On helpful feedback

Early this summer, I reworked a talk I had given into an article for an edited volume. The topic was one I would feel confident listing as an “area of specialization,” and when I completed the changes (which involved considerably expanding it from its original form), I was proud of it — I felt I had made a real step forward in my understanding of said topic and presented it in a way that would be helpful to others.

One idiosyncratic feature of this particular volume was that the editor had asked that the authors act as “peer reviewers” for each other’s essays. When I heard of this scheme, I had a deep sense of foreboding, anticipating that the result would be for all the authors to be overwhelmed by nitpicky criticism, but I held my tongue. After all, the scheme might work — it might even produce a more coherent edited volume!

When the review of my essay was completed, my worst fears were fulfilled. I was indeed overwhelmed by nitpicky criticism. Between the reviewer’s remarks and the editor’s attempt to give a sense of their own priorities for revision, the total amount of feedback amounted to ten single-spaced pages. At one point, it was recommended that I cut an entire section of my essay (amounting to at least a quarter of the extant text) to expand upon things the reviewer and editor felt were more interesting and important. And needless to say, I was not engaging with the secondary literature nearly enough.

Fortunately, I had another possible venue for the piece, so I simply withdrew from the volume without much lost labor on my part. Yet the profoundly discouraging experience of getting a firehose of criticism for a piece I was pretty happy with stayed with me. I put off editing the piece for the new venue until the very last minute, absolutely dreading the major surgery that it would surely require. When I finally sat down to undertake the dreaded task, however, I found something surprising: I was still basically pleased with it. There were points the editor and reviewer had criticized that were certainly worthy of addressing, but I felt I could adequately respond to those critiques with a few clarifying sentences and additional footnotes. There was no reason for me to feel so insecure about the piece, no need to dread returning to it.

It seems to me that “feedback” in academic contexts often plays out like this, making huge demands on our time and our emotional resilience without doing much to actually improve our work. We academics as a group are very good at passing judgment, but not very good at reading each other’s work and genuinely helping each other out. A lot of that stems from fundamentally arbitrary standards — for instance, not every single piece of scholarship needs to engage with every other relevant piece of scholarship, and there are often very good reasons to make a stylistic and rhetorical decision not to deal significantly with secondary texts at all and instead to focus directly on the primary sources. That kind of arbitrarity is a symptom of a deeper impatience and lack of sympathetic imagination, so that we can’t think our way into what the author is attempting to do and how that project might be better served, rather than transformed into something else we happen to like better.

I can anticipate the objection that we are all so pressed for time, but the hegemonic forms of “helpful feedback” in academia are already hugely time-consuming — and, perhaps even more important in a field legendary for imposter syndrome, they are also hugely emotionally draining. Even if I hadn’t had the alternative venue, I always have the option of saying, “Screw it, I’ll just post it on the blog” and knowing I’d get at least some readers. Not everyone has that advantage, however, and a needlessly discouraging reader report could easily lead them to believe that no one could possibly give a fuck about what they’re saying and they should just give up. Or if they don’t have the option of giving up, in light of “publish or perish,” they wind up defacing their work to respond to the arbitrary complaints of someone who may not even really grasp what they were trying to do in the first place.

Surely there must be a way of helping each other with our research and writing without actively degrading the quality of our work and destroying our self-esteem. Right? Right?!

4 thoughts on “On helpful feedback

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I have only been through the peer review process once (and quite recently) but it seems essential to me to have a ‘red line’ with regard to what you’re prepared to change and what you’re not. I was fortunate enough to have a good editor with my recent piece who happily sent my work to a third reviewer whose feedback was positively glowing compared to the second reviewer I’d had (the one that had been the problem). There’ll always be alternative venues for publication. It’s kind of like in a job interview when you’re supposed to turn the tables and ask your interviewers why you should take the job. Obviously you can’t be a dick about it but if your work is good then you should always be able to ask ‘why should I publish in your journal?’. Journals reject authors by the dozen. I see no reason why authors shouldn’t reject journals with just the same degree of disinterest. Of course there’s a fundamental imbalance of power there, but still.

    The insistence upon exhaustive reviews of secondary literature is a good point. I think it really comes down to the fact that a lot of career academics have no desire, either because they never did or because they’ve had it drained out of them, to do original work. Endlessly nitpicking over boring minutiae of this or that reference that is or isn’t there is a way of producing vast quantities of scholarly material without any real content. Careerist scholasticism is the default mode of academic being. The simple fact is that there’s a pretty much undiscussably vast secondary literature on pretty much any topic you can imagine. And much of said literature simply isn’t very good. The right to *ignore* bad, or simply boring, arguments seems to me to be a crucial one. Without that how can one ever have any time or space to do anything better?

  2. From giving and receiving feedback on screenplays, I can say that the most useful feedback is positive. It’s not just that it softens negative criticism, it’s that it tells you what you should keep or lean into. It also helps you understand that you need to fix problems because they clash against the material is working.

    In your circumstances, this more or less amounts to a who-will-bell-the-cat problem. But maybe someday.

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