Tagorean World Change and the Peer Review Process

Tagore sometimes insisted he was not a scholar:

‘Perhaps it is well for me to explain that the subject-matter of the papers published in this book has not been philosophically treated, nor has it been approached from the scholar’s point of view.’ (Sadhana (1922) Preface)

‘I hope that my readers have understood, as they have read these pages, that I am neither a scholar nor a philosopher. They should not expect from me fruits gathered from a wide field of studies or wealth brought by a mind trained in the difficult exploration of knowledge.’ (‘The Vision’ in The Religion of Man (1931))

It is generally understood that Tagore was a genius, and so it is presumed that he was also a scholar. In a tribute to Tagore marking his 80th birthday, Ramananda Chatterjee wrote that ‘he is a man of genius [… and] a scholar whose range of reading is very extensive and varied’. (http://tagoreanworld.co.uk/?page_id=59 )But can you be a scholar in a particular discipline or ‘school’ if you are a polymath, as Tagore clearly was? There are different meanings to ‘scholar’, one being ‘a learned person’, another ‘an academic’. Despite having founded a university, perhaps as a polymath Tagore was only a scholar in the first sense.

Why did Tagore insist he was not a scholar? Was it to avoid the bother of ‘the difficult exploration of knowledge’: all those messy citations and scholarly apparatus, the need for scrupulous recognition or refutations of other scholars’ theories before tentatively putting forward one’s contribution to some tiny portion of the field concerned? Or perhaps it was just that the published texts of his lectures in the West constituted a non-literary genre for which it was unnecessary for him to bother with all that. Certainly the books came out quite soon after the lectures were delivered, Tagore needed the royalties to help fund his projects, and his publisher, Macmillan, was keen to exploit the Indian Poet’s somewhat surprising celebrity while it lasted.

Another possibility is that Tagore wanted to be unencumbered with elaborate justification when he put forward his radical ideas, which would come across all the stronger stated in straightforward and confident terms.

We know that there was quite a lot of palaver associated with the publication of Tagore’s books in English, but he was not subjected to any formal peer review process. If he had, there would have been a considerable time lag before the books appeared. He would have been obliged to include citations, to make his arguments formally, in a conventional scholarly manner. The books would have been expensive, and few would have been read, those few by the learned, and not by the general public. The radicalism of his ideas would have been reigned in.

Does peer review have a similar effect today?

I was recently copied into an announcement of Journal of Studies in History & Culture (JSHC), a new online peer reviewed journal at http://jshc.org/ . Part of the ‘Call for Submissions’ reads as follows:

‘Even as we stand at the cusp of widespread change and discontent ranging from the Occupy movements, the Arab Spring, the anti-graft movements in India there are also stories like the Nepalese democracy movement moving towards fruitions or the Chilean student movements sending the Vallejos and Borics to their parliament. There is much to rejoice in and at the same time ponder about. Would any of these bring about any changes in the economic foundations of neo-liberal regimes all over the world or would life continue unabated? Were these interim protests all for nothing or are the times about to change? Many such issues which are relevant will hopefully be written upon by scholars who are the future of the academic world.’

This is all highly topical, political and relevant to world change. Can we conclude from this that the young ‘scholars who are the future of the academic world’ are to be allowed, even encouraged, to try to change the world? Can they abandon the view expressed by literary critic Stanley Fish that ‘academic work—and especially literary studies—cannot reach an audience that might use it as a basis for effective political action’; in other words ‘if you want to do work that resounds beyond the academy, get out of it: “the academy—love it or leave it”.’ (Stanley Fish, Political Correctness, jacket blurb) I note that JSHC’s ‘Call for Submissions’ explicitly mentions ‘materialist analyses of literary texts’ as one of the topics, so literary studies are not ruled out. Fish mentions ‘new historicism, gender studies or cultural studies’ as being able to change their vocabularies and scope but ‘nothing they do will bring them into closer contact with the larger structures they would alter or transform’. Fish is of course not the only senior academic to take this view. Anyone researching and writing for their doctorate is firmly steered away from bringing in considerations of the relevance of their findings. ‘So what?’ is not a question likely to be posed by one’s viva voce examiner.

The new journal JSHC takes pride in its peer review process:

‘The selection procedure involves a ‘double-blind’, peer review procedure. Here we consult two experts of the specific/intended discipline to perform the peer review for us. We will get back to the author only after the decision is taken. The entire procedure shouldn’t take more than three months, maximum, or might even take lesser [sic] than four weeks.’

The homepage of the JSHC website introduces the journal as having been ‘born out of the needs to provide a platform for interdisciplinary research to emerging scholars across the world’. So I wonder which two ‘specific/intended discipline[s]’ will the two reviewers come from, and does ‘interdisciplinary research’ mean ‘bi-disciplinary research’ only?

Both peer review and the viva voce examination tend to rein in new academics, preventing them from putting forward radical assertions, which are new, unconventional and contentious. The peer review process began its life with the sciences and medicine, and is most clearly relevant and necessary to those fields. But the corralling can also be problematic, as ‘feral scientists’ such as Rupert Sheldrake have found. A scientist who ventures outside the current paradigm (Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) is shunned by his/her peers, losing status and career prospects.

JSHC was founded by graduate students in the History and Comparative Literature Programmes at Jadavpur University and the University of Delhi. I carried out my doctoral research in the English Department at Exeter University. My primary texts were Tagore’s five books of lecture texts in English, considered with their context and background, which comes within the scope of ‘History and Comparative Literature’. As a (very) mature student, I was not embarking on an academic career; my interest in Tagore originated in my career as an activist. But as a recognised Tagore scholar I have encountered the peer review process from both ends. When I have been a reviewer, I have been careful only to make comments I could support from my own knowledge, and I have phrased my comments in order to address the author directly in a positive and friendly way. When my articles have been peer reviewed, I have found comments helpful when they have come from someone who has knowledge of the relevant aspects of Tagore’s life and work, and annoying when the reviewer takes a bossy editor’s role, making subjective comments on wording and style, on one occasion using Track Changes, which comes across as aloof and disrespectful.

As a Tagore scholar and activist I try to engage people in discussion of the potential of Tagorean World Change. I see parallels between Tagore’s rural reconstruction and current movements directed towards relocalisation and local resilience and community self-help. I have had articles accepted on this subject, mostly following the presentation of papers at conferences. The abstracts I submit in response to CFPs are accepted because I gained some legitimacy from my doctorate in an aspect of Tagore scholarship, but making connections in the academic world between Tagore’s work and ideas and Permaculture and Transition is difficult. There are Tagore scholars interested in the relevance of Tagore’s ideas today, and there is some interest in Permaculture and Transition – but not together. The peer review process is symptomatic of the wider problem of engaging with multiple disciplines and making unusual and radical connections.

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