On being rejected

Written by Heather. Posted in News

In July, we submitted a proposal for a symposium at the 2014 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Conference. We know it’s big and corporate, so not exactly our ideal conference, but Laura went last year and enjoyed it so we thought we’d give it a go, plus we’d found some lovely colleagues to work with and secretly, wanted an excuse to visit Philadelphia. We’ve just been rejected. This is our first, but I’m sure not our last CelebYouth rejection. Rejections are a massive part of academic life. Yet we rarely talk about them. It’s as if they’re individual sources of shame to be hidden, rather than part of the collective practices through which we build our professional communities, things that need to be shared and debated in the open. In this post Heather reflects on our AERA rejection and what it says about educational research conferences.

We’ve all had a lot of rejections – both the papers that Kim and I wrote together before starting CelebYouth and which form the basis for this study were initially rejected – by Feminist Media Studies and an edited media collection – before finding happy homes in the pages of the journals Discourse and Sociology.

In each case, the journey to publication was painful and difficult. I suspect that had either paper been single-authored then we would have abandoned them when we got those first rejections after already having completed the requested major revisions. Working together helped us to keep going. Since then, we’ve talked informally to many people about these experiences but we’ve never written about them – though pain fades with time and, now both papers are out and we’ve got a massive grant in the field, it kind of takes the edge off the rejections, making it much easier to air them in public.

Given how much rejection most academics experience it’s weird how little there is written about it. Tony Cotton’s reflection on getting turned down by the main mathematics education conference and Pat Thomson’s discussion of conference and journal rejections are rare exceptions. This is a problem for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it gives a false image of contemporary academia, which can make people, especially doctoral students and early career researchers, feel like failures even when they’re doing well. For example, I have a decent track record on research funding and currently look like a success in this part of my work, but have had my last six grant applications turned down. If I only talk about the bids I get, this distorts what’s normal.

Shouldn’t we be asking questions about what rejection does? Is it helpful to have academics writing three bids or more for every one that they get accepted? What does this level of rejection do to us as a community and to the individuals within it? Helpfully, the publication of the Economic and Social Research Council grant statistics by discipline mean that there has been some talk about the recent 96% rejection rate for education in the open competition, but this still operates at the level of the general rather than the personal.

Writing about rejection feels both cathartic and uncomfortable. Should I have mentioned the journal Feminist Media Studies by name? Should I quote from anonymous reviews? But as I said, rejection is part of academic practice, it establishes communities; it includes and it excludes. For example, that Kim and I wrote two papers that were rejected from media studies spaces, but then accepted by journals in education and sociology, says something important about disciplinary differences. Reviewers, conferences and journals should be accountable for their decisions. So now I turn to our AERA rejection…

First, here’s something about our AERA symposium which included three papers. In our overview, we said:

This symposium brings together innovative, varied work from scholars in Australia, the US and England on learning through popular culture with the aim of exploring what we can learn, as educationalists, from opening up the formal to the popular? It places side-by-side empirical and textual work, across reality television, celebrity culture and public art, to create provocative and productive juxtapositions. Speakers will combine video material and academic presentation. Discussion will be interspersed and we will use comment slips and Twitter for those who prefer not to speak. The structure and the substantive content of the symposium, including significant space for ‘audience’ interaction will make the symposium accessible to a wide range of AERA participants, whether researchers, policymakers or practitioners.

AERA decisions are based on the judgements of three reviewers, who each submit scores out of 5 on ten criteria (objectives, structure, theory, significance etc), and can then add optional comments. The first reviewer found our session ‘compelling’ and gave it 50 out of 50, the second called it ‘excellent’ and gave it 48 out of 50. The final reviewer gave it 3 out of 5 on every criteria and made some highly critical comments. They opened with:

Of the symposium session proposals I have read, this one is not as strong. For one thing, it’s merely three papers whereas the stronger symposium proposals have at least four or (better) five papers.

AERA rules allow symposia with 3, 4 or 5 papers. The number of papers is not a criteria for assessment. This raises questions about the transparency of the decision-making process. But more importantly this ignores how we had deliberately set out not to create a session consisting of one paper after another, ending with a tokenistic 5 minutes for questions and ‘discussion’. Such sessions are based on what Paulo Friere called the ‘banking’ model of teaching and learning: each presenter ‘makes deposits [and] … the scope of action allowed to [delegates] extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.’ As the above excerpt from our proposal suggests, we’d structured the session around an alternative, more participatory approach. This requires that some of the space for delivering papers must be given up. What does it say that moving away from the banking model of education can be a reason for rejecting a proposal from an education conference?

After this opening remark, the third reviewer went on to identify one paper as ‘the clunker in the trio.’ They ask, ‘who cares about the construction of anything on a bottom-feeding “reality” show like Jersey Shore?’, elaborating:

It would be different if actual people were the “subject” of the study (say, like students or preservice teachers or somebody besides the fan of the show who wrote this paper proposal). But the proposal seems like little more than a fan of the show who is telling us what she thinks, what her analysis is.

There’s a lot I could say here. I’ll highlight just three points. First, is it constructive, whatever your personal assessment of an abstract, to refer to it as a ‘clunker’? Some people may read this as blunt, but to me it crosses the line between bluntness and rudeness, as do so many anonymous peer reviews. Even if you reckon it’s just blunt, it’s certainly not helpful – it won’t support the author in developing their work. Reviews are interactions within a community as such they should seek to support people even when the decision is to reject.

Second, there are the assumptions that the author of the paper is a woman and a fan of the ‘bottom feeding’ TV show Jersey Shore, neither of which are implied by the abstract. These are not simply ways of devaluing the show: it is seen as low class and feminine – working-class tastes have always been seen as lesser than middle-class tastes and women’s tastes as lesser than men’s. These are also ways of devaluing the researcher – as having the wrong taste and excessive taste – being a fan(girl). What should happen when reviewers express class, gender and other prejudices in their reviews?

Finally, this reviewer seems to come to our proposal with the idea that textual studies without empirical data lack all value. Yet, these are an accepted part of educational research. What does it say that this reviewer wants to de facto exclude these from AERA’s Media, Culture, & Curriculum Special Interest Group? And, what does it do that their view of our work is the one that prevails?

I’m not suggesting that AERA should accept every proposal they get or even that they should have accepted ours. But I am questioning the basis of their decision-making, pointing up a lack of transparency and accountability, and arguing for academics to talk more openly about the practices of inclusion and exclusion that shape our working lives, as a first step in interrogating and changing these.

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Comments (6)

  • Tamara


    Wow thank you for this post. As a first year Phd
    Student you tend to think that it’s due to inexperience or inability that we get rejected but its nice to know that even long standing academics deal with it too. I agree that reviewers could be more effective by being less abrasive in their responses. Thank you for sharing this!


  • Helen Colley


    Have you written to AERA about this? I think it is essential to raise such issues with conference and SIG organisers. Not least, they should not use referees who express prejudice. This policing of academic freedom (what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander) is very problematic, and likely to extend if proposals in UK around open access publication continue in the wrong direction.


    • Heather


      Thanks, Helen. We haven’t written to AERA, was hoping the blog would reach them, but I agree with what you say here so will raise it with my fellow rejectees.


  • Linda Kirkman


    The proposed symposium looked fascinating. I really liked the non linear structure and inclusive approach.


  • Ben Baumberg


    I got so annoyed at the way that rejection is hidden that I now have a section of my website where I list rejected papers! I was inspired by this, which I thought was generally inspiring. And I think your post is a great addition to all of this, so thanks!


    • Heather


      Hi Ben, thanks for these great links. The idea of listing rejected bids and papers in public is really interesting. I might try doing this on my CV – I’ve put in so many bids that haven’t come to anything. At least with papers, you can try another journal.


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