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Having No Reaction: Dealing with Rejection in Philosophy Publishing

One of my favorite yoga teachers likes to say after particularly difficult poses in Bikram, have no reaction, just stand still. I’ve been thinking about how “having no reaction” seems like good Stoic practice for dealing with various frustrations in academic publishing.

A couple days ago I received a rejection from a top-tier journal on a paper that I’m pretty excited about.  The reviewer said that my paper does not talk about one particular thing that everyone who writes on x has to talk about and that my lens for interpretation is not the useful key that I think it is. I do not think that x is that important to my reading or even really to the questions I am addressing and so I have no interest in talking about it. I do think my lens is a useful key. As I was reading the review, at first, I felt my blood beginning to rise. Then, my yoga teacher’s mantra occurred to me: have no reaction. I began to think about what it might mean to consider this response as information that the field gives about what it is like, but that positive or negative feelings do not need to be had in response to that information. Just stand still.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a Stoic. I have far too many opinions to be a Stoic. I usually so quickly go to the judgment that I have been wronged with these kinds of rejections. Sometimes, that’s true. More often than not, I go to the place of thinking that rejection is a personal judgment. It can feel like that. I think sometimes recognizing how rejections are unfair motivates us to raise important questions. I think that we need to get angry and organize to change the field, especially to become less narrow in its thinking about how publishing decisions are made. I’m working on that too.

And yet, I think, personally, for my own capacity to get back out there and not to be brought down by rejection and by all the disciplining forces at work in certain kinds of rejections, that I might be better off if I can have no reaction. Like a hard yoga pose, rejections can give you information, but you don’t have to have a negative or positive opinion about them. At least not always and not for long. In response to this rejection, I have learned something about how one reviewer at this particular journal thinks scholars need to address certain questions. I’m going to take what is useful and ignore what in another way of responding would have pissed me off. I’m going to have no reaction and think about a better home for this work. I am going to think about the extent to which I have to respond to certain criticisms and the extent to which they give me information about how I am presenting and can improve the argument.

In Bikram, you stand in a hot and humid environment and try to do things with your body that always feel to me like a risk: I may or may not be able to do it. Key to success then seems to me just trying to do it and having no positive or negative reaction when you can or cannot or when it feels particularly difficult. But having no reaction and just standing still are not doing nothing. It takes a lot of work. It takes some work for me to respond this way to publishing rejection, too. It isn’t the easier way, and maybe it isn’t always the right way, but I think it is a strategy that we should sometimes use to deal with rejection.

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