So, a few months ago, I sent a version of a chapter of my book out to what is one of the most selective journals in my field. This week, it was rejected.
Which, yes, of course, I didn’t like or anything, because who likes to be rejected? But. It does occur to me that these rejections sting a whole lot less these days than they did only a few years ago. And actually, this rejection was very, very productive.
So why does the rejection sting less?
On the one hand, both of the readers’ reports were actually very positive about the submission, for rejections. They offered really helpful suggestions for revision, ones that confirmed what I’d suspected about the essay in the first place, and which will contribute to my revisions for the book manuscript (from which this article was excerpted… which let’s note was part of the problem – that this was an excerpt). Neither was like, “Oh, this is garbage!” but rather, “this article just isn’t where an article for this particular journal needs to be.” Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever received more constructive or positive rejections of my work. To get two rejections that include very strong compliments about the loveliness of my critical prose (which, you know what? is totally lovely), the incisiveness of my close readings of the literature, and the idea itself? Yeah, that’s pretty cool. The problem was in the execution of the argument through my close readings and in situating the argument theoretically, which I thought might be a problem when I submitted it in the first place. But submitting it meant I could move on to other writing things this summer, which I really needed to do. And hey, now I’ve got great feedback, and it’s going to make this stronger, in the end, and will enable me to place the article elsewhere (a) and will make the book chapter stronger (b). So thank you, anonymous peer reviewers! Your generosity and careful attention to my article is going to make what I do better, and I am so appreciative of that!
On the other hand, what made this rejection sting less (every time I think about the sting of rejection, I hear this in my head) is the fact that I now regularly serve as a peer reviewer for journals. This is only something that has begun to happen in the past 5 or 6 years with any regularity, and it’s changed my perspective about reviewers’ comments. When I peer review, I take that job very seriously. I really am trying to help the author – even when I really hate what the author writes – to make the article better. Ironically, I was writing a recommendation to reject an article at the very same moment that I got my own rejection. Did that change my comments on the article that I was reviewing? No. Instead, it made me read the reviewers comments to my own rejected article with generosity. Because none of this, when it works properly, is personal. It really is one of the rare instances where what we do is about the scholarship, and not about networking or self-promotion or the “game” of academics. I used to take every criticism of my writing or my scholarship as “personal.” I realize, by virtue of the fact that I’ve been on the other side, that it really isn’t.
Now, that isn’t to say that one might not disagree with a reviewer. Of course one might. One does. I do. But when I got rejected this week, I didn’t take it as a verdict on my intellect, or a verdict on my ability to make a contribution to the scholarly conversation. I took it as an honest commentary on what I submitted, and as something that I can then use to improve what I had submitted so that it will find a home someplace else. Does it suck that I have to do the work to incorporate that feedback? Sure. But I can do that with a few days of solid work, and it will be worth it. And it’s not about me sucking – or even about what I submitted sucking: it’s about making something that is beautifully written and which has many strong points infinitely stronger. In this case at least, it’s not about scrapping everything I’ve already done. It’s about building and refining, which is always a good thing.
But what all of this leads me to thinking about is my students. The problem with being a student (well, one of them) is that your work is so connected to you, individually, and not to a broader conversation. And I think that this is a problem that we as professors exacerbate in some ways, in that we don’t necessarily offer constructive critique to out strongest students – we let them believe that everything that they will do will garner praise. And then they go on in their lives – whether in a conventional job or in graduate work – and people criticize them. And, oh, does it sting. Because they think it’s all about them. I know I did.
And while I try with my students to emphasize that they are part of a broader conversation and to give them criticism toward that end, one of the problems is that they don’t get that effort from every professor. If they get it only from me, then I’m a bitch. If they get it only from me, then it is personal, between me and them. And then the word gets around and a lot of students avoid that bitch Dr. Crazy.
And sure, my students come back, say, a few years later, to tell me that they appreciate me, but wouldn’t it be better if all of us were sending them a uniform message the whole time – not waiting for them to get to law school to send an email into the ether that pushing on their writing helped, or waiting for them to get into a graduate program to send an email into the ether that forcing them to have their own ideas and develop their own topics and to write in clear, thoughtful, deliberate prose helped? What if we taught them that “rejection” wasn’t a failure, and what if we taught them that saying something wasn’t good enough wasn’t saying that they aren’t good enough?
What if it wasn’t about “grading,” in the sense that we usually do it, which is fairly individualized and which doesn’t relate a hell of a lot to the way that we ourselves are evaluated, and what if instead we really thought about the students’ contributions to a world of ideas?
What if students learned that you can be doing A work and still have it not be good enough? Wouldn’t that be preferable to students thinking that an “A” meant perfection?
Am I sure of how to achieve that? No. Do I try every day to achieve that? Yes. But that’s also why a fair few students avoid working with me. It only works if we all do it, and we all don’t.
Whatever the case, it’s been good for me to learn that one can be rejected and still be great. And I hope that the students who take courses with me or work under my direction learn that, too. But I’d much rather that this approach wouldn’t be all about me and my grand ideas: I much rather that this approach were the norm rather than the exception.