Editing Reflections: Pedagogical Project and Emblem of Democratic Possibility

Note to readers: Today, I share as my Tidings column, my introduction to the forthcoming book to be published this fall, Max Stephenson Jr. and Lyusyena Kirakosyan, Eds., RE: Reflections and Explorations: A Form for Deliberative Dialogue (Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, 2017). I do so, convinced that this second volume in this series is very much in keeping with what we aspire for the Institute to do and simultaneously an evocation of the issues it treats. Graduate students from multiple disciplines and perspectives contribute to the Reflections series each semester, thereby illuminating a range of public and democratic governance challenges from a diversity of points-of-view. This volume’s introductory essay reflects on the weekly Reflections editorial process that yields those articles. As I note below, we began the Reflections series nearly five years ago with an ambitious aim:

I hoped it [the Reflections series] could serve both as a lens into the catholicity and fruitfulness of a major university’s intellectual life, at least as it pertained to democratic politics and governance. Moreover, I hoped it could contribute to a larger social conversation about just such concerns within the university and well beyond its boundaries. I see and saw Reflections, too, as an example of what former Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti once labeled the university in its role in cultural life: “a free and ordered space” (Giamatti,1990).  My continuing hope as its editor is that Reflections can offer its contributors a vital and fulfilling opportunity to share their intellectual interests and ambitions in a forum dedicated to the best of democratic probity and sensitivity, and in a context of civility and genuine and sustained engagement. These are ideals certainly, just as they are for the university writ large, but I hope the essays collected here suggest that all involved take them seriously.

My fond hope too is that the essays gathered in the new volume reflect those aims, even as they demonstrate the intellectual vitality and fertile imaginations of their contributors. MOS

 

Editing Reflections: Pedagogical Project and Emblem of Democratic Possibility

One key goal when the Institute for Policy and Governance launched RE: Reflections and Explorations was to provide the graduate students who write for it a professional editorial experience, since most are at the start of careers that will involve writing as their lingua franca. That editorial responsibility has fallen to me as I work with authors each week during the fall and spring semesters to polish their efforts for publication. I have found myself reflecting on that editorial role and its relationship to the potential for students’ growth as authors, professionals and scholars.

I was fortunate as a graduate student to work with a scholar considered an especially lucid and artful writer who helped me enormously as I developed my own writing capabilities. He proved endlessly patient and wise and willing to explain why he made specific suggestions to improve my prose. And more, he trusted me to edit his drafts, including a redrafting of his most famous book, in an effort, I am sure in retrospect, to help me develop as a writer and intellectual. I have always been grateful and humbled by these opportunities, even as they sensitized me as a young man to how important editing and editors can be in helping writers develop their finest possible work.

In that spirit, what follows are some thoughts on editing as democratic and pedagogical possibility and aspiration. I have sought to organize my treatment of these concerns around the recollections of a number of contributors to the New York Review of Books concerning the role of that journal’s editors’ guidance in their careers as they remembered their work with Robert B. Silvers, who died in March 2017. I was struck, by how similar those writers’ comments on his prodigious efforts were to my editorial aims for this series. While the Review is world renowned and its editor was perhaps unparalleled in his talent and intellectual reach, as an editor his work nevertheless embodied lessons and experience for all of those who would shoulder such responsibilities. I seek to highlight those here with profound respect for Silvers’ towering achievements.

Silvers was the legendary co-editor of The New York Review of Books (NRRB) from its founding in 1963 until 2006, and lone-editor from then until his death. He was 88 when he died and still working long hours at what he called the “paper.” He was fondly remembered in the ensuing weeks by the countless authors and reviewers whose lives he had touched and work he had helped shape. I was particularly interested to learn what those writers valued in his efforts and why. I here share some of those perspectives because they illustrate the goals I have sought to attain as I have worked with graduate student contributors to this series on the wide array of topics and concerns they treat.

In his comments on the role Silvers played in his writing career, professor and author (and now editor of the New York Review of Books) Ian Buruma argued,

My life as a writer owes everything to Bob’s editorship. He had too much respect for writers he trusted to wish to change their individual styles. … But he had an infallible eye for loose thinking. … He made you think harder. There was no room in his “paper” for fuzziness or vague abstractions. He wanted examples, descriptions and concrete thoughts (Buruma, 2017, p.31).

When I read this remembrance, I thought, “just so, I experienced this, too.” My aim as editor in this series has, in consequence, consistently been to be a curious and interested reader who respects contributors’ writing styles, but who always asks that they ensure that what they say is as clear and clean as they can make it. My motive is two-fold as I press for editorial clarity and concision. First, when authors make such efforts, they become better thinkers and more capable of precisely articulating what they wish to contend substantively and why. And, one central aim of graduate education is to produce sophisticated analytical thinkers who can contribute to scholarship in their selected fields or to their chosen professions with equal aplomb. Secondly, to have an impact and to realize their personal goals, authors must share the fruits of those capacities, and lucid writing can do so with power, grace and, at its best, èlan. So, my work on this series is aimed at helping students develop precise thinking and writing in tandem. I do so by asking that they write so all can understand them, and so the joy or quickened pulse that first animated their interest in a topic can shine through.

Fintan O’Toole, the famed Irish columnist, drama critic and literary editor recalled Silvers’ editorial acumen this way:

The great editor is a chimerical creature, combining contrary qualities in one mind: assertive, and self-effacing, commanding and sensitive and infinitely curious and sharply focused, patient and fearfully demanding, wide angle and close-up. Robert Silvers was the greatest editor of our time because he managed these contradictions with a seemingly effortless elegance (O’Toole, 2017, p.35)

I have been editing Reflections for four and one-half years and can attest that this editorial role demands just these contradictory capacities and characteristics and they are ever difficult to balance. In my experience, this series’ authors are wildly different despite the fact that all are graduate students. Some think and write broadly and are deeply interested in the intersections among phenomena, while others cast their intellectual nets more narrowly and work to focus their analyses as much as possible. Some are naturally interested in developing their writing capacities, while others are less so. Some are preternaturally curious about a wide array of concerns, while others have singular and single-minded interests. Some wish to explore broad philosophic frames, while others crave the specificity of particular policy choices. And so on.

As their editor, and as one who wishes to help each develop their intellectual and writing capacities, I seek weekly to discern their interests and direction and to help them attain it. I try to impart key concerns as sensitively and sharply as possible, while working to ensure the highest quality outcome feasible in the time frame available. As O’Toole notes in his paean to how well Silvers balanced these claims, these imperatives can be treacherous and yet, in their evocation, editors can highlight that which is most significant about their shared enterprise with authors, and help the writers realize their own aspirations more fully. This is not merely a technical matter, but ethically tricky ground that demands imagination, empathy, self-awareness and discipline on the part of the editor. To be blunt, the responsibility is humbling.

O’Toole also noted that Silvers sought to edit the Review for a broad, but literate, audience:

He believed that there is such a thing as the general reader, that public life depends on the existence of a common space in which ideas can be shared, absorbed, mulled over, kicked around (O’Toole, 2017, p. 35).

We began the Reflections series with a like aspiration. I hoped it could serve both as a lens into the catholicity and fruitfulness of a major university’s intellectual life, at least as it pertained to democratic politics and governance. Moreover, I hoped it could contribute to a larger social conversation about just such concerns within the university and well beyond its boundaries. I see and saw Reflections, too, as an example of what former Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti once labeled the university in its role in cultural life: “a free and ordered space” (Giamatti,1990).  My continuing hope as its editor is that Reflections can offer its contributors a vital and fulfilling opportunity to share their intellectual interests and ambitions in a forum dedicated to the best of democratic probity and sensitivity, and in a context of civility and genuine and sustained engagement. These are ideals certainly, just as they are for the university writ large, but I hope the essays collected here suggest that all involved take them seriously.

O’Toole also observed that Silvers unfailingly exhibited a related attribute in increasingly short supply in our present socially fractious moment, courtesy. I have sought to realize a similar aspiration for this series:

           I always come back in thinking about Bob to his imperturbable courtesy. His good manners were not mere mannerisms. They said something. They were a constant reminder to the rest of us … to remember that it all matters, that the life of a great journal is part of the life of democracy itself (O’Toole, 2017, p.35).

Universities, certainly, should be places in which many may hold diverse perspectives and may be granted leave and space to articulate and defend those as persuasively and vigorously as they can. Such freedom of thought and speech is the sine qua non of inquiry itself and central to the idea and potential of the university. Reflections includes a wide array of perspectives, and my role as editor is to help those offering them present them as cogently as possible. I do not seek to judge what is or is not acceptable against any sort of litmus test other than analytical rigor, clarity and cogency.

Columbia University political scientist and historian of ideas Mark Lilla has suggested The Review from its start

… was a democratic pedagogical project. … Bob was a teacher, one of the greatest I have ever encountered. Many stories have been told of his legendary interventionism—the late-night calls about an obscure sentence, the flood of packages, faxes and later emails with suggested reading. …What the journalists missed, but his authors knew, is that the process of endless refinement was the point. … It was a vocation, in the strict sense, an expression of magnanimity (Lilla, 2017, p.34).

As with the Review’s essays for its authors, I hope that Reflections constitutes a journey for its contributors, and one that encourages them to continue to refine and develop their writing and intellectual capabilities, and to do so in a way that readers may access so that their ideas can become part of broader conversations and potentially thereby influence the evolving views and understanding of those they reach. More, I hope that engagement with Reflections teaches contributors that the life of a scholar is an ever-unfolding process of wonder and refinement in which one is continuously captivated by questions one did not originally even know to ask as an expanding tableau of inquiry unfolds. This is literature and analysis as metaphor for an intellectual life, and for how the same can inform democratic opportunity.

This refinement orientation also embodies a broader philosophic reality: many, if not most of the essential questions that confront humankind are not “answerable” in some finite sense, but instead represent constant preoccupations and approximations as men and women struggle to live justly and to secure freedom for themselves and for others in the face of their own frailties and brokenness. Perhaps writing as metaphor for such processes of endless and ambiguous personal enlightenment and social experiment and approximation is an especially apt mechanism by which graduate scholars can begin practically to address this reality of human existence.

While now under attack by an illiberal trend in social norms and governance, universities, at their best, embody the ideal of democratic possibility as perhaps no other institution can. They are forums and repositories for restless learning and for imagination. They are spaces in which talented individuals can follow their intellectual and moral hunches and explore the antecedents of those notions as well as their likely implications against a wide range of possibly relevant criteria. Indeed, the reach of universities is theoretically only limited by the reach of the human mind.

Finally, we should remind ourselves periodically that today’s graduate students will lead tomorrow’s higher education institutions. What a privilege, then, to offer those individuals opportunities to unleash their imaginations, to engage in the exhilarating passion of discovery and to learn the discipline that freedom and free inquiry demand. My fond hope is that Reflections can continue to play a small role in the realization of these vital goals for those whose work it presents and for the broader society it serves.

 

References

Buruma, Ian, (2017) “Robert B. Silvers (1929-2017),” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2017, p. 31.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett, (1990) A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University, New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Lilla, Mark. (2017), “Robert B. Silvers (1929-2017),” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2017, p. 34.

O’Toole, Fintan (2017). “Robert B. Silvers (1929-2017),” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2017, p.34.