How might we respond to rejection in academia?

It seems the #rejectionwall is the gift that keeps on giving! The original tweet has made over 225,000 impressions, and there have been a few visitors to my office to ‘admire’ the collection.

I was contacted by @EvanGomes_ who wanted to do an interview – about the academic rejection wall but also about rejection and failure more generally. His write-up is available here.  I was also interviewed over email by Veronika Cheplygina for her ‘How I Fail‘ series, which prompted me to think further about some aspects of rejection, failure and their connections.

There was part of the interview with Evan that didn’t make the final cut. It was about how I think we cope with rejection and failure. Evan’s post does include a bit where I talked about how we might “encourage people to be confident in seeking help, rather than having to rely on yourself to dig deeper”.

Here is the point I want to make in this post: when someone is faced with a difficult circumstance, I don’t think it is necessarily fair, or good enough, to say the response should be ‘toughen up’, or ‘grow a thick skin’. Yes, there is an aspect of personal quality in how we feel (or allow ourselves to feel?) wounded and hurt when we are rejected. But I don’t think dismissing these feelings or trying to delegitimise them is the way to go. From yoga I’ve learned about acknowledging responses and then coming back to a different position from which options of what next look different. Being thin-skinned doesn’t make academic life and its inevitable rejections easier. But there’s a difference between denying the feelings of pain, hurt, shame etc, and acknowledging them but working on not letting them take overwhelming control of us.

This is where my hero comes in. Vygotsky tells us that as human  beings we have a really special capacity: to control ourselves (our behaviour, our minds) from the outside in. What this means is that instead of having to somehow tap into mysterious inner reserves (grittiness, thick skins, whatever), we have a huge, diverse, set of culturally available tools (both physical objects and those we use symbolically, including language) to help us do this work. A Vygotskian response to rejection could be understood as looking to this external environment as a means to shape our reaction.

That could be sticking the rejection up somewhere public (like an office door), so that you enrol others in responding to it with you, confirming that there is no shame, even if you feel it. It could be getting out a black marker pen and deleting the nasty, stinging comments from reviewers that are neither helpful nor justified. It could be finding a friend to go for a walk or drink with – someone who knows even more about rejection and failure than you. It could be some embodied practices like running, swimming, long deep breaths.

The point is, instead of the person in the difficult situation being asked to dig deeper (and therefore constructed as both the victim and the villain if they fail to do so successfully), that person looks outside themselves for assistance in determining their response.

To be clear, I’m not saying we have to share our rejections publicly. Many won’t want to do so; many will feel vulnerable doing so (despite the experience being universally shared among academics). That’s fine. I am saying it is a tall order to expect of ourselves, or others, to cope and develop the best possible response based on these mysterious, intangible and poorly defined inner qualities alone. So much better to draw on the cultural legacy of human history and start to take control from the outside in. For this, I thank Vygotsky for his most amazing insights.


2 thoughts on “How might we respond to rejection in academia?

  1. Jackson

    Some very useful and encouraging points here — thank you.

    It may also be helpful to think differently about our relationship with editors, grant committees, et al, by using different verbs. We didn’t *submit* a paper that got *rejected*. We *offered* a paper that the editor *declined*.

  2. Pingback: My wall of rejection and why it matters - Futures

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