“Don’t let the words get to you”, I said to myself, reluctantly flipping open the reviewers’ comments one more time after letting them settle for months. It my first grant proposal as research staff at my university.
What’s unpleasant always comes first, raising a big flag and waving it at you.
You can feel the shockwaves for such a long time.
There had been three anonymous reviewers, examining my proposal like coroners. They’re coroners because they know who the victim is by name and pedigree. The victim never gets to know who they are (of course). The only lucky thing is having the coroners’ report, so that the body’s creator knows how it died. Two coroners, no — reviewers, were relatively kind, telling me what parts looked satisfactory, and where I could make the pitch more convincing. I’m grateful for their comments, because they will help me grow.
But then there was the main reviewer, who seemed to abuse their anonymity and power. Knowing that I cannot fight back. Unleashing the darkest devil with their malicious remarks. This chief coroner ripped open my heart — my core as a linguist and a language teacher — and the verdict was that my colleagues and I are “not good teachers of writing”, my analytical framework, “old wine in new bottles”, and my prose “turgid” and “difficult to wade through”. These were not comments one would expect in a professional review, which is supposed to criticise constructively, with clear recommendations for improvement. Ah, they saw no room for improvement, hammering the last nail firmly into the casket.
I lied to myself that “it doesn’t matter”. But since the impact is evident, and I feel that all the reviewer’s resentment, if not anger, has rained down on me unfairly, I decided to write about it here as some kind of a therapy for myself, followed by a little positive self-talk and a clarion call to all anonymous grant or journal articles reviewers out there for more ethical, professional and respectful feedback to the ones who are yet to achieve the standard every academic strives for.
Glad that you can identify the phrases in the review that you don’t feel comfortable with. How do you deal with the disappointment? In the end, you still have to face it and move on.
E: If I can see the hurtful phrases, I can see the flip side of them and try my best to filter them to get the more meaningful bits. For example, if the reviewers said my text is really difficult to wade through, perhaps it really is. Especially for readers who are not in my disciplinary area. I understand academese can be annoying, but it exists for a reason; plain language engages with readers, but there are points at which the discipline is built upon condensed ideas and technical terms. It’s true that a grant proposal isn’t just a showcase for jargon. But I wasn’t writing that way to be pretentious or impressive. Anyway, if they had time to trash my proposal, they should have had time to say something that was at least more constructive.
But doesn’t that show that you’re weak? Some might say “you should have built your grit along the way” or “get used to it. Suck it up”. Shouldn’t academics embrace their reviewers’ barbs in order to grow?
E: That sounds like blaming the victim rather than the vicious, condescending attitude of the ones in power, don’t you think? I’m not expecting everyone in academia to be nice and encouraging, but the negativity and cynicism? They keep it to themselves. In my case, the “single-blind” review process doesn’t seem fair. When reviewers can hide behind their computer screens and their institutions to say whatever they want. Junior academics take time to digest and filter comments; we can’t always tell what is constructive from what is damaging.
We can pretend nothing’s wrong and say: “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to learn”. However, when we absorb negative energy from anonymous reviewers, there’s no way for us to vent it somewhere else. So, oftentimes, we may bring it home, pour it at our loved ones, and let it take over our career — “I’m not good enough”. So let’s not give ourselves excuses that we deserve the toxicity. No one deserves such toxicity.
Reviewers are human, and their inner bully may arise because of exhaustion from having to review so many subpar proposals within a short time-frame. Perhaps they have only a small quota of papers they can accept. So that they have to be this harsh.
E: As a language teacher having to grade students’ essays, many of which are quite poor, I definitely understand the frustration and reluctance reviewers experience. But if you are a teacher who wants students to learn, you don’t simply say their writing is rubbish, or that the students are not good enough. The situation should be no different when reviewing a grant. I am not going to teach reviewers how to review; but as a journal editor, I would prefer my reviewers to be collegial and constructive. If one expects high quality work from the other side, they should expect the same from themselves. And that includes keeping their tone professional.
I’m not trying to claim a moral high ground; I myself have this inner bully. Every scholar is a critic. It’s a necessary evil. The academy is often gloomy, indifferent, and fiercely competitive (and all the negative descriptions you can think of). Scholars definitely face a lot of stress, frustration and disappointment about their workload, treatment, admin-duties, colleagues, students, and their own research. I really understand that. But they should learn how to vent this negativity, so they don’t unleash that malicious bully, and allow it to go wild among younger academics.
I’m sorry about what you’re going through. I hope it doesn’t stop your writing, academic or creative.
That’s alright. I’ve decided to move on and keep writing anyway. Not for the sake of proving anyone wrong. Writing is joyful, no matter what genre I’m writing in. But I want to make one last point about grit: you can’t just bombard someone with harsh and unconstructive comments and then take it for granted that they will possess the ‘grit’ to shrug them off. Grit isn’t just an excuse for you to be malicious. Not in Academia any more than in any other context.
And I hereby declare that all negativity stops with me. It stops with me so that when I review an essay, journal article, or proposal, I won’t respond with any vicious comments. I will find my inner peace when reading them, so that my students and junior colleagues do not have to go through what I’ve experienced, so that I can spend my positive energy better on constructing a collegial and safe place for them to express their ideas freely.