In spring 2011, I submitted a manuscript to Affilia, a journal for women in social work. I am not a woman, and in fact my manuscript was only indirectly about women. It did present a somewhat atypical perspective on men, however, and I thought the reviewers for that journal, and the readers for whom they spoke, might find it interesting.
Perhaps the reviewers did find it interesting. Apparently I will never know. The editor’s assistant told me that the editor, Fariyal Ross-Sheriff, had looked at my manuscript and wanted me to submit it for possible publication. So I went through the submission process. But then – nothing. I waited for nine weeks and six days. Ten weeks was the recommended turnaround deadline (Holden et al., 2007, p. 67). One day before that deadline, Dr. Ross-Sheriff sent me an email stating that the reviewers had recommended against publication.
Her email said that the reviewers’ comments were attached. But they weren’t. I wrote back to let her know, and asked her to send them again. Strangely, she did not reply. I tried again. Still no reply. Over the next couple of weeks, I emailed and left voice messages several times. I never did get the reviewers’ comments. So I don’t know if (a) there were no reviewers, (b) there were reviewers but they did not say what the editor claimed, or (c) there were reviewers, they said exactly what Dr. Ross-Sheriff claimed, but there was some reason why she would not just show me the reviews – a reason that she would not reveal and, in fact, would not even talk about.
It seemed mysterious. Given the weird treatment I was getting from two other journals at about that same time, I decided to inquire further. The editor’s assistant was nonresponsive, so I tried contacting a recognized scholar whom I thought might be familiar with Affilia’s practices. This woman did respond, and we exchanged several email messages. She forthrightly presented concerns that she felt an editor might have about my manuscript. I appreciated that. It seemed easy enough for her to convey those concerns to me. I do not know whether Affilia’s editor shared those concerns and, if so, why they would have been difficult for her to express.
It was particularly puzzling that Dr. Ross-Sheriff declined to communicate with me, about my article, after her assistant told me that she, the editor, had looked at my article and definitely wanted me to submit it for review. Given my interactions with the reviewers at the two other journals mentioned above, one explanation may have been that she had no intention of publishing my article, but merely wished to delay its possible publication elsewhere for as long as she could. There may have been another, better explanation for this behavior, but I did not know what that alternate explanation might be, and Dr. Ross-Sheriff was not supplying it.
It was incidentally interesting to consider the remarks offered by the professor I contacted. First, she disputed the manuscript’s proposition that female social work academics favor the kinds of males who appear on social work faculties. Yet if those women were inclined to favor any males at all, there did not seem to be any other academic males who were more favored.
Second, she said that my connection with a specific school of social work would be easy enough to detect, and in that case the journal and/or I would face “serious legal liabilities.” If that concern was indeed obvious, why had Dr. Ross-Sheriff invited my manuscript, and held it for ten weeks? One possibility would be that Dr. Ross-Sheriff had perceived, as I had, that a journal committed to the ethics of the social work profession would have various possible ways to proceed. For instance, they could solicit a third-party investigator. One way or another, they could surely do something to frame, revisit, or otherwise handle my manuscript as a potentially legitimate report of deplorable malfeasance. But if that had been the editor’s perception, it would not have made sense for her to ignore my messages.
The last set of concerns presented by the professor was as follows:
Why would you want to do this self-destructive thing to yourself (publish such an article)? Why tell the social work world that you have been in repeated disciplinary academic difficulties, even if innocently? Don’t you want to get a job when you finish? I hope you are in treatment IF ONLY to learn some new self-protection skills. In saying this, I DO NOT take a position in re culpability for the incidents in question, only for what you’re doing now. Someone should help you to take better care of yourself as you have obvious talents. There may come a time–I would guess when these painful experiences are more distant in your life–when you can reflect again on these experiences and make something of them (perhaps with added scholarship), maybe or maybe not with gender as a focus, that can help us improve what we do in SW education.
In these words, doubtless sent in all sincerity, the professor exemplifies the chasm between social work academics and many others, inside and outside the profession. Let me count the ways. (1) Why would anyone notify others of unethical behavior, if doing so might damage their own career? (2) Why tell anyone of ways in which you have been falsely accused? (3) Therapy, as social work professors know it, can teach clients how to suppress their experiences of abuse, so as to carry on without letting anyone know. (4) Social work academia is, first and foremost, academia: it is not a place where one dares to be oneself and to speak honestly about one’s experiences. (5) Whatever actually happened to me is not as important as making sure that I have a future in the very kind of academic organization where I was previously abused. (6) Empowerment consistent with the Code of Ethics entails finding someone to help me take care of myself. Perhaps someone like Dr. Ross-Sheriff, or like the professors or students described in my manuscript. (7) I am most likely to make something useful of my adverse experiences in schools of social work by waiting until the distant future. (8) At that distant time, I may be best able to address the gender issues noted in my manuscript by writing about something other than gender. (9) What I would write at that time might help improve social work education, whereas what I would write now cannot.
It took me a little while to process the professor’s message. My first reactions focused on the part about getting someone to help me. As a single man, I really was tempted to write back and invite her to set me up with one of her helpful single female friends. But I guessed that she would probably not see the humor in it. Really, there was nothing wrong with me that tenure wouldn’t cure. Seriously, we do all need people to care about us and make sure we’re all right — so why not focus on the fact, illustrated in my very act of reaching out to this woman, that my own school of social work had abysmally failed to create a sense of safety or community?
Let me emphasize that I am sure the professor meant well, in the words quoted and flayed above. And let me reiterate my appreciation for her act of taking the time to voice her perspective. The criticism here is not for the person who plays the role of lifeguard. It is for those who play lifeguard, run to water’s edge upon hearing a cry for help — and then stop and just watch. We should have learned, in our clinical classes, that it is not necessarily very helpful to impose solutions from our cultures, our worlds, onto the very different worlds of people who request our help. If you can’t see the thing from the advisee’s perspective, your advice to him/her is at considerable risk of being irrelevant if not harmful.
I realize this professor might have phrased her thoughts more judiciously if she had desired their publication. Yet this is precisely the point. She has done us a service by offering a senior social work academician’s first-blush reactions to an expression of anguish from a man in this profession. This is what confronts us.
Some time later, I sent a copy of my manuscript to a male academic who is affiliated with male social work professors. Perhaps his most telling words were these:
[I’ve known many male social work professors.] . . . There were a few strange birds in the group to be sure, but none of them have been excessively subservient to their women colleagues or cowed to the point of being unwilling to criticize them. Your picture of the world is nowhere close to mine. I will write this off to the circumstance of having horrible things happening to you and searching anywhere and everywhere for an explanation. . . . I’ll say at this point that I feel confident that even if you are the Monster, the SSW has a lot to answer for in its treatment of you.
I was surprised that he had not encountered any cowed male social work faculty. My guess was that he was too close to the phenomenon – that what another man might perceive as obvious gender-based bullying would have just seemed normal to him. Perhaps the main thing about his perspective was that, in the end, he did have the wherewithal to make a difference, and yet declined to do so. Maybe “cowed” would not be the right word. But not taking action, when you see that action needs to be taken, does seem to call for some kind of word.
Finally, for a different perspective, I sent a copy of my manuscript to a thirtyish white female MSW acquaintance. Her reactions:
First, thank you for sharing this with me. I think it takes incredible guts to send an essay of this sort to a publisher – no less one that is fully entrenched in the system that you confront. And, aside from finding areas of commonality with you on many topics and your ability to reach logical conclusions (legal training? Definitely not SW), I think that it is your honesty that I find most appealing.
Men are not treated fairly in SW. Third rails abound. Thoughts are censored. I can play the game well when I want to, but I also have this need to not feel like a whore, so, while I haven’t had the exact experiences that you described, I have been aware of fear and hostility towards me when I – God forbid – bring up the inconsistencies of the profession and its values.
I think you answered your question about why you are getting the silent treatment from Affilia in your essay: herd instinct, self-preservation, conservatism, the idea that you must be the problem, gossip, and the journal’s own implication in the abuse that you write about.
I was sorry that Affilia was not inclined to act against abuse in social work academia. But this woman’s words gave me hope that, someday, the women of social work themselves might.