I’ve neglected this blog, but I am back! A large reason I have disappeared for a minute is because I teach part time at a local university, and the new semester began. I am teaching more classes than I usually do, and so I have been busy getting into a groove.
But as I grade papers, I have been thinking a lot about feedback and it’s importance. I tell a story at the beginning of each semester about a poetry class I took in graduate school. As I paged through the first essay returned to us, I noted periodic checkmarks, which I assumed meant that I was hitting a point the professor was looking for. On the last page, he wrote “Good” and gave me a B. Hmmmmm. That made no sense to me. I must have uttered my confusion out loud because a student next to me assured me that the problem was probably that I had a lot of grammar errors – hence the B.
I politely replied (or actually probably no so politely), “No, that is not the problem.” After all, there was not a single grammar error marked on the paper. But more importantly, I know my strengths, and command of English grammar is one of them.
Never one to visit professors in their offices, I decided I needed some feedback. So sitting across from this professor in his book-riddled, dark office, I made sure to politely state that I was not looking for a change to my grade. I simply wanted to know what the problem was so that I could improve and earn an A on the next paper.
His response? I will never forget it. “Well perhaps you are a B student.” And that was it. I was then dismissed.
I share this story with students because in my classes, I give FEEDBACK! I let them know, “Get ready!” Of course, they can choose to ignore it if they want. But there might just be a student who will read it, internalize it, and apply suggestions to future writing. That makes it worth the time required to give thought fun feedback.
Not everyone operates this way.
In the world of sports, feedback is vital. An athlete’s stats provide the grade, but no coach simply lets the stats speak for themselves if he or she has any interest in the athlete. My son plays baseball. When he is on the mound and throwing more balls than strikes, the coach will provide feedback beyond simply pulling him. His coach might tell him that his form doesn’t look right, that he is rushing, or that he is holding on to the ball too long. My son will ask to see any photos I may have taken during the game, and he might notice that his pitching hand is nearly scraping the mound on his windup. Or the coach might have video to go over. Feedback.
But having taught for longer than I can even believe is possible, and for having two children go through “the system,” I know how few writing teachers provide useful feedback. Some simply do not assign enough writing to learn anything. That is like a baseball team who talks a lot about baseball but never takes batting practice.
That just reminded me of the episode of Friends when Phoebe teaches Joey to play the guitar. But he is not allowed to actually touch a guitar. They simply talk about playing guitar.
Other teachers might have two, three, four writing assignments turned in by students before returning a single assignment, graded with feedback. So any problems with the first paper are now repeated on the second and third before the student learns there is a problem.
But by the same token, we have to trust the source of the feedback for it to be of any use to us. Now I did not say we had to like the source of the feedback or even the feedback. We just have to respect that the source actually knows what he or she is talking about.
Feedback is not always easy to take though. I also let students know that I understand the instinct to get defensive when you don’t like the feedback you are receiving. As long as I have been writing, and for the decades that I have been receiving feedback, I still get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I turn over a piece of writing to subject it to feedback. I can’t help it.
Stephen King wrote one of my all-time favorite books, On Writing, and in it, he explains the importance of asking for feedback at just the right time in the writing process. At first, you have to trust yourself and simply write “with the door closed.” But then, when you open the door, you need to share your writing with the world.
Unfortunately, many people are offended by feedback, not just in writing but in life. I have had students offended by my feedback. I have watched people struggle with relationships, with careers, with their craft, yet they shut down those around them who are trying to give them feedback.
Of course, the manner in which feedback is provided absolutely impacts someone’s willingness to receive it. But it is too bad that so many automatically assume a person’s ill intentions when they are giving feedback.
Everything that has happened to me, every reaction people have had to me, the place where I now stand in my life, all of these are merely feedback. Life could have rudely thrown this feedback in my face, and thus I may have been offended and indignant, but it is feedback nonetheless.
So what are we to do?
If we are happy with where we are, if we are happy with our relationship, if we are happy with our writing, if we are happy with our grades or with our pitching, then we can ignore any feedback the world, teachers, or coaches are providing us. But if we want more, in any of these areas (and don’t we all want more from our lives? Isn’t that the definition of being alive?), then we cannot simply dismiss or ignore the feedback we receive without processing it and evaluating it consciously.
I have spent much of my life pretty satisfied, accepting of but often confused by feedback. I would analyze it and discuss it with friends, confused by what it meant and what to do about it. So I would shrug my shoulders and continue without making any adjustments.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not talking about pleasing other people. At all. I am talking about wanting to play baseball in college and being told your fast ball is not fast enough.
Fixing that would not be about pleasing the coach. It would be about listening to the feedback as to why no one has made you an offer to play at college and deciding what to do about it. You can either decide to make the necessary changes or to stay the same and be ok without playing in college.
I am talking about the freshman composition student earning a C who wants an A in the class. The feedback lets the student know how to earn an A. But the student must either make the changes or continue to earn a C. This is not to make the teacher happy. This is about the outcome the student is seeking.
But I am also talking about wanting to write an animated family feature film and receiving feedback that the process of getting a movie made would be much easier if I would choose another genre and/or start with a short. I am not looking for what is easier. I simply want to write this particular story.
There is no wrong answer to these decisions, but the role feedback can play in someone’s life and decisions is undeniable.
I have put my screenplay aside for the past five weeks, trying to get some distance as I wait to hear if a group of investors is interested. They already gave me some feedback and asked for two changes. One change was something I had already decided the script desperately needed, so their feedback simply confirmed by own instinct. The other change I wasn’t so sure about. I had to decide what to do about that feedback, understanding the conflict between my opinion and theirs.Hopefully, I struck the right balance.
Friends sometimes ask to read my screenplay, and I struggle with whether or not I want the feedback. My instinct right now is that I do not. I guess I am satisfied with where I am. Should that change, I might seek out more feedback. My hesitation has a lot to do with what I previously wrote about when a friend asked to see the script, and I gave it to him. See here for that disastrous experience!
That was a bit rambling, but since my school semester began, I have been thinking a lot about feedback, and I thought I would share some of my thoughts.
What do you think? (That’s my way of asking you for feedback about feedback!)