Dealing with criticism

A little more than a week ago I mentioned that I had turned in a big paper and was anxiously anticipating the feedback I would receive about it. If I’m being honest with myself, I was pretty pleased by what I had written – twenty-five pages of text with exhaustive footnotes and a decently cogent argument. In less than two months. And then it got ripped apart – politely – by my professor and the five other members of my class in some sadistic ritual called the “workshop method.” I sat and scribbled furiously, trying to take in their criticisms while disallowed to utter any words of defense for my paper. My professor went last, and his criticisms were certainly not least. When it was finally my turn to speak, I prattled nonsensically for a few minutes about a minor point my professor made, and then demurely allowed the conversation to drift to the next paper under discussion. I was crushed. All of my hundreds of hours of work on this paper seemed to be totally swept aside in the space of forty minutes. I seriously considered burning a copy of it in effigy that night. One of my fellow students, perhaps realizing that I had taken the criticism a little more personally than I should have, sent me a very complimentary email and assured me that the changes he and others had suggested to my paper were surface issues – the core of the paper remained strong. I struggle to articulate how important this gesture was to me.

To be fair, their feedback was excellent. There were parts of my paper that either didn’t make sense in relation to the whole or were simply confusing. I did not articulate my thesis forcefully enough or elucidate why my conclusions really mattered in the grand scheme of Early U.S. history. I apparently took on the authorial voice with such facility that my professor was unable to tell whether the subject of my paper (John Quicy Adams) or myself were speaking at certain points. This was particularly problematic when JQA was in an anti-Catholic or semi-racist frame of mind – was I saying these bigoted things, or was I presenting JQA’s thoughts? Of course it was the latter, but the confusion of authorial voice is kind of a big deal in those situations.

Two days after the seminar session, I tried to look at my paper. I tried to read the five single-spaced pages of feedback my professor prepared for me. I tried to see the structural issues and brainstorm solutions to a recurring phrasing problem. But I could not. I was still too close to it. I was still shell-shocked. So I put it aside and worked on something else. Reading about middlebrow Americans’ conceptions of Asia (which inspired the two-part series on my grandfather) occupied my attention instead. I tried to pull it out again two days later and get to work revising it. I still couldn’t do it. Looking at my professor’s notes still stung. 

I’m now just one day further on – approaching a week since the “workshop” – and I think I might be getting close to what I’m going to call “emotional readiness.” The sting is subsiding, replaced by a nagging desire to dig into the revision process. I was afraid I might not get here, that the sting would stay and the revision process would be a total chore. It’s still going to be a lot of work. But I’m almost at the point where I can throw myself at it wholeheartedly. When that happens, I’m sure the critique process it going to appear more like a collaborative exercise. My fellow students and my professor have essentially provided a map of improvements that will elevate my work from a middling term paper to something of hopefully publishable quality. We can work together, so to speak, to create something much better than I would have been able to create on my own. And I think that’s the whole point.

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