Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Balancing feedback

One of the greatest blessings I’ve had in my journey to book publication is the feedback I’ve received along the way.  While feedback from others is invaluable to the scholarly process, it can also present some challenges on how to proceed when readers don’t agree.  Today’s post will attempt to offer some advice, or at least share some experiences, related to incorporating others’ suggestions for your work.

As someone who suffers regularly from imposter syndrome, I continue to ask for feedback on nearly everything I write.  I have benefitted enormously from the generosity of mentors, peers, and senior scholars who have offered suggestions for improving my work.  Writing my book’s acknowledgments section was a highlight of the publication process for me, and it ended up being pretty lengthy (and I’m still sure I missed somebody!).  But sometimes, receiving lots of feedback can present its own challenges.

Graduate students often face this dilemma when committee members disagree.  Sometimes the disagreements are loud and unpleasant.  Sometimes the student gets caught in the middle of personal feuds or professional differences.  Luckily for me, my committee members never reached this level of disagreement, though they did not always see eye-to-eye on how I should write my dissertation.  At a couple of moments during the writing and revision process, sets of comments from my different committee members even directly contradicted each other—i.e. “needs more historiography”, “historiography should be relegated to the footnotes”.  At my dissertation defense, I did my best to use these varying perspectives to my advantage by allowing the committee to debate some of their differing suggestions. 

Someone once told me that the best dissertation defenses involved the committee talking more about the future direction of the work than the student. If that’s the case (and in my experience at my own and subsequent defenses, it is), my defense was top notch.  At the time, I thought this was great because it got me off the hook. I scribbled furiously to capture as much of their combined wisdom as possible and had to say relatively little.  But this was more than an avoidance technique; I soaked in the feedback as much as possible, hoping to get a sense of how scholars from varying perspectives might respond to my work.  Bringing together a strong, diverse committee of interests helps your work speak to wider audiences. 

I followed my Ph.D. graduation with a memorable year in Madison as the Law and Society Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s law school.  My postdoc kicked off with the J. Willard Hurst Summer Institute, a gathering of junior scholars who spend a week reading and discussing various works of legal history together.  The group then uses a second week to read and comment on each other’s article-length writing samples (I highly recommend the Hurst Institute to any junior scholars who might be reading this!).  That week, I collected a giant binder full of feedback from my fellow “Hursties” and our fearless leader Barbara Welke. 

Shortly after the Hurst Institute, the supervisor for my postdoc, Howard Erlanger, convened a meeting with several Wisconsin history and law faculty who generously read and commented on my entire dissertation.  Once again, I soaked in lots of excellent advice, rushing to get it all down (thanks again to these excellent readers!).  The meeting felt a bit like a second dissertation defense—in a good way.  I learned so much from the broad perspectives represented. 

During my year in Madison, I followed the advice of my Duke mentors.  They recommended I spend the year reading broadly, working on broader conceptual issues, and digging into some of the new research I added to the book.  [side note: this advice might have been different if I did not already have a job at Auburn lined up after my postdoc!] I sat in on a graduate course in the African Diaspora, and I plowed through reading lists on various topics (legal culture, the history of the jury, etc.) with an assistant professor working on similar conceptual issues.  I also completed significant additional research in appellate freedom suit opinions.  At the end of the year, I drafted an article that I submitted to the Journal of Southern History and awaited the first anonymous responses to my research. 

If by this point, my experience with feedback sounds typical, the readers’ reports from the JSH are definitely not the norm.  Six months of waiting to hear news of my article resulted in six readers’ reports.  Sorting through comments like “this is a good but not great article” left me humbled but determined to guide the article to publication.  Digesting so many different sets of written comments left me with patches of hair missing as I struggled to make contradictory suggestions somehow line up. Some reviewers wanted additional detail about the statutes and particular legal forms of the freedom suits, while other comments suggested that I should streamline this information or cut it. All of the readers wanted additional historiographical context, but they varied in terms of what historiographies I should primarily address.

It would never have occurred to me at that stage to call the editor of the Journal. While I cannot remember who suggested that I do that, I can strongly advise anyone in a similar situation to ask for this type of conversation.  Sometimes when dealing with multiple sets of (contradictory) comments, the best thing to do is to try to bring in someone from the outside.  Whether the person is from the publishing side or a trusted colleague, mentor, or senior scholar, an outside perspective can really help you make sense of things.  More on this after the jump…

When I resubmitted my revised article nearly a year after my daughter’s arrival (more on that balancing act in a later post) and two years after my initial submission, I received four new readers’ reports.  Again, I sought outside advice to make plans for revisions.  I distinctly remember sitting across the table from Laura Edwards, my graduate advisor, while having lunch at a conference.  I was frustrated, unable to push through and make the article better. Moreover, I was just tired of the process and eager to move forward on my book.  She wisely reminded me that this was my article.  I could not possibly please everyone—part of what makes history fun is the disagreements we can have.  The main thing I had to do was to be clear about the choices I made in my response to the readers’ comments.  With another hefty round of revisions completed, I had my first scholarly publication. 

While working on my book manuscript, I read back through my copious notes from the dissertation defense, the Hurst Institute, and the second meeting of senior scholars who read the entire work.  As it turned out, I returned to these sets of notes about six separate times during the years of writing and revision—thank you to all who provided these comments!  The comments came from legal scholars, scholars of different places and time periods, as well as specialists in my own subfields. I found that a broad range of perspectives helped me identify holes in the research and consider different avenues or readings. Overall, these varying perspectives helped me to write a much stronger book.  That does not mean that they always agreed. While it can be difficult to make choices, we all have to balance competing perspectives. The best books anticipate some of these disagreements or the likely questions readers will have.  Authors sometimes confront them head on in the text or the footnotes, or at least try to include explanations to assuage their likely detractors.

My initial manuscript submission in May 2014 brought two readers’ reports and some additional dissonance over the direction of my project. My first reader, Martha Jones—who identified herself after writing the initial review and granted permission for me to include her in these posts—made valuable suggestions for revisions, forcing me to clarify my points, work on the chronology of my story, and think hard about the book’s structure.  She also supported the overall arguments of the book and recommended publication (yay!).  The other reader did not.  I will always appreciate the lengthy, specific feedback my reader #2 provided, even if I wish that he/she had eventually recommended publication.  This second reader’s comments forced me to face some hard truths about the book’s shortcomings, especially the way in which I blended in the new research from appellate case law. Readers of the book will notice that, despite having read more than 1,000 appellate cases, much of this material ended up on the cutting room floor.  No matter how much work went into a particular research avenue, reader #2 reminded me that if it isn’t serving the book’s argument, it has to go.

I will discuss more about my revision and publication process in a later post, so I will close with the lesson I have taken from this part of the process: if you are appreciative of others’ advice and clear in your reasons for taking (or not taking) it, there are never really too many “cooks in the kitchen.” We all can—and should—benefit from the generosity of other scholars who provide feedback and advice.  Just remember that at the end of the day, your name is on the book cover, so always be true to your own goals for the project.  

My experience with receiving feedback has also encouraged me to provide feedback to other scholars whenever possible.  At a research institution, I have the opportunity to work with graduate students on a regular basis and spend time mentoring them and reading their work. As the recipient of so much scholarly generosity, I feel it’s important to pay it forward as much as I can. I am fortunate to count so many excellent legal historians as friends who I feel comfortable asking for advice on my writings, and as such, I try to reciprocate and provide feedback whenever they need it.