Academic life

Vulnerability and academic work

Not surprisingly, the first article I ever submitted for peer review was rejected. When I opened the envelope and saw the decision (yes, this was back in the day when journals still had paper submissions), I immediately stuffed the reviews back into the envelope and shoved the envelope deep in a drawer. I never read them. I never looked at that article again.

Since that day, I’ve often wondered why the heck I chose a profession where being criticized is literally part of the job description. Unfortunately, it’s a part that almost no one wants to talk about. Like every other experience that brings up feelings of shame, most of us bury those feelings, hide our “failures,” and put on a brave face. The trouble is, we’re all walking around pretending to be thick-skinned, unaffected, and invulnerable to critiques of our work. I think this is a great disservice to our students, our peers, and ourselves.

The vulnerability is baked in

The conversation about vulnerability in academia, particularly as it relates to health, mental wellness, mentoring, and teaching, has been opening up in recent years. Many are calling for more vulnerability in the classroom, in our relationships with students, and in our collegial support networks. And of course, many are actively pushing us to reckon with the systemic vulnerabilities created within a hierarchical institution founded on all sorts of exclusions and discrimination.

In this post, I’m thinking about the kind of vulnerability that is inherent (baked in) in a profession where detailed critique of our ideas is what makes research work. While the western school system typically involves handing in work and having it evaluated, I was totally unprepared for peer review. I didn’t know what to expect intellectually, and I had no idea about its emotional impact.

You would think that since peer review is so integral to the system, our advisors and mentors would teach us how to handle it. Not so in my experience! Either they were all born with the ability to completely detach their emotions when they send years of hard work out into the world for review, or they’re all seasoned experts at wearing the mask of invulnerability. So seasoned, they’re not even willing (or able) to share their lessons with their peers and grad students. Even though I had really supportive advisors throughout grad school, I never would have shared my first rejection with them. I had no way of knowing that they might have experienced the same thing.

Naming it

Over the years I’ve developed my own practices for handling critique. Before I mention a few of those I want to take a moment and just acknowledge how vulnerable we make ourselves in this process. Yes, I’ve been reading some Brené Brown lately. She’s a shame and vulnerability researcher who defines vulnerability as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. Whenever we send our work out for review, whether it’s a dissertation proposal, grant application, or research article, we risk rejection. The outcome is inherently uncertain (and often the wait is excruciating and drawn out). And like it or not, most of us experience emotional exposure in the process.

I’m sure there’s a few outliers, but I don’t know how anyone can pour months or even years of energy—intellectual and otherwise—into something and not feel some emotional attachment to the outcome. I care because I care about the work itself: I think it’s important and want it to be out there. It’s also a product my own deep thinking and intellectual work. Once I send it out, I believe it’s the best I can make it at that moment. So how can I not take rejection at least a little personally? Furthermore, it matters a lot to my career overall: my opportunities for employment, promotion, and my place within my discipline.

Taking off the armor

Given all of that, it’s time to recognize that making yourself vulnerable is part of being an academic. When we fail to acknowledge this, we’re only making room for shame to flourish. Just as importantly, it’s not good for our work. In her book Daring Greatly, Brown argues that when we’re afraid of admitting or experiencing vulnerability, we armor up. One of the most common kinds of armor that people use? Perfectionism, which is all too common in academia. Armour like perfectionism robs the world of good work and good enough scholars.

Our armor (our protection from shame) also makes it difficult to reach out for—or to offer—help. No one wants to share critiques of their work because it just feels way too, well, vulnerable! In a competitive environment, sharing criticism feels like opening yourself up to being devoured. This means that we rarely get a second opinion from someone we know and trust. We can’t even lean on colleagues for a little emotional support when a tough review comes in. Again, this isn’t a good environment for producing the best possible scholarship.

Separating our worth from our work

While I think it’s normal and healthy to care about our work and to feel attached to it in some way, it’s also critical to know that you are not your work. What I mean by this is that your inherent worth isn’t tied to the work that you produce. It’s not bound up with a book, a thesis, or a journal article. This is hard to disentangle in a profession where work and identity are closely intertwined. Therefore, separating your worth from your work is a process.

The important thing is that your worth and even the worth of the work is not decided by review and critique. It’s possible that it’s not ready for publication yet or that it needs a lot more polishing. Sometimes rejections are warranted. But you can still ask the following questions and acknowledge the worth of the work for yourself:

  • Did I do my work with integrity?
  • Did I do my best at the time?
  • Does the work align with my values?
  • Was I brave in sharing this work?
  • Did I learn something in the process?

How I’ve gotten better at dealing with critique

It’s been many years since that first rejection. I can laugh about it now. However, I still need to be ready for the next review. I’d like to say that it’s easy and it never feels like a punch in the gut. I’d be lying. The difference is that I have a few practices now that help me roll with that punch.

1. I don’t open the review right away.

Since we almost never know when to expect reviews, we can’t expect to be in a great state of mind to read them right away. When that email comes, with all of its uncertainty and potential, I wait to open it until I have some quiet time to myself. I never read reviews right before I have to teach or do anything that requires concentration. I know I’m gonna need a minute.

2. I give myself at least a day to have feelings about it.

However generous and well-intentioned, critique is almost always hard to hear! And let’s face it, a lot of the anonymous feedback we get during peer review is not generous. Sometimes it’s in all-caps. Sometimes it’s sarcastic and biting. A lot of the time it’s simply puzzling. Since I now know that I’ll inevitably have an emotional reaction to reviews, I just make time for it. This means that I read them once, close them for at least a day (some folks take a few days or a week), and feel whatever I want to feel. I don’t make any decisions. I don’t try to figure out what revisions I’ll make. It’s just feelings-time.

3. I redact the reviews.

Once I feel ready to process the reviews intellectually, I go back in ready to filter them down to the nuts and bolts. So, I cut and paste them into a word processing document. Then I highlight the actual points that I need to pay attention to. If I have a rude or sarcastic reviewer, I might just cut out the bits of their commentary that are unhelpful and don’t require a response. What I want to end up with is a more neutral document that can start to serve as a roadmap for actual revision.

4. I make an action list.

From my redacted and highlighted document, I cut and paste or just quickly summarize actual action items. I often put these into a table so I can just type my response right into the chart. At this point, I’m starting to take ownership of the review process. I’m a little removed from the comments and my action list is under my control. Feelings might pop up, but they’re not driving the bus. I can also remind myself (take note, early career folks): I don’t have to do everything that the reviewers suggest.

There are obviously more steps to the revision process, but these initial ones help me work through the turmoil of my initial reactions.

The case for vulnerability

I didn’t name vulnerability as part of the peer review or critique process until recently. My steps don’t diminish vulnerability; rather, they acknowledge it and then slowly make space to create something better. In making a case for vulnerability as part of the process, I’m not suggesting getting stuck in your feelings. If you’re stuck, chances are you’re conflating your self-worth with your work or allowing the critique to empower negative self-talk. Dealing with that is a topic for another post. For now, let’s just stop ignoring the fact that putting work out there makes us vulnerable. From there, we can begin to be kinder to ourselves and more supportive of our students and colleagues.

Looking for help working through the peer review process? A coach can offer the right combination of emotional support and practical advice for dealing with reviews and tackling your revisions so you can get your best work out there. Connect with me here!

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