I haven’t posted anything in ages, for a range of reasons, mostly to do with just having a super tired brain that can really only do what it has to do and nothing extra. I try to make writing blog posts part of my weekly work, but I do also need some creative oomph to find a hook and be myself and share some thoughts (hopefully wisdom) on subjects I am thinking about and think readers might be interested in. And that oomph has been in ever-shorter supply lately. Mainly, I have been spending a lot of my time giving writers feedback on their own writing, and have run out of steam for mine in the process. But, the upside of this is that I have been thinking a lot about feedback-giving and reflecting on doing this online (as opposed to pen-and-paper). Specifically, when do you jump in and track changes, and when do you back off and highlight errors for writers to fix themselves, and how much feedback is too much in the average 10-12 page paper or chapter draft?
There is a large amount of very good research out there on feedback: what and when and how and why and how much. There are many differing viewpoints, of course, but one thing much of the research in recent years can agree on is that feedback works best when it invites dialogue and conversation between the feedback-giver and the writer(s) receiving it. In essence, this means moving from telling writers what to do, to offering advice, prompts, suggestions and explanations that enable and encourage them to sit with their writing and work in revising and correcting it themselves. In this process, they hopefully gain greater insight into and understanding of themselves as writers and not only what they are writing about, but how they are writing about it too, and the effect of their writing on a reader. This is the “critical friend” position: as your feedback-giver, I am here as a friend, but not one who will tell you your writing is perfect (because we know there is no such thing, right?) I will point out errors, gaps and so on from the perspective of a reader, and advise you as best I can on how you could improve the next draft (at least).
But, the question then becomes: How? How do I offer advice, suggestions, explanations and so on? How much feedback is too much feedback for a writer to make sense of and work with? How many times might I get to read this piece? How do I hold myself back from just re-writing parts of this for them (especially if the writer is my student)?
These How? questions are the subject, again, of much research and fraught conversation in academia, especially as we have moved more and more online in the recent past, and more than perhaps ever before in 2020. We are not necessarily marking by hand, which limits the amount of correcting we can do and comments as can offer, because margin space is limited. I find that I tend to be more discerning when I mark by hand about what to focus on and what to leave, and then how to explain to students the feedback and ongoing revision work. Online, in Word or PDF, I can comment on every error, every line of text if I want to. I don’t have to discern in the same way because space is not as limited in an online text. I can cross out your writing and write my own version over it, potentially taking your ownership of your text away (you can reject my changes, but how many students do this?) I can delete parts of your text, even.
This is where the How? questions can become tricky, and require some introspection on what you are trying to do with your feedback to your students or peers, and what they need to get out of it. If you see feedback as mainly about producing a “perfect” text, then you may well track changes, type over the author’s words and, in the process, assert yourself as part-author of that text. If they don’t understand the thinking or grammatical rules and so on behind the changes you have made, and they see you as an authority, they may just “Accept All” and send it back. But, whose work are you then assessing: yours or theirs? Whose ‘voice’ comes through the text? I have given into the temptation to do too much of this, and have ended up reading revised writing that sounds way more like me that my student in places. It’s an uncomfortable feeling because I know they are not learning and growing as much as they could if I pulled back and tried something less directive (even if that would take more time all round).
If I see feedback, then, as helping students and writers to become more authorial, more in control of their text, their meanings and the knowledge they are creating – and this is certainly the case when you are working with postgraduate and postdoctoral students and writers as I am – I have to work differently. First, I cannot jump on every error and correct it. I try to find two or three examples of the error, if it is repeated, and in the comment bubble, I try to explain as clearly as I can why this is an error and how they can fix it. Sometimes they copy and paste my words from the bubble into the text without thinking too hard, but often, what comes back is a step forward. I have to offer my advice as questions, prompts, suggestions rather than instructions, so that their input (even if this is not shared with me directly) is invited and prioritised in revisions.
Second, depending on how many times I am going to get to see this draft, or where this assignment is placed within a whole assignment plan, I have to be discerning about how many things I comment on and how I approach the feedback process. Do I highlight all of the confusions I see, every missing link between sections and paragraphs, every muddled/long/obtuse sentence, every claim that has no evidence or elaboration behind it? If I do, with that be 20 comments over a 10 page piece of writing, or 40? And, even if it is only 20, will that be too much for this writer or this student? How much time do they have to sit with the comments, make sense of them, ask for clarification, have a meeting with me on Zoom? If this is a doctoral or Masters student writing a thesis, that’s probably an okay amount, because we’ll chat about it in supervision and they’ll likely have a few weeks to work on the next draft. If this is a writer working on a paper for publication, they may, too, have time to rework the paper.
But time is not the only factor, right? We also have to think about the level of confidence of the student, and how much they can actually cope with, mentally and emotionally. Will this feedback really help this student/writer, or will it paralyse them? We all experience anxiety and a bit of paralysis when we get feedback and have to start revisions, no matter how confident we may be as writers. But, the more experienced writers who have gone through the process of getting things wrong, being guided to a more sound position and getting their writing there through revisions and redrafting, may be less overwhelmed by critical feedback given in larger amounts. They know it will probably be okay in the end, even if it hurts and is hard to work through now, and will take time and effort.
But the average student has not yet been through this process enough to know that the feedback doesn’t mean they are stupid, or should not be writing a thesis or paper, and that if they do the work it will probably be okay in the end. So, I try to be conscious of my tone, and also how much feedback I offer and what I offer it on, to try not to overwhelm and paralyse the writers and students I work with. This is the hardest part of online feedback for me – pulling back and leaving things I know I could comment on but that perhaps are not so important right now. I tend to over-comment, to be honest. What I have started doing is forcing myself to just read a few pages without making any comments and changes, and then think about what most needs to be done to improve the next draft. Then I write one or two longer comments on the pages, rather than 10 small comments. This is hard, but it feels better to me in terms of the presence I take up in the text. Of course, this always depends on what I reading, why I am offering feedback and where the writer/student is, but as a general practice, it prevents me from going overboard.
I have also started sending my students and writers small summary voice-notes. This is partly because I get lazy about typing long summary comments, and partly to moderate the tone of my feedback in this online life where I don’t always get to meet the writers and students on Zoom to explain the feedback to them. I have found a free audio recorder app that works on my laptop and creates small files (about 3mb for a 5 minute recording), and I talk my summary feedback. I say ‘hello’ and offer them an overview of my impression of the text as their reader, and then highlight 2 or 3 main things I think really need to be part of the next draft. I always sign off with an encouraging comment, so that when they then open the text file, that’s hopefully what they hear in their heads.
The feedback from my students so far has been that they like the voice notes, and that these do indeed take the sting and fear out of the feedback a bit and make it a bit easier to ‘hear’ my voice in the comments encouraging rather than scolding them. We never really know all of what writers and students have experienced around their earlier writing, reading and feedback outings before we work with them; even if you have encouraging intentions, your feedback can still be heard in a negative tone in their heads. The voice notes may help to mitigate this over time. Maybe, if they hear an encouraging voice enough in a voice note and in the written comments it may over-write any mean voices telling them they can’t do this. I hope it will.
Feedback-giving online is tough, certainly for me. I really battle to put down the metaphorical red pen in the form of tracked changes and multiple comment bubbles, and focus on ‘higher order’ concerns around argument, understanding, cohesion and sense-making. It’s much easier to over-write and fix small mistakes, especially when you are tired and longer explanatory comments are hard to express clearly. But, I try to stop myself when I feel I am heading in this direction, take a break from the feedback and come back to it with a clearer head. This doesn’t always work out, of course, with deadlines and many tasks on the weekly list and too much last-minuting and fatigue. But, where I can take this time, I do, and where I can’t I try to be more conscious of what I am doing. Usually, this takes the form of going back over the writing before I send it, deleting or editing overly long or ultimately unnecessary comments, and composing an encouraging voice-note.
I feel like the bottom line here is that I will always be fallible and get it wrong in parts, and maybe even come across as terse and mean when I never have that intention. Feedback is a conversation, and you cannot control what people hear, how they hear it and even what they do with it. But, I can control my responses and my own learning and improving. With this online life being where we are now and into the future, all I really can do is keep learning how to fail better with each student and each draft. And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I have to get back to doing exactly that!