The best piece of advice received in my academic career thus far was given to me by Dr. Wayne Urban, an historian and professor at the University of Alabama. During my first year as a faculty member, I walked into his office and asked, “Wayne, how do you write so much excellent scholarship, how did you become a full professor?” His response was, “I am not a perfectionist.”
These words have stuck with me and I learned immensely from them. Wayne also noted that doctoral students and young assistant professors often succumb to perfectionism and become immobilized in terms of sending out their work for review. He told me reviewers and editors are our friends and they help us to take good work and make it better. I have lived by Wayne’s words through my time as a faculty member and I think I have benefited.
This past week, I attended an academic conference and was lucky enough to share a few meals with some graduate students and new faculty (my favorite part of conferences). The one thing they had in common was a fear of sending their conference papers out for review with scholarly journals. I listened to countless excuses for why conference papers, which I thought were excellent and fresh, could not be submitted to journals. My conclusion is Wayne Urban was correct. We have quite a few perfectionists on our hands in the academy.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think papers need to be in excellent shape when we send them to journals. However, perfection is an impossible goal and the perfectionist is forever disappointed. We all benefit from the peer-reviewed process. Colleagues in our field and beyond will always see things in our work we miss and we will benefit from their insight. Likewise, editors will also see what we forget and make our work stronger.
In some cases, I know young faculty members who have terrific ideas and original research, who give wonderful conference presentations, but who cannot move beyond that conference paper and as a result their ideas never get out into the academic discourse. And, worse yet, others come along with similar ideas and steal these scholars’ thunder, making it difficult for these young people to achieve tenure.
I assume some of the apprehension comes from fear of rejection. And to that I say, what is so bad about rejection? I have learned more from being rejected by a journal than being accepted. Rejection has made my work stronger and in ALL cases, based on feedback, I turned a rejected paper into an accepted paper (often times, it was published in a much better journal as well).
Submitting scholarly work to journals is like riding a horse. You just have to get back on each time it throws you off (trust me I grew up on a farm). And you have to take a risk, knowing you’ll never reach perfection. Put your good work out there and learn from the feedback you get. It gets easier each time. But keep in mind, even when your work is published, it will never be perfect. There will always be someone who takes issue with it. That’s the way the academy works. We build upon each others work and make new discoveries each day. So please. Stop being a perfectionist!
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).
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