Handling criticism

I struggle with taking feedback, especially feedback of a critical nature (which is the only kind you ever really get in academia).  I always take it personally.  As an über-perfectionist, I hate receiving any indication that my work deviates from 100% excellence, even though I know logically that (a) no one is perfect, and (b) definitely not me.

As a result, I’ve tried to develop a series of coping techniques for responding to criticism productively and professionally.

STEP 1:  Remind yourself that feedback is good.

Repeat after me: Feedback helps me get better.  Feedback improves my work.  Feedback helps me get better.  Feedback improves me work. 

Not all pieces of feedback are good, of course – some are useless and aggravating and completely unhelpful.  But “feedback” as a concept is good.

STEP 2:  Read it (or listen to it) all at once.

Rip off the Band-Aid, so to speak.  It’s probably not as bad as you’re imagining (and if it is, at least you’ll have something concrete to get angry about).

STEP 3:  Resist the urge to get defensive.

Yesterday, one of my co-authors on the Paper From Hell sent me some feedback (as I’d requested).  Along with some general comments, she included a list of some two dozen typos.  My first instinct was to write back apologizing for my sloppiness, explaining that I hadn’t wanted to spend the time doing a final fine-tooth-comb proofread while we were still at the “ask for general comments” stage and that some of the typos existed because I’d done so much rewriting over the years.

Fortunately, I was able to remind myself that such a response was unnecessary.  I didn’t have anything to prove here.  Everybody makes typos.  That’s why copy editors exist.  Plus, she was doing exactly what I’d asked: providing me with information with which to improve the paper.

I experienced this from the other side recently while participating in WordPress’s Writing 101 mini-course.  Bloggers would write on the course discussion board, asking for feedback on their latest post.  But if I left a comment that contained any constructive criticism (think along the lines of “this is a great message but I think it might be easier to read with paragraph breaks”), they’d respond with an apology or a “well, writing is just my hobby.”  It was… awkward.  And uncomfortable.  It made me feel bad that I’d said anything.

Sometimes, when particularly self-conscious about and/or enraged by criticism I’ve received, I open a text file and type out all of my angry/worried/but-I’m-so-perfect responses.  When I’ve completed that first anxiety-inducing read-through and gotten all my emotions out, I delete the file.

STEP 4:  Take each point of criticism one at a time.

After I’ve read through, felt terrible, and calmed down again, I go back to the feedback I’ve received and start addressing it one part at a time.  Broken down into bits, things are rarely as awful as they seemed on first approach.  I ask myself:

Is this a valid criticism?

Is it worth addressing in full or in part?

Just because someone makes a suggestion doesn’t mean that suggestion is automatically right, or that it should be done in exactly the way they suggested – even if the person making the suggestion is someone whose opinion you value.  Their relative experience/knowledge/authority will carry some weight (maybe a lot of weight, if they’re your boss), but it’s still your final decision on how to address their feedback.

If it’s worth addressing, what steps do I need to take to address it?

Do I need more information?

Make a plan!  Take action!  Fix your typos, follow up on something you hadn’t thought of, or develop concrete steps to prevent similar issues in the future.

STEP 5:  Decide how to reply.

Not all criticism requires a response, and sometimes all that’s needed is a short “thanks for the feedback.”  In the case of the list of typos from my paper’s co-author, no long explanation was necessary.  After all, I corrected all of the typos, as she will see when I send around the next draft.

For more substantial feedback, it’s often important to let the criticizer know that you respect his or her opinion.  If you think their ideas have merit, give them a short summary of what you’re doing to fix the issue.  If you’ve decided not to adopt their suggestion, explain why.


That’s my current strategy – it’s a work in progress.  Usually my biggest hold-up is trying to avoid Step 2, on the entirely incorrect theory that avoiding something will make it go away.  Readers, I’m sure none of you are particularly fond of criticism.  What’s your approach to making it a productive experience?

Reflections on Writing 101

For the past four weeks, I’ve been taking part in Writing 101, a free mini-course offered by WordPress.  Every weekday, I got an email with a topic prompt and suggestions for stretching my writing style.  All participants had access to a forum where we could share posts, explore others’ writing, and request and give feedback.

(If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, you can keep an eye out here for upcoming repeats of the course.  In the meantime, all of the daily prompts are archived here for use whenever you like.)

I was a little hesitant about signing up for this.  Would it take too much of my time or add an unnecessary level of stress?  Would participating in a WordPress course be like adding a flashing red “n00b blogger” sign to the top of my page?  Now that the course is drawing to a close, I can say that the answer to the last question is, “Probably not much more than anything else I do.”

Fortunately, the other worries, the ones about time and stress, turned out to be unfounded.  Of course, I skipped a lot (more than half) of the assignments.  Some days were too busy, some of my personal topics were too pressing, and some of the prompts required writing fiction, which isn’t the right genre for this blog.  But that’s the beauty of an open course: nobody’s keeping track of what you get done.  It’s all about what you get out of it.

What did I get out of it?  Good reads, new blogs to follow, a bit of thoughtful feedback, and a bit of writing inspiration.  However, the #1 benefit for me was the push to make a commitment to free writing.  Not on my blog, but on my PhD thesis.  Here’s what my office whiteboard has to say about that:


Pushing myself to just write something is proving to be a good plan of attack against the toddler in my head whining, “I don’t wanna write I don’t wanna write!”  There are days when my output is mostly meandering junk, or when I seem to be repeating thoughts that I’ve already covered – but words on the page are a step beyond words in my head, so it’s progress.  Some of that progress is real and measurable and awesome: I just sent a complete version of the Paper From Hell out to collaborators for feedback.

Here’s to reading and writing and moving forward!

An odd source of comfort

Well I’m on the Downeaster ‘Alexa,’
And I’m cruising through Block Island Sound,
I have charted a course to the Vineyard,
But tonight I am Nantucket bound.

– opening verse of Billy Joel’s “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’

My mind is pleased by songs with a strong tune and singable lyrics, especially if those lyrics tell a good story.  It’s the reason I’m drawn to country music, as well as to classic rock and pre-Auto-Tune pop.  Not all of Billy Joel‘s songs are sufficiently melodic for my taste, but those that are have stuck with me throughout my life.

Like many people who can tell you when they first heard a particular song, I have stories for most of my favorite Billy Joel tracks.  When I was a kid, my dad often put on “No Man’s Land” (which is a great piece of commentary on suburbia – “No major industry, just miles and miles of parking space”) while washing dishes after dinner.  I listened to “Shades of Grey” on an early iPod under an old green comforter at Girl Scout camp, and its message of the increasingly blurred lines between right and wrong was perfect for a teenager learning to navigate an imperfect world.

But if I had to pick one Billy Joel song that means the most to me, it’d be “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'”.  There is no good reason why I should feel a connection with this song.  Like the perhaps better-known “Allentown,” it’s a story about the plight of the American working class, in this case fishermen off the coast of New England.  It has literally nothing to do with my life, and it’s a pretty depressing theme when you think about it.  To me, though, it’s a source of calm and strength.

The first time I really paid attention to this song was the summer I was 19.  It was my first solo road trip, down highways with patchy radio reception and an actual rest area exit named Bad Route Road.  I’d brought along my new copy of the album Storm Front, hoping to finally be able to hear all the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  The resounding chords and generally epic feel of “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'” caught my ear and I began looking forward to it on each round through the CD.

Despite my mother’s fears, no dangerous strangers waylaid me on the road.  I didn’t run out of gas or break down or get lost.  I did, however, get hassled by a Canadian border guard.  Apparently deciding that there was something suspicious about being young and alone and female, he asked for my driver’s license (my passport, which I had ready, was not an acceptable substitute) and my college student ID.  (Note to Canadian officials: no American teenager is going to bother making a fake ID that says she’s 19.)  This was still insufficient evidence that I was safe to cross the international border, so he made me pull over and stand aside while they searched my car.

Eventually, I was allowed to go on, but the incident was tense and humiliating.  I burst into tears as I was driving away.  Of course I had no cell phone reception, so I couldn’t call anyone for reassurance.  Instead, I turned up the stereo to an ear-blasting level and started singing along to Billy Joel with as much force as I could manage.  It helped.

And that’s why my baby is sometimes offered comfort in the form of me wailing, “I know there’s fish out there, but where God only knows……”

Enrolled at daycare

We’re very fortunate: daycare wait lists are almost non-existent in our city.  We didn’t have to pay any registration fees during pregnancy, nor worry about whether any infant spots might open up in time.  In fact, when I called around over last few weeks, all four of the centers I contacted had openings for an eight-month-old.  Whew!

The original plan had been to keep Little Boy home for a year, trading baby care shifts between parents throughout the day.  Both my husband’s job and my grad-school “job” can be accomplished remotely and at odd hours, and nobody bats an eye if I bring a cute little baby to the office with me from time to time.

Like most plans made by new parents, this one didn’t fully mesh with the realities of caring for a tiny human.  Hauling Little Boy to campus turned out to be way more work than it was worth and has thus been reserved for only very particular situations.  My maternity leave was only half the length of the need-intensive “fourth trimester,” so we struggled to find time to work and sleep and stay sane until our son developed a more consistent sleep schedule.  But we managed.

Now, however, we’re ready for daycare.  Little Boy is down to two naps a day and my husband’s boss has started dropping passive-aggressive hints about “face time.”  What’s more, I think Little Boy has reached a stage of inquisitiveness and interaction where he will benefit from some new people, new toys, and new activities.  He loves his Mommy and Daddy for sure, but we sometimes run out of exciting and fun baby games by the end of the day.

As lovely as a one-on-one nanny would be, we can’t afford one.  And I’m extremely uncomfortable using an in-home daycare without knowing the caregiver personally.  That leaves daycare centers, where at least I know there’s oversight, training and backup plans.

We ended up touring three such centers.  The third was struck from the list immediately after the tour: although in a prime location, it had a run-down playground with a swingless swing set and rough AstroTurf.  The sole caregiver for five infants spent part of her time washing high chair trays, her back turned away from the small baby sleeping on the floor while others crawled around him.  (This makes it sound really terrible – it was OK, but we’d seen better.)

The remaining options both had definite positives.  Daycare #1 was a nationwide chain with a sparklingly clean center, close to home, with large playgrounds and attractive wooden toys.  But the infant care ratio was still 1:5, and their full-time cost would be a serious strain on our budget.  Daycare #2 was a local place, close to work, with an older building and a religious bent.  Their classrooms lacked the neat uniformity of the other place, but they put 2 caregivers in a room with 8 children (caregivers working on early childhood degrees, I might add) and you could just feel the increased level of personalization.  Moreover, several friends highly recommended Daycare #2, and the center offers a 3-day-a-week plan that we can afford.

So Daycare #2 it is!  Tomorrow we take Little Boy for a visit; next Monday, he starts his new adventure.  Like every parent before me, I’ll miss him when he’s gone, but for now we’ll still have two whole days a week together by ourselves (plus weekends as a family).  Plenty of time for him to practice those hugs he’s recently learned how to give.

Readers with kids – what did you choose to do for childcare?  Was it an easy decision or a hard one?  If you went with daycare, did you have any trouble finding an open spot?

Pirohi are too much work

One of the Writing 101 directives this week was to start with a memory of your favorite childhood meal and run with it.  There were also some instructions about writing in your own voice. My writing voice, so far as I can tell, tends toward mild sarcasm with excessive use of semicolons and parentheses.

And one-sentence paragraphs.

I don’t cook very often.  I can cook – although I lack the intuition of an experienced kitchen denizen, I can follow The Joy of Cooking to produce something decently edible – I just don’t.  In large part, this is because my husband both enjoys cooking and is good at it.  It’s also because I’m incredibly lazy when it comes to food.  Left to my own devices, I will happily eat Cheerios and peanut butter for dinner.  (Or popcorn and frozen yogurt.  True story.)

All this is to say that I haven’t yet made Christmas dinner.  Thanksgiving dinner, yes – my family came to visit when husband had to be away for work, and I learned that roasting a turkey is not nearly as hard as it’s hyped up to be.  Also, in my defense, my husband and I have spent 80% of our married Christmases at the homes of relatives who have been more than happy to feed us their own traditional dinners.

Christmas dinner (actually Christmas Eve dinner) is a big production in my family.  My mom must really love my father, because she took on his family’s Slovak tradition of making pirohi by hand.  You have to make the dough, make the fillings, roll out the dough, cut the dough into precise little squares, put a spoonful of filling on each square, pinch each square into a tightly-sealed dumpling, boil them all in batches, and finally, brown butter to go on top.  (They are delicious, in case you were wondering.)  All this is done while simultaneously making several other traditional components of the meal.

The production level goes up a few notches when the whole extended family is involved.  Everyone is required to help with the sealing and pinching.  My grandpa “supervises,” beer in hand.  Anyone else who’s old enough to drink grabs an adult beverage of their own and prays that my grandma will stop talking before she says anything truly cringe-worthy.  In other words, it’s your standard traditional family activity.

This past Christmas was my son’s first, but even though my family was in town, I didn’t make anything special for Christmas Eve.  Laziness won out, for sure.  Also lingering exhaustion and the tail end of postpartum depression.  My Little Boy had no idea what was going on, of course, but eventually he will, and it would be nice to establish some family traditions of our own.  So maybe I’ll find the energy next year.  After all, it would be a shame for him to miss out on the cheesy-potato-dumpling goodness of pirohi.

Readers, what does your family eat for Christmas?  How have you adapted your childhood traditions to your adult life?

Character study

Today’s Writing 101 assignment was to write a character study of someone who has recently entered your life.  I, of course, chose Little Boy.

I see him stirring in his sleep.  The video monitor was his father’s idea, a shiny and expensive piece of technology that past generations had surely survived without.  But I am the one most captivated by it now, watching my son first curl up on his side, then fling both his arms straight out in what looks like an effort to occupy the maximum amount of space.

He is always in motion.  Even lying on his back with his arms tightly swaddled at his sides, he rotated like a sundial and inch-wormed his way across the crib.  Awake, he is a perpetual ball of energy, stymied in his attempts to run across the room by the fact that his infant body has only just figured out how sit up.  But we will be chasing him around the house before long, I am sure.

His approach to the world is that of a dedicated explorer.  Offer him an item and watch his eyes light up, his legs kick, and his arms vibrate with excitement.  The most mundane things become objects of great interest; one week he was utterly fascinated by the presence and feel of his room’s ordinary blue wall.  He runs his fingers through the tags on his toys, over and over, contemplating their texture as though it were a great revelation.

All the while, he is talking.  I have seen some babies lie quietly and play; mine does not.  Long strings of vowels and “fffff”s and “babababa”s accompany his daily life, along with emphatic raspberries and loud shrieks of joy.  He does not yet know what words mean, but he understands communication – he will say something, then look at me and pause, waiting for my response.  He is particularly fond of talking with his father, conversing in a back-and-forth of “aah”s and “oh”s.

Many mothers mourn the rapid passing of the newborn days, but not me.  My son grows more solid with each new day, changing from a mysterious tiny creature into a real little human.  He will be a different person in one year, or five, or ten – a person I greatly look forward to meeting – and yet he will always be my Little Boy.

Silent night

It’s about a baby.

It’s about a baby sleeping.

It’s about a baby sleeping silently.

I don’t care how many months it’s been since Christmas.  “Silent Night” is the perfect lullaby.

Also, I know all the words.

A major commitment

Part of the Writing 101 assignment for today is to “commit to a writing practice.”  Specifically, they recommend taking at least 15 minutes every day for free writing.  No editing as you go, no stopping to re-read what you’ve written, just writing what comes to mind.  If you want to polish it up for a wider audience, you do that later.

This sounds like a really good idea.  When forced to do academic writing, I have found that the most important step is to just get something – anything – out on the page.  Large chunks of that rough draft will be crossed out and completely rewritten, but it’s somehow easier to write out a new paragraph when I have the old one physically in front of me.

At the moment, I’m not really interested in adopting a daily habit of pure free writing.  When it comes to just getting thoughts out of my head and into words, blogging has helped a lot, but I want to keep blogging as a fun hobby for now.  If I don’t have anything to say on a particular day, I don’t want to force it.

However, I do have something very big and very overwhelming that needs to be written: my PhD thesis.  What if I were to commit to 15 minutes of thesis writing every day, following the rules of free writing?  (Wait, isn’t there a book about this?)

No second-guessing my sentences, or worrying that a phrase is too cliché.

No pausing to look up citations.  No falling down the rabbit hole of reference after reference.

No messing about with formatting.

I could do all that later, once I’ve broken down the start-writing barrier.  Sources will have to be checked, graphs made, sections rearranged, and chances are that very few of my free-written words will make it into the final thesis.  But I have to start somewhere.

It’s a scary thing, making that kind of commitment.  I think I could maybe do 15 minutes a day – just sit down right when I arrive at the office and write – but officially declaring it a goal opens me to the possibility of failure.  If I don’t try, I can’t fail.  If I don’t try, I don’t have to face the guilt and stress and anxiety that comes with attempting to succeed.

But if I don’t try, I’ll never finish.  Maybe I’ll never finish anyway – although I’m leaning towards not quitting the program before graduating, I’m still undecided – but this is as good a time as any to try something new.

And so, as extraordinarily anxiety-inducing as it is, I make this commitment to myself before the entirety of the internet:

I will spend 15 minutes every weekday writing my thesis.  Just writing, no stopping to edit or thinking too hard about my words before they get to the page. 

To make this practical and feasible, I will allow myself exemptions on days with unusual circumstances.  If I have to stay home and take my son to the doctor, for instance, it’s OK that writing doesn’t get done.  Or if it’s the day before a major deadline and I’m feeling so stressed that I can’t concentrate on anything but the deadline – that’s OK too.  The key for me is to be consistent, not perfect.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Crap, that means I have to go do this today.  Ugh.  Wish me luck!

My soul belongs to the mountains

Today’s Writing 101 assignment is about evoking a place.

When my husband and I vacationed in Hawai’i, on one of our last big trips before Little Boy came along, we took a break from the warm beaches to spend some time on Mauna Kea.  Many miles of winding roads led us to the visitor’s center, nine thousand feet up the side of the massive volcano.  The moment I stepped out of the car, the feel of the thin mountain air told me that I was welcomed, that this was where I ought to be.  As lovely as the ocean waves and swaying palm trees were, they were not my place.  The mountains are where I belong.

I have been on other mountains like Mauna Kea, rocky mountains with little vegetation, mountains that are beautiful in their isolation.  But the mountains to which I will always return are the Rocky Mountains, with their great pine forests and ice-cold lakes.  They are my home mountains, although they have rarely been home in the literal sense of the word.

My grandparents built a cabin in the Rockies in the 70s, and oh boy, does that cabin show its age.  Green carpet and orange countertops, with decor in strange shades of brown and yellow.  Spiders in the corners.  Mice in the basement.  A half-fallen treehouse in the woods outside.  It perches on the slope above an old mining town, hidden among cabins that are newer and fancier – but most of them up for sale.

At times, I have strongly disliked that cabin.  Somewhere around the age of 18, cold and grumpy and concerned about the quantity of cobwebs, I declared to my father that I never wanted to inherit the nasty old place.  It was too ugly.  Too much work.  Too full of odd and frightening memories.  The first time I remember visiting as a small child, we arrived to find that it had been broken into.  My preschool mind picked up on the adults’ concern that the invader might still be around, along with some mention that he had been injured in the break-in.  For the rest of the visit, I was terrified about what I might find inside each cupboard and behind each door.

But it is a place of comforting memories, too.  Of wet ski gear drying on the radiators.  Of watching M.A.S.H. tapes on an old rabbit-eared television.  Of building a wall of rocks that survived the elements for a remarkable number of years.  Of seeing hummingbirds up close for the first time.  And of launching hikes to hidden mountain lakes – of walking rock-strewn trails to the top of the world.

And so, every time I catch the scent of pine trees, I think of the Rocky Mountains and an old cabin and a deck fenced off with chicken wire.  And I am happy.

A navel-gazing free write

The context here is that I’ve signed up for WordPress’s “Writing 101.”  For the next four weeks, I’ll receive daily writing prompts (it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to find the time to post every day, and of course there are also lots of un-prompted posts that I want/need to write in the next month, but it sounded like fun).  Today’s assignment was to just write whatever for 20 minutes.  The result (with a little bit of cheating to check for spelling) is below.

Day 1.  20-minute free write.  I guess what’s on my mind right now is how worried I am that this Writing 101 thing will seem silly.  That it will mark me as a newbie (although duh, I am a newbie).  That I’ll look back years from now and think, “Wow, how could I ever have been caught up in that.”  But who cares?  It’s my blog, and I can do what I like.  I don’t need to write all the preemptively defensive statements that are going through my head – like how I’m not going to get so caught up in writing every single prompt that it makes me anxious, or how I’m just doing this because it sounded like fun.  I wanted to do this, and shouldn’t that be enough?

Come to think of it, I’m preemptively defensive a LOT.  I always feel the need to completely explain my decisions or new hobbies to my husband, to the point of countering objections that he hasn’t even made.  Why is this?  He and I have talked before about my fear of judgement, which seems to be a deep and constant theme in my personality, but which hurts him because he believes he would never judge me.  But I interpret every little thing as judgement.  And I HATE being misinterpreted by anyone, and he does misinterpret me sometimes.

I’m also very guarded when it comes to expressing enthusiasm about said new hobbies.  “I can’t let myself get ‘taken in’ by that,” I think.  “I mustn’t let anyone else think that I got sucked into a new world too quickly, because that’s foolish and shows a lack of critical thinking.”  I have a naturally-obsessive personality, and so I do have to be on guard against letting anything take over my life to quickly.  Somewhere along the way, though, I decided that other people would be judging any apparent over-interest (there’s that judgement thing again).  Where did this come from?  I don’t know.  My parents were always very supportive of my interests, buying me craft supplies and flute lessons and the like.  And while I had my fair share of unfinished projects, I wasn’t flaky about my interests – I still sew from time to time, and knit, and while I no longer play the flute, I stuck with it for nearly a decade.  I did get the message that all-consuming obsession was not OK, in the form of grumpy parents telling me to hurry up and go to sleep when I just wanted to finish making my pajamas for Christmas morning.  (They were very against letting me stay up late to finish things.  Particularly my father.  They blamed it on procrastination, but I think the real culprit was perfectionism.)

Today, I worry that my husband will be the grumpy one, if I spend so much time on a hobby that I don’t have the time he wants to spend watching TV together.  He has a valid point – spouse together time is important, for sure – but my mind has taken this and twisted it around to a place where I feel like I have to defend anything I choose to do.