Getting the feedback you need

Feedback. It’s a prickly issue for writers. We both want it and fear it. It makes us nervous, fearful, tired, annoyed, cheered – sometimes all of these things in one essay/paper/chapter. One of the most helpful things I learned during my PhD was how to ask for feedback – the feedback I needed. This post addresses asking for the feedback you need, even if it isn’t always the feedback you want.

Feedback we need is not always feedback we want, in the sense that often we don’t want to do another tough round of revisions and rewriting and more thinking, because we want to move on to the next thing, or because we are tired, or because the PhD is only one of many things demanding our time and attention. But, more often than not, we need to do this work, and so we need feedback that helps us to achieve this. I am not sure it is possible to always have your needs and wants be the same when it comes to feedback, but the more you go into the scary space of asking for provocative, thoughtful and critical feedback and work with it to have it feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking, the more you want to get that kind of feedback.

It is so important to work out what kind of feedback you really need and to look for it. PhD students cannot simply wait for the right kinds of feedback to find them, and for supervisors to know what kinds of feedback they are looking for at different points in the process. My supervisor encouraged me to be very directive about what kind of feedback I wanted. I am aware that many supervisors will not do that expressly (or otherwise) but rather than just sending writing and asking broadly what they think, why not suggest to your supervisor when you send them your writing that they focus on specific things, like the coherence of your text, or whether it addresses the research questions, or whether you have read the right kinds of sources for a particular argument you are making. As a new supervisor myself, I think it would be helpful if my student helped me navigate her thinking and writing like this. Supervisors are busy too, and you are often not their only student or task – giving them polite but clear requests for particular kinds of help could well be helpful for them as well as for you.

Asking for specific feedback requires being quite conscious of what you are writing, what you have been thinking about and also struggling with, and what you might need in order to keep moving forward. Making ‘meta-notes’ as you write, either in writing or just in your head, is quite helpful when it comes to then sending that email or having that conversation. These are some of my ‘meta-notes’ on the kinds of feedback I thought I needed on just three stages of my process. This may be helpful if you are battling to put what you need/want from your supervisor into words, and can hopefully help you generate other questions of your own:

Early stages – pre-proposal reading and chunks of writing: ‘Are my research questions valid? Am I addressing them with what I am reading and thinking about? Is this just one PhD or have I got too much here? How could I edit this down if I am trying to do three PhDs in one? What else could/should I be reading?’ 

Proposal writing process: ‘Are my research questions clear, and viable? Is the focus and rationale for this research clear to the reader? Does my proposed conceptual framework hang together and make sense? Does it ‘match’ my research questions. unit of analysis and focus? Is the literature review section where I explain the field I am contributing to well-constructed – can you see the gap my research speaks into? Do my methods seems reasonable; is there a methodology rather than just a list of data and methods of generating it? Are there any glaring errors, like missing references and typos I need to correct?’

Chapter 1 – literature review/conceptual framework: ‘Is this just a collection of things I’ve read or can you hear my voice? How can I make my own stance and voice clearer here? Have I read the field accurately – are there any gaps I need to fill in my reading? Have I explained the way I am using the theory to create a framework for the study clearly – do you see what I am doing and why I have chosen this theoretical framework? Does it connect with my research questions? Are there gaps and where? How would you suggest that I try to address the gaps and revise this chapter?

The worst thing as a writer is sending something to a reader, like a PhD student to a supervisor, and wanting them to really think about your argument and advise you on how to make it stronger or better substantiated, and then getting back a list of typos and grammatical errors you could have corrected yourself just before you are ready to submit the work. It’s frustrating and demoralising, and worse for a student, you can end up stuck and unable to keep writing and thinking as productively as you need to. To get the feedback you need is to see that what you need may be tough to hear, and to act on, but will move you forward if you can engage with it constructively. Seeing feedback in this way will help you to pose the questions to your critical friends and supervisor that ask for particular readings of your work that then result in you receiving more critical, provocative and helpful feedback that really does feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking.

The feedback you get should be constructive and encouraging even as it critiques, questions and provokes more thinking, and it’s terrible when this is not the case. As I have said before in this blogspace, not all supervisors use their powers for good – many do not perhaps think to put themselves into their students’ shoes, and do not think about what their feedback sounds like, or how useful it is from a student’s perspective. Students getting destructive, unhelpful feedback from their supervisors may need to think about other avenues for getting supplementary help with their writing and thinking, like Chapter Swap online, a PhD writing group or a critical friend or two. There is help out there – but you may have to be brave and resourceful to find it if you are not getting enough of it closer to ‘home’. Good luck!

Deciphering your supervisor’s feedback

This is supposed to be a somewhat lighthearted post, rather than a serious exposition on feedback.

cybergogue.blogspot.com

cybergogue.blogspot.com

I was chatting to some friends and fellow PhD travellers recently about how we make sense of our supervisors’ feedback – what we read into some of the ways in which they phrase comments and questions that give us clues on how to respond in the most appropriate ways. It was a funny conversation, and we all ended up laughing quite a lot at our own accounts of how we do this. But it did get me thinking about how we – how students – respond to feedback that we are given on our writing, not just emotionally but also in terms of how we read from the feedback a set of guidelines for our revisions, or read into the feedback the tone of our supervisor’s (or examiner’s/reviewer’s) responses to our writing.

My supervisor – and I both liked and disliked this at various points and for a range of reasons – never told me what to write or think. She prompted, questioned, suggested, challenged – but she never instructed. There are times when you just want to be told what to write so that you know you are writing the right things (although there really is a lot of subjective judgement about what is ‘right’ and that should not necessarily be for someone other than you to ultimately decide). But most of the time you really do want to be guided with your writing and thinking rather than instructed. You want the work to be your own, and even though it’s bloody hard work most of the time, you really want to do the thinking work that comes with the writing and revising and rewriting.

But in order to do the most productive kinds of writing and thinking that will indeed take you on a journey of intellectual and personal growth and learning (and help you produce a PhD dissertation), you need not only to have that guidance that creates space for you to think, write, revise and grow, you need also to know what to do with that guidance, much of which comes in the form of feedback whether written or verbal. I worked out, over time, a way of making sense of what my supervisor was suggesting or prompting me to think about and do – and figuring out what my own response should be. I think that this working out will be different for each student, of course, but this is an important thing to spend some time thinking about, as part of the process of becoming a more conscious writer.

For instance, I worked out that when she started a comment with ‘I wonder if…’ this meant that I could think about it myself, and arrive at my own conclusion about whether or not to include what followed in my chapter. If she said ‘This is my own personal preference…’ I didn’t really have to think too hard and could probably note her comment and move on if it didn’t match my personal preferences. If she said ‘You may want to…’ then I probably did want to (and actually should) do what she suggested. She also gave other more directive kinds of comments like ‘Include a few references here’ and ‘Check for consistency with this’ and I duly did so. Working out this ‘code’ was helpful for me in terms of reading into the feedback her responses to my writing and whether she felt I was going well or not, and also reading from her feedback some clear guidelines and pointers for my own revisions.

What is your supervisor’s code and how does working it out help you to work on your writing and revisions?