I admit, sometimes I can be a special snowflake. Not a self-entitled one, but a little sensitive. My entire sense of self-worth is wrapped up in my academic career and performance.
A couple years ago I sent in my first (and at this point, last) research paper for publication in an academic journal. I didn’t figure I’d go straight to publication, but I thought I would at least try. As my grandpa used to say, “The worst they can do is say no.” But there is worse.
Even though I didn’t think I’d make it to publication, I thought I might get enough constructive feedback that I could make edits and eventually be chosen for an issue. I knew my topic had a place in historiography. It was important and no previous research had been done (you’ll have to take my word on it, my dissertation is pending).
As an assistant editor of a historical journal at the time, I knew what to expect from the submission process being from both sides of the typewriter. Even so, I don’t think I could have been prepared for this.
I was still disappointed when I received the “thank you for your submission but…” letter I knew I was going to receive. I also saw that they had included the three reviewer’s comments. That’s what I saw as the true value of this experience anyways. I was getting free research and writing help from professionals.
The first two letters were extremely helpful, pointing out research holes and that I had taken on too large a topic for a thirty page article (they were right). The third letter, however, was a harsher written murder than I had ever endured before.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t told all through my academic career that everything I touched was gold. I had one professor that would get unintentionally tactless and utter phrases like, “is that it?” or “have you learned nothing?” I had one that didn’t have to say a word, all I had to do was look at her face. I was well aware that I was capable of less than stellar work. Plus, I am a Type A person to a fault. If I see the hint of disappointment I automatically assume what I’ve done is terrible and this person will think I’m stupid and hate me forever. I didn’t think anyone could ever criticize my work nearly as harshly as I did. I, again, was wrong.
This third reviewer, we’ll call him Carl, did not provide a sentence of anything that could be used to better myself. It seemed not about my work but personal. The hate he spewed clearly stated that I was hopeless and I should just never try again. I would share the exact wording, but somehow I have lost the letter. I stuffed it in a drawer somewhere and my memory has blocked out where I put it.
Now the disappointment faded and I was just plain hurt. The other reviewers gave suggestions of how to improve with a sense of “try these things, you’ll get better.” But this third one got personal, stating that I was hopeless and should just stop.
Carl seemed to almost have a personal vendetta. I shared the letter with my advisor at the time. He was enraged and called it unprofessional. I asked him if he knew Carl and he said yes, he had a disagreement with this person and that mere association could be the reason for the scathing letter. I’m still not sure if this is true. My advisor was such a nice man he could have just said so to save what was rest of my already fragile ego.
Sure, I got mad. I ranted and raved. Then, when I stopped talking, it got quiet. Except for Carl, now in my head. When I would write a simple book review, he would whisper ‘Why? You know you’re not good enough. You’re an imposter and soon everyone else will know too.’ My book reviews started getting rejected by journals. I couldn’t enjoy sitting and free writing anymore either. I felt that everything I touched was terrible and worst of all, I was stupid.
Now that I have passed my comprehensive exams, I am to start writing my dissertation. Carl is with me every single day. Some days I become so anxiety-ridden I’m not even capable of the simplest topic sentence. I’ve had a few when he’s been a little quieter and I’ve been able to finish a few pages. Then he returns and I have to resist the urge to delete everything.
I had a professor in my undergraduate say that the real reasons students procrastinate is because they are afraid what they do isn’t good enough. I thought he was overly optimistic at the time and the real reason people didn’t do their work until Sunday night was because they didn’t want to, and there were way more fun ways to spend a weekend. But Carl has made me understand what he meant. He was right. I am procrastinating because I fear what I write will be terrible.
Someday, I hope to finish my dissertation and mail that rat bastard a copy of my diploma (also the professor I had as an undergraduate that called me stupid for not knowing what a Roman forum was, and those who said I couldn’t finish it while holding down a job).
I recently read the paper I submitted for the first time since I received Carl’s insults. The other reviewers were right about it being too large a topic for thirty pages and that I should have included more analysis and what I think rather than just telling the story. But overall, I don’t think it’s absolutely horrid, or worthy of hanging up my historian hat. I will actually use pieces of it in my dissertation. Someday, I hope to also publish it as a book in which I will include Carl in my ackowledgements. There’s nothing that motivates me more than someone telling me I can’t do something. Sure, Carl is in my head on a nearly daily basis, telling me I can’t do it. But dear Carl, watch me.