It’s funny how the bad stuff sticks with you.
I was thinking about this last week as I was giving feedback after a viva and hoping that the candidate was hearing all the good things and not just the small corrections we wanted her to do. But I wasn’t confident that she would remember what we said were the clear and evident strengths of the work. I feared she would go away thinking only about the things that needed a bit more attention.
Now I know that the argument is that our brains are set up to remember traumas because it’s part of the way we survive, but does this really extend to criticism, as well as to massively dreadful events? Well, I gather it does, and the rationale seems to be that it helps us learn. It seems that negative events are necessary and we use them to avoid making the same mistakes again. It doesn’t need to be dramatic, it can be something as apparently positive as constructively worded critical feedback.
While I was thinking about this I saw a twitter conversation about bad reviews. Here’s how it went – and this is quoted with permission from @SDMumford, a colleague and Philosophy Prof at Nottingham.
Read old rejection letter from 1996. Referee could just’ve said no without instead arguing I was a cretin with no clue about dispositions.
Referee’s comments were cruel and venomous as if he wanted me to give up philosophy for good. Clear message that I was an imbecile.
He gave his name quite proudly. I was a nobody.
I know exactly who it was as he didn’t hide his name. Glad I didn’t give up.
Maybe the paper wasn’t great (even though it became a central part of my Dispositions book)
Insecurity on referee’s part?
If I referee a paper I think poor, I say that it needs more thought and you should consider this and that. I don’t say you are a moron.
I had a gem of a rejection not too long ago in which the referee alleged I could barely write English.
Now pretty well all of us can immediately understand what @SDMumford is getting at. The vast majority of us have had articles rejected, and even with the best will in the world and the most careful wording, rejection is one of those negative experiences that sticks with you. And most of us do learn from the experience.
Unless of course you’re a slow learner like me. Confession time. I’ve just been asked to do major corrections on a paper and I have to say that I feel a bit stupid right now, because the problems the reviewers identified are ones that I teach other people to avoid… if I had taken more time over the paper and not rushed at it I would have realised its deficiencies myself. The reviews were OK – the negativity of the experience is simply because I’m very cross with myself. I actually know that it takes time for me to do a piece of theoretical work and any time I try to go too fast the work is always deficient. The problem in this case was that I just didn’t remember what I know about what I have to do to write a good paper and the reviewers found me out.
But it seems that rather a lot of us have had a review which wasn’t just negative, it was just downright rude. As a journal editor I occasionally see some quite awful reviewer responses which never get sent out to authors. One I can remember said simply “This is what gives academics a bad name”.
I’m cheered by the fact that the material that @SDMumford was castigated about did live on. It’s not the first time I’ve heard about people going on from a rejection to write something significant. In the acknowledgements to his book on policy narratives Hugh Miller begins by saying
This project began as an article manuscript that (name of journal and editor) urged me to revise and resubmit in response to anonymous reviewers’ comments. I gave it a try. Problem was, by the time I responded to the issues raised in the reviews, the manuscript had expanded to 50 pages. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions that helped get this book underway. (p. vii)
So there really is a reason to see rejection as leading somewhere, even if not to an immediate publication. A well worded and thoughtful review can be a positive as well as a negative experience. It can work to help us learn what to do next – even if like me, you occasionally forget to remember what it is you already have learned that you have to do.
However, there’s absolutely no excuse for poor reviewer behaviour. You don’t have to be rude, arrogant or vitriolic in order to reject a colleague’s work or to help them learn. Just the rejection is negative impact enough on its own.
Oh – and I’ve been fantasizing about a wall of shame of bad reviews. @SDMumford might start us off with his 1996 review, but I really need more examples. Have you had not just a negative, but actually a downright genuinely dreadfully nasty horrible traumatising review you need to get off your chest? I could start a bit of a virtual exhibition if I had enough samples!!