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

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 Evelyn 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 are 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.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

In Evelyn’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 Evelyn 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.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

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.

Working with feedback: on criticism and critique

Hands up: who actually likes critique and criticism of their writing? So few hands? How strange :). I think we all know that critique on our writing is something we have to expect: if we are writing for an audience, especially one expected to be critical such as PhD examiners or peer reviewers, the critique will come whether we want it or not. Often, though, critique is something we fear (even if we also know that good critique is good for our thinking and writing). I don’t know a single writer – student or otherwise – who has not seen an email from an editor or supervisor that contains feedback and immediately said ‘Yay! Critique!’ Most students I know, myself included, have seen those emails and first had a swooping sort of sensation of anxiety or apprehension in the belly before deciding whether to open now, or later; read now, or later. How do you deal with criticism and critique of your writing? How do you take on what helps, leave what doesn’t, and move forward with your writing and thinking?

Perhaps a good starting point would be to differentiate between criticism and critique. Learning about the differences can shape our responses as writers in helpful ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two definitions, helpfully provided by Google, are a useful starting point. You can see that criticism is defined as fault-finding or censure in the first instance, even though in the second it is defined as analysis, evaluation and judgement. This overlaps with the definition of critique which is defined as assessment and analysis done in a ‘detailed and analytical way’. A further definition you can source goes on to argue that critique is understood thus:

I like this more fleshed out understanding of critique as a ‘method of disciplined…analysis’ that is not only negative, but finds merit as well, and is concerned with ‘doubt’. I think this speaks rather well to what we do when we read the work of others – we are not ‘sure’ that the writer is right or wrong, or that we are right or wrong in our assessment; rather we read with a measure of doubt so that we can, analytically and evaluatively, assess the argument being made and the evidence being presented in support of that argument on its merits, and in relation to the field of research (and often to the research we are doing). We do this when we read the literature that helps us scope the field and find a space for our project; we do this when we read as critical peers to offer feedback (whether formally or informally); and we should be mindful of this as the way readers will (hopefully) approach what we write.

Notwithstanding that examiners and peer reviewers can sometimes be rather nit-picky, petty and unhelpful in their feedback, I believe many academics who will be tasked with commenting on my writing will understanding this definition of critique, and will assess my work with a view to pointing out both the merits and faults. They will hopefully be peers who have the interests of the field of research and practice at heart, rather than their own narrow stakes in that field, and as such will offer feedback that will help me improve my writing, develop my thinking, and make a more valuable, critical and thoughtful contribution to that field. I have had both mean and helpful feedback on my writing so far, and to be honest, the helpful has far outweighed the mean. A brief inquiry to colleagues and friends has yielded a similar finding (although anecdotal) so if you have not yet been exposed to much external feedback on your writing, be warned that some reviewers are mean, but also be encouraged that most actually do have the interests of the field and you as a contributor to it at heart when they review your work.

So, when you get the critique (and sometime the first instance of criticism) what do you do? How do you respond? I am going to write in a follow-on post about formally responding to reviewers and examiners, so here I want to just touch on two thoughts:

– Firstly, you have to give your feelings – all of them – space to breathe and be felt. Any critique that point to errors, missteps and the need for more reading, thinking and revision will be hard to read or hear, and it’s very easy to focus only on what the reviewers/supervisors don’t like, rather than also looking at what they do like in your writing. You may well feel hurt, angry, confused, disheartened and rejected. You might feel stupid, or lost, or filled with self-doubt. This is all completely par for the course. No one likes the negative critique, even if (as some of my more experienced colleagues tell me) you get more used to it, and it hurts less, the more you publish. Feel the crappy feelings, but don’t over-indulge them to the point where you start sinking into a mire of despair and writing-abandonment.

– Secondly, you should have back-up: willing and supportive colleagues, fellow writers, friends who can help you to process the feedback in constructive ways. Choose people who have some knowledge of the kind of writing your are doing, and the purpose of it, and share your feedback with them. If you need to vent, vent, but then also use them as a sounding board for your initial and then more considered responses. What do the reviewers mean by this comment? Why am I being asked to do this? Do you think I can ignore that, and how should I defend myself to the editors and reviewers? How should I revise this chapter/section of the paper? And so on. Kamler and Thomson have written about the usefulness of having a ‘publication broker’ to help you work through reviews and revisions, and this is a good idea (especially if you are new to writing for publication or for external review).

I’ll stop here for now, and address responding to reviewers in the next post in more detail. But if I can sum up so far: working with criticism, especially at an earlier stage in your career as a writer and academic, is bloody hard work. It’s emotional as well as intellectual work, and I think finding space to be emotional, but not let the feelings of hurt and inadequacy get in your way of the intellectual work and progress is essential in turning the criticism into critique, and the faults, errors and missteps into opportunities for learning and growth.