Why I Love Reviewer 2

pencils and heartFeedback can feel like a very mixed blessing at times. Positive feedback is a delight to receive, while even the most constructive criticism can come as a crushing blow. Writers are particularly susceptible to this, especially novice writers who haven’t yet learned to separate critique of their writing from critique of themselves. I often meet doctoral students who are very reluctant to show their work to their supervisors, fearing criticism because they’re worried that it’s not very good. If it’s a first draft, of course it’s not very good, and a second draft will also contain problems that have to be fixed. Supervisors need to see this work so they can give feedback, which should include information about:

  1. what you’re doing well,
  2. what needs improvement, and
  3. how you can make those improvements.

If any of these elements is missing, ask them to include it in future feedback.

More experienced writers can also struggle with feedback. “Reviewer 2”, referring to an anonymous peer reviewer of an academic journal article, has become a standing joke on social media.

Roses are red, violets are blue, why are you so loathsome, Reviewer 2?

Even when you are really experienced, with a thesis or dissertation, several journal articles, book chapters, and even books to your name, feedback can pack an emotional punch. When you receive feedback (which should be in writing), read it through and give yourself time for emotional as well as cognitive digestion. If anything in the feedback annoys or upsets you, apply self-care: chocolate, a hug from a loved one, walking outdoors, meditation, gardening, exercise – whatever works for you. Then, when you’re ready, read it again and find the key messages.

Here’s some of the feedback from my book proposals:

  • The synopsis is quite antagonistic
  • This will provide insufficient information to be useful
  • The thrust of the book remains unclear
  • Chapters 1 and 8 seem to be somewhat repetitive
  • It is a bit thin and not complex enough to add anything new
  • The proposal covers a wide terrain and is unfocussed
  • I think this would be an excellent edited book… the author would benefit from the input… it’s a very broad aim otherwise and may not succeed
  • Far greater clarity is needed
  • The book will not make a very original contribution
  • The writing style is stiff

Luckily there was also a fair amount of positive feedback. Positive feedback is great: it provides much-needed encouragement, and lets you know what you can relax about. But it’s the “Reviewer 2” type comments that really help you improve.

There are three sensible ways to respond to constructive criticism. First, the no-brainer. Chapters 1 and 8 seem repetitive? That’s useful and specific, so I would definitely check those two chapters against each other and remove any unnecessary repetition.

Second, the no-thanks. An edited collection rather than a sole-authored book? I thought that could potentially make the aim even broader, with a bunch of authors jockeying for position. Luckily, my editor agreed.

Third, the oh-wait. The book will not make a very original contribution? I was sure it would, but what this comment told me, crucially, was that I had not communicated the originality of the contribution well enough in my proposal. It is so important to remember that reviewers can be wrong – though if they are, the fault probably lies in your writing. (Not always. Some good scholars are poor reviewers, especially those who are unable to distinguish the piece you are writing from the piece they would write if they addressed the same topic. But usually.) So when you are considering feedback on your writing, don’t always take it at face value. Think about it in the context of your work as a whole, and make a decision. You should certainly take notice if more than one reviewer says similar things. Another reviewer on the same proposal says more clarity is needed. The two comments, together, tell me I have not been clear enough about the contribution I think the book can and will make. That is very useful information because I need the book’s contribution to be perfectly clear by the time of publication, so I and my publisher can communicate it to potential readers. More work evidently needed.

This decision-making can be difficult, and sometimes a second opinion is helpful. Reviewers, too, can be unclear. If you don’t understand what a reviewer is trying to say, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that they’re cleverer than you and reach for the despair. However, it may well be that they haven’t articulated their point effectively, which unfortunately makes your job harder rather than easier. Sometimes you can go back to them for clarification; it’s fine to do this, even if you have to go through an intermediary such as a journal editor. But it is sensible to check with someone else first, to make sure it’s not a comparatively straightforward point that you’re just missing for some reason.

I always welcome feedback on my writing. I can’t write a book, or anything else for that matter, without feedback from a range of people. Critical feedback doesn’t discourage me, or at least not for long. The only time I’ve had a journal article rejected is when I wrote one for a client; I told them I would need feedback on a draft from a suitably experienced person, and they said someone from their organisation would provide this, but when the time came they said they couldn’t and I should just send in my draft. I was sure that wouldn’t work, and indeed it didn’t. After that I was able to persuade them to find me someone who could offer feedback; their input was very helpful, and the article was accepted by our second choice of journal.

I understand that some people struggle with feedback. I understand why some people struggle with feedback. But honestly, if you’re one of those people, and you want to succeed as a writer, you need to find a way over, through, past, or around that struggle. I hope this post will help, and that you will learn to love Reviewer 2 as much as I do.

The Importance Of Creative Research Methods

me presenting at CRMSS17Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday I was privileged to facilitate the inaugural Creative Research Methods summer school run by Keele University‘s Cultural Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) working with the New Vic Theatre in nearby Newcastle-under-Lyme. Around 40 people came, travelling from America and South Africa, Sweden and Poland, no doubt other countries I’ve forgotten, and all around the UK.

On the first two mornings we were lucky enough to get to work in the theatre’s auditorium, a wonderful space with plenty of room to move around and interact with people in all sorts of ways. On the first day we used pipecleaners to model journeys both literal and metaphorical, and on the second day we explored issues of power in research using Open Space Technology.

For the first two afternoons, we crossed the car park to the theatre’s Workspace rehearsal room, another great space – with a balcony! On the first afternoon we learned about cultural animation, used buttons to create community maps, then added frames and artefacts to help us come up with research questions. Then we devised and performed creative group presentations – that was so much fun! On the second afternoon we mapped pathways through participation in universities, using flip chart paper, coloured Post-It notes and pens, pipecleaners and tape – by now the creative juices were really flowing.

On the third day we were at the beautiful Keele campus, where (as it was a Saturday) we could use some of the university’s technology facilities: the KAVE for virtual reality and gaming, the Claus Moser studio for soundscapes, and the Turing Lab to make digital circuits. In the afternoon we focused on creative academic writing, hearing about ethnography as advocacy for the animals who are often invisible in social research, and geopoetics, before doing a geopoetics exercise.

We crammed in a great deal, yet there was so much else we could have included. Perhaps the richest part of the summer school was its discussions: between any two people, or a group, or all of us together. I was delighted and astonished by the calibre of the students: an enormously intelligent, creative, dynamic bunch; it was an honour to spend three days in their company.

I love to teach creative research methods, and I’m looking forward to my next gig this Friday at LSE for the National Centre for Research Methods (fully booked I’m afraid). I find a lot of my teaching involves giving people permission to work creatively – or perhaps enabling them to give themselves permission – and advising people on how to convince supervisors and ethics committees that it is legitimate to take a creative approach to research. There is a long hard fight ahead to convince people in certain quarters that useful knowledge exists beyond the bounds of academic convention. In this fight, we are on the same side as Indigenous researchers around the world who find their methodologies are sidelined or ridiculed by the academy. Anishnabe researcher Kathy Absolon, in conversation with Plains Cree and Salteaux researcher Margaret Kovach, said this:

If you go on a water walk or quest, that is your methodology. I was reflecting when you were talking about yours [methodology]. If I said I am doing my PhD and my methodology is my dreams, and I am going to go on a fast every year, and after that fast I had somebody come and visit me and talk to me about my fast and take [teachings] with them. I wouldn’t propose that because I wouldn’t want that to [be] measured. I know that is Indigenous methodologies, but I wouldn’t propose it as a methodology within a mainstream setting because I don’t want them to have the power to say that that’s not research. But it is. (Absolon in Kovach 2009:152-3)

There is a parallel here with creative research in the Euro-Western paradigm, where supervisors, ethics committees, journal editors and reviewers, and others have the power to say ‘this is not research’ to people who know perfectly well that their textile art, ice-skating, or poetry, is indeed research. Patricia Leavy has written eloquently of ‘the ache of false separation’ that some people feel when required to keep their art separate from their research work (2010:240).

Some people have said to me that one reason I can write the books I write is that I’m not an academic. As an independent researcher, I have much less power than many academics, in many ways. But I do have the power to say ‘this is research’, and to collect the evidence that this is research, and put it in a scholarly book, so that other people can cite that work, which helps to convince doubting/frightened/threatened supervisors and others. And I will stand with Indigenous researchers, though their methods are not my methods, because I recognise that knowledge comes from more places and in more ways in this complex and beautiful world than those I can access myself.

Still it feels lonely sometimes. So having the opportunity to spend three days with a group of lively-minded people, who are not only open to this but engaging with it, excited by it, and pushing its boundaries in fascinating ways, was an absolute delight.

Indigenous Research Methods: A Reading List

Indigenous methods booksLast week I wrote about challenging the dominance of English in writing for research and academia. That theme is also relevant to this post, though here it’s more about challenging Euro-Western epistemologies and methods than the English language itself. Over the last year I have built a personal library of books about, or relevant to, my investigation of Indigenous research methods and ethics. The point of this, for me, is to bring these methods into my scholarship, alongside creative and conventional methods, as appropriate. The point is not to become an ‘expert’ on Indigenous research; for a white British person, that is not, should not be, an option. At the start of this work, I worried about being extractive, but I found comfort in the words of Margaret Kovach, an Indigenous researcher from Saskatchewan in Canada, who encourages non-Indigenous scholars to help make space for Indigenous methodologies and assess their value on their own terms. This is what I am trying to do.

For those who are new to this topic, ‘Indigenous’ denotes the native peoples of colonised lands, such as Aboriginal Australians or Inuit Alaskans, while ‘indigenous’ denotes the native peoples of non-colonised lands. So I am an indigenous Brit who will never be an Indigenous researcher. Some people described as Indigenous are unhappy with the term because they feel that it makes them seem like one homogeneous group, whereas in fact there is tremendous diversity. For example, there are hundreds of tribal and language groupings in Australia alone. However, as it is the term most commonly used in the literature, I’m sticking with it for now.

The first book is the foundational Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Maori researcher from New Zealand. In fact I bought the first edition of this soon after it came out in 1999, the year I began my MSc in Social Research Methods. The second edition came out in 2012. This book shows how research was used as a tool of imperialism to help subjugate colonised peoples through, among other things, complete disregard for Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous peoples’ own research methods. It highlights the value of these knowledges and methods, and calls for research to be linked explicitly with social justice.

Shawn Wilson is an Opaskwayak Cree researcher from Canada who has also lived and worked with Indigenous peoples in Alaska and Australia, as well as spending time with Indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Morocco, and elsewhere. His book, Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (2008), is based on his doctoral research and describes a paradigm shared by Indigenous researchers in Canada and Australia. It’s not easy to get hold of; I tracked down a Canadian bookseller who seems to have bought up the last available copies, and I fear it may be going out of print, which would be a great shame as it is readable and insightful.

Margaret Kovach is a Plains Cree and Salteaux researcher from Canada whose Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts came out in 2009. Her book covers epistemologies, methods, and ethics. It is a work of considerable scholarship that is also accessible and full of wisdom.

Bagele Chilisa is a Professor at the University of Botswana. Her book Indigenous Research Methodologies (2012) gives an uncompromising and international account of some of the theories, epistemologies, ontologies and methods used by Indigenous researchers. While no book on this subject could be completely comprehensive, Chilisa makes a good job of showing the diversity, as well as some of the commonalities, of Indigenous methodology.

Donna Mertens from the US, Fiona Cram from New Zealand, and Bagele Chilisa have edited a collection called Indigenous Pathways into Social Research: Voices of a New Generation (2013). They have contributions from Indigenous researchers from all around the world: Vanuatu, Mexico, Cameroon, Hawai’i, Alaska, Papua New Guinea, and many other countries. These are fascinating accounts, highlighting personal, political, and ethical challenges, and how they have been overcome. They also say a lot about Indigenous methodologies around the world.

Also in 2013, Maggie Walter, a trawlwoolway researcher from Tasmania, and Chris Andersen, a Métis researcher from Canada, brought out Indigenous Statistics: A Quantitative Research Methodology. This book demonstrates the pervasiveness of Euro-Western thought in the construction of statistical research, using national censuses for ilustration. It offers a framework for Indigenous quantitative research, nayri kati or ‘good numbers’, which places an Indigenous standpoint at the centre. There is a short video online of Maggie Walter talking about Indigenous quantitative research.

Lori Lambert is a Mi’kmaq researcher from north-eastern Canada who has also worked with Indigenous peoples from Montana, US; northern Manitoba, Canada; and Queensland, Australia. Her book, Research for Indigenous Survival: Indigenous Research Methodologies in the Behavioral Sciences, was published in 2014. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first book to position Indigenous methods within a Euro-Western disciplinary category. Like other Canadian writers, such as Wilson and Kovach (above), Lambert includes the voices of people she has worked with alongside her own in her narrative.

Another essential text, though not specifically about research methods, is Southern Theory by Australian academic Raewyn Connell (2009). This book is subtitled ‘The global dynamics of knowledge in social science’ and in my view is essential reading for anyone engaging with social theory. During my MSc, I was taught social theory as the preserve of dead white men, and I am sure this is still being taught in many Euro-Western universities today. Connell’s book gives the lie to this approach.

This list is not exhaustive; it is just my personal library. One limitation is that I can’t afford expensive books. While I was writing this blog post, I had a message from my friend and colleague Roxanne Persaud, alerting me to Susan Strega and Leslie Brown’s edited collection Research as Resistance: Revisiting Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-Oppressive Practices (2nd edn 2015). I would love to read this book, but even the paperback is over £60 which puts it out of my reach.

These books are not comfortable reads for Euro-Western scholars, but they are hugely important. We need to know how research has been, and is, misused by Euro-Western cultures in order to learn how to use it better. Indigenous scholars are extraordinarily generous in their assessment of the potential value of Euro-Western methodologies, even those methodologies that have been instrumental in stealing their lands and their cultures and traumatising generations of their peoples. Yet most Euro-Western researchers either ignore Indigenous research entirely, or conclude that Indigenous peoples must have picked up a few tricks from the colonisers. I’m not sure which is worse. Indigenous research methods pre-date Euro-Western research methods by tens of thousands of years, and there is a great deal that Euro-Western researchers can learn from these approaches.