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.

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How writing is like cake making. #acwri

this week's home-made asymmetrical Aussie Rule football cake

this week’s home-made Aussie Rules football cake

Why cake ? Because joy and deliciousness are nutrients in their own right. ~ Jude Blereau

I make about two cakes a year, one for each of my children’s birthdays. One year ago, baking and decorating my eldest son’s cake prompted a blog post in which I compared making a novelty birthday cake to doing a PhD. This year, baking his double-layer chocolate cake (decorated as an AFL football field) had me thinking: this cake making business is a lot like writing, particularly academic writing.

My boys are 4 and (just) 6, so on my one-cake-per-child’s-birthday / two-cakes-per-year average, I haven’t baked that many cakes. Yet this week’s cake (pictured above), is the first cake that has felt stress-free to make, and first one for which I haven’t made big mistakes in the making. In the past my cake and icing mixes have split and curdled. I have broken cakes trying to get them out of the pan. There have been times when I decorated cakes the day before serving and the colours from the candy bled into the icing. Once, a heavy cake topper figurine sunk into the cake overnight. Earlier this year, I got a knife caught in the beaters while making icing, which resulted in me icing myself and the whole kitchen, including the ceiling. I didn’t feel quite the Nigella-esque image of domestic goddessery when I couldn’t see through my tears and icing-splattered spectacles.

This week there was none of the cake-anxiety drama. Baking and decorating were calm and enjoyable. Much of this was due to the knowledge and skills I have gained over time, as well as processes I have developed for this task. I knew to leave my ingredients out so that they were room temperature when I used them, preventing mixes from splitting. I knew to alternate mixing in dry and wet ingredients. I knew to take the time to cover the whole inside of the pan with carefully-traced-and-cut-and-placed bake paper so that the cake would slide out easily, with a now-practiced flourish, onto a wire rack. I knew to ice the cake while it was partly frozen to prevent crumbs in the icing, and to leave the extra decorations off until the icing was set so that the colours didn’t bleed. I had a familiar routine set out over a few days which made the process manageable. I also knew my materials better, what they could and couldn’t do. My expectations were managed. The cake was a bit lopsided, the icing a bit uneven, the drawn lines a bit skewwhiff. These imperfections were the marks of me as the maker, and I was ok with those idiosyncrasies. They were the ‘voice’ or the ‘me’ in the cake.

And so, from baking and decorating to writing …

My reflections on my journey as a novice baker and decorator remind me of my arc as an academic writer. The brief for each cake (footy! outer space! race track!), or each paper or chapter (this journal! that book! this field! that theory!), is different, requiring planning and consideration at the outset about how to proceed in order to reach a particular end point. Academic writing requires a nuanced understanding of its ingredients, materials and processes. The writer needs to understand, and be able to expertly manipulate, the language of particular disciplines and the language of particular journals. They build a growing knowledge of theories and literatures.

Like the baker, the writer develops a routine, a flow, an individualised writing process that works for them, including how to time their work, how to structure it, how to build layers of meaning, how to perfect and polish it in the final stages. They acquire tools and strategies for their work, things that make the work smoother and produce a better product. Some knowings and doings become internalized over time, with the writer having to think less about them, able to turn their attentions to refining their craft, developing deeper understandings and pushing the scope of their work beyond the limits of its previous iterations. Writers hone their voice, the ‘me’-ness in their writing, while watching out for their writing tics.

Like a cake made for a particular individual and a specific celebration, a piece of writing is often constructed with a particular audience in mind. Peer review of cake at a child’s birthday party is gentler than that in academia, but the party guest’s purpose is to appreciate and thank the host, while the peer reviewer’s purpose is to critically judge and improve the work. Once writing is published, more feedback comes in the forms of citations, downloads, reviews and social media shares. The audiences are different, but for both baking and writing there are accepted norms of feedback from others. A baker might dread the grimaced smiles of guests pretending to enjoy their cake while they leave slices unfinished, just as a writer might fear Reviewer 3’s scathing critique or the deafening silence of an uncited, un-clicked-upon piece, lying unread in physical and online spaces. Peer review is, after all, often like getting a punch in the face and a high five simultaneously.

While I am a sometimes-baker, I am a regular writer. I’m sure that if I baked with the constancy of my writing, it would improve markedly. I write something almost every day, for different purposes or different audiences. One distinction for me between baking and writing (obviously there are many differences!) is that I find I write my way into understanding, into knowing my own thinking and into interrogating my worlds and the writings of others. Writing is inquiry, identity work, illuminator. It is joy and struggle. And while a cake is devoured until only crumbs remain, writing lives on.

5 things I learned in 2015

Beware the barrenness of a busy life. ~ Socrates

Epiphanies and moments of clarity can be simple and, on reflection, obvious. The following list of ‘5 things I learned in 2015’ may seem like statements of the bleeding obvious. They are nothing new, and yet this year I’ve seen new refractions from, and noticed more minute details of, these simple truths. They have been affirmed for me this year through my experiences of being and becoming. Of teaching, leading, parenting, coaching, being coached, researching and writing.

local café wisdom

local café wisdom

1. Doing many things at once can work, but it’s also important to take breaks.

In the last few years I’ve been working 0.8 of a teaching and leadership job at a school, parenting two pre-schoolers and working on my PhD (now submitted – woot!). While I always had a sense that this was working for me in its strange busy way, it wasn’t until my first writing retreat this year that I understood how much. On my retreat, I found it difficult to stay on my one task – editing the PhD thesis draft – for a full weekend. I realised that my routine of intense short bursts of PhD, in among the other many things in my life, worked for me. These short, regular, time-constrained bursts of energetic PhD work were intensive and focused. They felt like an indulgence, some intellectual ‘me-time’ in which I could luxuriate, a brain-bending haven from my other responsibilities. It helped me to love my PhD, while also appreciating the specialness of my teaching, leading and parenting roles.

Yet, as I discovered, relentless busyness is not sustainable. Breaks are required. Real, curl-your-toes-in-the-sand, unplug, breathe deeply and love abundantly kind of breaks. Nourishment for wellbeing. Care for self and others. Time to breathe.

2. Welcome resistance & engage in respectful disagreement.

On my blog, which is now 16 months old, as in Twitter and in my professional life, I have been becoming more comfortable with, and encouraging of, disagreement, although I prefer dissent to be served in a respectful, articulate and reasoned manner. And I prefer disruption which emerges from deep purpose, rather than trendy buzzwordification. Last year I completed the Adaptive Schools Foundation course, which champions graceful disagreement as a key element of high-performing groups. I’ve written a few blog posts which err on the side of controversial. I’ve engaged in Twitter debate. I’ve experienced my first peer review comments from academic journals, and attempted to take critique as an opportunity to strengthen my work. And in my role leading and implementing a school coaching initiative for teachers, I have welcomed the contributions of those who are resistant to the change.

I’ve found those individuals who might be dismissed as ‘resistors’ or negative voices, to be important ones worthy of close listening. I find myself asking those who disagree to take the time to explain their view to me. I listen intently, wondering, ‘What can I learn here? How might this help me to make what we’re doing better, stronger, and meaningful for a wider range of people?’

I am reminded of this line of Richard Bach’s from his novella Illusions:

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.

It is often in engaging with those who disagree with us, that we are taken to new places in our own thinking, helped to consider alternate perspectives, or are able to find solutions which we may otherwise not have reached.

3. Trust individuals. Believe in their capacity. Choose empowerment.

Punitive accountability measures which promote fear and compliance can only undermine teachers’ and school leaders’ professions, identities and practices. Through my experiences of coaching, my PhD research into school leadership and organisational change, and my observations of systems of teacher evaluation around the world, I have become increasingly convinced of the need to focus on empowerment and growth, through support and trust. It’s the belief upon which my school’s coaching model is based.

4. Connections with others are powerful.

We know that connecting with others is powerful. One of my ‘three words’ for 2015 was ‘sharing’ and another was ‘presence’, both words which speak of connecting with others and being present in relationships.

This year, not only have my personal and face-to-face professional relationships been impactful, but so have connections I have made online. For the first time this year, I began to meet ‘in real life’ individuals I’ve connected with on Twitter and through my blog. Catching up over drinks, breakfast or the conference room had been a seamless transition from tweet, blog post or Voxer message, to in-person banter, support and inspiration. I’ve engaged in wonderful blogging conversations. I’ve become bewitched with the potential of our interconnectedness and the ways in which technology might help us grow support networks and knowledge webs.

5. Teeny regular steps add up to a long journey.

My PhD was the thing that brought home this truth to me. Over three years I plugged away with little step after little step, finding stolen moments of doctoral time in the cracks in my days and nights. Regular, persistent effort. Sometimes forward; sometimes back; but maintaining forward momentum. And then I looked back along the path I’d walked and found that it added up to a thesis. So my big lesson was, just put one foot in front of the other. Keep going!

sunset, Gnarabup

sunset, Gnarabup