[Update: comments now opened - sorry!]
In a post last week, I discussed how I've found it liberating to just write stuff pretty quickly and send it out -- sometimes to conferences, sometimes directly to journals. I noted that although this has led to some pretty brutal referee comments, it has also led to some publications and, perhaps more importantly (to me at least), to rediscovering the fun of doing philosophy. The first comment on the post, by an anonymous friend, suggested the following:
I worry that you may be hurting yourself professionally. My sense is that...if you're sending out problematic work, you may be encouraging a certain reputation for yourself...I'm not completely sure of this, but that's my worry.
I really appreciate the concern expressed (both its content, and the friendly sentiment behind it). Still, in my reply to the comment, I resisted the worry, and I'd like to dwell a little bit more here on precisely why I resist it. There are two reasons for this. First, I'm curious to hear some of your opinions on the matter. Second, I'd like to share my reasons for resisting the concern with all of you, as -- in my own mind -- I feel like I might have learned something that may be helpful to others.
I suppose I should begin by stating clearly that I agree it's not a good idea to send out sloppy, poorly-thought out work. I agree that it is important not to send everything out one writes. It's important to put a new paper away for a while, read it again, and see, with a little perspective, whether the paper still seems any good (I assume we all know the experience all too well of writing something, reading it a week or two later, and realizing it's all -- or mostly -- crap!). I also try to send stuff out to conferences before going straight to journals, whenever this is possible, as it is a good way to get some initial feedback on whether the paper is promising (so you don't needlessly waste your, reviewers', or editors' time).
Here, though, is where I am coming from. If you are at all like me (and I've run into many people who have had something like this experience), graduate school rammed into your head this message to you that you should be something of a perfectionist -- that you should be really sure something is good before you show it to other people or send it anywhere. In my experience, this message is only partly (but partly) the result of explicit instruction. People in positions of power -- graduate school faculty -- warn you, much as anonymous friend warned me here, that sending stuff out before it is "ready" can be a great mistake. Another part of the story, however, is more implicit. In graduate school, unless one is an out-and-out superstar (I wasn't), there is (in my experience) a certain tendency to become insecure. One worries that one's ideas aren't good enough -- that your advisor/professors won't think they're any good, or that you'll look like a fool in the eyes of your fellow grad students for having the Stupidest Idea Ever.
Here, in my experience, is how all of this sometimes (oftentimes?) shakes out. If you're me (when I was a grad student), you become so insecure that it practically paralyzes you. You no longer trust yourself. You come to worry more about what others think of your ideas than what you think of them. And, of course, to a certain extent, this is perfectly rational! First, your faculty/advisors are more knowledgable than you. Second, it's important to learn to be self-critical -- and worrying about what others think of your arguments can help in this regard. But here, in my experience, is something that happens to many people...one experiences all of this as profoundly stultifying. Indeed, as I've explained before on this blog, I actually came to hate philosophy for a while (a few years!) in grad school. Mostly, I became to hate it because I began to hate myself. My ideas were never good enough (in my eyes, or, at times, in the eyes of others).
And so I fell into a trap...a trap that I've seen other grad students (and now, in some cases, young faculty) fall into as well. That is the trap of becoming such a perfectionist that you (A) almost never get anything out, and (B) hate doing philosophy. I can tell you from experience: this is no way to live. It is also, in my experience, no way to get published. And I've seen it happen with others, too. I've seen grad students never finish their dissertations because of it, and I've seen young faculty never publish because of it.
When I found myself in this trap for long enough, it finally occurred to me that I had "nothing to lose." I wasn't getting stuff published. I was stressing myself out to no end. And so I tried something different. I tried the strategy I mentioned in my previous post. I tried just trusting myself, writing out papers quickly right as they came to me, and sent them out. And so while, yes, I have had to endure some nasty reviewer comments, and yes, I may have a reputation out there with some (many?) editors for sending in shoddy work, here's my rationale: it's simply worked better than -- and made me a far happier, healthy individual -- than the perfectionism that graduate school ingrained in me.
Yes, I realize there are risks involved...but one of the things I think I've learned about what it means to be a professional philosopher (as opposed to a graduate student) is that, much as a young child is raised into adulthood and then has to find their own way, so too must one do the same with the lessons one learned (from wise and not so wise) people in grad school. The lessons are there for a reason. The people -- the faculty -- who helped "raise" you tend to know what they're talking about. I, for one, think I benefitted immensely from those (thank you Tom Christiano) who tried to hammer And yet...when you're on your own, you must find your own way. You have to find out what works for you, given the unique individual you are. If being a perfectionist isn't working (as it didn't for me), what do you have to lose by letting things fly a bit? Your reputation? Maybe...though if you're me you didn't have any reputation to lose to begin with. ;)
Anyway, I hope some of you found this post illuminating. Regardless of whether I'm a fool or not for sending stuff out, the journey to loving philosophy again has, at least for me, been worth whatever professional risks it involves. If there are any of you out there who have endured similar struggles, I encourage you to give it a shot. It is risky, I suppose...but there are risks all around, are there not? There are risks in following the party-line too -- of only sending stuff out "when it's ready" (the risk being that you spend years on something, it never pans out, and you hate philosophy).