Being inclusive also means remembering not everyone has rhino-thick skin

The way we give feedback, from the undergraduate essay right through to peer review, provides opportunities to unconsciously exclude people, says Hugh Kearns

Hugh Kearns's avatar
Flinders University
19 Jul 2022
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Academics and students should not require rhino-thick skin to succeed

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So, how thick is your skin? Crocodile thick? Rhinoceros thick? To survive in academia and research you need a thick skin. You need to be able to cope with the rejections, the constant revisions, the endless criticism. Academia, and in particular academic publishing, can be a tough place, and sometimes it seems only the tough survive. But is that what we need in academia: gangs of professors proudly showing off their battle scars as they wryly laugh about Reviewer 2?

What about academics and researchers who don’t have crocodile skin? They might just have normal, human skin. Do we exclude them? Don’t they have a contribution to make to research? Might they have brilliant ideas and insights to include? Or is the thickness of your skin the main determinant of merit?

Most people aspire to be inclusive, to value diversity. In principle. But what about in practice? Let’s just take one example – feedback.

You’ve probably given lots of feedback: feedback on assignments, on drafts, on papers and feedback on performance. I’m sure your aim is to provide useful points to try to improve writing or performance. However, without knowing it, or intending it, your feedback might be excluding the very people you’re giving it to. The way we give feedback, right from the undergraduate essay, through to a dissertation and to peer review, provides opportunities to unconsciously exclude people.

I work with thousands of researchers every year, and I’ve seen how feedback, generally well intentioned, can exclude and reduce diversity. For example:

  • A senior professor saying to a new postgraduate researcher that “this is not up to my standards” or “I’m expecting better than this”. When you ask the professor, they will say: “I’m just trying to explain the standard required – to show them what to aim for.” For some postgraduate researchers this will be devastating.
  • A perfectionistic early career academic covering an undergraduate’s writing in red ink. The student might be the first in their family go to university and is so devastated by the feedback that they withdraw. The early career academic has probably put a lot of time and effort into this feedback and is trying to do the right thing, but their feedback can have the opposite effect.
  • A researcher recently told me about a writing group they were a member of. They would write together and then provide feedback on each other’s work. It had been a very effective group until a new researcher joined who proceeded to provide very direct and harsh criticism on the other people’s writing. Soon after, the group folded. Who wants to put your early drafts out there to be ridiculed?

We mostly assume there is one way to give feedback: the way we do it. We think: because I like my feedback neat – direct and to the point – surely that’s the way others want it, too.

And there will be others (people like you) who prefer their feedback without any trimmings. You’ll probably get along pretty well with them. They’ll say things like: “It’s like water off a duck’s back” or “It doesn’t bother me at all” or “I don’t let it get to me.”

However, people are different. What about people who get hurt by very direct criticism? What about those who do take it personally, who it does bother, who do let it get to them? Well, they just have to toughen up, don’t they? Or else? Leave.

So if they don’t like it your way, they don’t survive. Which means we create mini models or versions of ourselves. Very flattering, of course – but not very diverse. Unconsciously we select the thick-skinned academics and unconsciously exclude the normal-skinned varieties. As a result, academia – and all of us – miss out on their contributions and talents.

If you survived in academia, you’ve probably got your own well-scarred crocodile skin by now. In fact, you may have forgotten what normal skin feels like. You assume everyone is like you. But they’re not. People are different. And valuing diversity and inclusivity means valuing these differences.

But does this mean that you have to be so worried about people’s feelings that you can’t criticise anything at all? Where’s the rigour in that? Well, in fact, you can be rigorous and be kind. You can provide constructive feedback that doesn’t demolish the receiver.

What about the jungle of peer review? Surely there you’re allowed to let your inner crocodile show itself. But why? Feedback and reviews don’t have to be dismissive, arrogant, personal – they can still be constructive and rigorous. It would help everyone if peer review was less adversarial and more constructive. While you can’t change the whole peer review culture, you can change the way you review.

Strategies to be more inclusive with feedback:

  • Try to put yourself in the position of the receiver of your feedback. Try to get into their skin. Remember the feedback is not about you. It’s about helping the other person improve their work.
  • Get to know the other person and find out how they view feedback and are likely to respond to yours. Before you give feedback, check out what’s happening for the other person − perhaps they’re going through a tough time right now. The high levels of mental health issues in research and academia are well known. Perhaps the person might not be in a very good place as they receive your feedback. Diversity and inclusivity mean allowing for this − not ignoring it.
  • Learn a variety of ways to deliver feedback − not just the one that works for you. For example, for some people you might provide more context and more positives, while for others you might be more direct. For an early draft, you might focus on the structure and argument rather than the spelling and grammar. In some cases, you might consider suggesting rather than telling.
  • When you’re reviewing an article, remember there is a person behind those words.

So, if you sign up for diversity and inclusiveness, remember that means diversity of skin-thickness, too. We don’t all have crocodile skin. And we don’t need to have it, either.

Hugh Kearns works with researchers and research groups around the world to improve their productivity and well-being. He is based in Adelaide, Australia, and lectures and researches at Flinders University and runs ThinkWell.

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