Friday, September 10, 2010

My First Article

What does it say about my scholarly career that I still consider my first research article to be the best I've ever produced? I was 25 years old and had only been learning Spanish for 2,5 years. My knowledge of the Spanish language, let alone the literature written in the Spanish language, was obviously pretty limited. I had no idea how literary criticism was supposed to be done. I had even less understanding of how academic publishing works. The positive side of all this ignorance, though, was that I felt completely free to write what I wanted exactly as I wanted to write it. Today's beautiful rainy weather makes me feel nostalgic, so I want to share the story of that article with my readers.

When I decided to create my first research article, I started by going to the library and choosing the thickest novel I could find. The thinking behind that was that a long novel would definitely provide me with enough material for research. So I read this novel by the great Spanish realist writer Benito Perez Galdos and came up with my interpretation of the novel. Happy as a clam, I went to look at the research that had already been done on the novel and immediately discovered that what I wanted to say about it had already been said a hundred times before. In those days, it took me forever to read a novel in Spanish, so I didn't have time to pick another work to analyze.

"OK," I said to myself. "It makes no sense to repeat what others have said before. So why don't I argue the exact opposite of what everybody else is saying? Critics agree that this is a novel about religious intolerance. And I will say that it isn't." Strange as it may seem to proceed in this way, it actually makes sense. Whenever there is a general agreement on something, whenever something seems completely obvious, that means the phenomenon in question hasn't been subjected to a truly rigorous analysis.

I started analyzing the novel from this perspective and came up with some very interesting observations that never occurred to anybody before. At that point, I didn't have the slightest suspicion that writing "Critic such-and-such is completely wrong" might not be a good idea. I didn't know that the critic in question can turn out to be one of the people who will review the article for publication. Or that scholar's friend, spouse, or former student might review it and take umbrage at your argument. I actually believed that if that happened, the critic might feel flattered that their work was noticed by another scholar. I thought a scholar might be excited to enter into an intellectual discussion about the fruits of their research. Stupid, huh? But as I said, I was young and idealistic and had no idea how things worked.

So I finished the article and proved that my innocence truly had no bounds by sending it to one of the most prestigious journals in my field. At that point, I didn't even have a Bachelor's degree yet (the article was initially meant to be my Senior Essay.) The funniest thing is that when this eminently respectable (and to many scholars even scary) journal accepted it for publication, I didn't feel even marginally surprised. I knew the article was good, so of course it was going to be published. There is always space in a journal to publish articles by promising young scholars. It's not like space would be occupied by the friends and the relatives of the editors who need to get published even when they have nothing to say. That never happens. Hard work is always rewarded and good guys always win, right? God, I miss being young.

A short time after I got the letter of acceptance, I visited a conference where the editor of this journal was present. He was sitting in the first row next to the Chair of my department and obviously he asked her to point out this academic whose article he'd just accepted for publication. She turned around and pointed me out to him. I have a tendency to look younger than I am and "like an innocent angel." Which is something that I heard so many times in my life that one of these days I'll just scream "No, I'm a total bitch, and I'll start letting you see that right now, jerk!!" On the day of that conference, I'd also had the brilliant idea to put my hair in braids and tie it with cute little blue bows. I thought that one's appearance has nothing to do with one's intellectual capacities. See, I told you I was young and stupid.

When the esteemed editor saw me, he looked like he was on the verge of tears. He put his head in his hands and sat looking completely desperate until the end of that panel. The article had just gone to the presses and it was too late to recall it. Then, of course, he collected himself and congratulated me.

It's sad to think that the knowledge of how things work in academia did nothing to improve my research. Just the opposite, it made me think of all the things I should fear every time I sit down to write.


Pagan Topologist said...

I love this post. My first article was a joint paper with my advisor. It had nothing at all to do with my dissertation research. I found a fatal mathematical error in a paper he had written and was submitting. With a couple of days work, I figured out a way to work around it. Doing so made it a much stronger paper than it had seemed originally, so he felt that it was proper for us to coauthor the final paper.

I have recently come to understand just how different attitudes and standards are with respect to publishing jointly with one's advisor. In some fields, it is customary, while in others it is forbidden.

Clarissa said...

My thesis adviser came to me one day and told me that he took part of my Master's Thesis, reworked it, and submitted it for publication. And it'd been accepted as a co-authored piece in this really great journal. My only question was: "Whose name comes first?" Since it was mine, I was completely happy. :-) :-)

Pagan Topologist said...

In topology we always put authors' names in alphabetical order. Apparently this is unusual in many fields.

Clarissa said...

We do too. I just wanted to make completely sure. :-)

Good thing my last name starts with a "B".

butterflywings said...

'Hard work is always rewarded and good guys always win, right? God, I miss being young.'
I laughed out loud - so true. I feel old now, though.

cringe-all said...

this is a very cute post. :)
I had my first publication this year when I was 25, but I already feel old and cynical. :)