Being open to feedback

Earlier this month I gave two lectures to the new cohort of Masters research students in the Faculty of Arts. For most of these students, this year will be the first time they've ever attempted a significant research project (20,000 words), and so my talks focused on research planning and management, the student-supervisor relationship and thesis writing groups. I themed these sessions around the transition from coursework to research and discussed the various other shifts this change entails.

Some students find it difficult to establish an independent working routine without the external structure provided by regular classes. Some find the openness of thesis writing challenging - having grown used to detailed assignment guidelines and rubrics, the uncertainty of the process and freedom to direct your own project can be initially overwhelming. And many struggle with the shift from receiving graded feedback on polished essays to participating in an ongoing, qualitative and negotiated feedback process about drafts. In my experience, new research students are not used to relating to their writing as work-in-progress, and can be reluctant to share anything that isn't ready for evaluation.

During these lectures, it emerged that there is something fundamentally open and uncertain about doing research that coursework doesn't prepare us for. Broadly, this can be characterised as a shift from structure to openness, from certainty to uncertainty, and from a form of discipline that is externally-imposed to one that is cultivated internally, by the individual, through practice. This movement from structure/guidelines/deadlines to openness calls for a major shift in the way students relate to their work and themselves.

In my discussion of supervision relationships, I talked about the difference in feedback styles students would experience this year, as I believe this is one of the biggest changes they face. When given feedback on essays, it's typical for coursework students to focus more on the grade than the comments. I know from previous experience teaching masters coursework that students can get very attached to grades (especially when scholarship money hangs in the balance). They become identified with these numbers as metrics of their ability and worth as thinkers and writers, and even sometimes as people. Comments tend to be engaged for the praise or criticism they contain and then put to one side. The organisation of coursework means that unless a student is genuinely open to feedback and diligent about learning from their mistakes, the lessons of previous essays can be quickly forgotten as the semester comes to a close.

I find the way that students relate to grades a fascinating and quite challenging part of teaching. If we're used to presenting our work for numerical evaluation, it makes sense that we value our work and efforts in these terms. (Here, the student experience is not so far from the staff experience, where a successful academic career is measured quantitatively in terms of volume of publications, citations, prizes, PhD completions, etc.). When grades are taken as a measure of value and worth, they presume a specific relationship between feedback and its recipient. For many, grades suggest the question, 'Is this essay good or bad?', and for those who are hard on themselves, 'Am I good at this or bad at this? Am I smart?'. Emotionally, then, this way of relating to feedback - through attachment or taking things personally - is often experienced in degrees of pride or shame.

It takes time and practice for students to let go of their reliance on grades and trust in the processes of drafting and feedback that are basic to thesis writing. For those used to writing papers in a rush before the deadline, drafting itself might be a relatively new way of working. Unlike in a coursework context, where feedback can be quickly set aside, research students must learn how to be open to feedback and put it into practice in order to progress. This new relationship with feedback means that we don't so much ask 'Is the work good or bad?', as much as 'How can I improve? What needs my attention?'

Giving these lectures made me really reflect on what it means to be open to feedback. Most of us think we're open to feedback, but often we mean open to positive feedback. When constructive criticism is offered, we are all sometimes guilty of responding in aversive ways (such as becoming self-conscious about our efforts or abilities, defensive of our work or critical of others' understanding, or else we simply distract ourselves). I know I've experienced these when getting feedback on my thesis or reading reviewer's reports from journal submissions. Yet none of these states are really open - they remain attached to ideas about our work, ourselves, and what we want from our endeavours. In one of the lectures, a student voiced this sense of attachment, describing high distinctions (or high grades) as his heroin and asking what kind of methodone-like substitute he could use to wean himself off the rewards these grades provide.

Being open to feedback requires a shift in the way we relate to ourselves and our work. The word 'open' comes from the old English root meaning 'not closed down, exposed, evident, public, shameless'. It suggests an experience characterised by vulnerability (being out in the open or unprotected) and uncertainty (not knowing what's to come, or suspending one's expectations). I think there's something interesting in the idea of shamelessness here. Colloquially, to be shameless has negative connotations of being brazen, immodest or lacking a sense of decency. It implies someone who does not protect their sense of self-respect or self-esteem. But at the same time, shamelessness suggests a lack of self-consciousness - a kind of freedom from the bonds of attachment to a particular identity or one's pride. If we're shameless, our behaviour is dictated less by both what others may think of us and how we think things should go (our agendas and expectations). Being open, then, involves suspending the self-protective instinct that leads us to anticipate, expect or guard a particular idea of ourselves.


As I commit these thoughts to writing, knowing they will be published online, I'm faintly aware of my own self-consciousness about what I say. I've written this post in snatches over a few weeks. And I'm curious about my own reserve in this process - my reluctance to simply share my first unedited thoughts, my need to draft something more carefully thought through. How open am I to feedback? Does the writing style and narrative feel open? Or is it closed off, in the sense of being clean, polished or resolved? What does my own writing process say about the challenges of being open?


  1. This is a pleasure to read, Michelle. I can feel anxiety melt as I read.

    What a great idea for a blog. Thank you.

    1. As a student just commencing their Honours year I am re-assured in knowing that through this blog Michelle will be there the whole time. In fact Michelle has been with me since I first enrolled in the UNSW University Prep Program way back in 2013. Being enrolled in Honours 6 years later is partly due to Michelle's mentor ship and friendship. Thanks Michelle.
      p.s Hi Andrew. I would love the opportunity to catch up with you

    2. Thanks for your kind words Tony. Looking forward to reading your research.


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