advisorly trepidations

Music: Real Estate: Days (2011)

Recently a dear friend and colleague asked me to look over and comment on an essay that was reviewed and rejected by major academic journal in our shared field. She wanted to know if the essay she wrote as “as bad” as the reviewers seemed to suggest that it was (I had an inkling it was not, of course). After spending some time with her manuscript and reading the reviewers’ comments, I concluded the answer to her question was, assuredly, “NO.” Both reviewers rejected the essay for different reasons, and the editor concurred with each set. Reading the reviews like not-so-obscure tealeaves, it seemed to me one reviewer rejected the essay for reasons that we might say reduce to disciplinary politics: s/he did not like the deployment of a certain theorist, whom some folks dismiss out-of-hand for various reasons (a familiar problem for me, when I started working on psychoanalysis some eight years ago). The other reviewer, much more charitable, rejected the essay for reasonable reasons that had to do with the framing and contribution of the essay, not the heart or analysis of it. In most journals these reasons would not rise to a rejection, since it seems to me my friend only needed to spend a weekend thinking about and reframing the essay to address the issue of its contribution, and then, it would be good to go. I suspect, however, this second reviewer passed on the essay because of the stature of journal, which is among the most prestigious of my field and receives more submissions a year than any editor could possible handle.

What struck me about my friend’s rejection letter was the consensus of both reviewers and the editor: the essay was very well written. All three commented on the excellent prose and clarity of her argument, which, frankly, is a rare compliment to see in manuscript reviews. It is often the case, I think, that flawed but well written essays are often invited for revision and resubmission because such writing is an indicator of scholarly competence. When I review essays for publication, I will often recommend a revision if the manuscript is well composed. Not always, of course, but often, and for the reasons I mentioned (good writing indicates the author is competent enough to consider the suggestions of reviewers and revise accordingly). Whether it is because my own writing is getting better, or because the writing of others in the field is getting worse, I am increasingly noticing writing problems (basic problems, like grammar issues, punctuation, and spelling) in manuscripts that I review for journals. I have turned down blurbing a book in press because I thought the writing—and therefore the proofreading—was bad, reasoning that I would not want my approval to be associated with so many comma splices. Sometimes an essay may have an exciting, smart idea, but I will reject the essay because the writing is so convoluted the reader has to work too hard for comprehension.

It’s with the background of these thoughts on scholarly writing that I worked through last semester’s batch of graduate seminar papers, only recently returning them. I know, I’m terrible (and I don’t typically do well on course evaluations for the item, “returns work promptly.”). On average, I spent three hours with each paper, using the “track changes” editing tool in MS Word to comment on arguments as well as make corrections to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth. By the time I am done commenting on a graduate paper, I know for each author it probably looks very daunting, perhaps even dispiriting. But I find myself doing it thinking about the challenges of the blind review process when one attempts to publish. My reasoning is that writing well gets one’s foot in the door; only by writing something well can an author get a reviewer to consider her argument, on its own terms. Reviewers can and often do reject manuscripts for basic writing errors.

I’m am blogging about this topic today, however, because I struggle with “grading” as a graduate student educator. I suspect a number of students, when they get papers back from me, think I am mean, or cruel, or overly harsh—and I worry about that. I worry about crushing spirits, or discouraging their enthusiasm for a particular idea or project. Of course, I remember feeling discouraged many times after getting back a paper graded by my own mentors (we joked one of my mentor’s like to return “blood on the page” because she uses red pen to make comments and corrections)—but, of course, I kept at it. My hope is that however blunt my comments on the writing of graduate students is, they will also keep at it, that they will not internalize criticism as a critique of their person, or that somehow I am working out my own “issues” on their papers (a temptation, indeed).

I suspect I am not alone in my worrying here, that many of you who are charged with training graduate students struggle similarly with balancing the need to provide thoughtful encouragement with the disciplinary demand to prepare students for the toils of the scholarly life. I have never liked the idea that one is rough on students to “toughen them up” for the “market,” which often seemed to me a rationalization for cruelty in the field. Stories abound, in fact, about programs in my field that were notorious for a kind of brutal, “tough love” approach to graduate training. At the same time, there is the an imperative, a professional responsibility I think, to make sure graduate students understand where the general bar is set for writerly competence and help them to get their chins up there.

Finally, there are two related points here. First, over the years I’ve learned that my particular field (Communication Studies) is better than many, perhaps most, in attending to our graduates’ writing. I often get the comment, almost always from graduate students who come from cognate fields, that they have yet to receive the kind of “feedback” we give to graduates in my department. That is a curious thing and I’m not sure what to make of it yet. Second, part of the worry about grading toughly is the fact that many graduate students will not go on to a life of scholarly endeavor, and that many don’t want to, either! Of course, it seems to me I still need to comment on graduate work as if students will continue on to a research career, as if all students should be prepared for that particular end, even though we know, increasingly, a research-heavy career is not the end (desired or existential) for which many of our students are headed. I often preface my comments on graduate work with a statement like, “you may not want a research career, however, insofar as we are a research-based department, it’s my job to prepare you accordingly.”

At the very least, the paternal and maternal observations often made by new parents also applies to graduate instructors: you never really appreciate what your own advisors and mentors did for you until you start doing it for others. “Blood in the page” often hurt to see, but here, a decade after I received my Ph.D., I celebrate the blood and am thankful and admiring.


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