Peer review in composition courses can be pretty annoying and often unhelpful, reinforcing the most facile ideas about revision, and putting you students in awkward positions where you feel both compelled to be mean and constrained to be nice. In short, your experience (if indeed you've had that experience I've just outlined) is akin to many of the same problems we academics might find in our scholarly peer reviews. I still have you do peer review, because readers are readers, and for all the times their comments do not seem helpful, there are always some of you who will truly benefit from the process--if not from the comments you get from fellow students (which of course, can be quite good too), then from the experience of reading others' work, and seeing different ways of handling various aspects of writing through multiple examples.
I also don't like to give you my feedback on your work without giving you a broader context for it. As I've said before, academic inquiry requires careful discussion with others. I'm going to share some of the peer reviews I've received in my own research process so that you know how much work--intellectual and otherwise--goes into any publication you find in an academic journal. I also want to show you a different level of peer review because academic research runs on the successful vetting of arguments and evidence and benefits from the kinds of improvements that can only come from dialogue.
I am always impressed by the level of detail of my peer reviewers' comments––and, frankly, Im also amazed and dismayed that my reviewers suggest I still have work to do after looking at the paper I submitted.
What follows is from my positive reader in the second set of readers at a top journal in my field:
It's a lot. And again, this is from a positive reader.
This elegantly written two-part article ably contributes to the burgeoning scholarship on Shakespearean militarism as well as to recent work on early modern understandings of the Atlantic archipelago. Its very rich and erudite first section is largely successful in setting out the ways in which Scotsmen are linked with martial prowess as well as the ways in which mercenary service was seen to threaten English ideals of patriotism and loyalty. And its second part attends in sophisticated ways to Douglas and Jamy, two characters whom critics rarely discuss. In doing so, the author deftly explains how these characters, whom Shakespeare does not identify his as mercenaries, nevertheless become associated with a host of knotty issues relating to mercenary service.
While the strengths of the essay are many, it would benefit I think from further attention to some critical materials as well as from a tightening up of the argument in a few places. In my view, the areas that need the most work are the historical/theoretical claims in the first part of the essay, though I have a few queries about Part 2 as well.
1. Bibliographical matters: The first section would benefit from engagement with two important texts: Paul Hammer, Elizabeth's wars: war, government, and society in Tudor England, 1544-1604, (Palgrave 2007), which discusses English hiring of foreign mercenaries and the early modern professionalization of the soldier and John Kerrigan's Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707. (Oxford University Press, 2008), which addresses complex questions of regional identity and ethnicity in this period. Kerrigan also devotes a chapter to The Valiant Scot, which might be useful to the author given that, as s/he notes there has been very little written about this play. The author might also wish to consult various works by the historian DJB Trim who discusses English and Welsh Mercenaries in the Netherlands.
2. Birthplace/Ethnic identity: The author's definition of "mercenary" implies an emphasis on birthplace as a source of early modern identity ("any man serving for entities outside of his country of birth, irrespective of the precise political conditions or entity that occasioned his Service") and yet, given the nature of early modern movements across so-called Celtic regions and the fact that early modern England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were so deeply interconnected, one might argue that birthplace is not the most useful way to differentiate among its residents and thus to identify mercenaries. Here one might consider Kerrigan's discussion of the three kingdoms and his assertion that "the shape of the kingdoms. .. did not neatly coincide with ethnicities; they contained different groups or cut across them. Scotland was a jigsaw of Gaelic, Saxon/Norman/Lowland and Scandinavian-derived peoples, while continuities that ran from Kerry to Inverness meant that the affinities of the Gaedhil still cut across the demarcations of multiple monarchy." (p. 36) The existence of this "jigsaw" identity would seem to be acknowledged by the author when s/he suggests that we understand the gallowglass as Scottish mercenaries, but if one adheres to the author's definition of mercenaries, the gallowglass would have to be defined as Irish mercenaries insofar as they were born in Ireland rather than Scotland (I.e., they were the descendants of warriors who had come from Scotland to early modern Ireland several centuries earlier.) It is also perhaps relevant that as Patricia Palmer has noted, in Language and Conquest in early modern Ireland, kerns and gallowglass were often lumped together, a fact that may make one question whether it makes sense to view gallowglass as purely Scottish.
3. Scottish uniqueness? I'm not sure that it is necessary for the author;s larger argument to make the claim that Scots are unique, but if this claim is to be made, the author should aim to clarify what s/he means by it. While the author is doubtless right to assert that Scotland's claims to military history are unique, s/he also seems to acknowledge that mercenary service was not in and of itself exceptional: s/he notes that English and Irish soldiers served as mercenaries during Elizabeth's reign--and here it might be relevant to note that David Trim claims that during Elizabeth's reign more English were fighting in the Netherlands and France than in Ireland.
4. Military service as an occasional endeavor? The author's argument that mercenaries challenged a vision of military service as occasional (rather than vocational) needs to be qualified or more forcefully argued. The author maintains, "In early modern England, this myth was . enhanced by a chivalric sensibility that understood military service as an occasional endeavor, not a permanent vocation," but it would seem that, as is suggested by the proliferation of military treatises in this period, the ideal to s/he refers was not all that dominant, for warfare was in fact emerging as a profession in this period. This claim about the Elizabethan professionalization of the military has been made not only by literary scholars (e.g., deSomogyi, Cahill, and notably Taunton who links the Percys to the development of the new military science) but also by historians including Paul Hammer and Luke MacMahon, "Chivalry, Military Professionalism and the Early Tudor Army in Renaissance Europe," in The Chivalric Ethos and the Development of Military Professionalism ed. David Trim (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 183-212.
1. Other Elizabethan Scots/Other Mercenaries? While this essay sheds much light on the preoccupations of 1 Henry IV and Henry V, I found myself wishing that it its account of Elizabethan stage Scotsmen went beyond the examples of Douglas and Jamy. In other words, the author might consider expanding the dramatic texts to include other Scottish soldier-figures on the stage. I also wondered whether the author might consider(if only in a footnote) Elizabethan mercenaries who are not Scottish- the Stukeley plays would seem to be extremely important here, since they deal with a famous English mercenary and defector to England's political and religious foes.
2. Douglas: The author's revisionary account of Douglas is compelling on several levels and does a terrific job of rethinking earlier claims by Berger, Baker and others. The claim that Douglas is imbricated in the language of mercenary soldiers is persuasive insofar as it responds to the fact that this wealthy aristocrat " fights for someone other than the monarch of his own country and against the monarch of another," and the reading of Douglas's desire to murder the king's coats as a desire to attack the contract of service between king and subject is quite brilliant. That said, the author might wish to expand a bit on the (counterintuitive) claim that that at times (as here) mercenary service has nothing to do with payment. Given the association of Scotsmen with valor or at least martial prowess, it would also be good if the author were to account for the play's report in Act 5 (as well as in Act 1 of Part 2) of Douglas's fear and his unsuccessful attempt to flee
3. A Scot? Finally, I'm curious as to what the author makes of Hotspur's use of the word "scot," which according to the Arden gloss, might mean "a small payment". Does this pun complicate the author's efforts to disentangle the (mercenary) Scot and the economic sphere?
WORCESTER Those same noble Scots That are your prisoners
HOTSPUR I'll keep them all. By God, he shall not have a scot of them; No, if a scot would save his soul he shall not. I'll keep them, by this hand.
Here's the negative reviewer.
I have thought quite hard about this article and read it a number of times. It is interesting and is based on serious research into the culture and reputation of Scottish mercenaries and how they might relate to Shakespeare's plays. However, it is a slight piece and is not really well-designed or developed as an essay and so would not merit publication in [journal name]. The author makes the case that an understanding of the reputation of Scottish mercenaries as particularly effective fighters informs our understanding of Shakespeare's second tetralogy. This may well be true, but I was surprised that Shakespeare is hardly mentioned until nearly twenty pages into the essay. We then get a rather perfunctory and hurried analysis of Douglas and Jamy as bold fighters who undercut the patriotic discourse that Henry V tries to instil in his army, much based on work already done by Andrew Gurr. The essay ends with a conclusion that is suggestive but not really very helpful: 'And English subjects would unseat their own monarch before their armies would ever "triumph upon" a Scot' (p.30). I just don't know what this means. It isn't prepared for by the essay and seems to stand alone as a stark comment on early modern warfare.
The problem is that the essay spends too much time telling us about mercenaries and not enough telling us why we should really care about them in relation to Shakespeare's plays. There is a case to be made somewhere, but I can't see this as it. The author might be able to revise the essay for future publication, but, at the moment, this is too involved in its subject and not trying to tell us enough about Shakespeare's representation of war. I have little quarrel with the research and so can provide few comments on selected passages. But the argument is really lacking in this piece. It should be clear from the start what the essay is trying to argue. Instead we get a comment from Arthur Kinney on Macbeth, a play which is not really discussed in the essay, and is only there because it about Scots. The contrast between the discourse of unconditional loyalty and soldiering for money, discussed quite nicely towards the end of the essay, should have been integrated into the overall structure rather better. Then we could have learned a lot more and seen how the culture of mercenaries was connected to an idea of Scotland by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
And so, the editor's final response on the decision was this:
We have now received the two readers' reports on your essay, "The Quality of Mercenaries: Contextualizing Shakespeare's Elizabethan Scots," which I have enclosed. The reports, as you will see, are mixed. Both acknowledge the extensive work on mercenaries in part one of the essay, but they also feel that the engagement of the second section with Shakespeare's Scottish figures is too brief and undeveloped. The first reader is much less persuaded than the second that you have extensively illuminated Shakespeare's texts, but they do concur that the application of your historical research to dramatic texts should be expanded. The second has some compelling questions and suggestions about the research itself which I hope you will find useful. Given the fact that this is already a revision of a previous submission, and the need, in a journal like [name redacted], to fulfill our reader's expectations that Shakespeare be the focus of historical and interpretive illumination, the Editorial Committee has reluctantly decided not to make you an offer of publication. You may wish to follow the second reader's suggestion to expand your discussion of Scottish mercenaries to dramatists other than Shakespeare, and to place the essay in a journal that isn't quite so tightly focused on Shakespeare as ours.
We wish you well in placing your essay elsewhere and thank you for your interest in [journal.]
I did place my essay elsewhere.
One last thing I want to note here: I didn't make all the revisions that my readers suggested, and this approach can be a gamble. It can also pay off when you feel strongly about something. In the case of one article, I submitted a revised essay and included an explanation of why I was not changing my title as the reviewer suggested. I also went challenged a few other suggestions that were offered in subsequent drafts. (Yes, this essay went through multiple drafts from its conditional acceptance to a full acceptance). It felt a bit crazy sometimes, I will admit; yet, later on in the process, the editor, who is a very famous scholar, wrote this:
So: feedback is never really fun to receive but it is usually well-intention and beneficial. Don't expect every reader to praise you, even if he or she thinks your work is good. The point of such feedback is to help you improve. Certainly, I will always try to point out what you're doing well; however, I will usually focus my comments on what you need to do in order to grow as a writer and strengthen your prose.