By Trevor Hedberg
If you stay in philosophy long enough, you will eventually have to deal with that paper. It’s a good idea – one that you’re sure deserves to be in print. But for some reason, it keeps getting rejected. You refine your position, clarify ambiguities, respond to new objections – revision, revision, revision – but the rejections only continue. This is the story of my first encounter with that paper and the lessons I learned during the journey that ensued.
Lesson 1: It Is Possible to Have Publishable Ideas as an Undergraduate.
The idea at the heart of that paper was conceived all the way back in 2008 during a conversation with Jordan Huzarevich about religion. We had both gravitated away from theism during our time as undergraduates, but we did not readily identify as atheists, particularly since we found the polemical outlook of the New Atheists – who were gaining a lot of public attention at that time – rather unappealing. In fact, instead of being actively critical of theism and religion, we had both been overtaken by a general sense of indifference. Neither of us really cared about God or religion: we were just apathetic about the whole thing.
In the aftermath of our discussion, we wondered if there was actually a term to describe this outlook. The best match we could find was apatheism – a view that was somehow well-known enough to have its own wikipedia page but obscure enough that virtually no philosophical material explicitly addressed it. (The best published description of apatheism that we could find was this article written by Jonathan Rauch in 2003.) We were surprised that no one had given the view a thorough treatment or tried to offer a philosophical defense of it.
We briefly entertained undertaking such a project ourselves, but it seemed farfetched. We certainly did not have the philosophical acumen to undertake that task back then, and we each had plans to pursue graduate studies in non-philosophical fields. But since the story doesn’t end here, you can probably guess that our plans changed.
After a year of unsuccessful applications to MFA programs, I elected to pursue philosophy rather than creative writing, and Jordan eventually shifted from political science to psychology. In 2011, we revisited the notion of writing something about apatheism. It still seemed like an idea worth pursuing, so we decided to give it a go.
Lesson 2: Sometimes, Getting a Paper into Print Just Boils Down to Tenacity.
Our first draft was messy and overly ambitious. We were trying to make too many philosophical moves for a single paper, and some of the claims were too speculative to serve as the foundation for compelling arguments. But all papers have to start somewhere. We continued to revise it over the next year, working in spurts when time permitted. Following feedback from a conference and a summer of further changes, we finally produced a draft that we thought was worth sending to journals.
So began a long cycle of rejection and resubmission. Sometimes, we received comments; other times, we received only desk rejections. When we did get comments, reviewers were usually interested in the topic but found too many problems to issue a revise-and-resubmit. Some of these criticisms were helpful and prompted us to make revisions to the manuscript. Others were not so helpful. Such is par for the course with peer review.
Regardless, we kept revising the paper and seizing opportunities to present our work to others. It was getting better, but the rejections continued until they had almost reached double digits. In Spring 2016, we discussed how much longer we were going to run the gauntlet with this paper but came to no firm decision. Fortunately, we did not have to: we got an R&R in June 2016.
The verdict was both encouraging and terrifying: R&Rs often translate into publications, but if we were to have the paper rejected now, it would be absolutely soul crushing. And the referees were asking for a lot of revisions – some of which I was uncertain how to address. The summer ticked away, but Jordan and I eventually isolated a week to work on the revisions. Many hours were spent on Google Docs hammering out revisions, making comments to one another, refining the revisions further, writing up a detailed response to reviewers – you know, all the standard aspects of tackling an R&R. After an exhausting week, we were satisfied with the changes and sent it back.
A month later, we received a note from the editor that our paper had been accepted, and so “Appraising Objections to Practical Apatheism” will soon appear in an issue of Philosophia.
Lesson 3: Your paper will change. A lot.
Almost every paper that I have sent through the peer review grinder has been dramatically different at the end of the process than it was at the beginning. With this paper, there are enormous chunks of material from the first several drafts that are completely absent from the accepted version of the paper. The thesis is also much narrower in scope than it once was. These changes can be frustrating, especially when you have to cut or alter material that you once viewed as a central part of the paper, but without a willingness to make them, it’s doubtful that we would have ever seen this paper all the way through to the end.
Lesson 4: Savor your victories.
Academic philosophy can be a hard place to find joy or satisfaction, especially for early career scholars. We are constantly bombarded by news of the perilous job market, the high attrition rates at PhD programs, the prevalence of mental illness in the humanities, and many other sobering facts about our profession. As graduate students and non-tenure track faculty, we do not earn a ton of money and often wonder whether the future genuinely holds the hope of something better. All the gloom can really dampen one’s enthusiasm.
So in those moments when you have something to celebrate, I think it’s all the more important to savor the accomplishment. It always feels like there’s some further project to start or something in the background to worry about, but trust me: a well-earned day off now and then makes makes an amazing difference in the grand scheme of things.