On why I edit

In the midst of a really rough week last week, something amazing happened: I received an email telling me that I, along with my dear friends and collaborators D.J. Hopkins and Shelley Orr from San Diego State University, have won the 2016 ATHE award for Excellence in Editing, possibly the highest honour that academic editors in theatre and performance studies can receive. We are the recipients for our joint collections Performance and the City (2009) and Performance and the Global City (2013), both of which were published by Palgrave MacMillan.

I was so excited, truly excited, about this news that I bounced up and down in my kitchen for about five minutes, freaking out the dog + cat. I was the kid who burst the piñata! I felt like, after years of swinging and pounding and swatting, I’d finally broken in, and caught the windfall.

In other words: this news was not just welcome, and not just thrilling; it was also incredibly validating. Because editing is some of the hardest, most valuable, and yet most under-sung labour in the academic world. At last, I – we! – were being sung about.

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Those of you reading from university offices know exactly what I’m talking about, and are probably nodding along right now.

For those who are not so familiar with it, here’s the standard argument that all scholars hear – usually from the time we are graduate students – about why not to edit.

  • First: it does not ‘count’ for enough. It barely counts as an article; it certainly doesn’t count as a monograph! Editing stuff won’t get you tenure, or promoted. Stop right now! (This is because edited books aren’t generally thought to be as rigorously peer-reviewed as journal articles or single-author books. Never mind that I’ve had book chapters better peer-reviewed than my monograph was. Never mind that all of my edited books have been shepherded carefully by at least one, and usually two, senior academics in my field, who have read multiple drafts of the manuscript. Never mind that working with an academic editor IS built-in peer review!)
  • Second: it’s a slog. Lots of cats to herd! Academics are shit at meeting deadlines (me too, trust me), and many of our colleagues do not write all that well (it’s an open secret). To make a good edited book, you’ve got to do a lot of invisible labour making other peoples’ stuff better. That can be exhausting and demoralising.
  • Third: it takes a lot of time – time away from, you know, your own brilliant writing that you could otherwise be working on, in article or monograph form, in order to get tenure or promoted, and thereby come to inhabit a sense of yourself as a Productive Academic. I call that The Vicious Circle of Orwellian Academic Logic.

(As if by clockwork irony, last week I was reminded of all of these arguments by this – really fairly balanced – piece in University Affairs. Plus ça change!)

Are these arguments valid? Sure – in the business-as-usual version of the academy. But what if we chose not to subscribe to business as usual? What if we flipped things around for a minute, and examined the alternate view of the academy that could emerge from valuing academic editing differently?

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Deej and I in January 2016 in Toronto; we generally prefer the ‘alt’ approach!

Here are the benefits of academic editing, as I believe and invest in them. These are the reasons I have edited five books over the course of the last ten years, and they are the reasons I’ve just taken up the post of Editor in Chief of the journal Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada.

  • First: edited books often get a lot more traction than monographs – even good, popular academic monographs. I am far, far better known for my edited work than for the monograph I published in 2009; simply put, way more people have read bits and pieces of my edited books than even know I wrote the damn monograph! If we’re talking about ‘impact’, about generating a scholarly conversation and thereby shaping the future of our discipline, edited books often do this far more effectively than monographs.

(Why? I’m not sure. My guess is because they include so many more voices, so many diverse perspectives. They are crowd-sourced knowledge.)

  • Second: editing is collaborative scholarship at its finest. From the moment I approach a colleague to write on a specific topic, through the process of helping that colleague build their argument, to the final shaping and editing as we refine, hone, and nuance – me pressing and questioning, suggesting and rewording along the way – what we are doing is working together to create a dynamic argument about a scholarly topic compelling to us both. That kind of collaboration is all too rare in the academy; most academic work is profoundly ego-driven. (Regardless of how many conferences I schlep my papers to, I’m always anxious about feedback. Will they like me? Will they hate it? If I get good advice that might help make the work better, will I be able to take it? Usually, I just feel pinned to the spotlight, in front of the audience, wanting nothing more than for my quiet, lonely work to be pronounced ‘good’ already.)
  • Third: editing is teaching; it is a marriage of research and pedagogy that is incredibly satisfying and insanely productive. I’ve worked with a lot of graduate students over the course of my editing career, because I remember all too well what learning to turn my course essays and dissertation chapters into articles was like: harrowing, embarrassing, realising that I had no idea how to structure the argument of an article, where to put the damn lit review, how to articulate my position with force and without too much repetition (of my own ideas or others’). And I remember with so much joy and gratitude the work invested by my own writing mentor – herself an exceptional editor! – Joanne Tompkins. Thanks to Jo, I discovered my writing voice – she gave me the greatest gift a teacher can give a new scholar. And our shared learning happened around research topics important to us both; that’s true academic interdisciplinarity, if you ask me.

This summer I’m going through the process of seeking promotion to full professor; that’s the highest rank an academic in North America can achieve. According to the business-as-usual academic story, though, my case is somewhat dicey because I do not have a second ‘full’ monograph. (My second solo-authored book is Theatre & Feminism – a short book for students that is set to become the most widely-read piece of work I’ll ever produce. And I’m damn proud of it.) But I’ve decided to go up anyway – on the strength of all the editing I’ve done, and in honour of all the benefits it has had for me as a scholar and teacher and for the many colleagues and students with whom I’ve collaborated. I’m hoping to set an important precedent in my department, and at my school – and thereby help to shift, just a little bit, the story of academic business-as-usual.

Cross your fingers for me!

With huge thanks to all who supported our nomination, and to ATHE for the honour,

Kim

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