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MONTHLY BLOG 81, RESPONDING TO ANONYMOUS ACADEMIC ASSESSMENTS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

(*) This BLOG follows its matching BLOG/80 (Aug. 2017)
on ‘Writing Anonymous Academic Assessments’

2017-08 No3 handshake diagram

The first arrival of anonymous assessments of one’s own research is almost invariably annoying. There’s something about the format which gives the author-less verdict a quality of Olympian majesty. And, even if the verdict is favourable, there’s a lurking feeling that one is a mere minnow, being condescended to by a remote and all-wise deity. Ouch!

However, after recovering from one’s initial fury, it’s best to rally and to view the whole exercise as a free consultation. Instead of rushing into print, and getting a stinker of a review, the stinker is delivered in the form of an anonymous assessment before publication. The anonymous critic is, in fact, the best friend, lurking in disguise.

As well as writing constant assessments, academics also read one anothers’ work in typescript. But, as researchers say, ‘good criticism is hard to get’. Many friends just respond loyally: ‘Darling, it’s wonderful; but there’s a typo on page 33’. Such a reaction is not much use. In the case of an anonymous assessment, by contrast, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to identify all your faults. And, what’s more, to give you a chance of remedying them before publication.

On balance, I would say that 80% of all the anonymous advice, which I’ve received over the years, has been invaluable. Another 10% is comparatively trivial, meaning either that the assessor has been sleeping on the job or (rarely) that there’s nothing major to criticise or discuss. But 10% of responses are positively unhelpful, either through being too crushing – or simply irrelevant.

One example of off-the-wall and unusable reflections concerned my editorial introduction to a book of essays entitled: Language, History & Class (1991).1 The anonymous assessor said firmly that I was wrong; and offered, at some length, his/her own philosophical alternative historical/linguistic theory as a variant. In one way, it was a very generous piece of writing. But, on the other hand, it was entirely wasted. I couldn’t use the alternative view, because I disagreed with it – and anyway, it wouldn’t be either right or politic to take someone else’s original thesis as my own, whether I agreed or disagreed. Something in my text had apparently rapped the assessor’s intellectual funny-bone, causing him/her to get distracted into inventing a new theory rather than reviewing a book proposal. The alternative approach was so off-the-wall that I never saw it appear anywhere in print. It was an intellectual kite that never flew.

2017-09 No2 kite in trees

Generally, however, after the first moment of silent fury at reading the anonymous assessor, I buckle down and enjoy the chance to revise in the light of a really in-depth analysis. Often, rewriting helps to strengthen my arguments, giving me a chance to rebut criticisms explicitly. And, simultaneously, the rewrite allows scope for clarification, if ideas were poorly or incompletely expressed first time round. Sometimes points have been made out of their logical order and need reshuffling. And finally, I sometimes (not too often!) change my mind, in the light of criticisms; and the process of rewriting allows me to push my argument into new directions.

In reporting subsequently to the publishers or editors, who have commissioned the anonymous assessment, there is one golden rule. The criticisms do not have to be adopted wholesale. But they must be acknowledged, not simply dismissed. I remember one former PhD student, when editing her first essay for a learned journal, miserably wondering whether she had to ditch her entire argument, in the light of a critical assessment. I was horrified at the prospect. Of course, she had to stand by her new interpretation. (She did). The essay would appear under her name and must therefore represent her considered views. An adverse anonymous assessment does not have the status of a royal command. Instead, the hostile cross-fire gives authors a chance, pre-publication, to decide whether to strengthen or to adapt their arguments.

Then it’s up to editors to decide. Usually they appreciate the chance to get new views into print, with the prospect of opening up further debates. But editors do like to be reassured that the revisionist piece has been submitted knowingly, with a full awareness of the potential controversies to follow, and that the study is well argued and substantiated. In comparatively rare cases, when challenging new views are rejected by one journal, there’s a reasonable chance that the ‘new look’ can find a home elsewhere. Since historical research relies upon debate and disagreement, it’s not such a big deal to find one (temporarily) prevalent view coming up for critique and/or complete refutation.

Only in very rare cases are anonymous assessors unduly harsh or vitriolic. I’ve had plenty of negative responses myself but never anything without some constructive aim or intention. One hostile case, however, occurred in response to a former student of mine who had written an excellent essay on the social history of nineteenth-century Sussex. Some element of the argument had apparently infuriated the anonymous assessor. He/she basically argued that the essay should not have been written. There was nothing constructive upon which the author could build. Fortunately in this case, the journal editor had asked for two anonymous assessments. The second was much more positive, enabling my former student to revise the essay into a stylish contribution. However, I advised her to write to the editor, explaining calmly that she had considered the negative assessment carefully before disregarding it. The fact that the angry assessor’s report had mis-named ‘Sussex’ throughout as ‘Suffolk’ suggested that the tirade was not based upon a very close reading. The editor took this strong hint on board; and the revised essay successfully appeared in print.2

These examples indicate the intricacies of peer review and the publication process. They are socially imbedded – and far from purely impartial. But they strive for an interactive collegial process, which seeks to iron out individual rancour or prejudice. Personally, I take anonymous academic assessments of my embryonic work as seriously as I expect my own anonymous academic assessments to be taken by the anonymous recipients. The veil of secrecy strives to make the exchange of ideas a ‘pure’ intellectual exercise, without the formal courtesies and pleasantries. (Actually, if one wants, it’s usually possible to make a stab at identifying the critics, using one’s research-honed powers. But in my experience, that’s an unproductive distraction).

Scholars who are published in peer-reviewed outlets are thus in constant dialogue (or, preferably, ‘plurilogue’),3 not just generally with their peers, and patchily with their precursors in earlier generations but specifically with their specially recruited anonymised critics. Wrestling with obdurate drafts is often exasperating and lonely work, as Hogarth knew – as seen in a detail from his Distrest Poet (c.1736) below. Yet scholarly authors don’t work in isolation. A tribe of anonymous academic critics, friendly readers, and interventionist editors/publishers are looking over their shoulders. So it’s best to bite the bullet; to revise coolly; and then to publish and be damned/whatever.

2017-09 No3 Hogarth's distressed_poet

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Historians and Language’, in P.J. Corfield (ed.), Language, History and Class (Oxford, 1991), pp. 1-29; slightly amended text also transl. into Greek for publication in Histor, 12 (May 2001), pp. 5-43.

2 A. Warner, ‘Finding the Aristocracy: A Case Study of Rural Sussex, 1780-1880’, Southern History, 35 (2013), pp. 98-126.

3 For this usage, see P.J. Corfield, ‘Does the Study of History ‘Progress’? And does Plurilogue Help?’ BLOG/61 (Jan. 2016), in www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs.

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MONTHLY BLOG 60, WRITING THROUGH A BIG RESEARCH PROJECT, NOT WRITING UP

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

My heart sinks when I hear someone declare gaily: ‘I’ve done all the research; now all I have to do is write it up’.1 So what’s so wrong with that? It sounds so straightforward. First research, then sit down and write. Then, bingo, big party with lots of happy friends and relieved research supervisor.

But undertaking a big project in the Humanities or Social Sciences doesn’t and shouldn’t work like that.2 So my heart sinks on behalf of any researcher who declares ‘All I have to do is write it up’, because he or she has been wasting a lot of time, under the impression that they have been working hard. Far from being close to the end of a big project, they have hardly begun.

Why so? There are both practical and intellectual reasons for ‘writing through’ a big research project, rather than ‘writing up’ at the end. For a start, stringing words and paragraphs together to construct a book-length study takes a lot of time. The exercise entails ordering a miscellany of thoughts into a satisfactory sequence, marshalling a huge amount of documented detail to expound the sustained argument, and then punching home a set of original conclusions. It’s an arduous art, not an automatic procedure.
2015-12 No1 Hogarth's distressed_poet

Hogarth’s Distrest Poet (1741) expresses the agonies of composition, as he sits in a poky garret, poor and dishevelled, with abandoned drafts at his feet.

Writing and research in the Humanities and Social Sciences should thus proceed in tandem. These tasks between them provide the necessary legs which enable a project to advance. No supervised researcher should be without a target deadline for a forthcoming report or interim paper, which collectively function as prototype chapters. That rule applies from the onset, starting with a written review of the research questions, or bibliographical overview, or primary source search – or however the project is launched. Without ‘writing through’, researchers do not really appreciate what they have found or what they are arguing. Certainly there will be much redrafting and revision, as the research progresses. That’s all part of the process.

But grappling with ideas to turn them into a sustained account in written words is not just a medium for communication. It’s a mechanism for cogitation itself. Just as spoken language crystallises instinctive feelings into expressed thoughts, so the process of turning thoughts into written form advances, clarifies and extends their meaning to form a considered analysis. A book can say much more than a speech, because it’s longer and more complexly structured than even the longest speech. Writing through continually means thinking through properly.

Incidentally, what about prose style? The answer is: suit yourself. Match your personality. Obviously, suit the subject-matter too. Snappy dictums are good value. I enjoy them myself. They punch an argument home. But non-stop bullet-points are wearing. Ideas are unduly compressed. Readers can be stunned. The big argument goes missing. Writing short sentences is fun. Brevity challenges the mind. I could go on. And on. One gets a second wind. But content is also required. Otherwise, vacuity is revealed. And exhaustion threatens. So arguments need building. One point after another. There may be an exception. Sometimes they prove the rule. Sometimes, however, not. It depends upon the evidence. Everything needs evaluation. Points are sometimes obvious. Yet there’s room for subtlety. Don’t succumb to the obvious. Meanings multiply. Take your time. Think things through. Test arguments against data. There’s always a rival case. But what’s the final conclusion? Surely, it’s clear enough. Think kindly of your readers. Employ authorial diversity. Meaning what exactly? [162 words in 39 sentences, none longer than five words]

Alternatively, the full and unmitigated case for long, intricate, sinuous, thoughtful yet controlled sentences, winding their way gracefully and inexorably across vast tracts of crisp, white paper can be made not only in terms of academic pretentiousness – always the last resort of the petty-minded – but also in terms of intellectual expansiveness and mental ‘stretch’, with a capacity to reflect and inflect even the most subtle nuances of thought, although it should certainly be remembered that, without some authorial control or indeed domination in the form of a final full-stop, the impatient reader – eager to follow the by-ways yet equally anxious to seize the cardinal point – can find a numbing, not to say crushing, sense of boredom beginning to overtake the responsive mind, as it struggles to remember the opening gambit, let alone the many intermediate staging posts, as the overall argument staggers and reels towards what I can only describe, with some difficulty, as the ultimate conclusion or final verdict: The End! [162 words in one sentence, also fun to write].3

In other words, my stylistic advice is to vary the mix of sentence lengths. A combination of an Ernest-Hemingway-style brevity with an Edward Gibbonian luxuriance allows points to be fully developed, but also summarised pithily.

Thus, in order to develop a sustained case within a major research project, my organisational advice is to ‘write through’ throughout. That’s the only real way to germinate, sustain, develop, understand innerly and simultaneously communicate a big overarching picture, complete with supporting arguments and data. Oh, and my final point? Let’s banish the dreadful phrase ‘writing up’. It means bodging.
2015-12 No2 Writing

A snappy dictum from the American journalist and writer William Zinsser (1922-2015).

1 This BLOG is a companion-piece to PJC BLOG/59, ‘Supervising a Big Research Project to Finish Well and on Time: Three Framework Rules’ (Nov. 2015). Also relevant is PJC BLOG/34 ‘Coping with Writer’s Block’ (Oct. 2013).

2 In the Sciences, the model is somewhat different, according to the differential weight given to experimental research processes/outcomes and to written output.

3 My puny effort barely registers in the smallest foothills of lengthy sentences in the English language, one celebrated example being Molly Bloom’s soliloquy as finale to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), reportedly in a sentence of over 4,000 words.

4 Hemingway is commonly cited as the maestro of pithiness. Yet the playwright Samuel Beckett also shares the honours in the brevity stakes, writing in sharp contradistinction to his friend and fellow-Irishman James Joyce.

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