Posted tagged ‘feedback’

The Pages Were Red With Ink: On Feedback

June 27, 2013

You’ve always been an all-star student.  In third grade, your teachers talked about you in the teacher’s lounge, “She used a word I had to look up.  I don’t even know what vacillate means and she used it in a sentence…”  You were the top of your high school class.  College felt a breeze.  When your favorite professor said you should consider grad school, you smiled and rattled off the top programs you were already contemplating.  He loved your work.  You always got As.  You were destined for greatness.Red Ink

Then you arrived at grad school… and everything seems to have changed.

You receive feedback on your first… maybe second paper… and it’s full of red ink.  There are abbreviations for errors you don’t even understand.  What have I done?  Who has failed me?  Why do I keep writing in the passive voice?

Graduate school is meant to be a humbling experience.  What most students master at the undergrad level is how to speak the language of the professor.  “Oh I know Jones… he loves when I connect the Civil War to theology and reference Mark Noll.  I do that in every paper!”  Then the students replicate the winning formula with every subsequent paper, affirming self-fulfilling prophecies.  Then when students try to do that kind of thing in graduate school, they quickly realize the goal is not to say what the professor wants to hear, but rather write something the professor him/herself has never even thought about.  The goal of graduate school is innovative, unique, and powerful thinking.  This does not happen over night.

I will not pretend to be the expert on this.  I’m still working on my doctoral work, but what I do have to say is to take heart.  A page full of red marks means that the professor believes there is hope in “fixing” your writing.  Let it influence you.  Take in the comments and learn from them.  Not all professors agree on good writing.  Every year committees argue over the Pulitzer and the Bancroft because no one can agree on the best research and writing.  Fortunately your first seminar paper in grad school is not up for a Pulitzer.  So, learn from the red ink.

I will finish with this advice.  Visit the professor not out of a concern for the grad, but to learn more about how to think.  Teachers face students all the time who are concerned with grades.  GPAs, of course, in our market economy can determine all sorts of quality of life issues.  In short, for undergrads, the difference of a few letter grades can determine a $10,000 grant or not.  That’s a huge deal.  But what professors want to hear is a genuine concern for learning.  Grad school, as expensive as it can be, should not just be about your grades.  Rather, focus on learning.  “I see your comments here about this awkward sentence.  Can you explain to me how to write it more clearly?  How can I improve the way I’m thinking about this historical time period?”  Those questions will go a long way in establishing your relationship with instructors, as well as your own intellectual progress.

Take a few red marks on the chin.  Don’t argue with the grade, but always learn from criticism.  Remember that when you get out of grad school (if you stay in the academic world), there will be editors, peer reviewers, and still more red ink to fix.  Revision is part of the writing process.  It doesn’t mean you’re not an all-star student any more; it just means you’ve made the all-star team and the coaches here intend to push you harder.

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