The Language of Feedback

So, today, a colleague of mine and I received a decision on a revised manuscript that we submitted for review.  While the initial reviews were professional and constructive, the reviewers were less than pleased with our revision with one reviewer calling our revised work “quite alarming,” “self-congratulatory,” and saying that the manuscript quite possibly “detracted from the complex, messy and hard work we engage in everyday of working to sustain identities and compose lives as teacher educators” critiquing our lack of critical engagement and inquiry.

Okay, so, clearly, this was not the best work my colleague and I have ever submitted and the way in which our data was addressed could have been more critical and careful.  In fact, the content of the critique allowed us to think about our work differently and we admittedly should have taken more time to resubmit our piece.  However, reading the feedback and having received feedback that was similar in tone previously to an article (though substantively different), made me realize the importance of tone in feedback…

Web of learning during final class session

Web of learning during final class session

In our final class session last week, several students mentioned the importance of the feedback I provided for them over the semester as well as the importance of the safety of community in the classroom as they were learning about and establishing their professional identities.  Students emphasized how essential the timely, thoughtful responses to their work were in their development and one student who I’ll call “D” said something that really stuck with me, “You know, when I submitted something and Professor Hsieh gave me feedback, I never had to be afraid that she was going to yell at me.  She would just tell me what I needed to improve on and I would say, ‘Okay, I can do that’,’ and then I would know how it could be better.” I turned to him, with a bit of amusement mixed with concern and said, “D, did you really think I’d yell at you?” He said that he didn’t really think that but that sometimes other instructors had made him feel like he really didn’t know what he was doing without telling him what he needed to do differently.

In the case of our submission, there was clear feedback on what needed to be changed in the article, but the tone of the critique was condescending and problematic, exactly the paternalistic & oppressive tone that we had been accused of perpetuating in the paper itself.  While I am confident enough in my own professional identity to come back from this critique and while I have done extensive inquiry into and reflection on my own work as a teacher educator to know that this feedback certainly doesn’t represent who I am as a teacher educator (I’ve never been called self-congratulatory in my life before today), the tone of this review makes me wonder how we treat our colleagues, fellow scholars, and our students in giving feedback.

Words hurt.  And people’s lives, their work, their thoughts matter.  Even if a piece isn’t accepted for a journal, even if a student shouldn’t be a teacher (and there are some that truly and painfully shouldn’t), there is no value in devaluing the work, the life, the passion of others.  This doesn’t mean that we accept every submission or that we lower our standards for rigor in our courses, but it does mean that we recognize that what we say, particularly when we evaluate one another, has power, and we treat that power with the utmost respect and care–like we should treat the humans to whom we are responding.


The Value of Humanity: Fall 2014 Semester Final Reflection

After binge blogging during the 30-day blogging challenge in September and keeping pace for the first week of October, I fell woefully behind in blogging as the semester came into full swing and as I began to deal with the reality of my own limitations. But, it is the end of a semester and time for a final reflection–my thoughts on this semester and key thoughts from the last 6 weeks, which have been lived mainly offline (or at least, off-blog) for reasons of self-preservation.

I’ve entitled this blog “the value of humanity” because this semester has taught me a lot about valuing my own humanity as well as that of my students, and reinforced my belief in the fact that certain members our society are not valued, are not heard, and are victims of violence that goes largely ignored and unseen by the vast majority of Americans.

On a societal level, the last 6 weeks have seen two grand juries choose not to indict police officers in fatal incidents with two black men,  the fatal shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown and the chokehold death of 43-year old, father of 6, Eric Garner.  Similarly no charges were filed against police in the shooting of another young black man, John Crawford standing in the toy aisle of a Walmart a toy gun in the open carry state of Ohio, the same state in which 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot and killed in a park because he had a toy gun, a death that goes before yet another grand jury, one ruled a homicide by the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the young boy.  All of this, in the last few weeks, spurring response in protests, including the Millions March and the #blacklivesmatter movement on social media.  In the aftermath, there has been deep anger, including some rioting, but there have also been important dialogues, peaceful protests and national attention to these deeply rooted issues in our country.

But society does not end at our borders.  In this same 6-weeks, we have seen the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, from a teachers college, students on their way to protest educational reforms and raise funds, to speak out against the corruption of the Mexican government at the hand of drug cartels and corruption as well as the brutal execution of “Felina”  an underground social media reporter and doctor whose death was publicized via twitter by her killers.

What does this say about the value of humanity? About the value of each and every life?  About the value of protest?  I’ve been struggling deeply to reconcile this deep disrespect for human life and for justice and my own beliefs in the value of engagement.  We cannot make change if we fail to engage, turning a blind eye to what happens in the world around us.  If we value humanity, we must continue to find ways to talk with one another and listen to people’s experiences without invalidating them because they don’t match our own, we must work towards and contribute to justice, and we must be tireless in this commitment.

But, how does one remain tireless in the face of physical and emotional exhaustion?  This has been a second exercise in valuing humanity this semester, a very personal one.

This semester, more than any other, I have had students who have experienced and shared personal trauma that has impacted their participation in class.  In 15 weeks, I have had students struggling with homelessness, death and dying of family members, eating disorders, severe depression, major medical issues and I have had to reconcile my desire for them to get the most out of their professional preparation with the reality of their situations.  This is also humanity.  The human experience on this personal level has reminded me of the patience required to be a teacher educator and has reminded me to use these moments to remind my future teachers of respecting the humanity of their own future students.  We don’t know what students are carrying with them into classrooms unless they tell us and if we aren’t aware of their humanity, we quickly forget our purpose in teaching.  It is not just about teaching content, it is first and foremost about teaching students.

Finally, this semester, perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve been working on is trying to value my own humanity and that of the new human life inside of me.  I found out early in the semester that I’m pregnant.  I am incredibly grateful and happy for the opportunity to bring another being into the world, and my own blessing has made me even more committed to make the world a better place for my children and all children (and adults).  Yet, that commitment doesn’t always give me energy to draft a blog response, deal with the heavy trauma of the events around me, bring compassion towards my students’ humanity.  The spirit is willing but the body is weak.  So, this semester has been about reconciling and understanding that my commitments may be judged by others, but in the end, the path towards educating future educators, towards social justice, towards creating a better world is not achieved in a moment, but in many moments and a lifelong journey.  I know my commitments and work to honor them, but I also have to know my limitations and work to honor the humanity in myself.

I’ve learned so much this semester and I continue to learn and grow and be moved by the value of humanity. I know it will continue to be my life’s work to help others see and promote that value as well.