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.

Flashback Friday: The end of the PhD

The end of the PhD. I remember it well, or so my long line of PhD-finishing blog posts might seem to attest. These include (and this is just a selection) …

The end of a doctorate is a rollercoaster of emotion. One, it turns out, I had largely forgotten. While my blog posts act as bread crumbs back to those experiences, the feelings themselves have faded, softened and blunted over time.

Today, I was reminded.

I still connect with the ‘DocVox’ Voxer (voice-to-voice messaging app) group that helped support me through my PhD. This is a group of mostly doctoral (PhD and EdD) candidates from the USA, plus a couple of us from Australasia. I figure staying in the Voxer group despite having finished the PhD helps me to pay back by continuing to support those who are still on their journey. It was via this group that I was today reminded of the visceral nature of the last bit of the PhD.

This morning a candidate from the US was Voxing about the blind panic they were feeling as they near dissertation submission. As I Voxed a response, I tried to reassure the person that their experience was normal. I recalled how in the last months of my PhD I had brutal insomnia. I clenched my jaw in my sleep despite chomping magnesium before bed to try and calm myself down and slow the mania of my obsessive mind. When I did sleep, I had nightmares, a recurring one of which was that I died and my almost-but-not-yet-finished PhD never saw the light of day, but languished, unexamined and unpublished. As I spoke, tears sprang to my eyes and my voice cracked. Some of that emotion returned in an intense flash. Wow, I thought, I didn’t think I was very affected by my experience. I was reminded as I spoke of the isolation of those moments, ones I didn’t really talk about because despite being surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, it didn’t seem something they would understand.

There are times in the PhD when everyone thinks you must be finished by now but you know you have so far to go, and times when it seems you should feel happy but instead you feel strange and empty. It’s a weird, emotional and quite a lonely time.

*                                    *                                    *

It’s almost 13 months since I was doctored. That moment was a glorious one. I awoke in Washington DC, after attending and presenting at the American Education Research Association (AERA) Conference. I had met a number of my academic heroes, as well as colleagues I knew only through Twitter and those that I met at the conference at sessions or in the epically long queue at Starbucks. I had nailed the presentation about my research and spent an hour in the corridor afterwards fielding questions and discussion. One of these discussions carried over to lunch and an ongoing professional connection. I’d had a great conference and was in edu-nerd heaven. It was the perfect moment for doctoring.

So, the day after AERA closed, I awoke in my Dupont Circle Airbnb apartment and checked my email, to find a ‘Congratulations, Doctor Netolicky’ email confirming the conferment of my PhD. I whooped, I shrieked, I clapped. I cried. I fist pumped. I felt overwhelmed and triumphant.

It was my last day in DC and I floated on rainbow-fairy-floss-cloud-nine as I swanned around the city in the magnificent sunshine. I was on my own, so I took this selfie (below) to remind myself of that elation. The iPhone snap mightn’t look like much to anyone else, but whenever I see it, it catapults me back to that moment of pure joy. Unadulterated I-am-now-Dr-Me exhilaration.

Now I have the luxury of being a pracademic, part school leader-teacher-practitioner, part early-career-scholar-researcher. During the PhD, finishing the doctorate always felt like an ending, but as I look back I can see that it was a beginning. I am now able to luxuriate more serenely in the oasis of academic writing, and to enjoy the gentle challenge of scholarly collaboration and conversation. And to apply my doctoral experience to my daily work.

The emotions fade, but it turns out they’re still there, in memory and in deep in the bowels of the iPhone camera roll.

DC doctor selfie

The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.

On cognitive load

I’ve been thinking recently about cognitive load theory (CLT), a theory founded by John Sweller in the 1980s. Bear with me. I’m not intending to use seductive sounding terms like ‘cognitive architecture’; or to suggest that I am an expert on CLT; or to delve into discussions about intrinsic, extraneous and germane cognitive load; or to articulate the problems with self-ratings of perceived mental effort. This is more of a loose layperson’s pondering around the effects of the influence of new information on working memory.

CLT posits that human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time. A couple of weeks ago I moved house and the resulting chaos had me realising the effects of putting a heavy load of novel information onto the working memory. Despite the mundanity of the challenges of moving into a new home (whitegoods don’t fit, furniture doesn’t work spatially, boxes crowd in threateningly, kids don’t sleep well, the house makes strange noises), in the first week at our new place I left my yoga clothes at home once and left my phone at home twice. I was constantly struggling to remember where I had to look to find plates, cling film, toiletries, members of my family. I had no sense of routine or stability.

For me, the mental work of existing somewhere new, without the automaticity that comes with entrenched habit (or, as cognitive load theorists might call it, cognitive schemata in my long term memory) was immense and intense. I felt that I was living in a fog, and existing at about 40% of my usual capacity. The simplest of tasks were arduous, time consuming, and took what seemed like excessive cognitive effort. My husband asked me what was wrong with me; I knew that the relocation had taken my working memory beyond its capacity to cope. I was moving as through wet concrete. I felt displaced.

Now, learning a new house isn’t the same as learning new, complex, domain-specific skills (although I could talk long and hard about the gurgling of the fishpond interrupting sleep, the mental effort required to drive in the right direction home from work, and the impossibility of finding a sensible place for everything in a new kitchen). No doubt there were aspects of my experience that were environmental and affective as well as cognitive. Yet, the disorder and discombobulation I felt in my first week in my new house were a stark reminder of what students might feel when confronted with new content in a classroom with which they are not yet familiar, or with a skill that they might approach without the appropriate embedded prior knowledge and automation required to succeed.

As Greg Thompson has recently blogged (channeling Derrida’s student Bernard Stiegler), writing (like this blog post) can construct a mental prosthesis, a kind of corporeal residue of an experience that, left to the memory, would fade in intensity over time. Unlike Greg in his story of being concussed in Banff, I will have no physical remnants of moving house, nor any of the entertainment value of the story. No doubt soon the uneasiness will fade into that vague unnoticed feeling of being at home in instinctive motion.

In this post on the doctorate I reflect that:

Once we have learned something, we cannot always remember what it was like to not know it, making it difficult to teach or help someone. By (b)logging my writing memories as they happen, perhaps I can archive my not-so-good-at-academic-writing self. Reflecting-on-writing by writing-about-writing – in a kind of meta-writing – helps me to document my academic writing journey. … blogging helps me to have a Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumb trail back to my less capable self.

As someone becomes more expert, they often ‘black box’ their expertise, as Pamela Hinds explains in her 1999 paper ‘The Curse of Expertise’. Experts are unable to accurately predict the time and difficulty novices need to complete a task. Intermediate learners, Hinds finds, are more helpful for novices as they still remember and understand the problems of being a beginner. This is something I wonder about in terms of academia as well as teaching. Do doctoral supervisors ‘black box’ the PhD or EdD experience? Are they able to break down the steps of the doctorate for their students, or are veteran professors too far removed from the struggle and journey of the neophyte researcher? In a classroom, do teachers expert in their subjects have the capacities to break down the content and skills into accessible enough elements for struggling learners? Can an expert coach can break down the steps of coaching once they have internalised the philosophies, knowledge, and processes? Once the work of the mind is internalised and automated, much mindfulness and precision are needed if we are to teach others. Expertise may be a curse, but my house move has reminded me of the curse of the beginner. I yearn for repetitious automation.

So, as I use the daily practice of living in my new house as a way to build a long term memory schema, I am beginning to relax. Nothing yet feels automatic or fluid—and I still feel the newness and unfamiliarity of my surroundings—but I know that at some point I will forget the uneasy, cognitively prickly effort that came with moving house. I’ll happily float through the new place on auto-pilot, even in the dark of night or the first sleepy moments of the morning.

Why selling a house is like finishing a doctorate

Sold! Now what?

Sold! Now what?

This week my husband and I sold our house and bought another one, so it’s been a week filled with terrifying leaps of faith, trembling uncertainty, and dizzying highs that have involved actual whooping and jumping up and down. During this selling-buying-a-home experience, I was viscerally reminded of what it feels like at the end stages of a PhD.

Firstly, no matter how much work you have put in to getting your home ready for sale (or getting your PhD ready for examination), you don’t know how it’s going to go in the marketplace (or examiners’ eyes). There’s nail-biting insecurity that you won’t get the result you want. The waiting is insomnia-inducing. What if there is a low offer or no offer (a major revisions or a revise and resubmit)?

Secondly, there is no clear ending to the process, and no clear-cut moment to celebrate. We put our house on the market in January, like submitting a PhD to examiners, and then we have waited for results to come in. On Sunday night we received an offer, but it didn’t seem time to open the champagne. Nor did it the next night when we accepted that offer. Yes, we had sold our house, but celebrating the possibility of being without a home for our family didn’t seem appropriate. We put an offer on another house, but until it was accepted we didn’t feel we could celebrate. Even then (and we did celebrate) we are still faced with small milestones to complete and dominoes to fall, before we know that both sales are unconditional (finance, inspections, settlement).

Similarly, the end of the PhD seems to go on and on. There’s thesis submission. There’s the waiting game for examiners’ reports. Often, there’re the revisions. There is acceptance of those corrections and conferral of the degree and the title of ‘Doctor’ (which for me, was marked by having just presented at the AERA conference in DC). The printing of the bound PhD thesis that will luxuriate on the library shelf. The rollercoaster of completion emotions. There is graduation. Then there’s the first aeroplane boarding pass with ‘Dr’ on it, and the first post-graduation event when you get to wear the floppy hat and doctoral robes. There’s even the identity tussle as you come to terms with your doctorness, just as I’m sure my husband and I will need to transition from our current home, which we love and in which we have raised two young boys, to a new home which offers up the stage for the next chapter in our story.

It was interesting for me to note the way that an unrelated life event could bring my memories of the tail end of my PhD rushing back so vividly. Perhaps some of life’s most rewarding experiences are those which test our mental toughness, give us sleepless nights, and which don’t have clear cut endings.

Cartoons to communicate science? #scicomm

With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, cure diseases, and make society work happily–but only if people can figure out what in the world scientists are talking about and why they should care. ~ Randy Olson, Don’t be such a scientist

In 2015 the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. This year I have seen PhD researchers communicate their theses via emoji on Twitter. Today Emerald Publishing and the Journal of Professional Capital and Community released the following cartoon abstract of my peer-reviewed paper ‘Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders’. The paper itself, which has so far been downloaded over 4000 times, is open access, and I have also blogged about it.

What do you think of the notion of a cartoon or graphical abstract of a research paper? Is this a way forward for science communication? Can we use visual language to make research more accessible and more widely read? Could you or would you be open to designing a cartoon strip or graphic-novel-style summary of your research?

designed by Emerald and posted here on JPCC website: http://jpccjournal.com/teacher.htm

designed by Emerald and posted on the JPCC website

Writing productivity this Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo 2016

acwri at Melbourne airport

acwri at Melbourne airport

November isn’t just Movember and Dinovember. It’s also Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), the time for academics to publicly shout their writing goals from social media soapboxes everywhere. Ironically, at the moment work is taking over all my working and spare hours and my academic writing pipeline is suffering from inertia as a result. I haven’t been able to make the time to acwri, despite making constant lists that include acwri targets (respond to revisions! write draft paper! scope out argument! complete literature review!).

For me, academic writing is both unpaid work and a labour of love. While I don’t need academic publications for the work I do in my school, I write journal and conference papers because a) I think my research and writing have something to offer, something to say, and b) I enjoy the writing, the writing-thinking, the off-shoots of ideas from my PhD thesis that I now get to play with, and opportunities for co-authorship.

This blog both gets in the way of my academic writing and helps with it. It takes time and discipline to blog (I try to blog at least once a week, usually on a Friday), but I find that blogging keeps my writing wheels oiled and turning, which flows over into my scholarly writing. By blogging weekly, I never feel out of writing practice, even during these times when my academic writing slows to a barely perceptible drip.

Despite my inertia of the last few weeks, I share below some of my own approaches to academic writing productivity. I could call this ‘5 tips for productive writing’, but I agree with Naomi Barnes that tips aren’t always helpful.

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Count more than you can count

I wrote last AcWriMo that successful writing is more than word counts. Sure, sometimes it’s motivating to hit a word count milestone. Every time I hit a 10,000 word number during my PhD felt like I was getting closer to somewhere, something, the end product.

If, like me, you write a lot and often too much, it can be satisfying to cull words, to watch the count go backwards. I cut 15,000 words from my PhD in the final editing stages. There’s joy in word cutting, too. Refining, pruning excess, making the writing better, stronger, clearer.

Sometimes it’s useful to use a Pomodoro timer or a bomb timer to give a sense of writing focus and urgency. I rarely use timers, but I often write to the time I have. One hour while the kids nap. Forty minutes between weekend commitments. Stolen moments before the family wakes. Having such little writing time means that I am highly absorbed when it comes. There’s no time to be distracted, dithery or unfocused. I prepare writing goals and materials for the times I map out, and when they arrive I write like a tropical cyclone.

Write where it works for you

I need quiet or a steady hum to write. Total silence works, but I can’t often get silence, or even solitude, at home, unless my husband takes our sons out.

A busy café with indiscernible noise also works for me. I love writing in cafes because a) I don’t feel alone as I‘m surrounded by people, b) I’m not distracted by domestic chores, c) there’s good coffee and d) it can make writing seem more pleasurable, like a holiday or an indulgence. I love the low hum of indistinguishable conversation as the soundtrack to writing.

I even considered acknowledging some of my favourite writing cafes in m PhD acknowledgments. The owners and baristas recognised me. I was the polite woman who would sit alone, drinking two coffees over two hours, tapping away at my keyboard or shuffling through annotated drafts. Quarantining myself in a public space for a specific block of time allowed and motivated me to just write.

Write when it works for you

Know your most productive times. I am at my best between 7am and 11am. This is when I zing with energy, ideas and the kind of focus that means that words and solutions come easily.

I am at my productivity worst from about 3pm to 6pm, during which I usually have the least physical and mental energy. Then I have a strange energetic renaissance between 8pm and 10pm, which are often the hours that I blog. Yet, sometimes in the evening I am too tired for anything but the most menial tasks: calendar entries, checking references, basic admin. I’ve learned that it’s better to close the laptop rather than stare uselessly in a kind of slo-mo catatonia.

To write my PhD, I had to leverage my best writing times and avoid my worst ones. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending time writing and not getting anywhere.

Use the in-between times

The shower, sleep, a walk, standing at the checkout, taking children to the park. These are all opportunities for cogitation and idea percolation. I often find, especially if I know I’ll be racing between commitments, I will deliberately plant a writing problem in my mind by thinking deeply on it for a time, and then let go of it, knowing that my brain will somehow continue to chip away at it while I do other things. Sometimes I revisit the problem mindfully, and sometimes a solution or idea will bubble up, unsolicited. Our writing solutions and growth often happen while we aren’t watching.

Work with others

I am new to co-authorship, but am finding that the writing relationships I am now nurturing push me beyond the kind of thinking I do on my own. I’m exploring new theorists and fresh methods. Collaborative writing can grow us beyond our writing selves.

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Despite my inactivity thus far this #AcWriMo, I appreciate the social media reminders of the importance of academic writing, and of making time and space for it. This is true even for someone like me who is on the academia outer, an adjunct and a practitioner in another field.

I can give myself permission to ride the ebbs and flows of work, writing, parenting and being a friend/spouse/daughter/sister/colleague. For now I will keep scribbling my acwri lists, keep revisiting my acwri goals, keep putting my eye to my acwri pipeline. I’ll get it moving again soon.