Last semester I received a two paragraph response from my professor to an essay I had written saying that in my writing, you could not tell if I was saying something profound or whether it was just verbiage. The professor accused me of being, “enamored by [my own] cleverness.”
Just to be clear, that is not a compliment.
Of course, reading those words was disappointing and crushing. My identity and self-esteem, not surprisingly, are affected by my academics. After moping around and trying to process exactly what I needed to change about my writing, I rationalized away some of the criticism. But I could not explain away all of those harsh words by the situational influences that made me write what I did; my professor was putting the pressure directly on me. So I took the professor’s words seriously, which let me become aware of some of my failings, and gave me the space to grow.
What do you do when a professor trashes your work? You can handle it all sorts of ways, such as undermining the professor’s authority by listing their shortcomings (something I am sure that no one at EMU has ever done). You might be devastated by the criticism, making you want to drop out of college, or you might cope by laughing it off, or maybe by internalizing it.
All in all, there are many possible consequences of criticism. One is the chance that the criticism will harm the student without creating new space to grow into. My point here is that criticism is dangerous.
Fortunately, I escaped my only serious run-in with harsh college-level criticism relatively unscathed. I learned from it, I passed the class, and I am even still on good terms with the professor. I was pushed to swallow my pride and mature in a much needed way.
It is important to remember that my professor wrote two paragraphs about my essay.
Within those two paragraphs, along with the harshest (but accurate) attacks on my essay, there were also some sincere compliments that came through. Admittedly, the two most significant compliments were immediately followed with a clarifying ‘but’ statement. I can choose to take those as well-intentioned compliments no matter how they are framed.
Although criticism is a dangerous tool, it is one we need to start using more. Those two paragraphs deeply
impacted my life. We all need to tell each other to wake up sometimes, when the moment is right. With that said, I am urging professors to criticize us students more, to push us, but to insulate the direct (and often most needed) criticisms with genuine compliments. I am urging students to be vulnerable to the process of criticism, if it is constructive; maybe that professor is right to be critical about your work, and maybe if you listen, profound things will happen.
Seth, a First-Year from Pa., is recurringly lost, habitually curious, and always busy.