Yesterday I received a rejection for a manuscript I submitted about 3 months ago. The editor and reviewers were reasonable and their feedback was very valid. In fact, I felt vindicated because I knew that manuscript wasn’t that great.
Before you ask “why would you submit work that was subpar” let me clarify: that paper was certainly better than stuff I’ve seen published in journals before, BUT it wasn’t up to my standards. I only submitted it because I was invited to do so personally by the editor. Even after I told him the manuscript wasn’t that great, he pushed and I said hey, the worse they can say is no.
And they did.
I discussed this briefly with a colleague and he immediately assumed I was angry at the reviewers. I’m not. I am actually glad that these reviewers had the wherewithal to spot subpar work. As a scholar I am greatly annoyed when I read published work that isn’t good. My first response is always: who let this through?? (Immediately followed by personal outrage that my self-proclaimed much better work was not accepted). But in this case I am not outraged. My paper lacked a theoretical foundation and the methodology wasn’t clearly explained. I had to transform it from a conference paper to a manuscript submission in 12 days. I did what I could while teaching two 3-hour courses a day.
My conversation with my friend inspired me to write about this thing called publishing and the forces that push us to internalize the rejection of a manuscript as rejection of self. We so often view our work as an extension of ourselves and while this seems reasonable, it is also dangerous. What we write on paper represents only a fraction of who we are in life.
We put so much of ourselves in our teaching and our research that to have 3-5 anonymous strangers whose qualifications are unknown reject our work is hurtful and at times, enraging. I’ve certainly gotten some not so helpful feedback from reviewers that almost brought me tears. I’ve also gotten immensely helpful feedback that vastly improved the quality of my work. It really is a crap shoot and no matter the final outcome, the decision is not a judgment of you; it’s a critique of that single piece of work.
As a junior professor I am still recovering from the denial, rejection and judgment I received in graduate school. I can still hear one member of my committee telling me at my dissertation proposal defense to think of a new idea because this one ‘doesn’t have guaranteed positive results’. Uhmm what? Is that how we choose what to research?
I can still feel the hurt when that same committee member 4 months prior refused to sign off on my Master’s Thesis in time for me to walk at the Masters graduation ceremony. She gave me feedback 6 days before the submission deadline and said once I incorporated her feedback, she’d sign. I could’ve incorporated her feedback after graduation and all would’ve been the same. Or she could’ve given me that feedback in a timely fashion since she’d had the paper for 6 weeks at that point. Either way, she got to make a decision about my work that affected my personal outcomes.
Much like the tenure and promotion process. Similar to how we assess our students.
So many times I have students tell me their grade on the paper/test/project doesn’t reflect the time and effort they put in. My response: I’m sure it doesn’t. But I can’t grade your effort as I am not there with you throughout life. I can only assess the final product.
The same is true of reviewers. They are not in our offices after hours as we comb through data. They are not cooking us breakfast at 5am as we rise early to get in an hour of writing before the day truly starts. They are not in the passenger seat as we drive around completing our many errands while simultaneously writing an outline for our next manuscript in our head. Because they are not privy to our lives, what we do, nor who we are, their decisions about our work cannot also be a decision about us.
We must learn to separate our work from our personal beings. If you define yourself by what you create instead of who you are, you open yourself to external validation. The things we put out in the world—our voices, our writings, our bodies—are always under scrutiny. We need to save something for ourselves and constantly remind one another that a line on a vita is just that: one line in this epic novel of life.