A Conversation with Christian Barry, Editor of Journal of Political Philosophy

Christian Barry, Professor of Philosophy and Co-Editor of Journal of Political Philosophy sits down with Sarah Scoffield from Wiley’s Global Research Team to discuss the advantages of being an early career researcher, the issues they face, and his own experiences when starting out in his career.

Listen to his conversation below. Or, scroll down further to read the transcript.

Sarah Scoffield: Hello, my name is Sarah Scoffield from Wiley’s Global Research team and I am joined today by Professor Christian Barry, co-editor of the Journal of Political Philosophy and Professor of Philosophy at Australian National University. Christian will be talking to us today about issues affecting early career scholars in the humanities and particular issues affecting those reading or researching political philosophy and related disciplines. Thank you for joining us Christian.

Christian Barry: I am happy to join you, thank you for having me.

SS: So, moving on to our first question today. In your experience, what strengths have you found early career scholars bring to the writing and publishing process?
CB: Well, one of the strengths they bring is that they often have new and interesting ideas. Sometimes new scholars who are just starting off also have a lot more support and critical attention being given to their work, for example, when they are entering the end stages of their PHD. We don’t all to continue to enjoy as much attention and critical feedback on our writing as we go on, so a lot of the time some of the most interesting things that we receive actually is from fairly early stage researchers.

SS: Okay well that sounds encouraging. And what particular qualities or skills would you say political philosophers learn on the job or from their work? What do you think sets them apart from other Humanities scholars?

CB: Well, a lot of the things you have to learn on the job in of any discipline is what you can actually accomplish in a paper. The journal that I co-edit publishes articles of about 10,000 words and one of the tendencies that people have when they start writing is they try to do too much in a short piece of writing. A lot of what you learn is how to recognize there are a lot of issues that are relevant to what you are writing about, but that you can’t really go into, so you have to learn how to effectively shunt off to the side. It is tempting to explore other interesting topics but you can’t. I also think that one of the things that is valuable about having young people go into political philosophy is that often they are very interested in politics and engaged in politics. They are often aware of new kinds of debates that maybe haven’t been given critical attention by academics and philosophers to the same extent, but that are effectively driving social movements and people that are more actively engaged in politics. So that’s another important valuable addition that young scholars give to our work.

SS: Okay. When it comes to any particular problems or common mistakes that you have come across that early career scholars might be tempted to do. Have you come across anything like that?

CB: Yeah, I suppose some of the things I have mentioned before, the tendency to try and do too much in one particular piece of work. You have to make a series of points in a series of articles and I think one thing I was most surprised is the way my seniors were able to develop a fairly small idea into a pretty elaborate paper. Something that I wouldn’t have thought would have warranted a paper but in working with them we developed an interesting paper on just this one little idea. So learning how to be more of a miniaturist is in some way one of the things you need to learn how to do. Another thing, obviously, is that I think that often people are not as careful as they might be in choosing where to submit their work. You really have to have a lot of self-awareness in recognizing whether the kinds of things you are writing about are really suitable to the journal that you are sending it to. Does the thing you are writing seem like the kind of things that the journal is publishing? Also, just making sure to get good advice about where to send things because the review process can take a while we’re a relatively efficient journal but still we reject a lot of articles without sending them out to referees to save people time, and to save the office the time. But a lot of times articles can get caught up in the review process for 3-4 months and effectively the people get a few comments and just straight rejection. That kind of delay is particularly costly earlier in your career. Later in your career it doesn’t matter all that much because you have a lot in the pipeline. It’s really important what happens in that period of a year or two in that early scholar’s life that can make a huge difference to the trajectory in the career. So I think being really careful in making judgments about where to send things and really making sure the things they do send out is ready to be sent out. In that sense, they do have some advantages as long as they have good supervision and good people who have been mentors to them who have invested interest in their work. I think that’s probably the most important thing to try and guard against early on.

SS: So something I hear from some of my editors quite often is that it’s not really enough to scan the aims and scope and see whether your work fits with the journal. It’s about reading the actual articles the journal publishes and seeing how your work might fit in.

CB: Yeah, I think that’s right and having sort of a realistic sense of where your work is– I mean that’s really difficult to do, of course. It’s also difficult sometimes to get feedback from people because nobody really wants to tell another person that their work isn’t really at the sufficient level to be sent to a certain kind of an elite journal yet. But I think it’s important to try to seek that help and try to get brutally honest feedback because it’s really not helping you otherwise. I have even encountered it myself where I realized I didn’t really have a clear sense where particular pieces of work fit and consequently wasted a fair bit of time trying to place them.

SS: Okay, well moving on to something slightly different. My general impression is that Humanities scholars have to defend the value and practically of their subject a lot, and more so than STEM subjects. What’s it like having to deal with that, especially within Philosophy?

CB: Yeah, I certainly think that’s true within Philosophy generally. I think that political philosophers like me have a bit of an advantage in that at least most of the work that we do is extensively trying to take up active live questions of public life and debate them. So, you know, even though its sometimes difficult to make a case that your work has real practical relevance in the sense that it’s likely to be picked up by any major political party. It is at least trying to engage with the live questions of today and to get people to reflect on the kinds of principles that might be used to justify different kinds of responses to policy choices or questions of institutional design. So in that regard I think political philosophy has an advantage. On the other hand the fact that it is to engage with questions of public life and you are often interested in these kinds of things often it can seem really kind of futile. The kinds of issues you are taking up, especially if you are working in questions of ideal theory of how we should really ideally design our social institutions. It can be pretty dispiriting when these events that actually are in contemporary political life are falling so far short of anything like that. The practical fraction that you could actually get with those theories may seem to be fairly minimal.

SS: Would you say it has much of an effect on morale within the discipline or does it kind of steel you more in a sense to discuss these issues and do what philosophers do?

CB: When you feel things in contemporary public life are taking a turn for the worst? Something like that? I think it partly depends. To one extent it can be very motivating because there are new phenomenons you have to think about. For example, a lot of the recent events around the world in Britain, the US, South America, and elsewhere has raised a lot of questions about democracy, its value, its stability, what can we do to safeguard it from the rise of the demagogues, in some cases. If you look at what has occurred in Venezuela. Or what you can do to safeguard it from various kinds of influences of social movements that may be distorting all kinds of facts about things. These political events press you to think about your commitment to your institutions. What principles are alive and how they can be improved. So in that sense it can be quite motivating. On the other hand, yes it can be dispiriting and that some of the questions philosophers are interested in seem sometimes to be– not just philosophers, but activists as well. For example, people write about the questions of global poverty. Sometimes solving problems like global poverty seem so terribly far away when the issues are defending various kinds of civil liberties within advanced democracy, preventing a violent conflict from being around a society or violent conflict internationally….that sort of thing. It seems the things that seem really critical and important may seem rather far away then what you are focusing on in your work which can be really demotivating, I suppose.

SS: It is fascinating talking about it and I don’t think we should let world events or particular trends in funding that affect your passion for the job. I think it’s vital that philosophers and political philosophers continue to do this. Christian, on that note, I think we can close for today and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and time with us. It’s been wonderful to hear your take on these matters.

CB: My pleasure thanks for talking to me.

SS: Thank you and everyone I hope you enjoy the rest of the Wiley Humanities Festival. Thank you.

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