Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Quarterly Math with Josh Piker

· December 14th, 2015 · 1 Comment

ICYMI: In the October 2015 issue of Uncommon SenseJosh Piker brought us some special math. How does 122 + 462 + 462 = 18? Find out how the WMQ answers that question.


My daughter, Naima, is twelve and I can no longer help her with her math homework. Yes, she’s that good at the subject; and, yes, I’m that bad at it. A few years back, though, we did a lot of math together, and when she was about seven or eight I came up with a game that we both loved, “President Math.” To play at home, you have to do one thing first: memorize the names of the presidents in order. For the kid whose grandparents gave her a presidents placemat when she was three, this was a piece of cake; for her father with a Ph.D. in early American history, a pronounced aversion to political history of the presidents-and-elections variety, and an increasingly spotty memory, it was a bit harder. But once we had the presidents memorized, we were ready to answer questions like:

Jefferson + Fillmore = ?

The answer, of course, is Lincoln. Why? Well, Jefferson is the third president and Fillmore is the thirteenth, and 3 + 13 = 16, which is Lincoln. We played this game at dinner almost every night for months, and I highly recommend it for long car trips. You can, of course, move on from addition to subtraction, multiplication, and division, and you can ramp up the degree of historical difficulty. E.g.,

Ike’s vice president – the first president born in the nineteenth century = ?

The answer is the person Naima and I came to call Second Grover. (If you feel like checking either my math or my history, that’s 37 [Nixon] -13 [Fillmore] = 24 [Cleveland].)

At any rate, playing “President Math” was a big part of our lives for a while, and Naima will still sometimes list off the presidents—from 1 to 44 and then back to 1—in the same way that a much younger kid might sing the Alphabet Song.

I thought about “President Math” as I was trying to take stock of my first year as Editor, a year which ended on July 1, 2015. The last fifteen months have been a whirlwind—challenging, sometimes daunting, and busy beyond belief, but also exceptionally fulfilling and rewarding—and I wanted to know, well, how fast the Quarterly’s winds whirl. So I started looking back over my monthly reports and counting this and that, and I came up with a formula that reminded me of the seemingly nonsensical ones that Naima and I used to challenge each other with. Here’s the formula for my first year:

122 + 462 + 462 = 18

The New Math’s got nothing on Quarterly Math. Allow me to explicate.

122 – I dealt with 122 essay submissions in my first twelve months as editor. A dozen or so came in at the end of Eric Slauter’s year as Visiting Editor and were waiting for me when I took over, but the vast majority arrived on my watch.

462 + 462 – Of those 122 submissions, I rejected—for one reason or another—roughly 30% without sending the essays in question out for review. But to help me evaluate the remaining 70%, I asked 462 scholars to serve as readers. Not all of them agreed, of course, but I was able to get at least four, and usually five, reports for all but one or two of the essays that I sent out for review. In the end, in consultation with those readers, I wrote 122 decision letters that total 462 pages of text. That’s right: 462 readers and 462 pages worth of letters. The symmetry alone suggests the awesome explanatory power of Quarterly Math.

18 – Some of those 122 letters are reasonably short. The most concise is probably the letter that consists of a few quick paragraphs explaining why a brief manuscript that focused on a document from the Civil War was not a good fit for this journal. And some of these letters are quite lengthy, most notably an eighteen-page response to a potential forum that included six separate essays. Moving away from the extremes, if you sent an essay to the Quarterly and if I sent it out for review, then the odds are good that you received a decision letter from me that was in the four-to-five page range. And if you got a decision letter from me, whether it was short or long, the odds are very, very good that somewhere in that letter I used the phrase “cannot accept this essay for publication.” Year in and year out, roughly 85% to 90% of all the submissions to the Quarterly get rejected, and my first year as Editor was no exception. And that brings me to the 18. That’s the number of essays that were published in the journal in our four issues from July 2014 to April 2015.

Of course, you already knew that. Perhaps you didn’t have the exact number of essays published or the percentage of essays rejected on the tip of your tongue. But if you’re reading this, then you know the Quarterly, and if you know theQuarterly then you know that we publish a handful of essays every three months and reject most of what is sent our way. That’s just Quarterly Math.

What stands out in the formula above—what you couldn’t have known—is not the 18 but the 462s. That the number of readers who I approached and the number of pages that I wrote coincides is at once striking and easily explained. They don’t. I’m writing this in California, and so I don’t have access to our office’s internal G-drive. The decision letters whose pages I counted, thus, are my laptop’s Word versions of the ones that Kelly Crawford, our fantabulous Office Manager, converted to PDFs, put onto letterhead, and added my e-signature to before sending them out. That process increases the length of letters, and so the real letters—the ones that the authors received—certainly total more than 462 pages. And the 462 readers approached? That number is more reliable, but again I’m dependent here on both my own records—not the office database—and my ability to add, and I’ve already said that a twelve year-old’s math skills have left me in the dust.

Still, even if both 462s are better read as estimates, it’s hard to escape the fact that those are big numbers. That’s a lot of readers. That’s a lot of pages. All that to produce 18 essays? And then factor in the tremendous amount of staff time—exhaustively documented by Karin in an earlier blog post (http://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/what-does-it-take-from-submission-to-publication-at-the-wmq/)—that it takes to move an essay from “accepted” to publication. Put it all together and, well, it hardly seems worth it, right?

In fact, I would argue that all that effort is most emphatically worth it but that understanding why requires us to look at the numbers a bit differently. In that sense, Quarterly Math is like “President Math.” I was hoping that “President Math” would teach Naima something about American history, but mostly the game was about having fun with addition and subtraction. And I’m hoping that Quarterly Math will teach you something about the essays that we publish—“Boy, those articles must be pretty good to beat those odds and be on the receiving end of all that work; I should make sure I’ve contributed to the Associates this year so that I can show my support for the Institute and continue to receive the journal!”—but mostly Quarterly Math is about the essays we don’t publish.

The “formula” above shows that the lion’s share of my efforts over the last year was directed at essays that will never appear in the pages of the Quarterly. Moreover, most of the work that I ask readers to do is likewise focused on manuscripts that I will not be able to publish. But the labor that I put into recruiting readers and writing decision letters and the time and effort that readers put into their reports is not wasted. An author who receives five engaged, thoughtful readers’ reports—and the vast majority of reports that I am able to forward on to authors are exactly that—plus a four-to-five page decision letter from me has gotten valuable feedback on his/her project. Authors who revise with that feedback in mind and resubmit to the journal will receive a new set of readers’ reports and another decision letter. Yes, most of those authors will be told that I have, in the end, rejected their essays, but they also will have benefitted from an intense, sustained process of critique, revision, and reevaluation. Many of the pieces that have been rejected by my predecessors in years past have gone on to success in other venues, and while I haven’t been in this job long enough to see that happen with essays that I’ve declined to publish, I know that the day is coming when I will open a journal like the JAH, JER, or EASand see a familiar title on the TOC.

So, let’s go back to the formula: 122 + 462 + 462 = 18. Here’s how I read that. In my first year on the job, 122 authors asked me to talk with them about their work. I was able to invite 462 scholars to take part in those conversations, and I wrote 462 pages worth of commentary and reflections about the exchanges that ensued. Only 18 of those conversations led to articles in the Quarterly. I very much enjoyed working with those essays and their authors, and I’m proud to have published each of those pieces. But much of what I remember about the last year centers on the 104 essays that I rejected. I look forward to seeing what those 104 authors do with their projects. When I start seeing them popping out of TOCs here and there, then I will know for sure what I only suspect now: Quarterly Math works.

Josh Piker
Editor


One Response

  1. […] to manuscripts that will never see the light of print in that journal. (See my earlier post about Quarterly Math for more fun with labor-related accounting.) That is, in fact, exactly as it should be: the […]

Leave a Reply