I am going to go ahead and blame the 1980s. Namely, the educational push in those days to “boost children’s self-esteem.” I am going out on a limb here and guess that most of our Gradhacker readers were told repeatedly and often that they were smart, talented writers, brilliant speakers, etc. Yes, school came easy to us, and for this we were praised. And then we became praise junkies: always anticipating what the teacher wanted in order to get a hit. Fast-forward to graduate school: suddenly, there is no way to anticipate what the teachers want. Because they want us to think for ourselves. And thinking for ourselves means putting out those half-baked ideas to get
ripped to shreds constructively criticized. Because we’ve been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to equate criticism as an assault on our intelligence, we freak out. So today’s post is dedicated to moving beyond this destructive pattern and learning to embrace the criticism in order to grow as people and as scholars.
Step 1: It’s not about you. Now that I’ve been hanging around institutions of Higher Ed for a few years, I have come to recognize that academics view EVERY SINGLE NEW PIECE OF INFORMATION with a skeptical eye. Whether it be celebrity gossip or a study proposal, each fact is submitted to gauntlet of considerations: what are they saying? how does this fit in with what I know already? if they are saying something is true, is there a time when it isn’t true? Where are the weaknesses here? Academics are doing this to the idea, not to the person, because it is the best way we know for creating new knowledge.
Step 2: Resist the urge to argue. If I accept the notion that the criticism is not about me, then I have to recognize that the criticism is intended to make me better. So why argue with someone who is trying to help me? I try to make a conscious decision to listen and carefully consider what is being suggested. Now, I am a scrapper, and there is nothing I like better than defending my position. This can be a mistake when working on refining an academic proposal or paper. I like to listen, take notes, and mull over what is being offered. Sometimes I go back to the work and decide I was right after all. But I make sure that I am moving forward consciously, not just as a knee-jerk reaction to someone pointing out that I am not perfect. For me, that means setting a hard rule about a waiting period after receiving criticism before I am allowed to defend any of my decisions.
Step 3: Recognize yourself for keeping at it. This is not an easy process and, considering the attrition rates nationally from graduate programs, a good deal of succeeding is to keep at it, day after critical day. I keep my own standards quite low: it’s a good day if I don’t drop out. Graduate school is an exercise in delayed gratification, so let’s cut ourselves some slack.
What are your tips for embracing criticism? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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Wonderful article. I admit having been born in the 80s, I find criticism hard to take. However, I find that taking time to think about it helps me. If a professor gives me written comments, I often read them over but give it a day or two to sink in before I read them again and think about implementing changes. Often I find its valid and enhances my writing. Tackling criticism head on, right when you receive it, can be daunting for anyone.
Kiera, you are so right about just letting it simmer for a while. This is our hard work and sometimes, especially given the often abrupt delivery by academics, criticism can feel more like an attack than an opportunity to grow. I appreciate the comments.
Urgh! Don’t I know it! Thanks for these timely words as I (not being a scrapper) hide my head in the sand hoping it will ALL GO AWAY. I don’t argue with my supervisors, but I do tend to feel quite wounded, even AFTER the first two steps are adhered to.
Your word choice of “wounded” really struck me. There’s a lot to be said about the way we describe this process: attack, wound, scar… It really can be a painful process. I think it’s important to acknowledge that it is difficult. I think that’s why I included Step 3: just hang in there the best we can, right? Good luck and thanks for the comments.
Where was a piece like this in my orientation packet? Great post, and spot on. One thing I would add to #1 (it’s not about you, it’s about the idea) is that sometimes it’s not about the idea but the *presentation* of the idea. How are you framing it? Who are citing? Are you placing your idea into conversation with the right interlocutors? That’s one lesson I’ve learned from the criticisms I’ve received. Generally, there is a vast body of literature out there and you have to position your idea in relation to it. Grad students often haven’t read all of this literature, so their work may suffer from gaps.
Justin, I’m so glad you found this useful. I completely agree that framing the argument is of utmost importance. That’s why criticism is actually so great: it helps to improve that ability to frame the argument and recognize gaps. What I love about your comment is how you pinpoint that you’ve learned about presentation from criticism in the past, which is surely what this whole process is about. Thanks so much for chiming in!
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