NEWSFLASH – Edinburgh lecturer submits essay and is stunned by feedback!

By Mark Aspinwall

I got my essay back a few days ago and I couldn’t believe the feedback. I thought it was the best essay I ever wrote. It was on NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement – and how it affects Mexican politics.

The essay was double marked blind – two lecturers read it and they made comments without knowing what the other had said. One of them said it was good but needed work. ‘This paper addresses an important topic and has much promise, but it will need considerable revision.’

The other reviewer gave it a thumbs down. ‘This paper does a good job of cataloguing the relationship between NAFTA side agreement institutions and some changes in Mexican civil society, but it has many limitations that make it unsuitable for publication.’

You see, I thought it was such a good essay it could be published as an article, and in one of the best journals in the world no less.

The editors of the journal said ‘If you were willing to try meeting the standard outlined by these two reviewers, you just might have better luck in a more specialized journal.’ Translation – take it somewhere else.

I sent it to that journal not just because I thought it was a really strong essay, but also because if it was published there, it would probably be considered a 4* article, and I need a 4* article for my publications list. Needing a 4* is sort of like needing a 1st, but for an academic instead of a student.

The reason a 4* is good is that every few years, Politics & IR (and all the other departments in the UK, in every discipline and every university) gets reviewed by a process that they now call the ‘Research Excellence Framework.’ Getting this mysterious body to give a 4* to one of your articles is good for your record and gets your department more money in the long run.

So I was not happy with my feedback. At first I planned to ask for it to be re-read, since the reviewers missed the obvious fact that it was a great essay. But then I remembered when I tried that before and they just told me to stop wasting their time.

Hang on – haven’t I heard all this before? I have – similar arguments come up sometimes when students get their essay results back. Maybe I should learn from my experience just like they learn from theirs. When they say they want their essays remarked, here’s what I say to them: The rationale for a remarking has to be something more than a simple disagreement with the tutor – ie, ‘he said I needed to make my arguments clearer, but I’m convinced I made them really clear.’ It has to relate to a substantive issue that the tutor has clearly missed or misinterpreted.

I guess essay results sometimes bring uncomfortable news that we need to take on board, whether as undergraduate students or as senior academics. Even when we think our work is great, not everyone agrees with us. Taking on board comments in good faith and learning from them is part of how we develop.

So I have an idea. I’m going to get together with some of the lecturers I work with and take advantage of something we call a ‘Master Class.’ It’s for lecturers in the department, and what happens is that a few people who work on the same general area as me sit down and go over my paper with a fine-tooth comb. And I’m going to share the reviewers’ comments with them so they know what’s been said already.

Then I’m going to take very seriously what everyone has said – reviewers and colleagues – and I’m going to make the paper even better. I’m going to read what they suggest I read, consider new angles and arguments and sources of data, and clean up the presentation where it needs cleaning up. Then I’m going to send it to another journal.

Feedback. I guess it never ends – you deal with it all your life, whether it’s on essays or work performance or something else. The trick is to know how to use it to improve what you do.