What I learned from Peer-Reviewed Rejection — Its not personal
I finally have a hiphopathy paper accepted to a peer-reviewed publication. This is a HUGE deal to me, especially after several rejections of the same idea, 2x from SIGCSE, as well as 1x from the NSF GRFP. At some point I thought this idea was complete folly, and doomed to ne’er see the light of peer-reviewed scholarship. But I stuck to my crazy rap data science idea, with the support of my advisor whose belief in me never wavered, and here we are. She asked me to submit to this, I submitted and finally got accepted.
Before, I started my academic career at Cal, I have done pretty well for myself in terms of publishing my work. While at the University of Memphis, I had published four papers in the span of two years. I guess I got what Paulo Coelho refers to as beginners luck. In my very first attempt at getting my research out the door, I was the first author. My paper had been accepted at an A.I. conference in Austria. I was really feeling myself. The next set of papers were wildly successful, and one of them still remains the most cited paper in the area of sensor ontology.
When I got to Berkeley, I assumed I would just continue to waltz through the doors of peer-reviewed publications. I was dead wrong. I encountered one rejection after another. I had what was truly my very own original idea, to use rap lyrics as an object of computation in the context of an intro data science module, as a means of maximizing participation in CS. I thought everyone would love it! I thought I would be applauded for my originality. Instead, I hit a brick wall. It seemed like as far as my reviewers were concerned I was “crazy” and my idea wasn’t fit for them to either publish in their periodicals or give money to.
One rejection wasn’t going to shake me, so I continued with my line of inquiry. I spoke and wrote about it to anyone who would listen. I got undergraduate research students to help me build some prototypes. I persisted against that brick wall, by just doing something. Every now and again, I would get a win. My research team and I got a breakthrough when a poster on the work got accepted at the California Cognitive Science Conference.
Then came more rejections from SIGCSE 2 years in a row. I wish I could find the feedback on the applications. They were damning to my ego, especially when everyone else in my research group got their submissions accepted. Because of the nature of the work, “rap” lyrics and computation, it was very easy to fall prey to the seductive urge to use the race card as a justification for the rejection. An unworthy part of me wanted to believe that “the MAN,” whoever he is, was trying to hold me down. Instead, I dismissed that thought, and concentrated on fleshing out my ideas.
In truth, “my writing was an offense to good taste.” My ideas were not cogent and I had not developed the ability to articulate very complex ideas in a simple fashion that allowed for ease of understanding as well as style.
I didn’t give myself the credit that I deserved on what I was accomplishing. A few weeks ago, I was keynoting an engineering board meeting at IUPUI. I had been invited to give this address by my former advisor, Dr Russommanno. While he was introducing me, for the first time, I got to see my accomplishments from a new light. I had met Dr Russo spring semester of 2000, while I was taking his EECE Experts systems class. He remembered my rather intriguing final project, a clothing recommendation engine titled “Stylist Expert.”
Dr Russo said, “I saw in Omoju something unique, the ability to craft independent research, and decided I had to recruit her to graduate school to work with me. There was only one snag, in order for her to do that, she would have to apply to the engineering department, and take a series of exams that were designed for engineering students.” I was a computer science major, I had graduated CS and had gone off to work in industry as a software engineer. When I took up Dr Russo’s offer 2 years later, I had to apply to electrical and computer engineering, which meant I had to take their “electrical engineering” prelims. I had to sit and pass exams on subjects like power systems and so on, concepts I was completely unexposed to. I studied my butt off and passed all the exams. In addition to being a computer scientist, I had also demonstrated aptitude as an electrical and computer engineer.
The same thing was happening to me at Cal, in addition to my expertise in computer science, electrical and computer engineering, I was also acquiring expertise in computer science education. These three fields overlapped, but had very different writing styles. For my engineering publications, I didn’t need to be as descriptive and clear in my prose, because the bulk of the merit was attached to technical originality and analysis. Whereas in CSEd, the bulk of the merit is directed toward the idea, and then the implementation of the idea; more emphasis on prose than code.
If I had realized earlier on that I was on a path of being a polymath, I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself. I would have cut myself some slack, and realized that I couldn’t judge myself the same way that my colleagues judged themselves. I had spent the last 15 years gaining expertise in three different, overlapping areas, while many of them had spent time only mastering one area of study. It feels good to know that I am good, and have that validated by my peers. But it feels better to recognize where one is on the journey.