do the job I am entrusted to do.  I will never knowingly accept scholarly service on the JER’s staff or editorial board from a scholarly citizen who has betrayed our trust.  I will also never impede the review process that has as its purpose bringing forth the best work from all who seek to understand, and to help us to better understand, the past.

Andy Shankman

Co-Editor, Journal of the Early Republic

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