Feedback and me

Photo by Charles Deluvio |
Photo by Charles Deluvio |

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.


  1. as much as it’s easy to fear that people can be just plain mean, truly most folks are so intent on wanting to please us that it’s a gift when one offers genuine feedback


    • You have a good point there – and I have visions (as is my wont) about people hating on the things I might have presented and walking away from providing any feedback at all…when, really, we know that most people will not return feedback and it’s apathy rather than antipathy!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I also had a troubled relationship with feedback. But as I gained more experience with teaching, and took courses about how to provide feedback to students, I learned to accept it myself.

    Now I try to take a professional approach to education: it is not about the students treating me as some sort of god, I am just there to help them learn. If a student falls asleep in front of me, it may be because them have been up all night at a job, or with a sick child. In any case, provided they are okay (and are not for example having a stroke), and do not disturb the rest of the class, it is none of my business how they spend their time in class. If the entire class is asleep, that would be of concern.

    The problem of students not turning up to lectures I have solved, by not giving lectures. As you note, the way to get student’s attention is to evaluate them frequently. I have assessment every week, and divide assignments up into pieces which are submitted progressively.

    The best way I have found to understand what students experience is to be a student. Sign up for a course, and see it from their point of view. I was surprised to find that, even as a mature experienced educator, as soon as I enrolled I started behaving like a student: complaining about too much work, and asking “will this be on the test?”. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Tom – great comment. Resonated with me when you said to become the student. I’m part of an internal 8-month professional development program right now and it really does give you a different perspective when you’re not the one running the sessions – in good ways overall (makes me realise what can be improved in my own work, as well as what feels like I’m doing right). If I keep to the “I am here to help participants learn” track, it does make it a lot easier.

      I have yet to have a whole class fall asleep but I still have some years left in the classroom so we shall see…!


  3. This resonates with me SOOOOOO much. I have noticed this myself. And one thing I’ve been wondering about is that bit about “the first or second time”. Because while I do want to improve, I also don’t want to just design workshops based on what participants think they want (which isn’t always what they really want or need). I want to design workshops based on my knowledge and skills. I lead a 3 day retreat for a university last summer and there was one participant who had clearly not read the blurb, interpreted the title in her own way, and then spent the entire 3 days being disruptive because the retreat was all wrong. Luckily I and the person who hired me managed that reasonably well and the other people gave some great feedback, but I think the fear of that kind of person or that kind of feedback is part of my reluctance, especially when I’m still refining what I’m doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I badge Grant Camp really clearly as “Bring your idea for research funding and work on it”. I still get people who have no idea what they want to do, or how to get it funded.

      Thankfully, they seem to be happy that I can give them any advice at all, but I am always worried that they will be really frustrated (and I can’t help it if they can’t read a blurb).


      • I’m sort of glad I’m not alone but it does seem odd that people who read and write for a living can’t read one paragraph about the workshop. That said, it might also indicate how desperate people are for help that anything that looks vaguely like it might help them seems attractive. I also think sometimes they don’t want to take the time to actually think about what they need so they can make good decisions though maybe that’s what coming along allows them to do even if they end up doing the bit that would have made the workshop more useful to them.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Wow – I didn’t think it would affect someone as experienced as you, Jo! Thanks for sharing. I often feel inadequate with teaching because the majority of my experience is more on the research side.

      And yikes about the disruptive person! There is something about the unknown quantity of every new session I front that brings on so much anxiety. I am getting better at managing it, but it still lurks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.