Dear Kerry Ann,
I’m so frustrated. I recently received my teaching evaluations from last semester and -- despite my best efforts -- they are pretty awful. I also received a revise-and-resubmit from a top journal in my field. That should be good news, but the reviewer comments were so harshly critical and conflicting in their advice for revision that I don’t know what to do with them. And my department mentor just stopped by to tell me that the way I handled myself in a department meeting was problematic and people are talking about me in a negative way. I feel like I’m drowning in criticism!
How is a new faculty member supposed to make sense of all this negative information? I don’t know how to sort through it or what to do with it.
Drowning in Criticism
One of the most challenging parts of the academic job is learning how to respond to criticism in its many forms. I’ve received lots of messages from readers in the past few weeks about bad evaluations, negative informal feedback, and confusing reader reviews (so much so that this letter is a composite so as not to reveal individual details). I understand how overwhelming it can be, and I remember feeling devastated by criticism early in my career. That said, one of my mentors taught me how to welcome criticism, and now I see it as the gift it is: data on how to keep growing and improving.
Early-career academics often have an assumption that receiving criticism is a negative experience and try to avoid it. It’s perceived as a way that people reveal and elevate your flaws, minimize your accomplishments, and beat you up a bit. That’s certainly one way to think about it. But what would happen if you could get comfortable with criticism? What if it were normal to receive regular feedback about what’s working and not working in your teaching, research and service activities? And what if you trusted that somewhere in a large pile of words, there’s almost always a nugget of gold to improve your performance? While there’s no universal way to process criticism, I would like to suggest a process you can try with existing criticism that may help you start to shift from running from criticism to welcoming it.
1) Express Gratitude
It may be hard, but any time you receive criticism (especially early in your career), start off by expressing gratitude, because it is a gift. If it’s delivered in person, go ahead and thank the person for offering you feedback. Even if you’re shocked or disagree, you can let them know you want to sit with that for a bit. If the criticism comes in written form, go ahead and just express gratitude before opening it as a way to shift your perspective toward it. I often just say out loud, "Thank you, ____________________________ (students/reviewers/readers), for the time and energy you’ve invested in providing me with feedback."
2) Read It Thoroughly and Notice How You Feel
Sit down, take a deep breath and read through your feedback from start to finish. Then check in with yourself about how you feel. It’s okay to acknowledge that criticism hurts! Most of us try hard to do our best in the classroom, in our writing and in our relationships with other people. When we’re putting in a lot of time and effort, any identification of flaws can feel like nobody is noticing all the things we are doing correctly. So when you open those evaluations or peer reviews or listen to a colleague’s feedback, it’s normal to feel a wave of defensiveness, anger or sadness. I’m encouraging you to notice it because you don’t want to get stuck there. Notice it, let it pass through you and keep moving forward.
3) Sort Through It
Any feedback you receive is going to be composed of subjective and objective information. We are humans and when we evaluate anything, we’re doing so through a particular lens. What specific criteria you use to sort will depend on the type of feedback. For example, with teaching evaluations you may want to sort by what comments are organizational, content related and personal. For peer reviews, you may want to sort comments as methodological, theoretical, organizational and personal opinion. When I sort written feedback, I literally cut and paste the different parts and put them into piles.
4) Choose What Matters
Once you’ve sorted things out, it’s time to search for the golden nuggets. This shift in orientation will make it easier to throw out anything that doesn’t matter. When the criticism is about activity (how you behaved in a meeting, how you teach in the classroom), you want to focus on the concrete behavioral suggestions. For example, if a majority of students said they don’t understand your grading procedures, it’s time to consider using a rubric. If your colleagues felt that your grading papers during a faculty meeting was inappropriate, you may want to slot out a different time for grading. Of course, this is more difficult when it comes to writing, but it follows the same pattern: sort and choose. Reviewers' comments can often be contradictory, so you have to decide what matters to you (as a researcher) in moving the manuscript forward.
5) Ask for a Sounding Board
Choosing what matters can be difficult. The great news is that your campus is full of people with experience and expertise who can help you. Your Center for Teaching Excellence likely has faculty developers on hand to help you analyze your evaluations and choose your next steps for improvement. You can share your written reviews with collaborators, colleagues or mentors. And when a colleague provides you with feedback, you can always chat with an external mentor (who's outside your department) to get an objective view on how to move forward.
6) Experiment with Suggestions
The beauty of welcoming criticism is that you get to choose experiments for moving forward. In other words, there’s often a single powerful idea in the mountain of words, and if you experiment with something new from it, not only will your performance noticeably improve, but people will view you as a teacher, a scholar and a colleague who can receive feedback, evolve and change.
I hope this process provides you with a different way of thinking about criticism so that you can begin to welcome it as a gift instead of dreading its arrival.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity