A Recipe for Giving and Receiving Feedback: Add a spoonful of sugar; Take with a grain of salt

I teach and I blog.

And, for me, both of these arenas are places of personal vulnerability because I choose to put myself into my teaching and into my writing.  The thing about both teaching and blogging is that, for people like myself, they make something extremely personal something extremely public.  And, given that I am somewhat of a literacy scholar, I know that making something public means letting it go and having other dialogically respond to it–for better or for worse.

The other day, however, I was reading a blog from someone I follow on twitter.  The blog was a deeply personal account about some of the personal and professional struggles she faced in her current career trajectory.  I had a deep respect for the author in being so vulnerable and was SHOCKED to read scathing critique of both the author’s personal choices and her personal views on the type of professional position she sought.  This reminded me of the backlash of comments levied against Liza Long, who authored the viral blog “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings.  Without knowing or speaking to this mother, people who read the blog felt compelled to judge this writer and other mothers dealing with children who struggle with mental illness.  (BTW, PBS did a follow-up talking with Long and her son, a link to which can be found here).  Reading the comments on these blogs frustrated me, but they also made me incredibly wary as to the amount of honesty and vulnerability one can truly put out there without becoming a target.  And, honestly, that made me sad.  Through sharing similar to those found in these deeply personal blogs, other people in similar positions find inspiration and courage, but only if bloggers continue to feel safe to share.

This blog isn’t SO personal and I’ve never received harsh feedback, so why bring this up now?  I started out this blog by noting that I teach as well as blogging.  For some assistant professors (and maybe even for some teachers), teaching might not be so personal, but for me, teaching has always been a labor of love.  Perhaps this is because I started teaching in an urban middle school, and have always been strongly committed to social justice, partnership with my students and personal actions that would help students to learn and grow, both academically and personally.  So, when I get up to lecture, I feel like I’m putting myself on the line, every time.   I worry about whether students will like me and appreciate the strategies I am there to present.

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.  More often than not, students walk away with something more than they’ve come in with, but I know that not every strategy will fit every student’s teaching identity, content area, or style, so I’ve learned to take feedback with a grain of salt, particularly critical feedback.  It still stings (perhaps I rub that grain of salt in the wound of hurt pride ;)) but it’s something that I think pushes me to grow.  Sometimes it’s a shove and sometimes, it’s a gentle nudge.  I prefer the gentle nudges, but I acknowledge that I chose academia so I’m prepared for my share of shoves.

So, what’s the point? Well, as a teacher, a blogger, and a citizen, I have to put in my two cents about feedback.  And, what I have to say about feedback (and what I attempt to model in my own feedback to students) is this: acknowledge intention and find something authentically positive to say before you rip into a person, a strategy, an experience, or an idea.  I’m not saying to change your position or agree with something that’s completely against your worldview.  What I’m asking you to remember is that there is a person behind the blog you’re reading; the strategy you’re seeing; the idea you’re hearing — a real life, flesh and blood person, who has taken a risk in putting him/herself out there in some way.  And maybe their grammar isn’t perfect, their ideas aren’t completely sound, or their tone is offensive, but do you really win them over by your critique? The world has enough negativity.  People are afraid enough to say and stand for who they are.  If someone has the courage to share with you authentically about who they are, you could at least have the decency to acknowledge that risk and their attempts to contribute to the conversation.

I believe in constructive dialogue, but I believe it only can happen when no one is so triggered by the other person’s comments that they feel like they have to defend themselves and they speak from a place of reaction rather than from a place of conviction.  So, remember, before you hit your comment button, ask yourself if you’ve considered the risk the writer took in publishing a piece of themselves and if you’ve considered the impact that your words might have on another human being. And, if you have, feel free to give them that gentle nudge, as we all can grow through sharing our different perspectives.


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