The exhaustion is real: a different kind of ‘ new years’ post

It’s January. A new year. New things to do and people to teach and papers to write and lessons to learn. Not, it seems, new places to go, unless I somehow find a space in my house I’ve never spent time in before (maybe the storage space/Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs might count?). And not, it seems so far, new energy and verve. I am tired. I have wished people happy new year in emails and in WhatsApps, because that’s the thing you do each January, and because I want it to be a happy new year. What am I going to write instead: Here’s hoping it’s less shite than last year? Holding thumbs that we all make it? This, as you may have guessed it, is not a typical ‘here’s to the new year’ post. But, I need to write it. And I hope it helps you if you are in a similar boat.

Usually, a couple of weeks of hard relaxing in December and early January – gin & tonic sundowners in the pool, feet up and head buried in a novel, walks and long lunches with friends, alone time, your pick here – are enough to recharge the tired batteries and give me a boost for the new work and life year. I come back ready to pick it all up again and get going. But, this year has been different. My two weeks was not long enough by any means, and the relaxing was curbed by a super-stressful news cycle here and abroad that was hard to turn off, kids missing their friends and unable to really socialise, adults missing their friends and unable to really socialise. It wasn’t very relaxing, really. So, I started January much the same way I ended November and December: tired, a bit sad, flat, cynical, angry. And I’m struggling to let go of those negative emotions and get excited about this work and life year. It all just feels like too much. And in the face of so much global panic and stress and dying animal and plant species and awful people and divisive racism, sexism, homophobia and violence – it’s like: What am I doing? No one needs another paper on higher education or another project or another blog post or another anything I do. Who cares? The world is on fire. I’m going back to bed. Wake me when it’s over. Except it feels like maybe it’ll never be over. The pandemic will – please gods – end at some point, but climate change? Racism? Misogyny? Divisive rhetoric, misinformation, disinformation, people just being horrible to each other – when will all of that end? Will it? And what I am doing about any of it that matters?

I have this lovely warrior friend who joins these awful groups on social media spouting nonsense about microchips in vaccines and satanic cabals stealing children and controlling Washington and more awfulness, and she takes on the liars and spreaders of disinformation and challenges them and tries to give them different information (truth and evidence, mainly). It is so inspiring. I am in awe of her ability to do that. I cannot. I just don’t have the mental strength to take on wilfully ignorant and stupid people whose lies and divisive rhetoric are quite literally doing harm to real people in the world. But, I feel like I should be doing something like that: not staying silent to protect my mental health, but being brave and taking on some of the awfulness and trying to challenge it, change it, at the very least add my voice. It is hard to be human when that means, as Glennon Doyle argues, advocating for others to have everything you want for yourself, not seeing yourself in competition with everyone else for rights, resources, citations, students, awards, recognition, but seeing yourself as an ally, a co-traveller, at the very least, a co-human. It feels, most days, like it takes more and more emotional and mental energy to be present, to be engaged … to be awake and dressed.

I cannot go back to bed. I have kids and students and courses to teach and papers to write and thesis projects to supervise and a journal to manage and people to talk to and be present for and with, albeit online. I cannot stop doing what I do – I cannot stop being me. So, what do I do? How do I turn this from ‘Here’s hoping but I’m not holding my breath’ to ‘Happy new year, let’s make it a good one’? How do I find meaning and purpose in the midst of so much chaos and mess and sadness and loss all around me, around us? How do I – we – hold on?

Well, I started by writing this, and in doing so by tacitly asking you to indulge me as you read it, because I needed to get this out of my head and heart and I don’t currently have a therapist. So, blog therapy. I drew a picture of what I want my inner PhDgirl to look and feel like going forward. I am acknowledging that, right now, I am not okay. But I want to be. I am tired, but I want to be energised and excited about my work and my life. I have said ‘yes’ to teaching and writing projects that I currently feel overwhelmed by, because I know they will add shape and meaning to my life and will give me something positive and energising to focus on and goals to work towards. I took a day on Thursday to have a swim, play silly games on my phone, and watch Netflix. I did not check email. I did not make myself feel bad about that. I am no longer telling myself I am behind. I am where I am, and that has to be okay so that I will be okay. I cannot live on a hamster wheel anymore, even one of my own making. I want to choose to make myself a priority in my own life and I want to stop apologising for that. So, I’m starting today. I am going to write this post and publish it, even though the shame voice in my head is saying ‘TMI! No one wants to read this self-indulgent crap! Just suck it up and get on with it!’ I don’t want to do that anymore. If last year taught us anything, it has to that it is okay to not be okay and it is okay to say ‘I was wrong but I am open to learning’ and it is okay to ask for help and take it and be grateful that there are people who care enough to help.

So, here we go, into a new year. I read somewhere on social media that January is the 13th month of 2020, so that means new year’s day in actually Monday, February 1st. I like that – it gives me a bit more time to work through some of this exhaustion and meh-ness so that I can really start this year with more energy and purpose than I feel right now. I do wish us all a happier new year, a safer and healthier new year, a less isolated and lonely new year. Thank you for reading this, and for being part of my global tribe. Your support means more than I can say.

The year 2020 in writing and research: a review (of sorts)

At the end of the year for the last few years I have written a “what I learned about writing this year’ kind of post (see here for 2019, for example). But, this year has been quite unusual in many respects, not least because after March, all bets were off for meeting early writing goals and Being Productive on the research front. Some people has a super-productive year, if my Twitter feed is to be believed, but this was not the case for many and I include myself in this group. This post, then, is a musing on the year that has been, and a stock-taking review of sorts.

I started this year sending off a full draft of my book to colleagues for peer review, and thought: Fabulous! That’s Done. Now I’ll write All The Other Things in my queue (mostly co-authored papers with students and colleagues and starting a new research project – long reading list – and applying for ethical clearance so I can start gathering data – yay). First thing, the book was by no means done (what was I thinking?). It came back in May with lots of constructive critique, which was great but also meant a whole-book revision and some rewriting and new writing and reading. This was now 2 months into Lockdown, and the world was a whole new place. I was moving all my teaching online, which was so much more work than I thought it would be, preparing to teach a Master’s module online, and trying to make my children do their schoolwork at home and not watch YouTube and play online games all day. So, the paper writing and new research reading I had started was paused (really stopped, but let’s say paused ’cause it sounds better).

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

Second thing, do you know how long reading brand new theory and substantive research takes? I didn’t. I should have, having done an MA and a PhD in the last 15 years. But, somehow, I forgot that reading with concentration, and reading Theory, is flipping hard. It takes time and energy, and by the time I had revised the whole book and sent it to the series editor in July, both were in short supply. So, there was more pausing and putting the new project off, and I couldn’t do fieldwork anyway, so it was all moot, it felt like. The book came back, more revisions and corrections, more emotional and mental energy. But, by now my kids were back at school at least part of the week, so the homeschooling was a bit easier, and my lovely co-author was teaching a full semester online and I was teaching two professional development courses alongside the MA module. So she didn’t mind pausing the paper a bit (or a lot) longer. Writing and research, what’s that? Just making myself wash my hair and get out of my PJs for Zooms-with-no-cameras was a lot, most days, in August and September.

The book went back in August and passed muster, and then went off to production. Big milestone. Big relief. But short-lived. It came back rather quickly, copyedited, and the whole thing – all 177 pages – had to be re-read very carefully and corrected, edited, checked. There were many long-sentences I missed as well as puzzling typos and referencing mistakes. That was hard. I read that manuscript just hating it and feeling very strongly that no one would want to buy it, let alone read it, and what on earth possessed me to believe I could write a book? I really dragged myself through the revisions and sent it back. But, the process of doing that oddly gave me a second wind for working on the one paper I had paused earlier in the year. It helped that my teaching and marking had started winding down, too, in early November. We signed up to present a work-in-progress at an online colloquium, which gave us both a bit of a boost. Although it now all on hold again, because we are pretty finished in terms of energy and brain-power.

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

So, now it is December and I am three days away from activating my out-of-office on 3 email acccounts, after which I will be deleting my social media apps and my gmail app from my phone for the 2.5 weeks I am on leave. Last night at 10pm I sent back the proofs and index for the book – I had to read the whole thing again and make more corrections and comments – and it’s back in the production queue. The co-authored paper is still in a paused state, but the argument is becoming less opaque and we hope, with fresher brains, we can finish it early next year. The new research project is not anywhere, really – no further along than it was this time last year. Maybe 2021 will be more productive on that front now that the book is done and that research chapter is effectively closed. As to the other papers in the queue? I don’t know. I have no idea what next year will look like. Am I still going to be teaching online all year, part of the year? Will I be allowed or brave enough to travel? I know I will have to make time to promote my book – I have no idea what that will look like yet as South African university campuses have not announced clear plans for being “back at work” in any kind of old-normal way yet. Just thinking about that makes me want to take a long nap.

I am anticipating unforeseen emotional labour and drains on my energy, maybe more consciously now that I have in the past. I am trying not to make too many plans that will be a basis for being mean to myself for not Being Productive, and I am trying to have looser, less formal plans for 2021’s writing and research. I mean, I probably say this every year, but the craziness and upheaval and fatigue of this year has really driven home the need to pay attention to my energy, to accept rather than rail against it, and to work with myself kindly and gently, rather than holding myself up to some external standard that may be fine for someone else, but not for me. This is not easy: I had to actually stop myself from berating myself for only uploading two publications into the university database as proof of my research “output” this year (both written in 2019). Two publications in any year is just fine, and in 2020, it’s great. I suppose, what I am learning more and more is to work at my pace, not someone else’s pace, and to celebrate all the small milestones, like papers read and proofs edited and productive, fun co-author meetings that push the process a few steps further, even if the finished draft itself is a way off. Focusing on the steps rather than only on the big product at the end seems to be a healthier way to Be Productive, in this or any year. So, that’s what I am taking forward with me. That and a resolution of sorts to embrace slower forms of scholarship and self-care that give me time for rest and recharging and eating properly and sleeping better and exercising (not my best thing).

Photo by Vie Studio on Pexels.com

I wish you all a merry, safe and restive end-of-year break, and a happy festive season if you are celebrating. I am grateful to all of my readers out there for your support – thank you, and see you in 2021!

Adapting my reading journal to be ‘fit for (my) purpose’

Last week I posted the first in a series of posts contributed by Master’s students in a research methodology module I taught this past semester. Their final assignment was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of the learning or engagement in the course that represented a kind of ‘aha’ moment or challenge they are working on. This second post is from Jodie Bougaard, who is researching Russia’s cyber-meddling in the 2016 US elections.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

As a master’s student in the process of designing my study, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time engaging with literature related to my area of interest. Throughout the preliminary stages of thinking about my study, I’ve encountered challenges in this regard. I wondered if I was doing a sufficient amount of reading; identifying key themes in the material I engaged with and if it was relevant to my proposed research. Conventional wisdom suggests that conducting a sound literature review at the outset of the research design is essential not only to formulate a hypothesis and research questions but also to broaden your knowledge base as a researcher and identify gaps in the existing discourse.  

With this in mind, I proceeded to read and scrutinise any material I could find, waiting to have a grand epiphany about what the original ‘angle’ on my research would be or what I could add to the academic conversation. I had already identified an area of interest and developed key research questions. My chosen topic relates to electoral interference in the U.S. election in 2016. I knew that I needed to identify the key themes throughout my literature, organise concepts in accordance with the key themes, and create a general structure for my inquiry.  In practice, I was still spending an inordinate amount of time reading, searching for the grand knowledge gap, which continually eluded me. I began feeling that I was using my time unproductively, and this realisation induced anxiety. If you are an inexperienced researcher like me, it is not always easy to see what’s missing and it can be discouraging to read large volumes of material and not have any ‘a-ha’ moments along the way.

As a remedy to this angst, I have realigned how I approached literature by developing insight into what kind of reading I was doing. I started by going back to the beginning, reading as an objective viewer or a passive receiver of information. Instead of frantically trying to identify gaps in existing knowledge from the outset (which puts a considerable amount of pressure on you as a researcher) I found that reading to familiarise myself with material related to my study was a far more effective use of my time in working on my proposal. I didn’t force myself to evaluate the author’s arguments or the underlying assumptions of their propositions straight away. I know that critical engagement occurs further along the process, and through critical engagement knowledge gaps would emerge. In some cases, such as mine, knowledge-gaps may not be quite so apparent. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I understand the aim of pursuing a master’s degree not to necessarily to produce the most original and exciting or innovative study, but rather to demonstrate competency as a researcher. Through proper research of any subject you can build upon existing knowledge, which is still a valid contribution to your chosen discipline.

So, I collected literature, categorised it using a reading journal and qualified it in the context of my study. This process made reading in the preliminary stages far more pleasurable experience. I stopped stock-piling papers to read in future as doing so only fuelled my core belief that I was not reading enough. Instead, I skimmed abstracts and introductions, bookmarking papers I wanted like to read when I had sufficient time. I found that doing this daily over a three-month period provided an extensive reading catalogue, where I was building my own library or repository.

Photo by Daria Obymaha on Pexels.com

I have learned to distinguish between the types of reading I am doing. I am growing to understand that there is room for focused, critical and intentional reading; however, there is also a time for general and unconstrained reading. Much like writing, there are variations, each with their own merits. Writing should reflect academic rigour and express critical insights; however, it’s also useful to do freewriting exercises throughout the research design process. Similarly, reading can also be approached in this manner.  Designing a study isn’t a linear process. Making notes or distilling themes and concepts in the literature becomes less arduous when you allow room for exploration through reading. Understanding which kind of reading you’re doing helps lift the fog of confusion and resultant panic that emerges when you read without thinking. Reading comprehensively means casting a wide net and then making conscious choices to either consume or discard what has been collected. Reading thoroughly means engaging with material within a narrow and deep construct, and through this finite scope, expertise is developed. The latter cannot occur without the former. Thus, I am not suggesting that anyone should read indiscriminately. I am, however, stating that building a knowledge base necessitates reading extensively to develop a sound background understanding of any topic.

By the time I completed my literature review, my research had become a case study situated within a larger conversation about meddling as a foreign policy strategy. I certainly did not anticipate structuring my study in this way. Prior to engaging properly with literature, I had entirely different working questions, none of which considered meddling as a foreign policy strategy. My point is that reading is not merely a means to an end. What I included in my literature review didn’t represent the extent of the material I had spent previous weeks reviewing. Adopting a mindset which prioritises reading as a fundamental part of your responsibility as a researcher, with no apparent start and end point, alleviates some of the stress associated with what to read and how to engage with literature. And adapting your reading journal to enable different kinds of reading, note-taking and organisation can help you in this process.

Overcoming or rather managing my imposter syndrome

This semester I taught a research methodology module for Master’s students and one of their assignments was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of their experience of the course, their writing or their learning. Over the next couple of months, I have the honour of sharing their writing with you. This first post is by Amina Hamidou, who is researching the politicization of black hair in South African schools.

Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

In the process of preparing for my written October exam, I started to second guess myself and feel a certain way. This feeling is a mix of excitement and longing for the year to end and crippling panic and self-doubt. I experienced this same self-doubt before when I was accepting my undergraduate degree. I did not feel like I had earned my degree, especially in regards to my grade, and my accomplishments felt like nothing in comparison to those of my peers. I felt like a fraud.

I came into my undergraduate already somewhat knowledgeable of what was to come and expected of me, as my mother is a senior lecturer; she gave my sister and I helpful ‘insider’ information and guidance to thrive at university. The first few months I felt lonely in the area of friends, as my twin sister and I were in different courses and only saw each other at the end of our days, but I felt confident in my work. However, this confidence came crashing down when the first test and assignment results came out. I felt like I should have done better than others because I have a parent who is an academic. So, I deduced that it was clearly me: I had all the advantages but still did not get the results I thought I would or should get. I felt like I was not good enough or smart enough and this feeling has come rushing back since I started my master’s program this year.

Is this feeling familiar? This demobilising fear of being unmasked as a fraud, filled with self-doubt, I have come to know is imposter syndrome and its quite common in postgraduate students and academics, especially women. So much so that there are counsellors that you can talk to at the University and information on this topic targeted specifically at postgraduate students. So why do I feel like a fraud? From my research and own experience, imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, but high achievers and perfectionist are more likely to suffer.

From how I have experienced it, imposter syndrome feelings include:

  1. Feeling like a ‘fake’: fearing that you will be confirmed to be a fraud or falling short of your own or others’ expectations;
  2. Downplaying your success: feeling that your achievements are not a big deal and pushing away praise;
  3. Attributing your success to luck: giving credit to everything else but your own abilities and hard work.

Imposter syndrome often drives people to work harder. But overcompensating can lead to unrealistic expectations and burnout, anxiety and possibly depression. However, I seem to do the opposite. Instead of overcompensating by working twice as hard, I decide that since my writing is not good enough anyway, I don’t have to try my best. This way, when I get my results or feedback I can tell myself, “Well, I know this wasn’t my best anyway”, which allows me to feel less hurt and inferior than I would do if put my all into my writing. This thought process leads me to become complacent, underachieving and adds to my procrastination.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Can you ‘overcome’ imposter syndrome?

  1. The first step is to recognise it as a problem or feeling that has a name. To recognise and name this feeling is a major step. This can help you to realise that your expectations might be too high and adjust them.
  2. Talk to someone – your supervisor, mentors or friends and family about your self-doubt and ask them to help in you in setting and managing more realistic goals.
  3. Realise that there is no such thing as perfect. You have to come to terms with realising that no one is perfect and in postgrad studies, as my lecture keeps saying, “Done is better than perfect”. No one expects perfection from you or expects you to know everything. As academics, we are always learning and we never stop being students, which has helped me take the pressure off myself.
  4. Admit and own the role you play in your success. For me, this has been vital. This ties in with your academic goals. You need to look to where you want to be and realize that you need to play an active role in achieving those goals, by taking it a task a day and not overestimating yourself (or the opposite!).
  5. Take credit for your achievements and do not downplay yourself and your accomplishments. It means that someone has recognised your work and capacity. You deserve to feel proud of that.
  6. Manage your stress. For me, creating a flexible timetable and schedule has helped me keep my stress down and feelings of impending pressure; this has helped minimize my imposter syndrome feelings as well.

Honestly, I am managing imposter syndrome and not overcoming it because I think we all have a little bit of imposter syndrome in us. As much as I try to overcome it, I have come to realise that, for me, it is triggered by stress. So managing imposter for me also comes hand in hand with stress management. When I have reduced the stress in my life I feel less fraudulent and more secure in myself and my work. Nonetheless, as is life, stress comes and goes and so does this feeling of being an imposter. During times of high stress, such as the end of the year, my feelings of inadequacy come creeping back. So each day I write down two to three tasks to accomplish which help me reach my weekly and then monthly goals for assignments and writing. These flexible daily tasks have helped make my writing more manageable. When I receive my writing back from my supervisor I take two to three days to go through the comments slowly so as not to overwhelm myself with negative feelings. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that my thoughts and comments about my writing are far harsher and more cynical than my supervisor’s. We tend to be harder on ourselves than others do.

At the end of the day, I have to remind myself that I made it through undergrad and honours with a degree. As my mother keeps telling me, “Not everyone is privileged to go to university and much less persevere and finish with a degree. Having a Bachelor and Honors degree shows that you have done what many cannot and could not, you should be proud and I am proud of you”. Those words are what I remind myself of when feelings of inferiority and inadequacy want to rob me of my success and accomplishments.

Remember you have ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY, you are PROUD of YOURSELF and I am PROUD OF YOU.

‘Put down the red pen’: Some thoughts-in-progress on feedback-giving

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).

Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

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).

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Pexels.com

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!