Maybe I just have a weak stomach.
November 4, 2011 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Why can't I read comments on my essays, even in private?

So, I am in grad school and I hand in a fair number of papers and they come back with a fair number of comments. I average A- grades, and have all through my undergrad. But, I can't read comments on my work. I obviously don't read them in a classroom when I get the papers back but even in the privacy of my office with the door shut I can't do it. I look at them and feel a sense of...shame? Embarrassment? I get all squirmy just looking at them; I usually just glance at the grade and file the paper away without looking at the comments. I just feel so stupid when I look at the comments, like I should have known better or I am an imposter, or I am really not that smart.

How do I make myself read them? How do I make myself not get all weird about reading them? I know they're valuable.
posted by hepta to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You need to look at the comments to find out if your paper got the grade it really deserved. You may find that the comments are total bullshit, in which case you can take it back and argue your grade up.

Also, stupid mistakes you make on paper A are much, much, much more likely to be repeated on paper B if you don't know about them. Read the comments, take in the criticism, and you will improve! Don't, and you won't.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:25 PM on November 4, 2011 [10 favorites]

I'm the exact same way. I hate reading comments on anything, even when I know that the work I've turned in decent. I mean, I shove those papers into my bag as soon as they're handed to me, without even looking at the grade. It's awful.

I don't know about you, but I think the reason I do this is because all through high school I didn't receive any criticism and then once I'd entered college I suddenly had red ink all over my previously unmarked essays. It was a huge shock. I started to avoid my professors post-class when things were handed back in case they wanted to talk about it. Pretty embarrassing.

This eventually got noticed by one of my professors when I didn't correct several things on a final paper he'd commented on previously. The only thing that has helped me is having someone else, a close friend, read them out loud to me. Then I can read them.

So I'll be following this thread with interest.
posted by Marinara at 12:26 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

it helps me to think "This is ONE PERSON's opinion out of billions. It may be interesting or informative; if it's from a teacher or in a class, I actually -paid- to get this information written here... but it doesn't define me or the work. At the end, it's just one person's thoughts, and unless they're willing to pay me to change the text, I can take it or leave it."
posted by The otter lady at 12:26 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am taking a leadership course right now where we are learning two approaches to dealing with feedback.

The first helps us to deal with constructive criticism, which can help us improve on our "growing edges," which means we get the benefit of improving in areas we may have not noticed on our own.

The second is dealing with praise in ways that allow us to turn "strengths" into "super strengths," which means we have to come to terms with things we are good at, and to be OK with saying "I am good with certain things."

Your profile indicates that you are a student, and one thing I have learned as a professional is that feedback is much, much harder to come by today than it was in my undergraduate/graduate school years, so I'd suggest you discipline yourself to read the feedback, take a breath, digest it, and then decide what you really think about it.

Remember, reading it is one thing, believing it is another. You don't necessarily have to do both.

I will say that wisdom comes, in part, from learning to receive feedback and act accordingly, so do you best to learn that now. Also, remember that you are you, not what the comments say about you. I'd suggest a healthy separation of the two in your own mind.

Good luck.
posted by 4ster at 12:30 PM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

Also, there's a fair chance that some of the comments are actually complimenting the strengths of your papers, not just pointing out the deficits. Those comments are actually more valuable even than the critical ones, as they help you play to your strengths.
posted by bricoleur at 12:35 PM on November 4, 2011

a) Impostor syndrome.

b) That feedback is useful. You only learn when you know what you did wrong; looking like an idiot is actually useful for this reason. You don't know everything yet, nor will you ever. Also yeah, some of them are probably positive, especially if your grades are high.

c) if you can't manage to read them, maybe you can ask a trusted person to read and distill for you?
posted by nat at 12:37 PM on November 4, 2011

Best answer: You are practicing avoidant behavior. I used to do this in undergrad, and still have to resist the urge to shove my corrected exams in a folder and move on to the next assignment. Do you have a problem going over old notes you've written, too? For me, it's a combination of not wanting to look at anything twice (the neverending search for novelty!) and an irrational fear of criticism. My gut response is to take things personally and compound the harshly critical voice in my head. It goes along with perfectionism and giftedness, and I've learned that sucking up my pride and baseless fear and looking at corrections just has to be done. It is essential for personal growth. You must learn to accept criticism and corrections without getting all embarrassed, feeling inadequate, and putting your head in the sand. The professor probably doesn't even remember what he wrote on your paper, and certainly isn't judging you or your character based on those corrections. Don't see it as a failure. See it as a necessary stepping stone in the long journey towards achieving the highest, most evolved form of personal expression for yourself. Wait till you're in a good mood and positive frame of mind to go over the corrections, and then just power through it. It's like rippin' off a bandaid.
posted by sunnychef88 at 12:39 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have the same problem! Essays, exams, teaching evaluations — even when I knew the overall result was good, I could never bring myself to delve into specific comments without feeling all kinds of shame.

The way I've learned to get around those feelings is to set aside a specific time when I will review the comments, and that's all I'm going to do. I go to a coffee shop or somewhere else that's removed from my office, I buy myself a nice treat, and then I sit down and take a deep breath and open up the paper I've hastily folded and shoved in my bag. And then when I am done reading, I fold it back up into my bag, I finish my coffee and donut, and that's it. I get myself to a "friendly" location, I don't read the comments when I'm in a rush, and I take the time to chill out a bit afterward.

It is never, ever as bad as I think it's going to be.
posted by adiabat at 12:41 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

To a lot of people, red ink means "you're stoopid." A lot of what goes on in grade school helps to reinforce that belief.

Red ink is an opportunity to learn from another person. That learning may be in the form of "wow, this person has ridiculously high standards and offers snark in the place of criticism, and I don't want to be that guy." Or, more likely, the person has some insight on the content or form of your essay from which you could benefit.

I always felt squicky reading comments myself -- that I would be "found out" (impostor) and somehow would be shut down from ever writing another essay. (That never happened, and I got some negative comments along the way.) I'm learning how to program right now and every time I run my script I hesitate before doing so (same reason!)

Maybe reward yourself somehow for reading the comments? You may have to become comfortable in feeling uncomfortable about reading comments... but I know I would have missed out if I hadn't done so.
posted by Currer Belfry at 12:47 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem except a little worse: I can't read any comments and I can't read my own writing. You just have to force yourself to do it because it is beneficial. The more you do it the less it will freak you out. Now I'm actually annoyed when profs don't comment on my work. One of the other things that has helped me is disassociating myself from the writing. It's not me it's the paper. Also I pretend to be someone else when writing (this may be a bad/super crazy weird idea) which is especially helpful for writing letters for work in which I pretend to be a lawyer.
posted by boobjob at 12:52 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since I can never wait to read feedback, let me try to think through why... For starters, if most of your grades are As or high Bs and there's a ton of ink, most of those comments are positive and/or stream-of-consciousness reactions as the grader is reading through. Some might be in the form of questions, pointing out issues that you could explore more deeply if you write more on the topic, even if that wasn't required in the current assignment. Sometimes they might question something early on, and then later read something that makes them understand your argument -- that helps you learn how to structure your thoughts better. If it's been a while since you wrote the paper, you can read through it again and pat yourself on the back, with someone else's feedback (mostly positive!) along the way. Try to turn it into something to look forward to!
posted by ecsh at 12:53 PM on November 4, 2011

Best answer: Oh man, this is the worst. I would never read comments as long as the overall mark was good enough. My technique was to quickly flip through the assignment quickly to try to get the briefest overview possible of the comments, and then when I realized they weren't that bad I would go back and read them for real.

Something changed when I was writing my thesis, though. When chapters would come back with comments, I was able to reframe them as "improvements" rather than "judgements". All I had to do was read the comment, implement it in the thesis, and instantly my thesis is better! Way easier than thinking for myself!

Try to view it as the professor giving out correct answers for free, instead of the professor telling you what you did wrong.
posted by auto-correct at 12:55 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I discovered I had this problem when I had to do a couple of rounds of edits for my publisher. For a 250-page novel.

I got really anxious that the very next comment was the one that said "What were you THINKING, you idiot?" or something. I got anxious thinking about the work I would have to do. Mostly I felt like I was very naked and being judged.

I'm not over this but I can get through it.

My mantra is: "I accept that this is scary. I accept that this is hard. I'm just going to read a tiny tiny amount -- maybe just a paragraph or two -- and think hard about what they've said and see how I feel. And then I can stop if I want to." Rinse, repeat. You can get through a whole novel that way.
posted by Jeanne at 1:02 PM on November 4, 2011

If you're going to become an academic, you're going to need to be able to read other people's feedback on your work/ideas. When you submit articles for publication in a journal, when you submit drafts for your dissertation, etc - you'll need to be able to read those comments and make changes in light of them. You'll also need to give students feedback on their work!

Lots of good tips above, but also - you DO need to be able to take feedback. If you're frequently feeling like an impostor, which is a VERY common feeling in grad school, it would be worth working with someone at the counseling center or maybe in the graduate writing center on strategies for dealing with this. Again, it's a very common problem and you can definitely increase your confidence in this area, and talking to someone who's experienced in helping grad students with this might help.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:16 PM on November 4, 2011

Lots of good advice above on the necessity of facing constructive criticism. One additional thought, though -- I think you're automatically assuming this feedback is negative. It ain't so -- IAAP, IANYP. From five paces, you couldn't tell one my student's A papers from another student's C- paper. They're both heavily marked up. Particularly in graduate school, the comments you get on papers are far less likely to be "you did X wrong" than part of a respectful and ongoing conversation between you and your reader. If you were my student, you'd likely be missing comments like "this is the strongest, most interesting point you've made - could you explore it further?" Or "X author also deals with this position in an interesting way, you should read ______." Red ink on an essay isn't like check marks on your high school math test - it doesn't mean a disappointed reader, it means an engaged reader. Treasure that.
posted by dr. boludo at 1:21 PM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

I had the hardest time reading comments in grad school. Getting to know my professors better made the fear go away. I eagerly read the comments by my thesis supervisor.
posted by jayder at 1:41 PM on November 4, 2011

Your instructors are giving you notes because they think you're capable! I know I drop a whole lot more red ink on students who are clearly engaged -- be they C students or A students -- because it's another channel through which to discuss the material & toss ideas around; there's little impetus to give anything more than short-shrift feedback if the student's not engaged.

At some point in my teaching, I realized that I assume that's what my students want from me; internally, I see homework -- even exams -- as a way of asking for my advice, not just a demonstration of skills. That realization helped me to see my own submissions as questions rather than proofs: Here's what I think is good; what can I do to make it great? It doesn't always work, but when I'm able to see it that way the feedback feels more like an AskMe answer than a criticism.

My own problem is defensiveness rather than shame, so I don't know if this would work for you or just make you feel worse, but maybe give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel about the comments and then come back to them? I find that if I allow myself to think god, what bullshit! initially, I can often return to the note a little later and see it objectively as a suggestion... and usually, I find that it's actually a good point.
posted by Westringia F. at 1:46 PM on November 4, 2011

In addition to the other good advice you are getting in this thread asking you to look into the root issues behind your temptation towards avoidance, which fuck it I struggle with too, I would suggest a shift in perspective.

The most terrible thing I have ever gotten back from a professor had no ink on it at all. It wasn't handed back with even the least amount of contempt, it was simply a paper not worth marking to him and thus also not worth getting upset about to him. That fucked with me, and looking back it was an insult I earned, even if it was not actually nearly that bad I was capable of more. I never turned in another paper that didn't come back covered in red, and knew to love it when they came back bleeding off the page, even if his handwriting is nigh indecipherable.

Now that I am an instructor I always tear into the papers I like best the most, I put the most effort into them and really think creatively about how to improve the piece and the author's skills. For shitty papers with negligible effort I'll often half heartedly say this or that sucks and to improve it, while for really shitty papers without excuse I return them with just a grade. They arn't worth more.

Different instructors feel differently about what to do with good papers, but I doubt you'll find many that put much effort into really bad ones. Awesome professors might make effort available to those students, but not those initial papers. Please take bloody papers as the compliment they are. When the critique is real, it is the professor saying that they care about your writing and are willing to think critically about how to improve it. When it isn't? I know I got a thrill whenever this professor I had so much respect for would have to resort to petty shit to put something red on the page.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:48 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding everything dr. boludo said. IAAP, too, and also, I assume, NYP. Comments on graduate papers are very, very rarely of the "what were you thinking??" variety. Far more often they're of the "you might also be interested in reading what X, Y and Z have to say about this" or the "that's a good point, but does it complicate your argument if you also think about Such-and-such contemporary work in this light?" They're part of the instruction you're paying to receive.

Of course, it's probably not that much help to reiterate the point that these comments are "good for you." I guess you know that, given that you're asking this question. What you really need is some kind of strategy.

Is it specifically the written feedback that you find too difficult to face? Are you able to talk with professors face-to-face about your work? Maybe you should routinely make an appointment to talk your papers over with your professors after they hand them back? That would force you to read the comments as preparation for the meeting but then in talking over the comments you'll get the full context of the professor's response to the paper. It might help let you see that not every "perhaps you should say a little more about this in your introduction" type comment has a "you moron!" subtext?

One last thing: when I'm grading a paper, I'm grading the paper--not the student. We all know that writing is a hard, hard, hard thing to do. We all know that our own first drafts, second drafts and third drafts are often diabolically bad. We all know what it's like to send out a MS and get it back with comments that make it clear that we utterly failed to get our point across. If I write a comment along the lines of "I'm not quite sure how this part of your argument relates to your earlier claims" I am in no way at all trying to send the message "you're obviously incapable of making a logical argument." I'm saying nothing about you at all. I'm simply saying that you still have some more work to do on this particular piece of writing before it adequately conveys the argument you're trying to make.
posted by yoink at 1:54 PM on November 4, 2011

For what it's worth (and I'm only responding because you said "Maybe I just have a weak stomach"! And you don't--you're normal. I'm the same way--and I get comments on my writing for a living! I'm currently dreading notes on a manuscript right now. I mean... it's sort of like learning how to fly, or handling snakes: you just fucking do it and then it gets better. It helps to have an appreciation for the edit/note giver; but even if you don't, you just pretend s/he has your best interests at heart and absorb it and get it done. Stop procrastinating and avoiding! It's actually bad for you! (Sorry, there are no tips and tricks to fix avoidance and procrastination: you just square your shoulders and eat some cheese or whatever makes you feel cozy and then you dive in.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:48 PM on November 4, 2011

(Someone please leave me a NOTE to tell me to close the parenthesis above. Heh.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:49 PM on November 4, 2011

This is completely normal. As this thread shows, you are not alone. One thing that helps me is to skim an essay very quickly, sort of squinting at the comments to see if they're things like 'winn, you are too stupid to live'. Since I have never yet encountered a comment that said that (and you will not, either, because the people who would get those comments don't get comments at all, because reading a paper that was clearly phoned in makes you too depressed to give it a bunch of critique from my personal experience of grading essays), I can then go back and read the comments.

Try to really take in that the comments are there to help you be better. Once you are in graduate school, everyone is invested in you doing well. Your professors want you to succeed, because it helps them and the school succeed, too! When I think of it that way, I get less anxious about feedback.
posted by winna at 3:00 PM on November 4, 2011

Ugh, I know that feeling. It has helped me to read about the different types of distorted thinking (like this list here), because that made me realize that I automatically discount any positive feedback I get and focus solely on the negative feedback. And once I realized that, I realized that I don't discount the positive feedback for any good logical reasons. I just discount it, because no one could possibly be saying anything nice to me.

But really, if someone writes on your paper, "This is a really interesting argument. I would have liked to see you flesh out x,y, and z a bit more," and you believe that they meant the second sentence, what reason is there to believe they didn't mean the first sentence too? If you can get yourself to accept the positive as equally true as the negative--instead of just throwing it in the closet of "Oh, that can't possibly be true,"--it gets easier to take the negative feedback along with it. That makes the entire experience a lot less unpleasant.
posted by colfax at 4:56 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I find this hard too, and I'm supposedly a professional academic who writes stuff for publication. But I find it really hard to read reviewers' comments (and believe me, they can be super harsh - much worse than any I got from profs as a student).

I have three suggestions:

1. Get some opportunities to critique OTHER people's work. If you get a chance to tutor/TA, you'll find that the experience of being the person with the red pen helps you realise that essay comments are really not such a big deal. You'll know how you meant the critical comments you write, and you'll see through what your profs write to the subtext, which is almost NEVER "you suck". If you can't TA, maybe form a writing group with other students and critique each others' work. (Obviously if you are in the same classes, you'll need permission from your profs; otherwise it might be seen as unfair collaboration.)

2. What I do with comments on my papers is to tell myself that the first time through I just have to transfer them into a new file. I open a blank text file and type in each comment. I reframe the comments as best I can as I type. I try to make them more neutral and more detached. For example, instead of (actual comment from recent referee's report) "It seems like this paper is almost copy-paste from a larger study. The paper is not well organised." (Ouch), I typed in "Need to make the paper stand alone - check flow and add background(?). Consider reorganising section/subsection order."

It seems that your papers are not expected to be revised, so you don't need these sorts of notes to yourself. But you could make them as notes for next time you write, so give yourself permission to ignore any comments that are really specific to that one essay topic, but e.g. for the above, you could write "Double-check organisation/flow. Have I provided enough background?" in a file to refer to next time you are writing a paper. Also, turning the act of reading comments from a retrospective wallow-and-self-flagellation party into a task that you need to carry out in order to prepare for your next assignment can take some of the terror out of it.

3. Just keep doing it. It gets easier the more you read them. If I have had a bunch of papers back from review within a few months, it's no big deal to read the comments. If it's been a year since it's happened, it's almost impossible to force myself to open the file. If you can, maybe seek out MORE criticism of your work - get other students, mentors, etc to read your essays and ask them to be harsh.
posted by lollusc at 2:51 AM on November 5, 2011

Response by poster: Hi guys. Thanks everyone. Knowing other people struggle with this is great, I enjoyed hearing that. A few comments on your comments:

- I do TA, a first year intro course in my field. I mark their papers and exams and I have never really thought about applying my thoughts on that process to the process of my professors marking me. I guess I just assumed that since they are "real teachers", my profs approached it differently.

- I also can't read over my work. Drafts become final copies with minimal editing. I edit as I go along bu the idea of reading over my whole essay once it is done also makes my stomach turn because (so my thinking goes at the time) I would clearly need to re-write the whole thing and if I read it I will know it is awful and isn't it better to be blissfully ignorant?

- I really appreciate hearing from all of you, that this is something you do (or don't, as the case may be) or if you're a professor how you mark.
posted by hepta at 8:33 AM on November 5, 2011

I'm out of school, but my career involves getting notes on my writing, so I totally understand this. The underlying thing behind it, for me, is that somehow if I don't read the comments (or feedback, or whatever), they don't exist, and I can still have hope that they'll be glowing. The problem with that, of course, is that they do exist, whether you read them or not. The decision has been made. Deferring looking at it won't un-make the decision.

You can try the rational approach, which is to tell yourself that. Or, if it's a Word document or similar, you can try the psyching-yourself-out approach, which is to email it to yourself until the (1) bugs you more than the comments will. This one might only work for me.
posted by dekathelon at 8:37 AM on November 5, 2011

Best answer: - I also can't read over my work. Drafts become final copies with minimal editing.

This is a much bigger problem that you REALLY need to work on if you have any interest in an academic career. Hemingway's "the first draft of anything is shit" may be extreme, but it contains an important kernel of truth. Good writing is rewriting. That doesn't mean that your first draft is. waste of tine. Nor does it mean you throw the whole thing out and start over. It may be that you only have to make relatively minor revisions--but often those minor revisions will make an enormous difference in the readability and force of your essay.

Accept that everybody has to do this; accept that your professors have to do this when they write, and it should become easier for you to see essay comments as simply part of that rewriting process. Probably most of the red ink you're seeing on your papers is due to small infelicities in transitions or argumentive sequencing that even a cursory revision would have fixed.
posted by yoink at 12:20 PM on November 5, 2011

What yoink just said, times 1000. But easier said than done when you're thinking I would clearly need to re-write the whole thing and if I read it I will know it is awful and isn't it better to be blissfully ignorant, right?

Whenever I'm feeling this way, I try to remember that I'd far prefer to catch an error myself than to have it pointed out after it's been published. It's never as awful as I think it will be. I can guarantee your writing isn't that awful, either: you wouldn't have gotten this far if it were!

You do need to read critically, but keep in mind that being a good critic of anyone's work means being able to identify the positive things, too. Do that for yourself as well: deliberately, thoughtfully, and explicitly find things you liked in your own paper, and make a note of why you think they worked. Maybe make it an exercise to find a certain number (at least 3, say, a la Seligman's "three good things" exercise)? It'll help cement them for the next time, and give balance to your internal critical voice.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:36 PM on November 8, 2011

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