In the olden days, when I was a scout leader, we used this thing called the ‘buddy system’ to make sure all our little charges got back to base after a ‘wide game’ running around the local creek in the dark. It’s kind of self-explanatory: everyone had a buddy, and buddies had responsibility to make sure each other made it back safely. Hold that thought.
There’s been a bit of chatter of late both on the interwebs and in the actual physical corridors about receiving academic feedback. What do you do with it? How do you cope emotionally? How do you view it intellectually? If you haven’t already done so, I recommend going over to The Thesis Whisperer and looking at what one kind supervisor told their student. But this isn’t just about students. It’s not as if academics take a magic ‘grown up pill’ as soon as they get their PhD and suddenly intuitively know how to manage this ‘feedback’ with a sanguine air. If nobody trains you in dealing with this as a student, you’re basically going to be left to figure out a strategy for yourself as a post doctoral scholar. Maybe that will work, or maybe not so much. You might be one of the lucky ones who has a great mentoring structure around you in your career, but equally, you might be (or at least feel) essentially on your own.
I’m chipping in with my two cents here because I’ve noticed some real differences in the course of my career change from the laboratory sciences over to the humanities, and there are some things that we (the humanities) can really take from the science model in this regard. I’ve shared this with various individuals, but it’s obviously ‘a thing’ so maybe sharing here will be worth it.
When I was a scientist, publication was a joint effort. Sure, one person would take primary responsibility for writing up the findings, but then the rest of the team would chip in with numerous draft iterations with tracked changes and comments to address. When I was nominated as chief or ‘corresponding author’, I had a lot of responsibility for the content of the finished product, but it wasn’t my burden alone. The authorship team would hold discussions about what journal/s would be appropriate for this piece, and what our priorities were in targeting particular ones (e.g. going for maximum impact, faster turn around, niche readership, etc.). Then the appointed person would prepare the final draft and send it off. When the reviewers’ reports came back, we would instantly share them among the team, and then meet to go through them the following day, discussing which points we thought required only an explanatory response to the editor, and which would require further research or rewriting to address. We’d make a plan, delegate the tasks, and ultimately, the ‘chief’ author would coordinate everything back into a resubmission (or whatever was needed). In this way, the emotional and intellectual burden of receiving the feedback was shared, and ways of approaching and thinking about receiving the feedback itself were modelled positively and pro-actively.
One of the hardest things about transitioning into the humanities for me has been the solitary nature of the publishing endeavour. The humanities academic has many fewer opportunity to watch other authors at work, to see how they craft the research process itself, and how they produce written work as a result. There is significantly less modelling of the research process, and even less distribution of the emotional and intellectual burdens that accompany it. It’s a much more uncertain and ego-challenging undertaking, being the person with whom the proverbial buck stops but with no sense of knowing that you are ‘doing it right’.
So, when I published my first peer reviewed piece as a historian, I was in an unfamiliar and anxious situation. I wasn’t sure how I would deal with the burden of being the only one responsible for a piece of work sent out to the (potential) slaughter house of peer review. To help me feel calmer, I set out to try and replicate as much as possible the conditions I was accustomed to for writing up the piece itself (such as by having several trusted colleagues comment on the draft in advance of submission), and for receiving reviewers’ feedback. Most significantly, in light of recent discussions, I instigated a sort of ‘buddy system’ for feedback day, to make sure I would be able to get ‘back to base’ with my selfhood intact.
This is how I approach it: word up a trusted friend who knows your research well. Let them know what you’ve submitted where, and maybe let them have the abstract (if they haven’t already read a whole draft for you before submission to the publisher). Then, when the feedback arrives, send it to this friend first, before you open it. Having given them some time (a few hours, a day, whatever) to read it, schedule a time to read through it yourself with them. Talk through any aspects of the feedback that feel harsh, or seem to indicate misunderstanding, etc, and come up with a plan of how you (the author) will respond.
The buddy’s job here is essentially to hold your hand and help you keep the feedback in perspective. Critique really isn’t about you, or your worth as a person, but when you are the sole person responsible for the ideas and their expression it feels like that. It feels like someone is criticising your baby, and therefore, somehow, your own genetic fitness to exist. But – unless the reviewer is a complete arse and worthy of Dante’s nastiest bolga - it isn’t. Really it is about the work and how to make it even more awesome, publishable, and important. It’s easy to know this intellectually, but it’s harder to live it as a sole scholar, so the buddy system acts like a pilot to guide you from the existential ocean waves of self-doubt and outraged defensiveness back into the calmer harbours of mere argument critique and refinement.
In my first history publishing experience, in the end the reviewers were very kind, but there were still some things that I needed to hear my buddy deconstruct, along the lines of ‘well that’s just a bit off the topic, so don’t worry too much, just explain that to the editor’ or ‘they’ve worded that forcefully, but they actually seem to be saying you’re making a good point which just needs more explanation’. This is exactly the kind of thing you need to hear when you’re faced with a disembodied, impersonal voice of critique directed squarely at you and your ideas alone. It spreads the emotional burden so that you can take on the intellectual burden that is your lot.
The second thing I have been doing is telling people about this approach, because I really miss the ‘modelling research practice’ aspect of my life in the lab. And from the response of historical colleagues, it seems that when people experience this modelling, they just want more. So here I am sharing it with you, dear reader. Go forth from this place and share your experiences too. A load shared is a load halved, as they say.
And as for my buddy, thanks again. You know who you are. And I’m sure I’ll be using your services again!