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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · May 27, 2015

Interpreting the Interpretation of “Sources and Interpretations”

WMQ 9 min read

By Josh Piker—

So, I was reading Joyce Chaplin’s “The Other Revolution” in the most recent issue of Early American Studies when I got to Table 1 (p. 297), which breaks down WMQ “Articles by Subfield” for the volume years 1973, 1983, and 1993.  At the bottom of the table, there’s the following caveat: “Note: These numbers do not include reviews, review essays, introductions or prefaces to special issues, interviews, or any materials from the ‘Notes and Documents’ section.”  And right there, in the middle of this fine essay, Chaplin lost me.

Before I say why, it’s worth noting two things.  In the first place, I greatly admire Chaplin’s work, and this essay is no exception.  If she thinks something is worth writing, I think that something is worth reading.  Second, being Editor of the WMQ means that I sometimes find myself reading against the grain of an essay or book, focusing on things that are relevant to me as Editor but which no other historian would or should care about.  In short, I’m odd.  (Whether I was born to oddness or had oddness thrust upon when I accepted this job is a topic my friends and colleagues can kick around in some other venue.)  The point, however, is that, even though I got my knickers in a twist at the bottom of Table 1, you probably won’t, and I urge you to read Chaplin’s article.

But I read Table 1 and found myself thinking: Wait, why exclude “any material from the ‘Notes and Documents’ section”?  And the reason I thought that has very little to do with the conclusions of that EAS article itself—if you go back and look at the WMQ volumes from 1973, 1983, and 1993, you’ll see that including the “Notes and Documents” pieces from those years would alter Table 1’s numbers a bit but not enough to undermine the point Chaplin is making—and almost everything to do with a theme that has been surfacing in readers’ reports of late.  Readers seem to believe that the “Sources and Interpretations” designation (the current term for what the WMQ used to label “Notes and Documents”) is the heading under which the WMQ publishes shorter, less sophisticated, and, in the end, weaker essays.

Wrong.  Not quite 100% wrong—S&I pieces generally are shorter than other essays, and that was especially true back in the day—but on all other points absolutely, completely, and distressingly wrong.  And yet every week or so I receive a reader’s report which says something along the lines of “Well, I don’t much like this essay’s argument and its research is subpar, but perhaps the author could cut it down and publish it as a ‘Sources and Interpretations’ piece.  Or something.”

Of course, many of those readers are just trying to be nice, and saying “This essay should be rejected” is hard.  But the mindset that S&I articles are lesser or stripped down versions of “regular” WMQ articles leads to two problems.  In the first place, a reader may spend a fair amount of time suggesting how an author could make an S&I piece out of an essay that truly isn’t suited for that format.  Doing so is a waste of the reader’s time, and since it distracts the reader from making other, more cogent suggestions, it also tends to deprive the author of one reader’s advice.  Perhaps even more worrisomely, though, the reports that I’m reading suggest that our colleagues are under-valuing the essays that are published under the S&I rubric.  Again, that does a disservice to both author and reader.  The author’s work is not being properly appreciated, and the reader is missing out on the chance to engage with a first-class essay.

So, I want to underline that S&I articles are evaluated in the same way and get the same number of readers’ reports as other articles.  It is also my impression (although our database doesn’t allow me to verify this) that S&I essays are rejected at the same rate as any other WMQ submission.  Yes, S&I articles are (as it says on the OI website) “tightly focused on a document, text, image, or material object,” but no S&I piece is accepted for publication unless it succeeds in “placing the primary source in historical context and connecting the interpretation to significant historiographical questions” (ditto).  Isn’t that bit about “historical context” and “significant historiographical questions” what we expect of “regular” WMQ essays?  Yes, yes, it is.  Moreover, S&I articles are authored by scholars from a wide range of disciplines and at all stages in their careers.  Their authors win awards for these pieces, and those authors are themselves award-winners in other contexts, including a Bancroft Prize recipient who has an S&I article forthcoming in our October issue.

In the future, I hope that scholars will use S&I pieces to take better advantage of the digital resources that the WMQ offers via the OI Reader.  (Run, don’t walk, to your local App Store for the free download.)  If you’ve downloaded the OI Reader, you know that we’ve used it to present a zoomable version of the detailed map at the center of Chris Steinke’s S&I piece (October 2014), and we’ve likewise added interactive features to a document and map published by Joe Hall in his S&I contribution (April 2015).  By their very nature, S&I essays are a perfect venue for authors to think creatively about the ways digital technology can enhance the reach and impact of their scholarship.  That said, as things stand now, our digital offerings are supplemental.  Within a year or two, though, I expect we’ll publish an essay in which the digital component is a critical facet of both the article’s structure and its argument.  And I’ll be more than a little bit surprised if the first such piece isn’t published under the heading of “Sources and Interpretations.”

For now, though, the key point is that, if you’re not looking at the WMQ’s S&I essays as you sample the journal’s content, you’re missing out on some terrific articles.


[…] William and Mary Quaterly Editor Josh Piker discusses “Interpreting the Interpretation of [WMQ’s] “Sources and Interpretations.” […]
Wednesday Link Roundup #98: Historic Ice Cream, Inns, and Ideas - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart  •  March 04, 2016
My apologies to any authors of the S&I pieces who might have felt slighted! But, as Josh Piker's analysis confirms, their content was, for my purposes, statistically negligible. More to the point, it is disappointing that Josh Piker did not engage, however briefly, with the subject and argument of my essay--he does not even mention that the essay is about the historical problems of climate and environment. That's a shame. It's 2015. All thinking people are thinking about climate and environment.
Joyce E. Chaplin  •  May 28, 2015

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