From the Editor’s Desk: How does one become a journal editor?

This week, as part of our continuing series on academic journal publishing, we will feature five Q&A’s with journal editors. In today’s edition, we asked the contributors to offer their insight into how they became a journal editor. Read their responses to this question below and follow along with our Journal Publishing Series for additional resources on journal publishing. 

How does one become a journal editor?

Predestination. I’m half joking, but truthfully when I was thirteen years old my father and his colleagues set up a small newspaper in Tokyo to report to Palo Alto school children what their teachers were doing in Japan. I went to the press with my father and met the printer, saw the machines, watched my mother copy editing. Later, when I was sixteen and entered the University of Hawai’i, I founded my own newspaper and published three issues, anonymously, before losing interest. However, my broadsheet got noticed and was written up in the local Honolulu paper as an expression of undergraduate thought. Later, Howard Goldblatt asked me to edit the first ever issue devoted to women writers and feminism in his journal Modern Chinese Literature. This later became a book, Gender Politics in Modern China. Some years later I founded positions so I am what is called a founding editor. positions’ origin story appears in the 20th anniversary issue of the journal, (volume 20, issue 1), so readers can go to the source.” – Tani Barlow, founding editor of positions and T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Asian History and founding director of the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice University


In graduate school at the University of Washington in the early 1990s, I served as one of associate directors of the writing program. The year I was the lead TA, I worked with my team (who included my now co-editor Marcy Taylor and our book review editor Mark Long) to identify good scholarly sources on teaching that would help us as we trained new TAs. We quickly realized how rare good material was. The initial idea was that we might put together a book collection around the topic.  At the same time, however, I was also working as the editorial assistant at the Duke University Press journal positions: east asia culture critique. positions gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn how to manage a journal and, as importantly, gave me some really supportive relationships with the staff at Duke University Press. Marcy and I began to discuss how the profession would really benefit from a generalist journal devoted to teaching across all the fields of English studies. We were gratified, especially because we were both still graduate students, when we reached out to many senior scholars and asked them to serve on the editorial board. Their immediate positive response and their incredible support throughout the acquisition process was a testimony to the profession at its best. So I’ve basically been in academic publishing since the middle of graduate school. It’s a great privilege to get to grown a journal from idea to many years of publication.” – Jennifer Holberg, founding co-editor of Pedagogy and Professor of English at Calvin College


The former North American editor of Ethnohistory, Michael Harkin, approached me about becoming an editor. I had experience editing a journal because I am a co-founder and past editor of the journal Native South. When Michael asked me, I was quite flattered because I have always considered Ethnohistory to be an excellent, top-tier journal. In addition, Ethnohistory is the flagship journal of the American Society for Ethnohistory. So after Michael put my name forward, the executive board had to okay it. I also share editing responsibilities with our Latin American editor, Matthew Restall. I’d like to make a shout out to my assistant, Jeff  Washburn, a PhD student here at the University of Mississippi. As soon as I was appointed editor, I enlisted Jeff as an assistant, and he has been tremendous. In addition, my department gave me a reduced teaching load and the university and the history department pays for Jeff’s assistantship. Jeff is invaluable and my job would be so much more difficult without him.” Robbie Ethridge, co-editor of Ethnohistory and Professor of Anthropology at University of Mississippi


I started out as book review editor for Ethnohistory, back when I was an assistant professor—and green enough behind the ears to think I could manage placing books for review on topics way outside my own areas of expertise! And this was in the 1990s, before the internet existed as it does today, so I was mailing requests in envelopes and waiting for letters back. After a few years I recruited a colleague to be co-book review editor; we then became Associate Editors of the same journal; and eventually co-editors. By working our way up the ladder of the same journal, we really got to know how the journal worked, and got to know the larger community of scholars who wrote for and read the journal, as well as being able to establish a long-standing relationship with Duke University Press’ journals division and its people.” – Matthew Restall, co-editor of Ethnohistory and Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Colonial Latin American History, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University


I had contributed frequently to Theater and worked in various capacities for the journal as a graduate student. After I finished my doctoral dissertation, Yale University was holding a national search for the position to replace my predecessor, who was stepping down. It’s a full-time, ladder faculty appointment at Yale School of Drama which includes editing the journal with a team of graduate students, teaching a full course load, advising, mentoring, and administrative responsibilities. I threw my hat in the ring, and in 2003 I was appointed to the job.” – Tom Sellar, editor of Theater, Professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale University, and Chief Theater Critic for the Village Voice

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