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Reflections on Being Editor of JAAC, 2003-2013
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Susan Feagin

I extend my thanks to David and Henry for providing me with this opportunity to record some reflections on what it has been like to be editor of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism for the last ten years. I have not made any attempt to be comprehensive, but I simply highlight here a few features of the experience that have stood out to me.

When I began as editor most submissions arrived on paper through the U.S. mail with carefully composed cover letters. A few contained 5 1/4” or 3 1/2” disks. If they were from an Apple computer an assistant would have to trudge over to another building where someone with the appropriate software would convert the files. We dutifully printed out the papers and made photocopies to send through the mail to referees. Some years ago I decided a little belatedly to remove the instructions to authors not to send carbon copies, deeming such instructions as unnecessary and hopelessly outdated, when I received a submission through the mail with an original from a typewriter, not a computer print-out, and a carbon copy. It was from Eastern Europe. It felt almost nineteenth-century. Nevertheless, it was a no-brainer: “no carbon copies” had to go.

Now submissions are sent as email attachments and, after checking to make sure all signs of the author’s identity are removed, we send them as email attachments to referees. Submissions by email are more informal than through paper mail, and the carefully composed cover letter seems to have gone the way of the carbon copy. Some authors leave no message in the email -- not even their full name -- and send only the attachment. Others send their entire CV, sometimes apparently to show that they are published authors and that hence their work should be given serious consideration (especially if they are in some field other than philosophy), but occasionally with hints that their sterling publication record should dispose me to accept their paper. A few times a year a submission on paper will show up in my department mailbox; we open the envelope and send the author an email asking for an electronic version. Last week, for the first time in heaven knows how many years, I received a paper and photocopy (at least it wasn’t a carbon) and cover letter in the mail from an author who provided no email address. When a google search failed to turn up another way to communicate with the author, faint recollections of printing out rejection letters and addresses on envelopes danced in my head. (Remember when we asked for self-addressed, stamped envelopes along with submissions?) The recollections brought a whiff of nostalgia, and I was able to indulge in the pleasures of real stationery and of signing letters with a fountain pen, but it hardly needs to be said that the efficiencies of the electronic age are unquestionably to be preferred.

JAAC is the journal of the American Society for Aesthetics and I have been conscious of the fact that the actions of the editor represent both the journal and the American Society for Aesthetics. I have continued the practice of taking submissions by email attachment though it is probably past the time for going to an online website submission system. The number of submissions has almost doubled over the last ten years -- we received 109 submissions in 2002-2003, but 230 in 2009-2010 and 212 in each of the last two years. There is a danger that somewhat outmoded procedures will be considered less “professional;” email submissions directly to the editor can court special privilege and raise the possibility of discrimination, both for and against. The desire of a professional society to create a welcoming environment for existing and potential members will at times be in tension with aspirations to publish the a journal that satisfies what are accepted as the most recent standards of professionalism.

I have had the good fortune to work with some wonderful graduate students in the department of philosophy at Temple University as my editorial and administrative assistants. The administrative assistant handles routine communications with authors; special questions and possible problems are passed along to me. Most of the time this is straightforward enough, though replying personally can be time consuming and I flatter myself that I have improved my skills in the art of explaining things diplomatically without going into too much detail. It helps not to take oneself too seriously. A few years ago, a young woman from a European country sent her sixty-page masters thesis for publication consideration in JAAC. Infused with a sense of “do-good-ism” I decided to do a little mentoring, explaining how we (and journals generally) don’t publish monographs and describing what kinds of things a journal article, as opposed to a masters thesis, should do. I thought that she, as a woman in a heavily male-dominated profession (and in Europe, where relationships tend to be a bit more formal and hierarchical), might not have received this kind of attention from her professors. Writing this up took a little doing but I felt good about women helping women and all that -- until she wrote back saying, “Yes, I understand that. I just thought I might get some useful feedback on my ideas.” Oh, well.

For every such deflationary experience, however, there are successes, often unexpected. Some authors do indulge the urge to send me responses to the referees’ comments -- getting in the last word, as it were, even though or perhaps because a revise-and-resubmit was not recommended. Others, more numerous, email me asking to convey their thanks to the referees for their thoughtful, useful, (and often lengthy) comments I have forwarded to them.

Whether the field of aesthetics itself, the range of topics and character of issues examined, has changed in any systematic way in the last decade is a subject ripe for debate. A couple of examples stand out in my mind. It used to be said that Colin Radford’s “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” spawned a veritable “cottage industry” of efforts to solve the paradox of emotional responses to fiction. It is now more like a multi-national corporation, with recent work on emotions and the cognitive sciences, and morality, and artistic understanding, and aesthetic value judgments, and more, all going into the mix. Philosophy of music, always popular, has also taken wing; I have been impressed by how finely-tuned various positions in musical ontology have become, and by how broad a range of types of musical works have become routine as subjects, beyond classical music to rock, jazz, and world musics. In my own view, major issues in aesthetics have always intersected with philosophy of mind, and the more empirically and psychologically-oriented approaches that are now being tested in philosophical psychology are likewise receiving serious attention in aesthetics and philosophy of art. Some things, in contrast, never change. The philosopher who is the subject of more papers than anyone else continues to be, by a wide margin, Kant.

We live in an increasingly global world and the brief of the American Society for Aesthetics and its journal may be gradually starting to reflect that fact. The special issue that I edited in 2007, “Global Theories of the Arts and Aesthetics,” was an attempt to enrich suitably the offerings of JAAC. The term ‘global’ there was not intended to indicate a view that was shared worldwide, but rather to characterize theories or art practices in some part of the world that enrich Western aesthetics as it is “traditionally” done within the pages of JAAC. Roughly 17% of submissions in 2011-2012 were from countries outside the English-speaking world or Europe -- a passable percentage, I suppose, but we did not accept a single one. The challenge is to sustain JAAC’s main mission as to provide a venue for Anglo-American aesthetics and philosophy of art, while being sufficiently ecumenical about what else it can do that will be of philosophical interest to its past and future readership.

Current statistics involving women are in some ways a little more encouraging, in some ways not. Only 24% of submissions during 2011-2012 were from women, but the acceptance rate was almost exactly that as for men, about 11%.

I have been asked whether I will miss being editor and, as with any major change, I expect the experience to be mixed. I feel privileged to have served the ASA and the profession in this capacity and to have had wonderful graduate assistants, colleagues, and office facilities at Temple University. I will miss the little thrill I still get when I am able to tell someone that his or her paper is accepted for publication in JAAC, but I won’t miss having 90% of the letters I write be rejections. I will miss the stimulation of having new work on all sorts of topics cross my desk, but I will enjoy having more time to read work that is already published. I will miss the fact that my personal opinions are never clearly merely personal, but I look forward to having the freedom to express my own views without worrying that they will be taken to reflect journal policy.

I conclude by thanking the authors who send us their work for publication consideration and the hundreds of people who have served as referees and advisors over the last ten years. Consider this: there are a couple of referees who rarely take more than a day to respond. Others apologize for the bluntness or indecisiveness of their reports, though their honesty often provides especially useful insights. Still others decline to referee but let me know when their current backlog of deadlines will loosen up and assure me they are interested in refereeing at that time. Finally, other philosophers are especially helpful when it comes to identifying potential referees on tricky or specialist topics. Yes, there have been some cases of “authors behaving badly” and of “referees who never respond,” but I have been more struck by the number of people who have dedicated the time to help maintain JAAC’s reputation for quality and scholarship.

2012 © Susan Feagin

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