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Our guest blogger, Michelle Maher, associate professor in the department of Educational Leadership & Policies in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina, writes about a great initiative for mentoring doctoral students as conference reviewers. Her blog compliments a recent post by Pat Thomson.    We’re sure you will enjoy both, as well as next week’s post on reviewing conundrums.  Best regards, Claire

This year I began my tenure as an officer bearer for a special interest group (SIG) on doctoral education sponsored by the American Education Research Association (AERA). It’s a new group, started only a few years ago. As such, it is small, but steadily growing, with faculty and student members from thirteen countries scattered around the globe. Members are interested in all facets of doctoral student development.

It was with some surprise, then, that I learned that our group had no mentoring plan in place for doctoral student reviewers, the student volunteers who evaluate the 2000-word conference proposals submitted to the SIG for possible presentation at annual AERA meetings. As Claire Aitchison noted in an earlier blog (June 28, 2013), reviewing is a ‘stepping stone pedagogy’ for learning to write for one’s peers. If we, the SIG of doctoral education, were not mentoring students in this important professional development component, who at AERA was?

My conversations with AERA Central suggested that they didn’t know. They reiterated, however, that although doctoral student reviewers were to be encouraged to participate, their evaluations were to be kept separate from evaluations of ‘regular’ reviewers – that is, those who had earned a doctorate. Further, student evaluations were not to be used in decisions of conference proposal acceptance or rejection. My inquiry to a representative of another AERA Division revealed that, while they encouraged student reviewer participation, they also had no mentoring plan in place, although they supported the development of one. Always ready for a challenge, and with the support of other officials of our SIG, I decided to undertake the development of a doctoral student mentoring plan. I reasoned that we could pilot the plan with our small membership; if it worked, we could suggest its use more broadly to AERA Central.

As a former doctoral student myself, I candidly admit that some of the best writing pedagogy I have ever received has come from anonymous reviewers of my own work, whether at the conference proposal or journal manuscript stage. However, it took a while for me to see it that way. Conversely, as a doctoral student and early career faculty member, I felt fraudulent in my reviews of others’ work. What right did I have to evaluate, when I myself barely had a handle on the field?

In speaking with current doctoral students at my institution, I realized this reticence toward reviewing is not uncommon. Left unchecked, however, it can grow into a self-defeating pattern. Reviewing provides ‘insider’ information about the review process and outcomes. Seeing the review process from the inside out is like attending a secret meeting in which the often implicit nooks and crannies of successful (and unsuccessful) attempts to write for peers are at times starkly revealed. Further, being a careful and thoughtful reviewer is, in the larger sense, an intellectual social contract. Your work cannot appear in peer-reviewed venues unless your peers review it. Their work cannot appear in peer-reviewed venues unless you as their peer, and others like you, review it. It’s a constant give-and-take, and learning the review process early and well seems like too important a component of doctoral preparation to overlook.

With that in mind, my mentoring plan started by sending each student reviewer a ‘Tips for Reviewing’ list I constructed from Claire Aitchison and David Rowland’s1 sage advice to journal article reviewers of the Journal of Academic Language and Learning. These tips prompted students’ recognition that reviewing conference proposals, which are often precursors to published articles, could increase their own disciplinary writing prowess. My favorite tip prompted explicit consideration of what could be learned about how to draft a successful future AERA proposal.

Now that the deadline for reviewing has just passed, I am ready to implement the next mentoring plan stage… a little “data collection.”  To understand how best to mentor doctoral students in the peer review process, I believe we need to know more of their actual experiences as reviewers. So, I’ve asked each reviewer to respond to a few questions about which standard AERA criteria (purpose, theoretical framework, methods, results, significance) were easiest and most difficult to rate, and why, what they learned (if anything) from reviewing proposals to apply to their own writing/research practice, and their suggestions to improve the doctoral student reviewing process.

My hope is that this effort will build a foundation for a mentoring plan for our own student reviewers and for others and beyond AERA.  As I was reminded recently when a student contacted me to say they had now received their doctorate—your student reviewer today is your ‘regular’ reviewer tomorrow, and decisions about your work may well be in their hands. Mentor them early, and mentor them well.

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1 Material derived from Aitchison, C., & Rowland, D. (2012).  Presentation entitled: Refereeing for Journal of Academic Language and Learning. For more information about this journal, please visit: http://journal.aall.org.au/index.php/jall/about