ReviewBox: stop picking on yourself – that’s our job!

I recently learned about AnxietyBox (tagline: Stop making yourself anxious – that’s our job!). The site is not currently active, apparently because it got completely overwhelmed with demand. But the basic premise was that you would enter in your main anxiety sources, and then it would “send you anxious, urgent, deeply upsetting emails.” I think the idea was a combination of exposure therapy and that literally deleting your anxious thoughts can be oddly satisfying. Under “Representative Bot Output”, it says things like “People in your neighborhood think of you as cheesy.” and “People on Facebook look at your picture and think: strangely repulsive”. (You can see more by clicking the link in the first sentence.)

Hearing about this made me think that it would be natural to have ReviewBox and EvaluationBox, to deal with anxieties related to reviews and teaching evaluations. An actual review I received on my first NSF Graduate Research Fellowship application was “Success is doubtful.” I could have the bot email me that one periodically.

It has been interesting to me to think about what I would include in my personal ReviewBox and EvaluationBox, because that has led me to think more specifically about the things that cause me anxiety related to reviews and teaching evaluations. For both, there are criticisms that I could get that would be reasonable (e.g., my exams are challenging) or things that I don’t worry about because I am confident about my abilities in that area (e.g., related to experimental design). So, thinking about this has made me think about what are sources of anxiety for me. One of the main things I can think of related to manuscripts is that I have completely (or largely) missed a relevant area of literature. So, my ReviewBox would include statements like: “It’s shocking that she is apparently unaware of the work of Smith, including Smith 1903, 1905, and 1908.” And I know lots of people share the fear of running out of good/interesting ideas, so comments like “This is the best you’ve got?” would probably be in many peoples’ ReviewBox.

Thinking about what I would include in ReviewBox and EvaluationBox has been entertaining for me, though does get at a serious issue: academia is full of rejection and harsh critiques, and I know a lot of academics who have imposter syndrome and anxiety. If only we could delete those as easily as a bot-generated email!

What would your ReviewBoxBot and/or EvaluationBoxBot email you?

26 thoughts on “ReviewBox: stop picking on yourself – that’s our job!

  1. “And I know lots of people share the fear of running out of good/interesting ideas, so comments like “This is the best you’ve got?” would probably be in many peoples’ ReviewBox.”

    Get out of my head. 😦

  2. This blog could start ZombieBox. You type in your ideas, and a bot sends you emails calling them zombie ideas. Or MachismoBox. You type in the statistical test you want to do, and a bot sends you emails about how that’s statistical machismo. 🙂

  3. Definitely: “We’re surprised that the author doesn’t seem to know that Super Famous Lab X solved this problem 10 years ago. See papers A, B, C, and book D. Duh.”

    However, what about an ‘EncouragementBox’? I could use some emails like “That idea you had at lunch was really interesting – maybe you should flesh that out” or “Sure, the work you’re doing now seems minor, but it could really have much larger implications”

  4. I think mine would email me comments about how the reasoning behind the case study selection is unclear, or suspect. Also about missed literature, for sure!

  5. A peer reviewer once put in writing that “his [sic] work is delusional”. Ordinarily that kind of remark would induce imposter syndrome… . However, the person publishing this comment had already plagiarized “his [sic] work”. Embrace all the constructive criticism you can find… but simply write-off those persons making flippant remarks as chronic sufferers of the Napoleon Complex and tip-toe through the tulips!

  6. Gah, the missed literature one is the bane of my existence. As someone working on interdisciplinary stuff, it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll miss some relevant chunk of literature from time to time. In fact, I got that one on my last paper rejection.

    I’d add something about “fishing expeditions” to my review box, along with “too ambitious” and “not innovative enough” (often received for the same proposal/paper), and “needs more preliminary data” (particularly for projects requiring access to remote field locations or specialized, expensive equipment).

    I find that one of the nice things about aging as a scientist is that I am slowly becoming desensitized to the stock critiques through exposure therapy. Or at least I am getting better at anticipating them so they don’t come as as much of a shock when the reviews arrive.

    • The ambitious one is interesting, because I can’t recall getting that (as a negative, at least) very often. So, that one wouldn’t be in mine, fortunately.

      I’ve also found that age has provided a natural exposure therapy!

    • When I was younger, if I said that I had done better than a friend on an exam, my mother would ask who had gotten the top grade and tell me to compare myself to them. Or, if she thought I was bragging, she’d say “Do you want a medal or a chest to pin it on?” which, now that I’m an adult, seems like a weird thing to say. Then again, I’m sure I will say plenty of things to my kids that they will find weird 30 years from now. 😉

  7. My ReviewBox would say “The data are 5 years old – what took you so long to get the paper out?” and “This is not good enough – you’re not a real scientist.”

  8. I don’t need AnxietyBox. Here’s a little gem from last semester’s evaluations: “Professor Benstead is the biggest d—– of a professor I have ever had in my life. He should back to Britian [sic] or wherever his shitty accent is from.”

    Beat that, Meg!

    • Ha! And here I thought having a British accent would be a ratings boost! I got one this year that was something like “She should be replaced immediately.” You know, with one of the hordes of people who are interested in and capable of teaching Intro Bio to 600 students.

      • If *no one* in an intro bio class of 600 hated you, that would be strong evidence that you either did something very wrong, or more likely that the university lost the feedback forms from the students who hated you! The latter is more likely because I can’t actually think of anything you could do that would keep *anyone* from a class of 600 frosh from hating you. Even if you gave them all A’s, someone would hate you because the class was too easy.

        Haters gonna hate, Meg (and Jon!)

      • Yes, and a reality of teaching Intro Bio at Michigan is that, for a non-trivial number of the students, this will be the first time they get a grade lower than an A. Combine that with them being very stressed out about the implications of getting anything lower than an A, and it’s a recipe for some unhappy students.

        Inevitably, when going through the evaluations, there is a set of directly contradictory comments back-to-back. It drives home the point that different people like different things (or, alternatively stated, that there’s no way to please all the people all the time).

      • There’s no doubt that my accent is a net benefit. I always get positive comments about it (including that it keeps them awake, which is not particularly encouraging). And then there are the random acts of Anglophobia…

    • I once got a student evaluation saying that I know nothing about statistics and shouldn’t be allowed to teach the class anymore (and this was just the lab to an undergrad ecology class where the lab required them to use statistics).

      I’m sure some of the readers of this blog would agree! 🙂

      • I like imagining that the student in question is the son or daughter of one of the commenters who’s disagreed with you most strongly on the value of estimating detection probabilities. 🙂

        I’m now trying to remember if I ever got an evaluation that accused me of knowing nothing about the subject. I don’t think I have–the occasional super-negative evaluations I’ve gotten have criticized me in other ways. Which I don’t think shows anything, except that occasional highly negative evaluations really are information-free. As a rule, students who hate you and/or the class are just completely unable to correctly diagnose the source of their hatred. So they just rip you for something random, like supposed ignorance of the subject, or supposedly being unfair, or etc.

  9. I don’t know if there is any correlation here, but I have noticed over the decades that my best student evals, overall, always come from classes where I emphasize the heck out of seeking me out during office hours for help. When I do that, I get a flood of students showing up. When I don’t emphasize it, I see few if any… and those evals have always seemed significantly worse. Perhaps students are not grading us on the content of the course… or even our teaching ability, but instead on a perception (real or not) that teaching is a major priority for us.

    Any thoughts?

    • Studies have shown that if you offer a mid-course evaluation and follow up on suggestions made, and importantly tell students you followed up on the suggestions it improves end of semester evaluations noticeably.

      I think you are right that perceptions about whether you are working at teaching impact evaluations.

      Of course having personal interactions with the professor also improves evaluations which is why small classes always score better and may be part of why your strategy worked too.

    • Our students at Calgary mostly don’t show up to office hours (or stop by at any other time), no matter how much you urge them to.

      One partial solution is to make other resources available, like peer mentors and Piazza discussion forums, so they can help each other.

      But this varies a *lot* from place to place. At some liberal arts colleges, students not only show up to prof’s offices at all hours, they expect to have your home phone number…

      EDIT: and yes to what you and Brian said. Making sure the students know that you care about teaching well, want them to succeed in the course, and welcome their feedback on improving the course, can improve the students’ evaluations of your teaching.

    • I had a colleague tell me that she also found that, when she really emphasized when her office hours were and that she wanted students to come, her evaluations were higher. I try to always do this, so I don’t know if it impacts things or not. I was impressed at how many students would come to office hours this past semester. We generally had 20-30 each week, more on an exam week. I had to reserve a classroom for them!

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