U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Is Intellectual Work? (Guest Post by Holly Genovese)

[Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. — Ben Alpers]

Today I received a journal rejection. It wasn’t my first and it won’t be my last. But this rejection hit me in a way that the others have yet to do. Many of the criticisms have weight: I could read more prison writing, I can revise my structure and my writing, I could include more historiographical footnotes. But others seemed to ignore, and argue against, the very premise of my article. I argued that the Angola 3, because of their long-time imprisonment, status as a cause celebre, and association with radical politics, haven’t been considered intellectuals in their own right. I argue that because of their incarceration, they used non-traditional means like education, protest, and candy production as intellectual work – and that these are a form of intellectual production, in the same way that writing is. But my reviewer commented that the tutoring and political education classes held within the prison meant that the Angola 3 were educators, not intellectuals. That their political organizing meant they were activists, not intellectuals. That their time spent reading George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, and Malcom X meant that they were simply well read and not intellectuals. I stopped reading, confused about what these incarcerated men would have to do to receive the stamp of “intellectual.” Can’t a well-read educator and activist be an intellectual? In fact, aren’t they often? To the reviewer, even writing an autobiography in conversation with prison writers and political philosophers wasn’t intellectual work.

Maybe this means I didn’t prove my point. I’m not sure. But I know it means that my definition of intellectual, however fuzzy and broadly construed it may be, is not something that eliminates people with non-traditional backgrounds from conversations, but takes pains to include them.

If writing and reading, thinking and organizing, and teaching aren’t works of intellectual production for the incarcerated what is? If the incarcerated can be intellectuals, but only if they operate under certain standards and parameters, is this truly a more inclusive acknowledgement of intellectual work? I don’t think so. I still contend that the members of the Angola 3 are intellectuals – because of their poetry and memoir, their organizing and tutoring, their candy production, and speaking tours. They have used them to assert their own critiques of inequities and of the Black Panther Party, and to me, that is enough.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. this sort of (perplexing! blinkered! indeed gramsci et al!) review makes me wonder about the standards/expectations of response and the discretion of the journal editor. maybe it’s not worthwhile–but might it be appropriate to say, hey, this review isn’t helpful, it’s hostile not even to my method but to the very legitimacy of a whole sector of academic work…can i have another reviewer? it’s within the legitimate power of a journal editor, under certain circumstances, to call for new reviewers, isn’t it?

    i should say, i’m not pressing for you to do that, just wondering about when one might.

  2. It seems the reviewer was not well read in the relevant literature (indeed, as suggested above, the Angola 3 would appear to exemplify the emergence of ‘organic intellectuals’), subscribing to a rather constricted if not unwarranted or unreasonable conception of what counts as relevant criteria for identifying “intellectual” production. Working or stipulative definitions which tolerate or reflect what others might regard as perhaps too wide or generous criteria should be fine as long as an author makes clear the reasons for preferring such criteria. In this case, if your critieria are in fact “broad and fuzzy,” you’re hardly alone as these can, depending on context and purpose, characterize descriptive and analytic virtues. At my age, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from rather bright folks who’ve made journal submissions (most of these outside of history proper, but I suspect that difference is irrelevant on this score) with results similar to yours and so it comes as no surprise to learn of your experience, however painful and (apparently) irrational. There are lots of journals “out there” and I trust you can find one with more sympathetic and responsible editors/reviewers at the helm for your work: persevere! Meanwhile, perhaps it would not hurt to drop a short note an an editor (or editors) explaining your dismay on this specific issue. Persevere!

  3. …Since we’re going with advice…

    I’m with Patrick: I think submission to another journal is in order. I’m also with Eric in that a smart editor would perhaps dismiss the review and seek another. But if they weren’t sharp enough to catch reviewer problems on the first round, going with another journal is probably the best option.

    Unless you ask, full out, for a new review with the same journal, I wouldn’t send a note of dismay. I’ve done that, and it just made me sound whiny—or resulted in whiny correspondence. It could result in feeling worse, or worse yet, burning a bridge. It’s not worth it.

    For my part, I’d consider tweaking how you frame the terms used (i.e. “thinker” over intellectual, perhaps?—or use them together). I’d also use “history of thought” over “intellectual history” in describing the work.

    But, returning to Patrick, persevere! As you know, this kind of stuff happens to all of us. I predict success for you in the next submission!

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