Managing conflicting feedback on your thesis



There is something going on with thesis writing that we need to talk about beyond the whisperings I’ve heard amongst grad students. Here goes: Your thesis is not really yours. Yes, your thesis follows you around, wakes you from your sleep, gazes down on you while you cook, interrupts you when you’re having coffee with friends. Yes, you live and breathe your thesis. But, the moment you hand over the first (full or partial) draft of your thesis, it becomes a negotiated work, as you deal with feedback, advice, and demands from your supervisor and committee members.

When I sent the first full draft of my thesis to my supervisor and committee members, I felt like I was letting go of something that was mine. From that point on, my voice would be influenced by theirs. I wondered how this act of opening my writing up to critique, criticism, and praise would shape it. I wondered what my role (right?) was in determining the breadth and scope of the re-shaping.

We are told, as thesis writers, to take a stance, make our work our own and become independent scholars, and develop a voice to communicate our ideas with our scholarly community. But to do all of this, we have to navigate what can sometimes be conflicting messages about where our writing should go. This is entirely expected and perfectly acceptable. To a point. We choose our committee members precisely for the diverse areas of expertise and perspectives they can bring to our work. This makes our writing (and therefore, our thinking) stronger. But, these people do not always agree with each other. And, more importantly, we do not always agree with them. Why aren’t we talking (though we are whispering) about how to navigate the murky waters of receiving conflicting feedback on our thesis?

There is literature and advice on how to give constructive feedback on writing for supervisors, if they choose to look for it. There is also advice on how to deal with conflicting reviews on journal manuscripts.  But the same doesn’t appear to be true with regards to the issue of grad students navigating the power relationships that swirl around the feedback they get on their thesis writing. And, I see this as very different from journal reviewer feedback.  The latter is a “blind” review system, where the author doesn’t know who is giving them feedback. The feedback we get on our thesis writing is not blind. It is personal. It is political. It is wrapped up with issues of imbalanced power relationships. And, how we manage it matters.

Now, I’m not talking about how to handle receiving conflicting advice about formatting your thesis. One professor I spoke to about this advised that grad students do what their supervisor or disciplinary conventions ask them to do, and change the format or push conventions later, if they want. I’m also not talking about when supervisors and committee members make suggestions about how to develop the meat of the thesis (theoretical frameworks or methodological approaches). I say, listen closely, consider the advice, do some more reading, take a stance, and justify your position. Part of our task as emerging scholars is to explore ideas beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones. We expect feedback from our mentors. We expect to be challenged. We want to be pushed, and this helps us develop our work.

BUT. What happens when your supervisor says “You need to add a section/ chapter on X.” And a committee member say, “No way, that doesn’t fit. You need to take out this whole section on Y.” As a grad student, you are in a lower position of power than your supervisor and committee members. You have to navigate some tricky power politics, and still write something you believe in. This can cost you time, which, as we know, costs more than money.

And here, we come to the heart of the issue: You are crafting not only the thesis as your own personal artefact, but also relationships. The onus does not fall on students to manage this relationship alone. The supervisory relationship, like any relationship, is one that needs to be based on clear expectations and understandings of roles and responsibilities. Students need to be able to bring up issues and concerns with their supervisors. Supervisors need to contextualize conflicting feedback for students, and make sure students are not sent off with conflicts to deal with on their own.

We are increasingly seeing supervision as a form of teaching, supervision as pedagogy. As such, we need to consider what images shape our understandings of a good teacher. Is a good teacher someone who is hard on their students? Does learning have to involve some element of suffering? Is a bit of struggle doing the student good? Likewise, we need to consider what images shape our understandings of a good learner.

What are your experiences dealing with conflicting feedback on your thesis writing? How do we bring these stories from whispers between fellow grad students to a constructive and open dialogue between students and supervisors?

Author Bio:Dr Alison Crump is the Academic Projects Officer in Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at McGill University where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Second Language Education at McGill.