- Editing SIGNS at the Borders
During my little more than a year of co-editing SIGNS (with Judith A. Howard, a social psychologist), I have rediscovered that, of course, you can’t please all the people all the time. No surprise there. But I have also come to rethink two propositions that have nearly mythic status, at least at SIGNS: first, the journal must cross borders between academic and non-academic audiences, and second, all articles must be of general interest to readers across disciplines.
The suggestion that the MLA panel in which this paper originated might take up border-crossings of various kinds in our respective journals gave me the chance to think more immediately than I might otherwise have about these two propositions. For the moment, I have come to the conclusion that non-academic readers of SIGNS, and perhaps of most scholarly journals, are few and far between—that there is really not much of a cross-over readership. Certainly the University of Chicago Press does not market heavily through general interest bookstores. Rather, SIGNS’ domain remains largely that of academicians and independent scholars, both senior and junior, and college students, both undergraduate and graduate. And given the pressures of our lives, these readers can’t possibly read the journal cover to cover, so that the desire to make every article appeal even to every scholarly reader, as the second myth proposes, also seems suspect to me. Instead, people read first what immediately strikes them as of interest to their own teaching, scholarship, and general intellectual growth. Readers read to check the competition, to keep current and see what’s new, to find sources and references for classes, to cover all the bases in their own fields—or as least as many as possible. They usually read beyond those boundaries only when time permits—which isn’t often.
This state of affairs is no doubt obvious to every journal editor, yet for an interdisciplinary journal such as SIGNS whose original purview, Women’s Studies, is foundationally an interdisciplinary enterprise, the idea that all SIGNS readers will have an immediate interest in every article is axiomatic. I began to be suspicious of this idea when we solicited suggestions for SIGNS’ new directions from friends across the country. “It’s such a social science journal,” my friends in literary and cultural studies said. “So many charts, such an [End Page 463] empirical methodology.” “It’s such a humanities journal,” my co-editor, who is a sociologist, heard. “All those literary readings; too much stuff on the arts.” We were, it seemed, pleasing none of the people none of the time. A reality check of the cumulative index since its 1975 founding suggests instead that, from its inception, SIGNS has worked hard to balance its coverage. The perception that it publishes more articles in some fields than in others (and they’re not the ones Reader A cares to read today) is a risk that an interdisciplinary journal must take. Nevertheless, during its University of Washington editorship we are addressing this risk, together with what we view as the reality of not world enough and time for all readers to read everything, in at least two ways:
1. Since we believe that scholars read journals first for the most recent, most relevant, most original and ground-breaking ideas in their own fields, we are soliciting and accepting new work from leading senior scholars and younger writers coming into prominence in their individual disciplines. We imagine that these essays won’t necessarily in themselves be interdisciplinary; rather they will be “cutting edge” and exciting to discipline-specific readers. We believe that an openness to articles intended to engage scholars in a single field will attract as readers and writers younger scholars, who are most likely to be submitting unsolicited essays and who must write with an eye toward success in their own disciplines.
But—and this condition is increasingly what our editorial group asks from writers who are revising and resubmitting—these discipline-specific arguments need to be framed so that it is clear early on in the essay how the particular argument enters and advances ongoing critical...