Saturday, April 26, 2008

Reconciling with the reader

We've all heard something along the lines of how a reviewer critiqued a writer for not writing a completely different article or book, and in a sense that's the substance of one reader's critiques on my article MS. Imagine that I'm writing an article about industrial agriculture and the food chain, á là Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Imagine that, in order to illustrate my points about industrial agriculture and the food chain, I decide to talk about tomatoes as an example: how they are native to a particular climate and soil type; how they are hyper-engineered to grow in other places, and not to be lumpy or mottled, and harvested green in order to be able to ship them to inhospitable climates. I conclude that the engineering of the naturally yummy heirloom tomato into a perfectly round, red, unblemished, and completely tasteless bit of produce shows how industrial agriculture is taking food away from us while it purports to give us more.

Now, imagine that a reader's report comes back, telling me that I've neglected volumes of literature on tomatoes in various global contexts, and that I've only skimmed over the tomato's relation to other plants in the nightshade family, and not even bothered to discuss how some people make tomatoes into spaghetti sauce, rather than eating them sliced on a sandwich -- all of which I'd have more room to do if I just cut out those long-winded sections on industrial agriculture.

Did I fume about this? Hells, yes. Did I uncharitably mutter that the reader was dense for totally missing the point? Well... okay, maybe a bit. But let me tell you what I eventually learned (and this is several weeks after getting the critique): if a reader comes away from my article thinking I didn't adequately discuss tomatoes, it's because that reader honestly thinks that that's what my article is about.

And whose fault is that? Only my own.

So your intrepid Girl-Scholar once again attempts to clarify her point. Wish me luck.


Dr. S said...

I won't wish you luck.

I'll tell you what I know: which is that you're going to rock out, 100%, because even not having met you yet, I can tell that's how you roll.


Susan said...

Well, it may be because the reviewer thought the article was about tomatoes, in which case it's your fault. But it could be that the part of the article the reader was interested in was tomatoes, which is NOT your fault.

Brad Hersh said...

I agree with Susan--while it's possible the reviewer missed the central argument because the central argument wasn't clear, it's also possible the reviewer has their own obsession that caused them to be blind to the central argument.
While I was in graduate school, at the end of virtually every seminar, one prof would inevitably ask the speaker "Have you investigated the role of calcium in this process?" His fascination with calcium made it impossible for him to appreciate the actual point of the seminar.

AcadeMama said...

I'm a little surprised by your reaction, but you've taught me a lesson about humility. My instinct is to agree with susan, though, because I remember several times as a beginning graduate student (and maybe once or twice as I write my diss), I've pointed out that scholar X isn't doing what I'm doing with Topic Y and thus hasn't done sufficient research on Topic Y. This has usually meant that I've totally missed the point of scholar X's work.

I guess I just presumed that these types of reviews were occasionally possible, but that they didn't warrant extensive revision. Or, at least, not unless there are several reviewers saying the same thing (if any of this makes sense)??

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Y'all give me lots of credit. But humility, thy name is pre-tenure.

The revisions are off today, thank all the gods that may be. Now, on to the next crisis.

@ HopefulM: Calcium, huh? Maybe I should have thrown that in, too.

Anonymous said...

I've been there -- Oh, have I been there. Sometimes reader's reviews are just so off the wall, you wonder if there hasn't been some kind of a mix up -- did she actually read MY article?

On the other hand, I'm learning as I am beginning to conduct reviews, sometimes a writer addresses calcium or tomatoes (love those metaphors, folks) really well but, frankly, no one in the field is interested in calcium or tomatoes -- they're interested in helium or squash. I've found myself critiquing some articles because they just don't seem to be in conversation with anyone other than themselves.

Not that I'm saying that YOU, the fabulous Girl Scholar, are guilty of such a sin. In your case, it really does sound like a nutjob conducted your review.