by Edward E. Andrews, Associate Professor of History at Providence College and author of “Tranquebar: Charting the Protestant International in the British Atlantic and Beyond” in the January 2017 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly
We often speak at conferences and in our job talks about the importance of connecting research and teaching. And yet, when we really try to do it seriously and deliberately, it is much easier said than done. This is especially true at smaller liberal arts institutions, such as mine, or in similar places that require a heavy teaching load in introductory courses. But during the spring semester last year I led a small group of eager, brilliant students in a research seminar called “The British Atlantic World.” And in one of my sessions I did something I had never done before: I showed them the peer reviews of one my articles.
Throughout the course I tried, when possible, to incorporate as much research into the curriculum as I could. I brought them to the Rhode Island Historical Society for an introduction to accessing archival materials, we played a “treasure hunt” game using digital archives, and were lucky enough to host Andrew Lipman for an in-person, Girl Scout Cookie-fueled discussion of his phenomenal book, The Saltwater Frontier. But as I started to hand back essays, research proposals, and other assignments, each marked with extensive feedback, I realized that I was missing an opportunity to shed even more light on how we make history.
So, kind of on a whim, I started one class by showing them the outside peer review for my article, “Tranquebar: Charting the Protestant International in the British Atlantic in Beyond,” which just came out in The William and Mary Quarterly. And it was extensive. Not only did I have detailed synoptic commentary from Josh Piker, the editor, but I also received six separate readers’ reports. When I originally submitted my article, it was about 41 double spaced pages. As we scrolled through the reports on a large projection screen, students saw 22 pages of comments, only one report of which was double spaced, in addition to comments from one reader who included page by page commentary. The students seemed quite shocked to see that the commentary on my article was more extensive than the article itself!
There are two obvious downsides to pulling aside the curtain like this. First, it’s difficult to determine whether doing so will have any lasting resonance with the students. Anecdotally, I believe it does, but I never “assessed” them on it, as we only scanned through the dozens of pages of feedback for the first chunk of one class. The second downside is that students, especially undergraduate students, often have to be encouraged to critique work by published scholars. This is even more so the case when introducing your own work, or peer review of it, into the discussion. While some students may rise to the challenge, others may understandably clam up or shut down when assessing the work of someone who is responsible for their final grade.
But I believe that the payoffs can be immense. First, showing critiques of our own work can help students realize that writing history is not a solitary, isolated experience but rather a collaborative effort. To publish something takes the work of the historian as well as the hard labor of archivists, conference participants, friends and colleagues, outside readers, and editors. It can show them that their professors make mistakes, get critiqued, and work hard to improve their scholarship, just as they do. In the case of my article, the editors and peer reviewers helped me not only with prose, but also with articulating my argument more clearly, and fact-checking. In this age of “post-truth” and “alternative facts,” vetting knowledge via peer review is more important than ever.
The second thing that it reveals to students is that writing history is a continual project. As I told them last year, the process itself was an incredibly long one. I got my first research nuggets when working on another topic in 2007, did international research to support it in 2013, submitted the article in the summer of 2015, got first peer review in August, and then spent the next few months working through both outside reviewer and editorial comments, to finally have the article come out in January 2017. It was a marathon, not a sprint.
Finally, showing students peer review of our own work may motivate and embolden them. They can see that the final texts that they read in class are, as noted above, products of many hours and many eyes. But, even more importantly, they get a sense of how our scholarly world operates and how we create knowledge. Ultimately, bringing our own peer reviews into the classroom could be a great way for students to understand what we do outside of it.