Feedback: It’s emotional

it’s emotional (Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows)

The red pen is symbolic of marking. It’s viscous crimson ink, staining crisp white pages, is bedded in the history of giving feedback on written work. It stands out from blue or black writing, allowing corrections to be seen. That’s probably why the default colour for Microsoft Word tracked changes is red. It’s bold, noticeable, stark.

The red pen has also been at the centre of controversy. In 2008, 2013, and as recently as 2016, there were international articles arguing that marks made by red pens on student work were threatening and confrontational for students, and that teachers should stop marking with them. In 2010 Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris found that teachers using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than teachers using blue pens. A 2013 study by Dukes and Albanesi was central to renewed furore, arguing that marking with red pens can upset students and lead to weakened teacher-student relationships. Some educators retorted that the whole idea was silly and continued to wield their red pens. Some schools responded with ‘rainbow marking’ policies in which teachers armed themselves with red-free sets of highlighters and pens. Yellow! Pink! Purple! Green! Blue!

This week a student asked me to look over a practice exam response he had done in his own time. I was sitting next to him and asked if he had a pen I could use to give him feedback on it. His immediate response: “Do you want a red one?”

Pat Thomson yesterday published this post about the ‘bleeding thesis’, explaining that doctoral students can feel like the pages are bleeding when they receive red scrawling annotations and red tracked changes on their drafts. I have heard high school students complain similarly about the ‘bleeding pages’ of their marked work. “Oh, my essay looks like it’s bleeding!”

When I was editing my PhD thesis I had a swag of Artline finline pens. My personal favourites were green, purple, and dark pink. When I was in a self-flaggelatory mood, I would use red. It felt like punishment, a dark culling of my words, permission to be ruthless with my writing.

Yesterday a colleague emailed me a draft paper and asked me to ‘scribble on it’, so I annotated it with my reactions, thoughts, and suggestions. Part of their email response to my annotations was “I feel like I am getting your feedback on a Lit essay I’ve handed in, and admit to feeling a certain amount of pride at the ticks and double ticks!” Yes, I ticked those parts of the paper that resonated with me or I felt were important (a hard English teacher habit to break). I know my students scour their marked work, counting the ticks. They often call out “I got a double tick!” And now that I think about it, I annotated my colleague’s draft in green pen.

Of course, it’s not really the pen that is important. It’s the quality of the feedback that matters. A tick can be meaningless (but nonetheless emotion-inducing) praise, unless there is an understanding of why it’s there. This 1984 study by Semke found that teacher-written corrections do not increase writing accuracy, writing fluency, or general language proficiency, and they may have a negative effect on student attitudes. Dylan Wiliam points out that feedback can help or hinder learning, and that the feedback-giver/feedback-receiver relationship is key to feedback’s effectiveness.

It is neither possible nor desirable to give great quantities of feedback. As an English teacher, I have to constantly navigate the balance between giving meaningful feedback to help students move forward, and balancing my marking workload. Over my career I’ve developed a suite of varied strategies to ensure students are constantly engaging in feedback over their work, without me constantly collecting and correcting workbooks or homework. I’ve found I can give every student some brief, immediate feedback verbally if I check homework in a lesson once students are working. I can set peer and self assessments designed to engage students with the task and the work so that they are empowered to give themselves and each other relevant feedback. I can work with individuals and small tutorial groups to give targeted feedback. I constantly ask myself: Who is doing the mental work? It is the student who needs to be thinking and working to improve; my correcting errors ad nauseum is going to have little impact.

But feedback, written and otherwise, is emotional. Sometimes feedback can feel collaborative and inspiring and propulsive and nurturing (a thank you shout out to my co-authors on various projects, and some generous reviewers!). Sometimes it can feel brutal and visceral and dismissive and unforgiving. Sometimes it’s a warm embrace and sometimes it’s a swift kick in the guts.

The harshest feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been from the ink of a red pen, but from anonymous peer reviewers for academic journals. This Twitter account might give you an idea of the kinds of feedback some academics receive about their work. It cites reviewer comments like, “You have put in a lot of effort answering a question that should have never been asked” and “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”

We need to be ok with failure, as suggested by this post on self-esteem that a friend shared with me this week, and as I explain in this post, in which I share some harsh verbal feedback from one of my PhD supervisors. As I said in this post, receiving peer reviewed feedback can feel like simultaneously getting a high five and a punch in the face. One thing that doing a PhD, receiving feedback during the journal double-blind peer review process, and being a reviewer myself, have taught me, is that we need to train ourselves (and our students) to be resilient and interested receivers of feedback. By ‘interested’, I mean we need to be curious about what we might learn and open to listening to even that feedback which might hurt at first. If I find that a reviewer or colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, I need to be able to take that as a sign that I could make my intention clearer.

As marketing consultant Jay Baer would say, when it comes to feedback we need to hug our haters. Or as a colleague of mine says, we learn most when we welcome complaints. It is through seeing our work through the eyes of others, and by being open to criticism, that we can figure out how to push our work forward, improve it incrementally, take it in a new direction, or defend it more vigorously.

Front load your work. Be an expert. Own your contribution.

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go. ~ Dr Seuss

by @debsnet

sometimes the words slowly bleed onto the page

As a mid-career professional I often feel comfortable in my work in teaching and school leadership. I might come up against challenges, but I do so with a sense that I know what I’m doing and have a sense of how to make my way through them. ‘This is what I know how to do,’ I think to myself. And forward I go without a second thought.

There are times, however, when I cannot forge forward confidently. Becoming a parent, for instance, threw me into a new situation and a new role in which I had to start from scratch. I was a newbie who had to find my way into my parent-identity and a way of parenting which worked for me. The PhD is another something which throws people into a new deep end. I have written about my realisation that my discomfort zone is my place of growth, but that doesn’t make the experience of discomfort any more … comfortable!

I type this post from the throes of my current nemesis: the PhD Discussion chapter. I wrote last month about my feelings of paralysis before beginning this chapter, and how I eventually got started. And yet here I still am, four or so iterations later and still wrangling, dancing with, building and un-building my discussion.

Part of my struggle is around scholarly confidence, reflected in the notes from my last PhD supervision meeting which read a bit like this: ‘too much other people’, ‘less others, more you’, ‘put your ideas up front.’

It seems I am clinging to the literature. I still want to prove to my reader that I have read everything I can get my hands on and I know my stuff. That I’m not a masquerader or pretender. And it seems I do this by citing and paraphrasing and putting up front the work of Others.

You know Others. In the mind of the novice researcher they deserve capital letters of knowledge because they are experienced, frequently-published, well-renowned academics, not researchers-in-training or Doctors-in-waiting.

And yet in the Discussion and Conclusion of the PhD I know I must identify myself as an expert. A person worthy of a capital letter (like a ‘Ph’ or a ‘D’). I keep reminding myself that I am an expert in my own research and that I can stand on the front foot when I discuss my findings and what they mean in the world.

So my current notes-to-self for the Discussion chapter are:

– Stop trying to prove my worth through literature.

– More me. Less others.

– Front load my work.

More than just a process of writing, this is a process of becoming. Becoming a researcher. Becoming a researcher who knows she is a researcher, feels like a researcher and makes knowledge claims like a researcher. It’s taking me many molasses-slow drafts to find my expert voice and a way of writing which foregrounds my own research and my own academic voice, while still situating my research within the existing literature. But step by step I am getting closer.

And I’ve been reading Dr Seuss’s Oh the places you’ll go! to my children recently so I am armed with the mantra that with brains in my head and feet in my shoes, I can move mountains. One painstaking word at a time.

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way! ~ Dr Seuss

You're off to great places, by @debsnet

the édu flâneuse atop an Icelandic glacier


Giving ourselves permission for a break: time away as self-care and strategic productivity

“What day is it?” asked Winnie the Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh” ~ A.A. Milne

Villa Artis, Bali by @debsnet

Early tomorrow morning I will be on a plane to an island destination for a holiday with family and friends. I should be dreaming of silky cool pool water, fire-coloured sunsets over the ocean, meandering rice paddies reflecting blue skies, the sizzle of seafood on the beach and the clink of ice blocks in cocktail glasses.

Canggu beach, by @debsnet

And yet I have been thrashing around trying to decide whether or not to work or study or blog while I am away. Or whether I can leave it all behind and take a real break, despite ceaseless deadlines. I wonder if this is a common phenomenon in a world in which we are constantly connected to each other, constantly available to our workplaces and constantly curating, creating and sharing vignetted content of our lives and work. While flexible working hours can allow us to make adaptable life choices and social media can allow us to connect with others, do they also contribute to a cycle of relentlessness which we find difficult to break away from?

rice paddies, Umalas, by @debsnet

I have decided that I need to take a full thinking, writing, marking, everything break from my worlds of work, research and writing. One of my three words of 2015 is ‘presence’, so partly this break is about a commitment to being present with my children, husband and friends during our trip. But it is also about being ok with taking an actual break and with a commitment to self-care. I am someone who sees blogging as a break from PhD writing. Or PhD writing as a break from marking. So the idea of a break from all-of-the-things is foreign and has taken some self-convincing.

offerings, Bali, by @debsnet

There are others who have reflected on the importance of self-care, even as we catapult ourselves towards our goals. Raul Pacheco-Vega wrote on self-care in academia and the importance of privileging your own health and wellbeing. New Zealand author Celia Lashlie, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speak about her work, died in February after releasing a statement which read, “My wish is that others will learn to stop before I did, to take into account the limitations of their physical bodies and to take the time to listen to the yearnings of their soul. It is in the taking care of ourselves we learn the ability to take care of others.”

Seminyak sunset, by @debsnet

I love my work and my research, and most of the time I find a tenuous work-family balance. I wrote on the PhD Talk blog about the way that normally it works for me to have many things on the go, as doing any one of them feels like a holiday from the others. I also spoke there about the importance of quiet in-between times. That is, often I make the most cognitive or creative progress, on my PhD thesis or a strategic work problem, when I am walking, or driving, or taking time to be quiet and still. So luxuriating in a full, unadulterated, brazen break is also a strategy to vacation, to vacate the demands of everyday life, in order that I might return with some mental clarity and physical energy to tackle the rest of this year, which includes for me, finishing my PhD thesis and successfully implementing the professional learning and growth model at my school.

So give yourself permission for a break, small or large. To unplug from emails, tweeting, writing or planning. To take care of yourself, curl your toes in the earth and immerse yourself in somewhere, somehow or someone that gives you joy.

(Photos in this post are from a previous trip.)

(How did it go? The post-script to this post can be found here.)

Sea Circus, Bali, by @debsnet