For the past few years, my family has implemented the practice of selecting a Biblical passage to be the “family verse/passage” for the calendar year. For 2023, we have chosen a well-known verse in Psalm 19:14 (ESV): “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
This popular passage has obvious implications for Christian living in all domains of life, but I have been particularly pondering its connections to vocational duties that are not typically found at the top of “favorite things to do at work” lists for academics. Two such duties that readily come to mind are grading papers and conducting peer reviews of manuscript submissions. I re-read with great appreciation Dr. Marybeth Baggett’s CSR blog piece1 from a little over a year ago on how the labor of grading can be spiritually transformative for faculty members, and that it is an opportunity to “affirm the humanity and vocation of the student” with our words and thoughts. Dr. Baggett’s reflections inspire me to not only be mindful of what I write or say on student assignments, but also in my interactions with students in general. Indeed, my prayer is that both what is said and unsaid will be life-giving whenever I connect with my students.
But what might this type of posture look like when performing peer-reviews as an academic—an endeavor that has obvious similarities to grading student papers (e.g., it seems that we always have to magically find that extra time to get it done) but also notable differences (e.g., peer-review is a professional service to other colleagues, whereas grading is a pedagogical tool)?
Another key distinction between grading and peer-review is that the former involves communication with people I know well, whereas the latter is, given how our academic communities have set up the peer review process, communication with those whose identities are hidden from me. An implication of this distinction is that it is even more challenging to apply Psalm 19:14 when writing peer reviews, a process that is easily susceptible to dehumanization.
I can manage to dig deep to find some level of professionalism and even warmth in the words of my mouth (or on paper) when writing peer reviews.
But what about the meditations of my heart?
In the rest of this blog piece, I offer some observations of my own natural inclination (i.e., the way things [often] are) whenever I conduct peer reviews—confessions, really—and what I aspire to do on a more regular basis (i.e., the way things ought to be), in the form of short prayers.
- I must admit that sometimes, the desire to prove myself as an intellectually competent scholar can be consuming when writing peer reviews; that by presenting astute criticisms of my peers’ hard work, I am somehow deemed worthy of being on the editorial board. To be clear, ensuring high quality of work through the perceptive critique of one another’s scholarship is a vital aspect of maintaining a rigorous standard for new knowledge. But what I am referring to is my heart’s tendency to be hyper-focused on appearing intelligent to others. There are times, for instance, when I feel tempted to provide a particular number or type of feedback on a manuscript simply because I feel like I need to say something, as opposed to providing observations that are truly helpful to the authors.
In these moments of self-obsession, Lord, recalibrate my heart to focus my attention and energy on how I can aid the authors in improving their manuscript.
- I confess that at times, I treat the professional activity of peer review as a form of emotional outlet. Indeed, there are occasions when I have pivoted to reviewing manuscripts not long after I have been on the receiving end of particularly harsh comments on my own work. In these moments, I might treat peer review as a way to restore the equilibrium of my sense of competence and self-esteem, by placing myself in a position that holds power. It’s a form of displacement:2 transferring the unfavorable energy from the reviewers of my work to the recipients of my feedback. It’s an obviously illogical form of “revenge” on the reviewers of my work—the recipients of my feedback most certainly are not those who peer-reviewed my work; but I am ashamed to admit that in my sinful nature, something about being on the side of the aggressor when it comes to peer-reviews is appealing.
In these moments of misguided, vengeful meditations in my heart, God, lead me to walk away from that manuscript review and return to it when I am in a better state of mind.
- Finally, I recognize that envy as a negative emotion can creep in when particularly exceptional manuscripts land in my email inbox. There are times when I can clearly see that a manuscript, if published, will make a profound contribution. The right response to such stunning products should be a sense of joy, gratitude, and satisfaction that my academic community would benefit from the brilliance of the authors—and I do have those moments. But other times, I confess that a twinge of jealousy might be felt; a feeling that can be further captured as self-doubt and even imposter syndrome.
In these moments when envy becomes salient, Lord, help me to reframe my response to excellence as admiration, and allow me the grace to do the countercultural in academia: provide ample positive feedback to the authors.
I follow a Facebook page for academics called “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped!” I follow this page primarily as a recipient of peer review, to seek communal emotional support after receiving (what I perceive to be) unfair peer-review comments; there is no shortage of horrifying stories of peer review gone sideways on this page.
But what about the times that I am Reviewer 2?
One line from the site description says, “Reviewer 2 is not a number, it’s a state of mind.”3 Accepting the humbling truth that sometimes I too can be Reviewer 2, I am reminded of the need to consistently examine my “state of mind” when conducting peer reviews. I need to interrogate how my internal motivations and desires are pleasing to God, or if they are spilling over as words that reflect things like self-absorption, aggression, and envy.
As I write this blog piece, I am aware that I am articulating aspirational standards that I consistently fall short of. I hope that my resolution to do better is not coming across as legalistic or sanctimonious. Rather, I pray that my reflections can serve as a reminder and an encouragement of some sort to Christian scholars who regularly engage in peer review about the significance of their written words and meditations of the heart in this vocational endeavor.
- Marybeth Baggett, “Grading as Spiritual Discipline,” Christian Scholar’s Review: Christ Animating Learning, November 18, 2021. https://christianscholars.com/grading-as-spiritual-discipline/
- “Displacement,” Psychology Today, n.d. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/displacement
- Ayşe Pinar Saygin, “This group is for those who believe Reviewer 2 must be stopped (see definition below). In the name of science and all that’s good and fair in life.” Facebook, January 12, 2015. https://www.facebook.com/groups/reviewer2/permalink/10152948086990469
Thank you for this honest look into your soul as you review the work of others. I can’t think of many academics who would allow us to peer inside your thoughts, emotions, and struggles. I found it greatly freeing. Blessings.