Everyone’s a Critic! Making Criticism Work for You
If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished? —Rumi
A Teacher’s Perspective
Many moons ago, when I was studying to teach college writing, my mentor advised me to be gentle when providing constructive feedback to students. Any creative endeavor, including writing, serves as an expression of the ego, he argued. To criticize one’s expression, then, may be taken more personally than intended. Unfortunately, in my youth, I dismissed his advice as being too touchy-feely, believing it more important to teach writers to develop thick skins.
Years later, another mentor reminded me that teachers wield great power, as students look to instructors as experts, offering almost profound wisdom and insight. An instructor’s feedback can motivate a student to succeed just as easily as it can intimidate a student from taking on greater challenges. I now weigh my criticism more carefully, trying to frame it in such a way that doesn’t trample on feelings, but still corrects behavior and motivates the student to try even harder.
Challenges for the Student
So where does that leave the student? How can students learn to accept criticism in a manner that promotes growth? Here are some of my humble suggestions:
1. Remember that you have chosen to seek an education. This means you are away from your comfort zone, and you will be asked to attempt work that likely will not be easy. Allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes, knowing such mistakes provide opportunities to learn what is necessary to strengthen your skills to succeed at future tasks. I tend to remember my mistakes more readily than I remember my successes. This helps me know what to do differently, and it gives me goals to meet.
2. As a student, you will be exposed to a variety of temperaments, some of which may be a little gruffer than others in the delivery of criticism. Keep in mind the criticism is of your performance, and not necessarily of you as a human being. Thank the instructor for his/her feedback, and find ways to use the criticism to help improve your future performance.
3. Know that you will receive some criticism that seems to be limited in insight. Instructors are human and are subject to their own mistakes. If you feel the criticism lacks merit, why not discuss this with your instructor? Do not be defensive, but instead, frame the discussion in such a way that you are seeking understanding so you may improve your performance. For example, when you receive a comment on a paper noting an idea of yours isn’t well developed, ask your instructor how you could have developed the idea more clearly. This initiates a dialog that may clue you in to any adjustments and improvements you will need to make to be more successful in the future.
4. Practice humility: Your instructors are subject specialists, meaning they know the material inside out, and their primary focus is to impart their knowledge. Listen attentively to what your instructors share. Any corrections your instructors suggest are likely for a good reason. Trust their experience, as they are tailoring their comments to prepare you for your career.
5. Some criticism will hurt more than others, but learn to set your emotions aside by considering the feedback objectively. The work you put forth in your career will always be judged, so be prepared to accept judgment. Think about what you can change (for example, you can work with a tutor or with a colleague to brush up on those subjects which challenge you most). Do what is within your control and keep focused on the task at hand, focusing on the steps you will take to correct your mistakes.
Perhaps one of the most vital lessons you will learn in college is how to accept and use criticism to your advantage. If you are unwilling to listen to and accept criticism, you may find yourself repeating your mistakes. If, on the other hand, you consider the feedback offered, you will find a way to polish your work and progressively give your best with each attempt at any task.
Elizabeth Sanchez is an English Instructor at the main San Diego campus of California College San Diego, teaching composition and communication. Prior to her return to teaching, she worked as a creative designer for the sports and entertainment industry.