Criticism

I admit it. I hate criticism, even the constructive kind. I did my k-12 time at the height of “Everybody’s special! Let’s all get a ribbon!” and as such criticism was all but non-existent. I suck at anything even remotely related to sports and other related pursuits, but at every field day in 4th-7th grade I had a fistful of white participation ribbons. I knew I sucked even then, but I still felt guiltily grateful when my classmates gave me a gimme home run during kickball;  scoring a real home run was pretty much outside the realm of possibility…but had a classmate actually told me so and offered to show me how to kick the ball better, I’d’ve angrily tossed the offer back and spent the day sulking.

Even ten years later I’m still inclined to sulk when told something I’ve produced isn’t up to par. I am, like these undergrad students presenting final projects in Q Le’s excellent post on why the world needs critics, inclined to say “Just who the hell do you think you are, criticizing something I worked so hard on?” Le goes on to note:

More troubling was that Student A was rather indignant at my question…I’d hurt his ego, his parade of “good jobs!” and “what a moving short film!” and “wow, you’re a great filmmaker!” comments; I’d been the thundering storm cloud on his sunshine, and I’d ruin his big event. After an equally awkward hush following my second question, I began wondering if Q&A session actually meant “tell all the students what an awesome job they did so they feel great about themselves!”  and not “ask them some questions that could stem discussion, debate and some reflection on their work.” I was an unwelcome guest, the unwanted critic who ruined everyone’s good fun.

I could easily be Student A in my head—while I frantically prepare a response that at least halfway addresses the question just to move the conversation along. The hardest moments of my undergraduate career involved meeting with professors to discuss improvements to rough drafts—which, depending on the class, might or might not be painted red. I’d sweated, stressed and pored over resources for these papers, and still I had to sit and listen while Dr. Tenace mentioned strengthening my thesis (which I thought was plenty strong in the first place), or editing this and that, and adding this new source that he hadn’t thought to mention during our initial discussion. We went around and around about my tendency to be too literary when discussing tragic historical events.  After all isn’t it more interesting to describe the ebb and flow of Irish immigration to the US in the 1840s and 1850s as “waves” and “trickles”? Eesh, even the verbs lend themselves to those adjectives, and I was rather proud of them.I got the impression from Tenace that I should save the literary stuff for my future bestseller on An Gorta Mor.  He did have a point, but I had to bite back a litany of defensive excuses and the whole episode pricked my pride enough that I’m now determined to write that bestseller, if only to use my original description.

Honestly, criticism is what scares me the most about going to grad school. I know there’ll be plenty of it, from all directions. I’ll probably cry at least once when a professor or colleague trashes a paper or idea. My goal is not to do it in front of everyone. Call me in a year, and we’ll see if I managed it. 🙂

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