Coping with rejection, criticism and self-doubt: making academia kinder

*You can now listen to this post on the podcast player.

I have read a few threads recently on Twitter and in academic Facebook groups I am part of about rejection and criticism, especially how to cope with both and not become beaten down, sad and hopeless. I was directed to a lovely article by Evelyne Deplazes on LinkedIn about this, which started me thinking about this issue. Also, I have a book coming out next month and I can already feel myself tensing for the critique and criticism, for the people who don’t like what I have to say. I am half terrified and half excited to share this book.

Generally, I don’t deal with criticism of my writing well. I am much better, now, at actually opening emails from editors and reading feedback at least a few days after they arrive (rather than avoiding these emails for a week or more), and after the initial shock of the more negative issues or big changes, I can make myself step back, look afresh at the paper, and see how and how much the feedback can improve my thinking and often my actual writing, too (all those commas and long sentences!). But, I have a tendency to obsess about the meaner things that are said about my writing, especially when they are not said with care or concern for helping me be better. One reviewer, several years ago now, commented that my long sentences felt “hectoring” and even counted the words in one. (There were a lot, let’s not go into that now). But, even though we revised that paper and the revisions were not huge or very hard to do in the end, that comment, and others like it over the years, stayed with me. They are part of the story I tell myself about who I am as a writer and a thinker.

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In Evelyne’s article, she argues that taking this step back and seeing that you are not your ideas is a crucial part of managing criticism and rejection in academia and supporting your own mental wellness and resilience. This is a hard one, though, for many researchers. My ideas, my arguments are what I believe and what I think. I am, like so many researchers, deeply invested in and passionate about what I write. Why else would I spend so much time on it? So, when my ideas are critiqued and even rejected, I feel personally criticised and also rejected. I feel, in that initial read of the reviewer reports, like they are saying: ‘You are not (yet) good enough’, rather than ‘Your ideas and arguments are not (yet) good enough’. Managing this and not getting swept up in spirals of negative self-talk means that learning to separate your self from your ideas is important. You are not your ideas. They are part of you, but not the whole, and there are always ways to make your writing and thinking sharper, clearer, deeper, better expressed. Hearing that your ideas need some work is not the same as hearing that you are not good enough.

Another thing Evelyne mentions is that old adage in academia about the fact that rejection and criticism is part of the ‘game’ so you’d better grow a thicker skin. She comments – and I am with her on this one – that being vulnerable and kind is part of how she is an academic, so the idea of ‘growing a thicker skin’ doesn’t feel like her or something she would want to do. I, too, prefer (as you can probably tell if you are a regular reader of this blog) to choose kindness over indifference and vulnerability over a stiff upper lip. I don’t have a very thick skin, which is something I regard as a strength in my work, rather than a weakness. It enables me to connect with a greater diversity of students and peers with empathy, rather than moving through my career impervious to the needs and struggles of others. I don’t want to be impervious. Even though the hurt of rejection and criticism is hard to feel and work through, I would rather feel that than not. I think academia as a whole is far too indifferent and impervious, and has forgotten how to be kind, empathetic and vulnerable. I think this is a problem, seen in large part in the significant increases in stress, burnout, mental health crises, and the general unhappiness of many students, lecturers and university leaders across the global North and South. We don’t need thicker skins to cope with academia; academia needs to become more mindful, kinder, more just and fair.

My part in this, as a teacher/reviewer/assessor/supervisor of diverse groups of postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writers, is to be mindful and kind. Kindness, as I have reflected on here, is not the same as niceness. My feedback may be tough at times, but it is not mean. In my mind, mean feedback does not try to help the writer see a way to a better idea, a sharper focus, a clearer way of expressing their arguments. Mean feedback is cutting, unconstructive, brusque. It may be easier to write and take less time and emotional or mental energy, but its effect on writers is usually negative, hurtful and demotivating. What’s the point of that? To weed out the ‘weak’ who probably should not be part of academia? When did this become a version of Survivor? I have no interest in being part of that mindset. I try, even as I sometimes get it wrong, to be kind and honest, to offer advice, choices and opportunities for improvement. Even when a paper is not ready for publication or a chapter needs a lot more work, the aim has to be to offer the kinds of advice and feedback that a writer can use to get to that goal – a published paper, a completed thesis chapter (and thesis, eventually) – in the process learning to become a better writer and thinker. This has been my model, from my own supervisor, from colleagues I teach and supervise with, from many of the peer reviewers who are part of journals I have worked on. These inputs have made – are making – me a better teacher, researcher, person and I am so grateful for it.

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So, my job, as I see it, is to pay it forward; I think this is a job for all of us. If you struggled, why not use what you have learned to make someone else’s struggle less awful? If you had it really tough, does that mean your students have to walk that same road? Wouldn’t you have liked someone to come along and make the tough road smoother or at least be a supportive companion? We may feel like academia is too big to make any meaningful changes. The system, structures and cultures need to change, for sure, and this requires much more than just individual efforts. But, I believe that in the lives of students, grant applicants, article or book/chapter writers, offering a kinder, more constructive, considerate approach to giving feedback and issuing rejection letters, which are not unavoidable, can go a long way, over time, to creating a more just, fair, kinder version of academia that we can all be a meaningful part of.

‘Put down the red pen’: Some thoughts-in-progress on feedback-giving

I haven’t posted anything in ages, for a range of reasons, mostly to do with just having a super tired brain that can really only do what it has to do and nothing extra. I try to make writing blog posts part of my weekly work, but I do also need some creative oomph to find a hook and be myself and share some thoughts (hopefully wisdom) on subjects I am thinking about and think readers might be interested in. And that oomph has been in ever-shorter supply lately. Mainly, I have been spending a lot of my time giving writers feedback on their own writing, and have run out of steam for mine in the process. But, the upside of this is that I have been thinking a lot about feedback-giving and reflecting on doing this online (as opposed to pen-and-paper). Specifically, when do you jump in and track changes, and when do you back off and highlight errors for writers to fix themselves, and how much feedback is too much in the average 10-12 page paper or chapter draft?

There is a large amount of very good research out there on feedback: what and when and how and why and how much. There are many differing viewpoints, of course, but one thing much of the research in recent years can agree on is that feedback works best when it invites dialogue and conversation between the feedback-giver and the writer(s) receiving it. In essence, this means moving from telling writers what to do, to offering advice, prompts, suggestions and explanations that enable and encourage them to sit with their writing and work in revising and correcting it themselves. In this process, they hopefully gain greater insight into and understanding of themselves as writers and not only what they are writing about, but how they are writing about it too, and the effect of their writing on a reader. This is the “critical friend” position: as your feedback-giver, I am here as a friend, but not one who will tell you your writing is perfect (because we know there is no such thing, right?) I will point out errors, gaps and so on from the perspective of a reader, and advise you as best I can on how you could improve the next draft (at least).

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But, the question then becomes: How? How do I offer advice, suggestions, explanations and so on? How much feedback is too much feedback for a writer to make sense of and work with? How many times might I get to read this piece? How do I hold myself back from just re-writing parts of this for them (especially if the writer is my student)?

These How? questions are the subject, again, of much research and fraught conversation in academia, especially as we have moved more and more online in the recent past, and more than perhaps ever before in 2020. We are not necessarily marking by hand, which limits the amount of correcting we can do and comments as can offer, because margin space is limited. I find that I tend to be more discerning when I mark by hand about what to focus on and what to leave, and then how to explain to students the feedback and ongoing revision work. Online, in Word or PDF, I can comment on every error, every line of text if I want to. I don’t have to discern in the same way because space is not as limited in an online text. I can cross out your writing and write my own version over it, potentially taking your ownership of your text away (you can reject my changes, but how many students do this?) I can delete parts of your text, even.

This is where the How? questions can become tricky, and require some introspection on what you are trying to do with your feedback to your students or peers, and what they need to get out of it. If you see feedback as mainly about producing a “perfect” text, then you may well track changes, type over the author’s words and, in the process, assert yourself as part-author of that text. If they don’t understand the thinking or grammatical rules and so on behind the changes you have made, and they see you as an authority, they may just “Accept All” and send it back. But, whose work are you then assessing: yours or theirs? Whose ‘voice’ comes through the text? I have given into the temptation to do too much of this, and have ended up reading revised writing that sounds way more like me that my student in places. It’s an uncomfortable feeling because I know they are not learning and growing as much as they could if I pulled back and tried something less directive (even if that would take more time all round).

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If I see feedback, then, as helping students and writers to become more authorial, more in control of their text, their meanings and the knowledge they are creating – and this is certainly the case when you are working with postgraduate and postdoctoral students and writers as I am – I have to work differently. First, I cannot jump on every error and correct it. I try to find two or three examples of the error, if it is repeated, and in the comment bubble, I try to explain as clearly as I can why this is an error and how they can fix it. Sometimes they copy and paste my words from the bubble into the text without thinking too hard, but often, what comes back is a step forward. I have to offer my advice as questions, prompts, suggestions rather than instructions, so that their input (even if this is not shared with me directly) is invited and prioritised in revisions.

Second, depending on how many times I am going to get to see this draft, or where this assignment is placed within a whole assignment plan, I have to be discerning about how many things I comment on and how I approach the feedback process. Do I highlight all of the confusions I see, every missing link between sections and paragraphs, every muddled/long/obtuse sentence, every claim that has no evidence or elaboration behind it? If I do, with that be 20 comments over a 10 page piece of writing, or 40? And, even if it is only 20, will that be too much for this writer or this student? How much time do they have to sit with the comments, make sense of them, ask for clarification, have a meeting with me on Zoom? If this is a doctoral or Masters student writing a thesis, that’s probably an okay amount, because we’ll chat about it in supervision and they’ll likely have a few weeks to work on the next draft. If this is a writer working on a paper for publication, they may, too, have time to rework the paper.

But time is not the only factor, right? We also have to think about the level of confidence of the student, and how much they can actually cope with, mentally and emotionally. Will this feedback really help this student/writer, or will it paralyse them? We all experience anxiety and a bit of paralysis when we get feedback and have to start revisions, no matter how confident we may be as writers. But, the more experienced writers who have gone through the process of getting things wrong, being guided to a more sound position and getting their writing there through revisions and redrafting, may be less overwhelmed by critical feedback given in larger amounts. They know it will probably be okay in the end, even if it hurts and is hard to work through now, and will take time and effort.

But the average student has not yet been through this process enough to know that the feedback doesn’t mean they are stupid, or should not be writing a thesis or paper, and that if they do the work it will probably be okay in the end. So, I try to be conscious of my tone, and also how much feedback I offer and what I offer it on, to try not to overwhelm and paralyse the writers and students I work with. This is the hardest part of online feedback for me – pulling back and leaving things I know I could comment on but that perhaps are not so important right now. I tend to over-comment, to be honest. What I have started doing is forcing myself to just read a few pages without making any comments and changes, and then think about what most needs to be done to improve the next draft. Then I write one or two longer comments on the pages, rather than 10 small comments. This is hard, but it feels better to me in terms of the presence I take up in the text. Of course, this always depends on what I reading, why I am offering feedback and where the writer/student is, but as a general practice, it prevents me from going overboard.

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I have also started sending my students and writers small summary voice-notes. This is partly because I get lazy about typing long summary comments, and partly to moderate the tone of my feedback in this online life where I don’t always get to meet the writers and students on Zoom to explain the feedback to them. I have found a free audio recorder app that works on my laptop and creates small files (about 3mb for a 5 minute recording), and I talk my summary feedback. I say ‘hello’ and offer them an overview of my impression of the text as their reader, and then highlight 2 or 3 main things I think really need to be part of the next draft. I always sign off with an encouraging comment, so that when they then open the text file, that’s hopefully what they hear in their heads.

The feedback from my students so far has been that they like the voice notes, and that these do indeed take the sting and fear out of the feedback a bit and make it a bit easier to ‘hear’ my voice in the comments encouraging rather than scolding them. We never really know all of what writers and students have experienced around their earlier writing, reading and feedback outings before we work with them; even if you have encouraging intentions, your feedback can still be heard in a negative tone in their heads. The voice notes may help to mitigate this over time. Maybe, if they hear an encouraging voice enough in a voice note and in the written comments it may over-write any mean voices telling them they can’t do this. I hope it will.

Feedback-giving online is tough, certainly for me. I really battle to put down the metaphorical red pen in the form of tracked changes and multiple comment bubbles, and focus on ‘higher order’ concerns around argument, understanding, cohesion and sense-making. It’s much easier to over-write and fix small mistakes, especially when you are tired and longer explanatory comments are hard to express clearly. But, I try to stop myself when I feel I am heading in this direction, take a break from the feedback and come back to it with a clearer head. This doesn’t always work out, of course, with deadlines and many tasks on the weekly list and too much last-minuting and fatigue. But, where I can take this time, I do, and where I can’t I try to be more conscious of what I am doing. Usually, this takes the form of going back over the writing before I send it, deleting or editing overly long or ultimately unnecessary comments, and composing an encouraging voice-note.

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I feel like the bottom line here is that I will always be fallible and get it wrong in parts, and maybe even come across as terse and mean when I never have that intention. Feedback is a conversation, and you cannot control what people hear, how they hear it and even what they do with it. But, I can control my responses and my own learning and improving. With this online life being where we are now and into the future, all I really can do is keep learning how to fail better with each student and each draft. And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I have to get back to doing exactly that!

When you are just over it all: being nice to yourself vs being kind

I am tired. My skin and bones and hair are tired. All I want to do is mooch around in my PJs and read undemanding novels with happy endings, and eat pancakes. I’m pretty sure this is a version of the post-PhD funk, but this time round it’s post-book funk, and the lingering effects of not taking a proper end-of-year break. And maybe I need to eat more vegetables. But, what I am struggling with is what to do with myself so I can actually keep up with work, and not let myself and others down by missing deadlines and generally just flaking out.

All my life I have been an over-achiever, and a people pleaser. ‘A’ student, school prefect, in all the school plays and concerts, putting my hand up to get involved in everything I could, hardly ever saying no or drawing healthy boundaries around my time. The overachieving was tempered at university, where I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond, but the desire to be the ‘A’ student, and the best at everything, and make people pleased and proud, remained. This carried over into my Masters and then my PhD, where I wanted to write the best thesis ever, and be the best student ever, and write the most amazing papers ever.

It’s not easy to live and work like this: it requires the presence of what I have always called “the mean voice” in your head. This voice’s job, basically, is two-fold (for me, anyway): on the one hand, she tells you to keep going, and say YES (not no) and take on all the things, and she kind of makes you get down to it and work. But, this means, on the other hand, that she’s not always very kind when you are tired and need a rest, because she might well call you a flake, and tell you that if you say no that work will never come your way again, and that if you don’t finish the paper right now, people will be disappointed and cross (a people pleasing overachiever’s worst thing). She’s mean, basically, and if you let her be mean to you about work and writing, it’s not too hard for her to be mean about everything.

I got to a point where I needed her out of my head: I needed to learn to be kind to myself and mean it, and take proper breaks, and say no and not second-guess that, and let go of this fear of letting people down if I did say no, and draw healthier boundaries around my time and energy. So, I went to therapy and I worked hard, and that mean voice is pretty quiet these days, about everything. I am much better at saying no, and not stressing (too much) over that, and also giving myself time to go slower and take breaks. This is all great. But, I am discovering that I actually miss the mean voice – specifically, her ability to cheerlead (however bossily), and get me off the couch and away from the novels and focused on writing, and reading, and supervising, and emailing, and adminning and all that. I don’t miss the mean-ness, but I miss the pushing.

I have found, in quieting this voice and learning to be nice to myself, that I have slowly become less good at being kind to myself, in the more critical sense of kindness. There’s a difference between being nice, and being kind. Niceness doesn’t really require care. You can say nice things without actually meaning them, and you can be nice to people without really caring about their welfare or wellbeing. Niceness is not about others, niceness is about ourselves, making ourselves look good and feel good.

Kindness, on the other hand, is all about others. The act of being kind is about actually considering someone else’s interests or feelings or needs, and acting in a way that shows consideration. Feedback is a useful example. I often explain to my students that if I just said things about their work like ‘this is a good draft’ or ‘interesting points here’ and nothing else, that may be nice because it would make them feel good and would make me look like an engaged reader. But, how would they get to draft 2, and to a better final piece of work? If I rather say ‘this is a good draft, but there is still work to be done on supporting your argument, using more updated sources, and deepening your critical engagement with supporting texts’, they might think ‘oh no, more work, she doesn’t think it’s (I’m) good enough yet’, and feel a bit bleak, initially. But, that feedback is kind because I actually care about you getting to a more confident and capable place as a scholar.

So, back to me: I think, right now in the wake of this post-book slump, I am being way too nice to myself and not nearly kind enough. I am giving myself too many free passes, too much time to loaf-off, and the more I do that the harder it is to come back to a place of focus and productivity. I am not sleeping well because I keep dreaming about all the work and writing I am not doing. So, starting right now, as soon as I post this rather personal post, I am going to be kind to myself. I am going to make myself send three emails I need to send, read three pieces of student work I was supposed to read yesterday, and finish two outstanding pieces of work that are overdue. Then, I will have a proper lunch, and give my own work some time, with some reading and writing in my reading journal. Day done. Then, tomorrow the same again: making kind choices that show my care for myself, and also for others that I have a responsibility towards.

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I reckon this is not going to be easy, and I’m going to have to work at this for a while until I get myself back into a different, more productive, less ‘meh’ place that I am currently in. But, if not now then when? These lessons we have to learn about ourselves — who we are, how we work, what we need to focus and be productive, and have enough energy for ourselves and for others — keep having to be learned and relearned because as we get older, and we change and our lives change, the demands on us change, as does the way we respond. This can feel like failure – why don’t I know how to do this properly already?? But, I am trying to see it more kindly, as an opportunity to reassess and reflect, to make different choices if I have to, to grow. I feel like this could make me a better teacher, colleague, supervisor, writer, and also a better mother, and partner to Lovely Husband.

So, if you are also just over it all, and tired to your bones, and lying on the couch in your PJs in a pancake coma telling yourself you don’t have to work today, maybe try a small act of kindness: get dressed, make the bed, tidy up, make a small list and answer some emails. Day done. Tomorrow, taking a few more steps towards the bigger things you need to do will hopefully be easier. And pretty soon, you’ll be back on a path of kindness, and Getting Things Done. I’ll be right there with you.