“…you have to just figure out the rules and no one is going to tell you what the rules are until you screw up…”

This is the second post in a series of three that tells Sarah’s story. See the first installment, “…this was a thing that really meant a lot to me and so it really hurt a lot when I got these comments that were just basically that it was terrible.” This first post gives an overview of her in-depth research project with an art collection at Hunter College, and the resulting article documenting her efforts to understand the collection, and return it to the public. When it came to publishing an article about the project, she ran into many barriers, including intense feelings of rejection.

Sarah Ward

Sarah Ward

Pronouns: She/her/hers

Position: Associate Professor, Outreach Librarian

Institution: Hunter College – City University of New York (CUNY)

Fun Fact: Sarah is from Illinois but New York is her adopted home. She says, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else, and I’m so glad to be raising my kids here (even during a pandemic).”

Let’s pick up where we left off, with feelings.

Emily: How did you find the emotional fortitude to move forward after feeling so – I mean you didn’t use this word but it sounds to me like you felt really devastated by that.

It did. I think that’s an adequate description. It took a moment. I read the comments, I got really upset about it and then I thought, “well if this is important enough to me to work on then I’m going to take the comments in the spirit of constructive criticism.” And I also talked to colleagues. I said, “look I’ve got these conflicting comments from three different reviewers, some of them were helpful, some of them are harsh, what do you do with this information?” And a couple of my colleagues who were tenured who had gone through this process before told me “you have to figure out what’s important to you to stick to your guns on and you have to figure out what you’re willing to bend on and how you can still maintain your integrity and make the revisions that they’re asking for.” They said when you send the revisions in you can go reviewer by reviewer or comment by comment and say here’s how I modified it according to his comment. I didn’t agree with this one so I didn’t make any changes based on the this one. You can go and you can justify that it’s not just like someone is grading your paper that you have to do the things they ask you to do, you can actually push back and say, “no actually it’s written in this journalistic style because that’s the way that I wanted to present the work and I maintain that this is an appropriate way to tell this story.” So I think talking to other people and understanding that it was okay for me to do that was really important. I was able to, after my initial emotional reaction, go back and say okay now that my feelings are in check, I can see the value of these comments and I will then address the ones that I feel are worth addressing and I will tell them why I didn’t address the other ones. And that’s exactly what I did.

Emily: Was that the first time you had ever learned that you could do that? You had no idea what to do and that kind of negotiation of the process was totally new for you?

…that was the first time that anybody had told me that it’s okay for you to push back on this and say I’m not doing this because it doesn’t maintain the integrity of my research.

Yup. It was totally new for me. I had no idea what to do. I thanked the reviewer and said they gave me a lot to think about. To address the comments I outlined the changes I made. And to the reviewer number two I said, “I was unsure how to respond to the comments from reviewer number two, as it seemed to me like he or she wanted me to write an entirely different article than the one I submitted.” I said, “I do intend to continue my research in the broader area of these areas, but this is not the focus of this particular manuscript.” So, that’s how I addressed it. But yeah that was the first time that anybody had told me that it’s okay for you to push back on this and say I’m not doing this because it doesn’t maintain the integrity of my research. That was powerful to learn and I think and that’s something that I try to pass on when I’m asked to informally review others’ writings. If you get comments back that you disagree with, you are allowed to say that you disagree with those comments.

Emily: It’s such a black box. We’re thrown in as librarians into these academic positions, and we have these promotion and tenure requirements, and we don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to this stuff. Wow do we learn?   

There was basically no mentorship in my institution. CUNY is a huge place, there’s a lot of colleges; Hunter has a pretty big library. When I first started I asked if there were mentorship opportunities for people who are new in the tenure track. And there wasn’t really so I started a committee of junior faculty who get together and talk about their research, but it’s similar to the peer-review process. The tenure process is so wonky and so ill-defined at most campuses; each one has different requirements and each chief librarian has a little bit different advice. Nobody was willing to state “here’s what you need to do” because they don’t want the liability. They want to have flexibility and so nobody is really willing to mentor in a formal way because they don’t also want to be in trouble over telling people the wrong thing. So, there’s this real culture of fear around it, which I think sucks, but at least I had some colleagues who were willing to talk to me about it and have these informal opportunities to talk about my research.

Looking outside the library I had other faculty colleagues that I spoke with. The chief librarian at the time gave me some good advice. He was not an academic, he came from the corporate world and so it was interesting to hear his perspective on it. I think so much in academia, there’s so much gate keeping involved, you have to know the rules before you even begin, you have to just figure out the rules and no one is going to tell you what the rules are until you screw up and then they’re like, “oh by the way you could have done it this way.” Well, you could’ve told me that in the beginning and set me up to succeed rather than setting me up to fail. I just think it’s unfair. So, I’ve tried to pay forward the lessons that I’ve learned when other people come and ask me about things.

Emily: So, how did this experience compare with other experiences you’ve had in peer review? Has it informed how you serve as a referee? Has it in formed how you submit or how you write?

But for me there’s value in the fact that somebody put in the work to submit this thing and so I need to take that in the spirit in which it was submitted…

I’ve only refereed a handful of times but it’s definitely had an impact. I feel as a reviewer you get this feeling of, “I have the power to make or break this thing,” and it can be a power trip. Knowing what I know about it now, my approach was to be very careful with the work because it was somebody’s very hard work. Just think about the way you word things. It’s like when you’re talking to people who you care about, you don’t speak harshly to them, you try to gently encourage them in a particular direction. It’s really informed that for me that I don’t make mean comments. I feel like some reviewers take it as an opportunity to be mean. I don’t know why, I guess it’s a power trip or human nature—sometimes people need somebody to take stuff out on. But for me there’s value in the fact that somebody put in the work to submit this thing and so I need to take that in the spirit in which it was submitted and give thoughtful feedback that would help them rather than tear them down. I teach a one-credit class for the library and it’s helped me giving student feedback as well. Students are trying to do their best. So don’t be mean, just tell them what you want them to do, and tell them when they did it right, and tell them when they didn’t, and offer them an opportunity to revise their work. I think it’s pretty simple.

In terms of submitting my work, everything else I’ve authored has been collaborative and so that’s been a totally different process. I think the reason this article about the Puerto Rican prints was so personal was because it was my only solo-authored piece. When you get rejected for a group effort there’s other people to experience it with. “Okay well clearly that wasn’t a good fit, so let’s figure out how to move on.” It doesn’t feel as personal to me; I don’t care about that research as much. I haven’t solo authored anything since this, if that’s any indication of how rough it was. I would love to, but I haven’t had the time. I’m working on another big archival research project now, sort of slowly, obviously during COVID I can’t get into the archives, but I’m a little nervous about that one, too, because it feels awfully personal because I care about this research as well.

Emily: You said that you didn’t care as much about your other research projects, but I’m going to interpret that a little bit differently so please tell me if I’m wrong. I’m going to posit that maybe when you’ve had rejection of works that were collaboratively authored it’s that there was a sense of camaraderie in the rejection and that there was a space for processing that.

I think that’s a fair way to say it and that definitely was the feeling. Saying that I didn’t care about it as much feels flippant, but quite frankly it’s true to a point; I’m not as invested in academic library literature as I was in this one particular research study. I have to publish for tenure, and I got tenure, and I’m really pleased with that, but I know that the stuff that I have written—aside from this one bit of research that I did—is not going to be as impactful on the world in any meaningful way as. That’s why I say I didn’t care about it as much, because I wasn’t as personally invested in it. There are things, obviously, that I have cared about since then and that I do still care about. Actually, now that I think about it there was one chunk of my research I do care very deeply about as well, but that was also collaborative and so when that stuff would get rejected, we would come back to the team and say, “okay so how can we make this better because we do think this needs to be told.” But yeah, I guess that’s the danger of writing about something that you really care about. It’s not that I think the other work is bad work, it’s just that I don’t think it’s necessarily as impactful or important.

One thought on ““…you have to just figure out the rules and no one is going to tell you what the rules are until you screw up…”

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