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Resilience

It was a warm spring day, and coincidentally, the proudest of my young life in academia.  The end of my 2nd year as a doctoral student at KU was closing in, and, along with two friends, I had recently completed a research study without the direct involvement of my advisor, Don Deshler.  Our study was a success; the participants in Group 1 scored significantly higher on our dependent measure than the participants in Group 2.  The widget worked!  After what seemed like weeks of writing, my team and I finished the manuscript and were ready to submit for publication.  The paper was glorious.  The lit review was filled with the latest and most important citations in the field, the method was crystal clear (like the ones the APA manual cites as exemplars), the results were immaculate (I didn’t write that part, but still…), and the discussion and conclusion broke new ground in the field.  In short, it was a masterstroke.  Before submission, I wanted Don to take a look at it, mainly to help catch silly APA mistakes, and to show him how awesome I was.  I emailed the paper to him with a note:

Don,

 This is the manuscript we wrote from the recently completed study.  I am very excited about this – I am sure it will be accepted, but it would be great if you can give it a final once over to make sure I didn’t miss anything silly. 

 Thanks as always,

MK

 PS – How cool that KU won the Orange Bowl and Basketball National Championship last year!!!  I am sure both teams will have numerous championships in the coming years.  Rock Chalk!

Upon reflection (with five years of space to reflect), what happened next is comical.  At the time, it felt like I was the worst doctoral student at KU, and more than likely, the country.

Michael,

 I am glad you sent me your paper.  This is not at all ready for publication.  You’ve missed several key references that are glaring omissions.  After reading it, I am not at all convinced that your study is warranted, or justified.  The method section is very confusing.  Did you use the APA manual to structure this section?  I think you should go back and review the following sections in the manual: Actually, go ahead and review the whole thing.  I can tell [name redacted] wrote the results and it looks good.  The discussion section does little more than repeat the results, and needs to be rewritten.  You also have some claims in the conclusion that are not even close to being supported by your data.  I’d be happy to look at your revision.  I made a few comments throughout. 

 Sincerely,

Don (soul crusher)

 OK fine, I added the soul crusher part.  But it was true.  I went from being 100% sure that I had hit a grand slam home run to recognizing what I thought was my best work was actually a weak grounder to the first baseman – one of those dribblers where the ball doesn’t even get to the bag and you get tagged out of pity halfway down the line.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been so sure of something only to find out that you were wrong, but it doesn’t feel good.  In fact, it feels terrible. Turns out, there is a huge difference between writing a paper for class and writing for publication… And I found out the hard way.

As I finished Don’s email, I went from shock, to anger, to denial, back to anger, and then settled on an interesting blend of anger/shock/denial.  There would be no acceptance.  He was wrong – he misread it.  He probably skimmed it – I mean, there were comments and track changes on literally every sentence so I guess he read it kinda closely – but he obviously didn’t get it.  I won’t tell you exactly what I did next, but it involved Johnny’s Tavern (the seedy one on the other side of the river) and a taxi ride home.

A couple days later I returned to Don’s feedback.  I read it carefully.  No.  It can’t be… He was right.  The literature review was weak, and did not make a compelling argument.  I forgot to cite Mary Brownell in a paper on teacher education.  How do you forget to cite Brownell in a paper on teacher education???  The method section couldn’t explain how to get out of a wet paper bag.  The result section was still pretty good.  And the discussion section, instead of breaking new ground, had actually, somehow, set the field back 5 years.  Dammit.  He was right.  

At that juncture, there were two choices: Give up on the paper, or rewrite it.  I chose the latter.  It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in the program (up until then anyway).  Have you ever had to essentially throw a manuscript away to start over?  I have.  It’s not fun – but I did it.  Clawing my way off of the mat offered no guarantee of success either – Don was sure to find issues with the paper the 2nd time, say nothing of what the reviewers and editor would discover.  I needed to be resilient yet had no idea how to do it.

So how did I gather the nerve to put myself out there again?  Because Steve Awesome, a student I used to teach with a learning disability, never gave up even though he had more reason to quit than anyone I’d ever met.  Steve was a high school student who couldn’t remember any new content for more than a few minutes, read grade appropriate texts, or pass a test to save his life.  That said, that kid showed up for school every day, worked hard to learn various strategies to improve his memory, worked with a tutor on his reading, and built skills through a vocational program.  Steve didn’t go on to college or become an astronaut, but he does own his own business fixing cars, and probably makes more money in a month than I do in a year.  That kid could have dropped out of school on any random day from 8th grade all the way through 12th grade – but he didn’t.  I’m not sure he ever received any positive academic-related feedback in school (other than in his vocational program).  He kept trying.  He had to.  Who am I to quit when kids like that are out there?  I won’t let Steve down.

We are in the business of getting shot down only to find strength to learn from failure and emerge stronger on the other side.  If you’re not resilient, you are going to have a very hard time in this line of work – it doesn’t matter where your courage to endure comes from as long as you keep moving forward.  I used Don’s feedback to make the paper stronger.  I went into one of those zones where you can’t remember exactly what happened or how you wrote consecutively for 24 hours without eating anything, but you know you were fully engaged while coming up with ideas that never occurred to you before.  When the manuscript was finished, I knew it wasn’t perfect, but stood a puncher’s chance.  I sent it to Don again.  I wasn’t nervous.  OK fine… I was a train wreck.  Here’s what I said:

Dear Don,

 Thanks again for looking at the paper.  I really appreciate it.  It was pretty cool how you made a comment or edit on literally every sentence.  Never seen that before.  I made the changes you suggested, plus some other stuff.  When you get a chance, it would be good to get your thoughts before I submit. 

 Thanks,

MK

 P.S.  Kansas just lost to Northern Iowa.  In basketball.  Do you think Roy Williams will come back? 

 His reply:

Michael,

 Nice job making the changes.  I’m really proud of how you stuck with this.  I don’t think they’ll publish it, but go ahead and take a chance anyway. 

 Kansas will be back strong in football and basketball next year – don’t you worry.  National Champs in both.

 Don

 After some last minute tinkering and review with my friends, we submitted it.  Here’s the decision letter from the editor:

Dear Mr. Kennedy:

 Manuscript ID TESE-10-0009 entitled “Using Enhanced Podcasts to Augment Limited Instructional Time in Teacher Preparation” which you submitted to Teacher Education and Special Education, has been reviewed.  

 The reviewer(s) have recommended publication, but also suggest some minor revisions to your manuscript.  Therefore, I invite you to respond to the reviewer(s)’ comments and revise your manuscript.

No.  Way.  Later, Don claimed he knew all along it would be accepted, he was just preparing me for the worst… just in case.  After making the minor revisions, the paper was accepted, and became the first in a line of several articles using the widget to improve teacher candidate knowledge (citation is below).  Since then I’ve had seven manuscripts, three grant proposals, and four conference proposals rejected (not that I’m counting).  Some of the rejections were spectacular – one editor once sent me an email to reject the paper 24 hours after I submitted it.  I’m pretty sure that is a record.  It never gets easier.  It always sucks.  Earlier this week I got an article and CEC proposal rejected on the same day – and, because the universe has a sense of humor, Kansas lost to a side dish in football (Rice University).  But I learn from every rejection and become a stronger researcher, writer, and colleague.  Sure I have my share of rejections, but I also have over 20 publications, a grant funded by IES, and 40-something conference presentations.  My goal is to double my productivity in the next few years leading up to tenure – that means I’ll also double the rejections.  No problem – Steve won’t quit, neither will I.

We are special educators.  Our job is to help students, parents/families, teachers, administrators, other stakeholders, and our peers at Universities make essential improvements to secure better outcomes across the lifespan.  The challenges we face as doctoral students, early career faculty members, and more seasoned researchers pale in comparison to what students with disabilities and their families face every day.  Getting crushed by a reviewer or advisor once in a while isn’t even in the same conversation as what the students we serve often face.  If you need the strength to be resilient and courageous, when putting your work out for review, think of the kids we serve – you’ll be just fine.  Oh, and get good advice from your mentor too – they usually know what they’re talking about (in academics anyway, but don’t tell Don I said that).

One day not too long ago, one of my doctoral students sent me a paper she was sure was ready for publication and wanted me to take a last look.  If you want to know what I told her, go back and read that first email Don sent me – just change the names.  And no, I didn’t do it to take revenge on an unsuspecting victim.  I couldn’t help but smile as I momentarily crushed her hopes and dreams.  I beamed proudly when she too found the resilience to make the needed edits, and later secure her first peer-reviewed publication.  One day she’ll tell her version of this story to her doctoral students, and I hope you will too.

Kennedy, M. J., Hart, J. E., & Kellems, R. O. (2011).  Using enhanced podcasts to augment limited instructional time in teacher preparation.  Teacher Education and Special Education, 34, 87-105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0888406410376203

Michael Kennedy is a 2011 graduate of the Ph.D. program in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas.  He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

http://curry.virginia.edu/academics/directory/michael-j-kennedy

Photo on 8-23-13 at 10.42 AM

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