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On Gatekeeping

5 June, 2007

On Gate-keeping

In the comments to this post, Anastasia pointed out that I was probably engaging in a kind of gate-keeping. I think I was. I’ve been pondering my own ideas for when I think gate-keeping is good, and when it’s bad. Faculty engage in gate-keeping all the time. Grades are a form of gatekeeping. So are hiring committees and T&P committees. Of these, grades are the ones that arguably have the least wiggle room; faculty should be grading almost entirely on the merits of the work and whether it meets the criteria of the assignment. Search committees can be more nebulous — there’s a lot of legitimate room for ‘fit’, but then there are also discussions of whether candidate A or B is more likely to be a productive scholar … all kinds of things. T&P committees, so I’ve heard, can be all over the place. Friends at campuses trying to reinvent themselves often tell me that T&P committees often seem to take great joy in expecting new faculty to meet requirements that far exceed what already-tenured faculty had to meet for their own T&P. Me? I think that it’s really important to have standards, but that they have to be applied fairly. If these things are done fairly and transparently, then I think it’s not really gate-keeping in the negative sense — it’s trying to maintain standards.

It’s when gate-keeping is applied unfairly that I tend to worry. In almost every workplace — or part of life, for that matter — we run into people who want to make and enforce rules because they can. The ability to prevent people from doing things — in fact, to complicate their lives and jobs — is an expression of their personal worth and power. That’s true for the people with some authority as well as the Jobsworths. What surprises me is that often, these are people in support positions. When I worked in support, I got my ego boos by helping people and out of being able to say that I was just doing my job after helping untangle a hopeless crisis. There are definitely people like that out there — the guy who stayed on the phone with me for two hours after Adelphia accidentally disconnected my internet service (and initially claimed it would take three days to bring back up), talking to managers and getting things fixed was an absolute star.

I’ve run out of ideas for a snappy conclusion. What are your ideas on gate-keeping? When is it legitimate? When is it just obstructionist?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 June, 2007 6:07 pm

    This is a really interesting and important issue, ADM. I’d like to take some time to think about it more carefully, but off the top of my head, I’d make the following comments.To me, the phrase “gate-keeping” has a negative connotation. “Maintaining standards,” while somewhat prissy, perhaps, is less negative. So my initial sense is that maintaining standards means that there is are certain baseline expectations that cannot be ignored. Say, for tenure at my institution, having a binding publication contract from a university press for a book. When we have denied tenure to people — and it has happened twice in my years here — it has been because the individual did not meet this expectation, purely and simply. In the case of publishing, a careful peer-review process (which clearly did not occur with the book you mentioned previously) should also be in place, such that publications meet a certain baseline. If they do go into print and are flawed, presumably the next line of defense is the journal review process — which I think you indicated *did* work in that instance.”Gate-keeping,” on the other hand, in my mind implies a certain rigidity and conservatism in the evaluation of others. It conjures up people I know who say/think things like, “Well, I gained tenure in Y amount of time, why can’t Dr. Z?” Well, maybe Dr. Z works in a field that requires intensive travel, and yours does not; or maybe Dr. Z. works with languages, palaeographies, or complex material artefacts that simply aren’t an issue in your field; or maybe Dr. Z was hired ABD and therefore started a little behind; or maybe Dr. Z had to spend a year moving a cranky parent into an assisted-living facility… The above are a compilation of issues I’ve seen arise for colleagues, things that can slow down a publication trajectory, that “gatekeeping” mentalities do not account for. Likewise, I associate gatekeeping with conservative resistance to any attempt to alter the direction of a field, such as the move towards social history, women’s history, history of minorites, etc. Gatekeeping in this context means trying to close the gate to new ideas. Just some off the cuff thoughts…

  2. 5 June, 2007 8:19 pm

    Ooh! I think the latter points are especially good. I’ve worked with people who were that latter kind of gatekeepers — that line between “traditional” and “newfangled” can be very difficult. When, for example, is preferring a political historian to, say, a Queer Studies person gate-keeping, and when is it serving the needs of the department? Or something I’ve seen a couple of times: traditional Euro-canon preferred over, say, sf/f for a new course description?

  3. 5 June, 2007 8:43 pm

    If the gate exists for a good reason, then gatekeeping is legitimate, even necessary.I don’t mind being considered a barrier to stupidity, incompetence or rigidity….

  4. 5 June, 2007 9:58 pm

    This seems to be a really important discussion. The problem, of course, is that the line between “gate-keeping” and “maintaining standards” is rather arbitrary. Both are necessary but both can be problematic if improperly used. Then again, what’s “improperly used” mean?Oooooh, my head hurts…

  5. 5 June, 2007 10:06 pm

    Perhaps I’m picking a nit…but in a comment to ADM’s previous post, twas squadratomagico who wrote…”I once reviewed, from an author whose only language appeared to be English (hence all European scholarship was ignored and all sources were in translation)…”Now, perhaps its the fact that I’m only a rank amateur with very rusty (and rudimentary) Latin and French, but the condescension I inferred from the crack about “all sources were in translation…” certainly struck me as a bit of gatekeeping!!! That doesn’t mean I excuse the sloppiness mentioned by squadratomagico in his example, by the way). Why, pray tell, would using scholarly translations be considered such a negative? In fact, couldn’t one argue that using the work of a noted linguist or philologist would be wiser than trying to do it yourself? Or is it because only “real” historians translate for themselves….

  6. 5 June, 2007 11:05 pm

    Marc, the problem with ONLY using translations (I use them all the time, but in conjunction with the original source) is that translation isn’t an exact science and the translator always has to make choices about how to render things. Texts are emended, shades of meaning can be lost, etc. This can be a critically important factor in certain cases, especially if you’using close textual analysis to make your point. It is a “gate-keeping” point, but one that makes sense if it’s fully explained — those explanations being something we don’t, admittedly, do enough sometimes.

  7. 5 June, 2007 11:20 pm

    Marc, it’s not a question of condescension, it’s a question of specialized skills that make someone good at what he or she does. I don’t consider my doctor to be condescending when she is able to de-code my symptoms and diagnose a particular illness, even though I cannot do so myself. Being a professional medieval historian involves language skills, for reasons having to do with the clarity and accuracy of our research.There are numerous reasons why knowing the original languages is important. It’s true that some translations are excellent, and that some professional scholars quote translations, when they exist. But one still needs to know the original languages for other reasons, such as:-Not all sources are translated. Consulting only the sources that are available in translation gives access only to part of the culture. This not only limits the questions you can ask about the period, but also, potentially, the validity of the answers you can offer. For instance, you might construct a thesis based on a translated source, without being able to know that another, untranslated source contradicts your argument. -Translations are never perfect. Sometimes even the best translators get something wrong. For instance, I once looked at a (generally excellent) translation of a text first, then found the original, and discovered a small mis-translation. For most readers, it wouldn’t have been a very interesting distinction, but it was one that was very important in terms of the particular issue I was investigating. And no, I’m not saying that my Latin is perfect and that I instantly know every word: I used a dictionary, worked through the text carefully, and found an error that was specifically relevant to my project. I would never had known if I only were able to read the English.-Even aside from mistranslations, the nature of translation itself involves choosing among different meanings and overtones. A translation can never convey every nuance of every word in the original language. A translator must choose a single English equivalent for a word that may have multiple meanings in the original. Some of those meanings may be relevant to the researcher, but there would be no way to know. Thus, again, while I do consult translations, I make it a point to examine the originals as well whenever possible.Lastly, Marc, I am not a “he:” I am female. Please do not assume that all professors are male. If you weren’t sure, you might have said “he/she.”

  8. 6 June, 2007 12:34 am

    squadratomagico — you’d be surprised at how many people used to think I was male!Marc, I think Matthew and Squadratomagico have pretty much explained the fine points. One of my main sources is available in a very fine translation. It’s so good that I know reputable scholars who use it. I do, too, but always go to the original Latin, and cite both the original and the translation. Sometimes, I cite both, but provide my own translation in the text, explaining in the note why I chose to translate it that way. Translation is part of the scholarly conversation. More importantly, in Squadratomagico’s example, the more important part was that the author’s apparent lack of language skills meant that important scholarship was ignored. That really is inexcusable. Being a medievalist means knowing languages (unless you’re one of those people who works in Late Medieval England). And even the people who work on any period in pre-modern England pretty much have to know Latin. So I would argue that the case you mention is gate-keeping as maintaining standards, not as a way of wielding power to keep people out. There is a reason we all had to pass at least three language exams to get our degrees…

  9. 6 June, 2007 12:41 am

    I agree that gate-keeping has a negative connotation for me, though maintaining standards (as a phrase) isn’t much better. I do think, however, that certain standards have to be maintained (just wish I had a better way to say that!). What I guess is frustrating to me about these phrases is that they imply all the power belongs to those who are already in a position of power, if that makes any sense. That is, you have to be inside the gate to be able to keep it. (maybe my feeling about this will change once I’m inside a gate? ;-D) And on the one hand, that’s as it should be – on the other hand, outside perspectives can be valuable… The language thing is a good example. First, I completely ditto everything Matt and squadratomagico say about why you need to be able to consult materials in the original language (and myself, I rely *heavily* on translations, but you have to be able to look at the original to check up on the translation, so to speak). That is, if you’re doing original research and want to make an original argument. I’d suggest that if you’re writing something that’s pure synthesis – a textbook, say – it’s less pressing. But more to the point, it’s not condescension to say that someone presenting their work as original research needs to be able to read the original languages. So in that respect, it’s not gate-keeping. And I’d argue that it is a failure to maintain standards that results in the publication of such a work. So it’s an example of when some kind of mechanism to review things is necessary.I think the “maintaining standards” think is much more problematic when you’re talking about subfields and what topics should/shouldn’t be represented, than when evaluating the quality of an individual piece of work.

  10. 6 June, 2007 12:43 am

    Being a medievalist means knowing languages (unless you’re one of those people who works in Late Medieval England).Hey, hey, Middle English counts as a language!! AND I actually work with law French, so there. πŸ˜‰

  11. 6 June, 2007 12:56 am

    I wouldn’t feel comfortable terming your reaction to the problems in that book as gate-keeping. You pointed up what were very real problems with the work that stemmed from the basic disconnect of a scholarly work being put out by someone without training or expertise in the field (let alone sub-field!). To my mind, that is simply expecting full competence from a scholar.And I’d love to see a bigger discussion of language education in history at some point. Heaven knows I have a hard time convincing my students that they need to keep up what is usually some well-neglected HS French when they’re at university while also adding at least one further language to the list. (Language politics are also a wee bit complicated here in Canada.) This year I was tickled pink to learn that three of my students were actually studying Latin — a rare event!

  12. 6 June, 2007 1:55 am

    I promise a post on language education in the next couple of days. Good Lord, this may be returning to a more scholarly Blogenspiel!And NK, you know what I mean — it’s not that late medieval England people don’t read other languages … it’s that some of them can wangle topics that require a very minimum of another language. Something akin to my reading knowledge of Italian, I expect. I can fight my way through the stuff, but I have to read it out loud and have a dictionary at hand (of course, it might help if I’d ever taken Italian …)

  13. 6 June, 2007 3:50 pm

    squadratomagico et al, point taken regarding nuance, etc. in translation, of which I am aware. Again, it was really just a quibble. I agreed with the larger points re: non-scholarly, er, scholarship.Perhaps it’s because my perspective is that of a non-academic (ie; no institutional affiliation) guy with only an MA in History (though my Master’s thesis was on a Late Antiquity/Early MA topic) who works in History on the side–not as a vocation. That limits the time I have to spend honing my craft, including language skills. As such, well-regarded translations are a handy shortcut for helping to explain the general lay of the land. New Kid’s comment that “if you’re writing something that’s pure synthesis – a textbook, say – it’s less pressing” explains my POV. squadratomagico, sorry for the assumption concerning your gender. And don’t worry, I don’t usually make such assumptions, it was just a slip… I’m fully aware that ADM is female as was my advisor for the aforementioned thesis. Finally, thanks to all for taking the comments of a part-time amateur seriously! (And I’m looking forward to that language post ADM).

  14. 6 June, 2007 3:54 pm

    Just wanted to pipe in, not so much with a substantive comment but with a “hear! hear!” on this discussion. I agree with NK’s comment in particular about the term “gate-keeping” suggesting that one has to already have gained access to the gate in order to keep it. Do you continue to keep the gate in the same way as the person/group of people/generation of scholars kept it before you? Or do we re-evaluate as we go?Also, Squadratomagico et al. – that was a beautiful rationale for why a medievalist and a piece of medieval scholarship needs to take into account the original languages and the host of attendant scholarship that an understanding of those original languages (French, OE, Latin, etc.) makes available!That last sentence was very convoluted – this medievalist sometimes has trouble with modern English! πŸ˜‰

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