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Monday, August 29, 2005
Constructive Criticism
For the past three years, I've worked as a writing instructor for the University's Department of Rhetoric, holding this appointment in addition to my appoinment in my own department. It was wonderful to read student work, especially work from outside of my field, and to guide students all levels through the writing process. I especially enjoyed working with those students who were already good writers but who needed some encouragement and some tactics to motivate them to write. These students needed only a persistent, gentle nudge from me to turn out beautiful work. Working with these students always energized me, because I could see, on paper, the result of my guidance: a good paper became a great one; a hesitant writer became a confident one.

This year, because of the restrictions of my fellowship, I am unable to teach at all, in Rhetoric or even in my own department. It's been difficult for me to adjust to this, since I've spent every semester since Fall 2001 in the classroom or the writing center, interacting with students. I also miss the structure teaching provided -- I liked having to break up my day into large chunks of time, because I work more efficiently in shorter spurts. Now, long days of unscheduled nothingness stretch out before me, and while I am grateful for this time, I can already feel myself sliding toward procrastination, and the semester is only one week old. This must stop. I took some action to stop it last week, when I signed myself up as a student in our University writing center, the very same center at which I used to work. I had an informal meeting with my writing tutor last week, and our first official meeting was today at 11:30am.

My writing tutor is a man from my department. In fact, I was the one who encouraged him to work in the Rhetoric writing center after telling him what a great experience it had been for me. I am so glad that he's working there -- he is a gifted writer himself, but more importantly he knows me, my style, and how to criticize a text honestly. Today we sat down with my research and teaching statements, which HWC (Helpful Writing Critic, as he will henceforth be known) had read over the weekend.

In short, he didn't like them at all. He didn't think that they sounded like me, didn't think that they exploited my talents enough, and didn't think that they were particularly interesting. He wants me to rewrite them.

At first, I was a bit taken aback. I didn't "love" the statements as I'd written them. They are utilitarian pieces -- they're not particularly stylish, but they're serviceable. They're well-written. But HWC saw through all of that. "You told me you wanted them to be different, to be unique," HWC said emphatically. "These statements could be anyone's. Tell me a story. Make me remember you."

I do want them to be unique. I have read dozens of teaching statements over the past few months, and they are all incredibly boring because they all say the same thing: "I strive to create an active learning environment. I want my students to think critically. I want them to be engaged in the material." Well, duh! What teacher doesn't automatically want those things? If you, as a teacher, are not already accomplishing those things to a certain degree, what are you accomplishing? For me, active learning, critical thinking and engagement are the bare minimum. A great teacher goes beyond that, and I can honestly say that I strive to be a great teacher. But what does that mean in practice?

It's difficult to put into words, but HWC gave me some excellent ideas today. He said that, too many times in the statements, I'm hesitant to make a declarative statement about my teaching or research. "What do you REALLY believe here?" he asked. "What motivates your teaching? Why do you care so much?" They're basic questions, but questions I've been reluctant to put into definitive statements. This all stems, I think, from my inability to feel wholly confident about what I do, about always feeling that I'm somehow unqualified. "You need to remember," HWC said seriously, "that you've been in school this long for a reason. You know things. I think people in our position [HWC is also a doctoral student] need to assert the fact that, in some things, we ARE smarter than other people. And there's nothing wrong with that."

It is really quite wonderful to have someone be so honest with me about my writing. Sure, my advisors are honest, but they are honest in a different way. They want my hypotheses to be sound, my argument to be logical. HWC has a different set of concerns -- he wants me to be me, to be honest with myself on paper, to be gutsy and confident. It feels good to have someone speak to the very personal side of writing, and to talk it out with me. It's nice to have someone engage in a critical discussion of who I am as a writer, as a teacher, as a researcher. Mostly, however, it's just nice to be the student again, if only for an hour a week.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 8/29/2005 03:23:00 PM  
4 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 11:29 PM, Blogger academic coach said…

    this is a beautiful story. It must have been so difficult to swallow this strong critique at first - but it sounds as though you are using it well.


  • At 12:03 AM, Blogger phd me said…

    How funny. I also have a fellowship that restricts me from all activities but writing the dissertation. The lack of structure to my days is rather intimidating but I'm hoping I can create some sort of rhythm to finish this in a timely fashion. I'm officially on the job market since I plan to graduate in May (so I understand your thoughts on Here and There); let's hope that induces some productivity!

    And I managed to jog a bit longer today without collapsing or hearing any threatening songs on the iShuffle. Maybe I should take a lesson from you and indulge in some decent exercise gear; my tennis shoes are at least 5 years old. Good luck with that iPod!

  • At 10:36 AM, Blogger ABDmom said…

    What a great person to have as a resource!

    I have a writing group, and it's invaluable. The moral support the other members provide is tremendous, and they get at the personal and emotional parts of my writing that you identify in this post.

    If you know a few other dissertators in your program, I'd highly recommend forming a writing group. It's been a lifeline to me.

  • At 11:13 AM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    Academic Coach -- thanks for your comments. It IS difficult to accept criticism at first, but as I rediscover who I am as a writer, I find that it's easier and easier to deal with the fact that drafts are just that: drafts. And drafts are supposed to be revised.

    Me -- Yes, get some good shoes! I had an old pair, and they were terrible (despite the fact that I didn't run in them EVER). Since I have terrible feet (overpronator to the n-th degree), I needed to be fitted for shoes. The shoes I bought were expensive, but worth every cent.

    ABD -- Oh, I wish I could have a dissertation group! There are only two other people in my department working on dissertations right now, however, and they're writing dissertations very dissimilar to mine in almost every aspect. Aside from that, they have... ummm, how shall I put this...interesting personalities that don't always gel with mine. But having HWC on my side is such a bonus, and if I add him to the endless stream of advice coming at me from my advisors, I think there are already plenty of cooks in this kitchen.

    By the way, congratulations on all the progress in the past few days! I'm hoping you're sending some productivity vibes my way!

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