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Meet the editor of ... International Perspectives on Education and Society


An interview with: Professor Alexander W. Wiseman
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Professor Alexander W. WisemanProfessor Alexander W. Wiseman is associate professor at Lehigh University's College of Education in the US, from where he teaches, speaks, researches and publishes on a wide range of educational topics. His research interests lie in the comparison of educational systems between nations, as well as cross-national trends and comparative phenomena in three overlapping areas – school organization and management, schooling and the labour market, and schooling as a national project.

He has been a collaborating editor for several volumes of the series and took over as senior editor from David P. Baker in 2008.

About the book series

International Perspectives on Education and Society is an annual publication which provides a unique synthesis of the principal developments in and contributions to the field of comparative and international education. Each volume offers an overview and critical examination of the current topics in the field, and includes state-of-the-field reviews, theory-driven syntheses of current scholarship, reports of new empirical research, and critical discussions of major topics.

For more information on individual volumes, see the International Perspectives on Education Society home page.

What is the series' mission and what are its editorial objectives?

The aim is to provide an intellectual space for people to discuss issues in international and comparative education, across many different political, social and economic contexts.

And how would you define the term "comparative education"?

Comparative and international education is a distinct professional field which has been around since the 1950s when the first society was formed, but people have been formally comparing different systems for at least 200 years.

There are actually two slightly different branches of the field, comparative and international. Comparative education takes two or more systems, situations, contexts, cultures, and then uses that unit of analysis to compare education, focusing on, for example, policy, or teaching and learning, etc.

Comparative education is perceived to be more theoretically grounded and therefore a bit more scholarly (although there's some debate about that statement), than international education. International education is more about looking at the context or system of an individual country, and has a more experiential component. For example, study abroad or global experience internships would fall into the field of international education.

International education also has its separate journals and societies. For example in the US, there is NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, which describes itself as "the leading professional association promoting the exchange of students and scholars to and from the United States".

So our series combines the two fields. We try and remain broad: the chapters can be research studies, philosophical reviews, literature reviews, studies of individual countries, or comparative.

What topics do you seek to cover?

We cover just about any topic. I've been working on the series for six years now, during which time we've published one volume per year. For each volume, we've chosen a theme which the editors believe current and ongoing work in the field suggests is the most important topic for that year.

One way we identify important topics in the field is by reviewing the papers and presentations given at the main international and comparative education conferences over the previous 12 months to see what has been the main focus of attention. Sometimes, you don't see one topic appearing as a clear favourite and in that case, you go with the topic that would have the broadest appeal and application among readers. For example the Bologna Process might be of great interest to European comparativists, but to comparativists in other parts of the world it might be UNESCO's Education for All. When we had that choice we went with the latter as Bologna is more of interest to European scholars, whereas Education for All has a global impact.

In the six volumes that I've worked on so far, we've had some very focused themes and some very broad ones. Volume 8, Education for All, and Volume 10, Gender, Equality and Education from International and Comparative Perspectives were both very broad; others such as Volume 7, The Impact of Comparative Education Research on Institutional Theory, was a very focused theme, but institutional theory was making a big impact on the field that particular year.

Who are your main readers?

It's largely people who work in academia as scholars or students, but we also have a following from policymakers: people who work for international education-related organizations like the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, USAID, as well as ministries of education in countries around the world. For example, I know that individuals working in the ministries of education in Australia and Saudi Arabia have used our work to help them in their own policy and research. So it's a mix of people who are interested in the scholarship and those who use the research as evidence for policymaking.

I understand that you took over as senior editor from David Baker in 2008, having previously been a collaborating editor. How does your new role differ from your old one, and how do you intend to develop the series?

To be honest there isn't a lot of difference as David Baker and I worked very flexibly. The bigger transition has been that from Elsevier JAI to Emerald, which coincided with my shift to senior editor.

Emerald has been very supportive and involved, encouraging us to develop the series, for example by having more than one volume a year, which was previously not a consideration. This means that with Emerald we will continue to have an annual review of the field, but in addition we will within the same time frame bring out additional volumes on other topics of global relevance and interest, possibly guest edited.

If you are talking about greater frequency, have you ever thought about changing from a book to a journal?

No, that's not something I have considered, although we do operate in some ways like a journal in that we use external peer review, which is unique among volume series. I don't want to be tied to a definitive frequency of, say, four volumes a year. I also co-edit a quarterly journal, European Education (for M.E. Sharpe) – that's a different challenge that I don't want to repeat. As things stand, we would produce the annual review and have the opportunity (should one present itself) but not the necessity of producing additional volumes. This gives the volume series much more flexibility to address the real issues and interests of the field rather than be tied to a publication schedule.

The real difference between the two genres is not at the chapter or article level, but in the process whereby we as editors craft the volume around a particular topic, and identify the best people to write chapters about different, but complementary or contrasting facets of that topic.

This is a real advantage of the volume format. It allows us to favour contrast and complement in our selection, and to find a balance across different opinions, perspectives, theories, systems or geographies. So we are making a very focused decision on how we want the volume to come together. With a journal, on the other hand, production schedule doesn't always allow editors the convenience of the same attention to focus, or the same depth on a particular topic, unless it is a themed issue.

You and David Baker did much to revive the series: how did you do this?

When I first got involved, there was a feeling that the series was not well known, but that we could do something with it, if we published it annually. So the first volume we both worked on was Volume 6, Global Trends in Educational Policy, which was published in 2005. We wanted to have a broad topic and pull in good people as a way of getting the series up and running.

Right from the start we made it clear to people that even though we were talking to them specifically, all contributions were anonymously and externally peer reviewed so an invitation to submit would not guarantee inclusion. We were very up front about that.

Once we had published that volume, we publicized the series at the Comparative & International Education Society Conference, with flyers and a session devoted to the following year's volume, so we got some exposure and interest there. We made sure that we got people who were established in the field to publish in this first volume under our editorship (that included two former presidents of the Comparative & International Education Society), but we also made sure to include promising up-and-coming new scholars, some even right out of doctoral programmes.

Word of mouth was a big thing for us at the beginning because the established scholars were now aware of us so that we could send them things to review, and the series became known as a good place to publish.

We've now got to the point where we don't need to worry about contributors: we even have people e-mailing us to ask us when the call is coming out for the next series. And when we did our ninth volume, The Worldwide Transformation of Higher Education, published in 2008, we had about 70 quality submissions and chapter proposals – huge considering we only have 12 to 15 chapters. This is great because it allows us to be really selective: we choose about 20 of the best proposals and invite people to submit manuscripts.

We now get all our authors from the call for contributions. On one occasion, the volume on institutional theory (Volume 7), we asked John W. Meyer, emeritus professor of sociology at Stanford University and the "father" of neo-institutional theory, to write the foreword. But, all chapter authors are selected on the basis of their chapter manuscript's merit and fit with each volume's theme.

How do you decide the shape and the scope of the volume? For example, do you deliberately seek a mix of different types of article – state-of-the-field reviews, reports of research, theory-building, etc.?

We are looking for quality scholarship, so having a theoretical framework is often important even though it technically isn't a requirement. Having a theoretical framework shows that people have thought beyond the case or country they are analysing, and considered its relevance to the broader community. Not that what someone has done in Cambodia, say, is necessarily going to be exactly replicable in Zimbabwe, but there are some key elements that will transfer across different systems.

We are also interested in their data and their methodology, and its appropriateness to their approach, whether that be qualitative, quantitative, cross-national, or case specific, for example. We also like to see that they are building on scholarship that already exists; we are not interested in perspective pieces that are pure opinion and not based on a theoretical foundation or substantiated by empirical evidence.

We also strive for diversity in terms of geography, theoretical perspective, methodology, and type of system. Take our forthcoming edition, for example: we are just about to place a call for chapter proposals for next year's volume, which will revolve around the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. This had a great impact all over the world, and not only on education and educational delivery systems in post-Soviet or post-socialist countries. We anticipate that we'll get a lot of chapter proposals for studies of education in Eastern Europe. While these will probably constitute half the volume chapters, we would also like to see consideration of how the fall of the Soviet Union has affected education either worldwide, with some sort of cross-national analysis, or Western, "democratic" nations. So we try to look for an interesting or unique mix.

How do you ensure fair and transparent peer review?

We have an initial review process when we select the chapter proposals, and then invite a shortlist of authors to write a full chapter manuscript to be sent for external peer review.

Then we assemble a team of about five peer reviewers, drawn from three different pools: people we know to be scholars in the field doing relevant and related work, authors who have written for us in the past on similar topics or perspectives, and the chapter authors' own citations. We then invite them to review particular pieces, explaining why they have been selected. The whole process is blind and extremely rigorous.

You have already talked about your plans for 2010, what about 2011?

The 20 year anniversary of the Soviet Union volume will be out in 2010 and will be titled Post Socialist Transformations in Education Worldwide.

Then there are a couple of other volumes that we're thinking about right now that will be guest edited. One is a volume on "shadow education" or extra lessons, education that takes place outside of school buildings but mimics the school process. It's a growing phenomenon and has been a very hot topic for at least ten years.

In the 1980s and early 1990s people thought that it was only for the wealthy or the advantaged or the smart kids and was confined to the cram schools in Japan and Korea. And then people started to take a closer look and realized that this type of schooling tends to occur more often in education systems that are failing or with remedial students.

There's another prospective volume on international education and governance, which is about the interaction of policy and decision making in education.

So those are three issues coming up, and I'm continuing to hear from people who are interested in talking about future volumes.

What are the main benefits of publishing this series as an e-book?

I think it's very good that people can access individual chapters. On the one hand, we try and create a thematic whole and select chapters that contrast or complement, so I prefer it if people have a copy of the whole volume in their hands. But on the other there are some very interesting and unique chapters that meet specific needs, and it does help in terms of dissemination.

Any final thoughts on the series?

This may sound like bragging, but I really think that ours is the best series in the field right now. Because it is annual it provides an intellectual space for the systematic exchange of ideas for people in the field. This volume series doesn't just report empirical research, so each volume in the series gives readers an opportunity to think big about the themes and issues that are drawing comparativists and international educators together as a community. As such, it provides an intellectual glue that holds the field together.

And we provide a greater mix of chapters, from the theoretical to the heavily quantitative, than in any other volume series or certainly journal. For example, the Comparative Education Review has become increasingly interested in publishing articles that emphasize quantitative social science methodology. And other series focus on specific sectors, such as higher education, or specific geographical areas, such as the South or emerging economies. Thus they are limited in scope whereas our mission is very broad. Our goal is to provide the opportunity for every corner of the field to be represented, and to allow for both contrast and integration among the various people and communities around the world that make up comparative and international education.

Publisher's note:

Professor Wiseman was interviewed in June 2009.

Visit the information page for: International Perspectives on Education Society.