Thursday, October 22, 2015

External Review: The Gatekeeper vs. the Advocate

I've just finished my first external review for a tenure case. I'm pretty sure that saying that doesn't violate any sort of confidentiality, but I won't go any further to name institution, field, department, or anything, much less what the content of that review was.

So, if I'm determined not to say anything, then why the Vagueblogging? (Yes, I just made that up. Yes, it's horrible.) Well, it's because it got me thinking of what our roles as midcareer and senior faculty are.

There are lots of times that I've been part of an anonymous review process: article manuscript reviews are the most frequent, but there have also been book reviews, and now a tenure case. We've probably all had the experience of getting back a review that convinced us that the person writing it saw it as their job to shred us to bits. Rationally, I don't think that's ever the case. No one, in their heart, is Darth Vader. Ideally, we'd all like to think we come to every review a blank slate. But I've found that there is always one of two voices whispering in my ear.

One of these, I call The Gatekeeper. This entity says that it's my job as a reviewer to make sure that everything meets a certain standard, else the phrase "peer reviewed" means nothing. The Gatekeeper knows that "a certain standard" is entirely subjective, but she refuses to talk about that.

The other, I call The Advocate. This one reminds me that I never know whether my verdict is going to make or break someone's career. I should actively look for ways to say yes. The Gatekeeper sneers, pokes her in the gut, and accuses her of having no standards and watering down the profession as a whole. The Advocate tells the Gatekeeper that maybe a "no" should be a "revise and resubmit," because that, at least, lets someone improve. She speculates that the Gatekeeper gets a kick out of crushing young scholars due to her own insecurities. Voices are raised. There is an unseemly scuffle.

I would be surprised if there was anyone in a position to review (even signed book reviews!) that hadn't heard both of these voices at one time or another. And the scuffles are only going to get more frequent as we advance in our careers and come to be regarded as people with the Authority to Pronounce. We've probably encountered folks who we think are pure Advocate or Gatekeeper, yet we see ourselves as always a little of both, and constantly hope for an objectivity that we know doesn't exist this side of the grave.

So, out with it: Advocate or Gatekeeper? Or do you have totally different voices in your head?


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I have never assigned the two voices these names but they have been with me for over 30 years. As a senior faculty member I find that I have become more and more an Advocate. In my mid-career years I was definitely more Gatekeeper than Advocate although both voices spoke every time I did a review of any kind. I find that I seem to be getting kinder and more willing to use the process as a way for the candidate/manuscript to improve.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Interesting to me, too. Despite a plethora of voices when I work on my own stuff, I don't think I suffer from the same phenomenon when I review other people's. Maybe it's luck of the draw, as I think I've always thought either "Very good . . . you could tweak this a little" or "Oh, no, really not, wow, no." But even a rejection can be a learning experience, and I try to explain clearly and kindly *how* a paper falls short of what it ought to be and what it would need to do to improve, as well as pointing out its strengths. There's a real person on the other end of even a bad paper, hoping for good news or at least a good learning experience. I have received rejections that were supportive of my work, and I take those as examples up to which I try to live.

I think I should ease up on the efforts not to end a sentence with a preposition.

I confess that it's hard to approach grading in this spirit, though I wish I could do so. But 35 papers making similar mistakes feels more like a group effort to annoy me, though I know it's not.

Anonymous said...

The Narcissist. "You didn't do it the way I would have and I'm really smart. Look, here's this irrelevant paper you didn't cite."

Flavia said...

I think of my external-reviewer voices as being essentially continuous with my teaching (and grading) voices--I get exasperated in the same ways, but also try to be helpful and supportive in the same ways. So I'm mostly an advocate, but with a certain amount of shape-up, get-your-shit-together, and NOW-what-are-you-doing??

Maybe this is because I suspect that the vast majority of the essay reviews I've done (they're blind, of course, so I don't know) represent the work of advanced grad students or very recent PhDs, and there are often some basic problems of structure and argumentation, so I'm comfortable taking on a role similar to the one I take with my M.A. students.

It's been a while since I did a book proposal or MSS review (and I've done only a couple overall), so I don't have as clear a sense of who I am in that context.

Susan said...

I think with articles I'm often more the gatekeeper but at tenure and promotion I'm totally an advocate.

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