Anyone who teaches or advises writers has experienced the infuriating déjà vu of reading a student’s paper or dissertation chapter and thinking, “I know I responded to this in the last draft, but here it is again…unchanged.”
In my teaching capacity, this moment has traditionally generated something I call ‘reader rage’ (basically road rage on the page). My brain whirrs:
Did they even read my feedback?
Do they give a shit?
Why do I bother?
But my work as a graduate writing consultant has pushed me into a more nuanced view of why students may fail to respond to faculty feedback. In this capacity, I often work with students to operationalize feedback from their dissertation supervisor. In these situations, I see that it is possible for students to read their professors’ feedback and give a shit and still not know how to do meaningful revision.
In fact, it is not uncommon for a student to call in a writing consultant when they have gone through two or three rounds of feedback on a dissertation draft without being able to produce a draft that meets with their supervisor’s satisfaction. At this point the supervisor is probably thinking, “well, this student doesn’t have what it takes” or possibly, “please shoot me if I have to read another barely-‐changed draft of this dissertation.”
But I don’t think we should conclude that failure to revise is a priori evidence of lack of capacity to do the work. I have seen students fail to revise for reasons as simple as being too humiliated to ask the professor to translate her handwriting. At the graduate level, however, the reasons are generally more complex.
Being able to understand a supervisor’s feedback fundamentally means being able to do what psychologists call “perspective taking.” In interpersonal relationships, perspective taking is necessary to establish social connections and develop empathy. When we tell students to “write for your audience,” we are asking them to do a kind of rhetorical perspective taking—understanding what kind of written moves will satisfy the reader’s needs to know “where am I?” (context); to know what will happen (“signposting”); to know where the author locates herself in relation to her sources (authorial presence); and to help the reader make meaning of the data or ideas presented (analysis).
These are complex cognitive and rhetorical tasks.
If you have ever mis-‐read the tone or intention of a text message, you know that interpreting writing in the absence of other social cues can be challenging. Students face similar challenges as they work to decode feedback.
For example, a student who gets the written feedback “unclear” or “confusing,” has to recreate the scene of the reader’s confusion, has to experience the text from the reader’s point of view. We frequently urge students to read their text aloud in hopes that they will catch their own errors, Escher-‐esque syntax, or logical fallacies. This is a good strategy, and in some cases it allows students to externalize their text enough to hear the problems. But other times students cannot intuitively discern what is confusing, and unless they take the time to ask, are unlikely to revise in a way that addresses the confusion.
I see all kinds of students struggle to understand and incorporate written feedback, and the challenges can be intensified for neurodiverse students, for language learners, and for students who have not been avid readers. In fact, I see students struggle with written feedback so frequently that I have begun to mutter that writing is a lousy medium in which to give feedback about writing.
In my faculty development work on cultivating students as writers, I encourage dissertation supervisors to incorporate oral techniques, especially when students are not “uptaking” their written feedback. These strategies greatly support students’ cognitive abilities to understand their reader’s needs and thus to do meaningful revision.
Here are some strategies for supervisors to try (brave students may want to email this to their committee – Ed):
Ask the student to write you a follow-‐up letter commenting on and asking questions about your feedback. This mitigates the problem of the student not asking when they don’t understand. Discuss issues at your next meeting.
Rather than writing copious notes to the student, write shorter notes to yourself about what you want to discuss.
Incorporate verbal feedback into your written feedback by using software like Jing, which lets you make five-‐minute screencast videos with voiceover. The videos are stored in the cloud, and you can generate a link to paste into an email or into the comments feature in Word or Google docs. You can convey richer feedback in a five-minute video than you can in five minutes of writing.
If you can do so with empathy and humor, read problematic passages out loud to the student, using tone to help them experience what their reader experiences, including, for example, abrupt transitions, digressions, or non sequitors.
Use a move I call “I follow you / I lose you,” to indicate the moment where confusion sets in. I will say, “I follow you here”—and read the last passage that makes sense, and then say, “but I lose you here”—and read the adjacent passage where I lose the thread.
Refer backward and forward in the text, saying things like, “I know this because you say so in the next section, but you haven’t actually introduced this concept yet, so do you see why the reader is confused?” Ask the student to include a letter with their next draft about what they have revised and why, much as some journals do during the revise and resubmit process.
For supervisors, the iterative nature of the thesis-‐ and dissertation-‐writing process lends itself to trying new ways to communicate feedback. I encourage you to experiment with finding what works for you and for your students.
Author Bio: Dr. Daveena Tauber is a consultant who specializes in working with graduate students and programs in the U.S. and internationally.