Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Receiving and Using Feedback

So, you turned in that draft. You waited to hear, and now you've heard. What can you do?
One of the keys to success in a writing project is to use the feedback that you get in a productive fashion. And you can always use the feedback in a useful fashion.

It doesn't matter what feedback you receive; it is valuable information about how to proceed.

Not to be pessimistic (I was thinking about worst cases a few days ago), but if your committee chair tells you that you ought to quit your program that's important information.

You are not obliged to use any feedback you receive. There is always a choice of how to respond. This is true regardless of whether the feedback is big (like "drop out, you fool!") or little ("fix the error on p.54, you fool!").

If you're told to quit, you may choose to listen to that advice. You may choose to get a second opinion. You may decide that you should find a different professor to work with. You may decide to find out more about how that professor works and what she/he likes. You may decide to retreat into a funk for a while. I don't personally recommend that last strategy; I've tried it and it doesn't usually lead to good results, even for problems less severe than being told to leave school.

Anyway, the general point is you choose how to respond to the feedback. It doesn't matter what the feedback is, there are still multiple courses of action available to you.

You want to process the feedback as information that tells you about your project. It would be much nicer if the feedback were about your paper, of course, but you get what you get.

It is important to retain emotional distance from the feedback, because that feedback is not information about you, but rather about how a person responded to your work. (Let's leave aside the dysfunctional cases, like if a professor pans you without actually reading your work.) Does that response indicate a problem in your work? Not necessarily. I had a presentation brought to a complete halt by a professor who wanted to complain that it was inappropriate to use "paradigm" as a synonym for "model." I never presented that work. All my effort went into talking about what "paradigm" meant and how it should be used. I was unable to get the professor off the subject by any tactic, including referring to a dictionary and agreeing to use "paradigm" more carefully in the future. But the feedback was not really about "paradigm"--it was there to mask a resistance to the ideas I was presenting.

This experience became, for me, a model on which to understand feedback. Professors are not infallible, and sometimes feedback just isn't relevant, appropriate, or even correct. (Try to find a dictionary that doesn't use the word "model" in its definition of "paradigm"!)

You, therefore, have to take the feedback as information to be processed and analyzed. You need to check its value, and need to test its reasoning. Use your own judgment and sense of purpose to try and understand what is being asked for, and how it is appropriate. Does that feedback represent a valid, useful critique? Does it represent a misunderstanding (you meant one thing, but were read as saying another)? Or does it represent something else (a professor who disagrees with you or is hostile to your theoretical position, or is just outright hostile to you)?

Graduate students process and analyze information a lot. The feedback you receive is well handled in the same way. Figure out what the feedback means and how to use it to shape your project or actions.

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