Feedback and me


I have a troubled relationship with feedback.

It has been this way for many years, from my days as a PhD researcher in literary studies (where someone has literally fallen asleep in front of me while I was tutoring) to disjointed gigs as a guest lecturer and convenor where my contact with the student cohort was minimal and very episodic.

These days, I teach classes, convene intensives, and run multi-part programs all the time. And I must evaluate them constantly.

I’ve recently had a revelation that you should feel free to roll your eyes at: getting feedback is meant to be helpful, not harmful.

Let me sketch what’s happened a bit more.

One of the final things I had to do last year was convene three days of researcher intensives – two days for the Early Career Researchers and one for the Mid Career Researchers. It happened in the first week of December and I spent my last working week in 2018 following up properly with materials and links, and clearing urgent backlogged tasks. Never has a week appeared so short!

The theme was ‘engagement and impact’. This was not surprising seeing as ‘engagement and impact’ are the Sonny and Cher of Australian and UK higher education research circles in recent years. I invited Tamika Heiden of KT Australia to run a couple of workshops for us and it was great to have a Research Whisperer buddy come to play at my institution.

I also had the benefit of great chats with Tamika during those days. One of the things we discussed was the way we solicit and act on feedback.

Tamika mentioned fixed and growth mindsets, concepts established by the work of Carol Dweck, mainly in the field of Education. There’s been decades of writing and talking about these ideas, including how they’re famously misunderstood. They’re concepts that I must’ve been exposed to but never really engaged with, until now. After our chat, I did a bit more reading around it.

I’ve been thinking on and off about cultivating more of a growth mindset for my work, particularly in teaching, and especially as I plan out 2019.

Better late than never, right?

Tamika and I are both in jobs that depend on feedback and goodwill. I had always thought of myself as being fairly good with feedback. I knew the lay of the land, I told myself. As a researcher, I was used to picking myself up after each bout of rejection or set of reviews (oh, the numerous and varied rejections!). As a teacher, I had gotten used to the highs and lows of participant feedback, knowing that we should probably nix the outlying highly effusive or disgruntled negative person.

Now, having thought about it, I’ve come to realise a rather major thing – I have always, and still do, dread seeing the feedback for my workshops, especially if I’m running them for the first (or second) time.

I usually get to the point where I can embrace the feedback and use it to make my work more nuanced, more inclusive, fresher and with stronger structure. But it takes me a while.

The anticipation and experience of getting the feedback is something I don’t welcome. My first feeling is always that the feedback will be bad. For example, I was invited last year to give a workshop at an interstate university, for their graduate school. I hadn’t worked with them before and, while the session seemed to be fine, I heard nothing from them after I went home. The organisers had mentioned that they’d be evaluating the session and would pass on feedback from it. I had written back that I would welcome feedback as I was always working to improve what I did. This was partly true: I always want to improve what I do. However, I don’t really welcome feedback – it scares me more often than not… It wasn’t until I flagged again in a follow-up email that I would welcome any feedback they’d received that they sent on the participants’ evaluations and comments. All of which were very positive.

These feelings that I’ve done badly are drawn from the classic pool of imposterish self-doubt, and my pool of self-doubt may well be categorised as a lake. Perhaps even a sea. It’s that thing of focusing on the negative, even though there are many, many sessions I do where there are no negative comments and effusive positive feedback is the ‘average’. I know I shouldn’t but I still sit with – and ponder – the comments from the outlying haters. Perhaps I need to be more immediately resilient when it comes to feedback because it costs me. I know that it creates better outcomes and experiences in the future, and is essential to the work I do, so it would be sensible of me to switch my thinking from dread to positive expectation.

Having gone through cycles of feedback constantly for our sessions and in my own work-planning meetings with my manager, I’m more likely these days to see feedback  as enabling me to improve all that I do rather than a categorical judgement about my worth as a teacher or an academic.

I know this sounds really basic and academics go through versions of this process all the time, but I realised that I’ve never written about it. My confidence in my research practices and strategies is not echoed in my feelings or knowledge about teaching. It’s one relationship I would like to fix in the near future.