I was asked about four months ago to evaluate an essay submitted for journal publication. This is a new, open-access journal that was started by a few graduate students I met at a conference. I had added my name and list of areas of “expertise” to a list, and lo and behold, my services were found to be of use. Of course, I waited until the last minute.
I like doing blind peer-review; I like reading new research in my area, as well as performing a valuable service to the field and discipline. Having had received my own fair share of unhelpful and/or cruel and dismissive “advice” on essays I have submitted over the years, I take my role seriously and look to provide constructive feedback to the benefit of both the editors and the writer(s).
But trying to do a peer-review of a journal submission at the same time as being up to my eyeballs in grading Freshman Writing essays, well, hasn’t been all that successful. Or, at least, proved to be more challenging than it has been in the past.
Right from the beginning, I knew I was going to be in trouble when my heart leapt at the sight of a clear, coherent, and thoughtful thesis. And original to boot! Never mind that that’s the whole point of research and writing that this point in our careers (new insights). There was a thesis. A real thesis, with some real thought behind it. I almost stopped right there to email ACCEPTED! (yes, with an exclamation mark) to the editors.
But then I re-read the introduction. The corpus was vaguely defined, and there was little context was given leading up to the thesis. Wait, is this something we are supposed to do as academics or is this something I tell my undergraduates to do? Maybe it came later, as essays that are 15+ pages long have introductory sections, not paragraphs. Was I being too formulaic? I made a note to come back and re-read the introduction once I got through the rest of the paper.
I carried on. I kept seeing bizarre spellings of words (wait, why is there a ‘u’ there? Or an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’?). And then, I came to the word, “whilst.” The plagiarism alarm bell went off in my head. I can’t believe that…wait. This is most likely a submission from overseas. This isn’t plagiarism; this is following British conventions (so much for 100% blind peer-review – I still have no idea who the author is, but I know from whence they came, or at least studied for a significant period of time).
Once I got over the ridiculous assumption that the paper was plagiarized, I began to enjoy the paper, as it was running in my head with a British accent, and we all know that anything said with a British accent sounds smarter, right? Plus, I was learning things, coming across sources I hadn’t before, and just generally being very pleased with the quality of the paper in front of me.
But then I thought, what if it’s just because I’m “hearing” it in a British accent? I then spent a great deal of time reading the paper instead of narrating it (if that makes any sense). I was looking now, frantically, for any shortcomings, any holes, and shallow pieces of analysis or observations. It can’t be the good, I thought frantically. Some other reader is going to come back and have eviscerated it, while I blindly embraced a British accent with a thesis statement.
Turns out, the paper was good. I wasted an extra couple of hours looking for something to be wrong with the paper. Turns out, it did need a little more explanation and context in the introduction, and I’m not sure that the British style of the paper would fit within a North American journal. So I said all that and sent off my reader report.
I’m never going to do that at the same time I am grading papers ever again. Imagine my shock when I went back to grading my students’ essays.
It’s been a long semester. It can’t end soon enough.