All I need is useful feedback
March 29, 2022 5:02 PM   Subscribe

Alongside grad school, I’ve been studying an evening/weekend course tangentially related to my field (modern Middle Eastern history). I enjoy it a lot but the feedback I’ve received for my work is extremely confusing. All the comments are about my writing style and absolutely nothing about my arguments/research.

Examples of the feedback I’ve received: They haven’t been happy with the linking words I’ve used, restructured/rewritten a couple of my sentences, and had issues with dashes that I’ve used sparingly through my work. All this is so subjective and I’m not entirely sure if this is useful.

I’d understand this sort of feedback if I’d signed up to a writing class! I checked with other people on my course and it seems like I’m not the only one having to deal with this.

I still have to write two essays for this course and have lost all motivation. How do I deal with this? Should I even bother? Their feedback isn’t making me a better writer in this new-ish field. I signed up to this course to learn more not to feel like I’m in middle school. I also don’t feel comfortable discussing this issue with them because I don’t think they would be receptive.
posted by bigyellowtaxi to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This may be way off base but this isn’t surprising to me if someone is coming from a French academic background. In French there’s a huge emphasis on style and grammar. This is a shot in the dark but figured it’s worth mentioning if the professor is from a former french colony (including much of the MENA region) or had a French educational background.

That doesn’t necessarily solve the issue, but does explain what feels like unhelpful commentary
posted by raccoon409 at 5:17 PM on March 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What is the feedback like and what are your grades like? If it’s just redlined feedback on your papers but your grades are still good, I would look at it as they are kind of copywriting your papers in a sense and ignore it. Even the most amazing writers have their stuff copy edited, it’s not a ding on your writing or content.

If however you are getting any sort of significant marks off for these stylistic choices, or if you think the focus on it is getting in the way of feedback on your content (I can’t tell from your question if this is the case) than I think you have a bigger problem. Although I’m not sure what you can do short of speaking to the instructors. Maybe ask for more feedback on the content and don’t specifically mention the editing, if you think that might go over better?
posted by sillysally at 5:36 PM on March 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

If the class you are taking is undergraduate-level, I think that's just how they do it nowadays. Some Mefi professor might be able to confirm or deny this, but my understanding is that a few years ago somebody realized they were turning out graduates who could not write, so (at least in California) there was this big push to include writing assignments in every class. I'm taking a PHP/SQL class at city college now, and every week I have to respond to a discussion prompt AND write a journal entry... in a coding class. So every class is now supposed to be a writing class.

If you want feedback on your arguments/research, you could ask the prof for that during office hours, and just ignore the stylistic stuff.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 5:46 PM on March 29, 2022

Go to office hours or send an email and ask for feedback on your arguments and research. It's possible that the stylistic stuff *is* a substantiative comment on the clarity of your arguments (i.e., "I'm restructuring this sentence because it says the opposite of what you seem to be arguing elsewhere.") But you won't know that without further conversation with the prof.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:53 PM on March 29, 2022 [8 favorites]

If this is an undergrad class, there may also specifically be a writing marker attached to the class that you didn't notice because you aren't used to looking for them as a grad student. Heck, I get undergrads that actually need the writing intensive markers stumbling into my classes and kvetching that I'm talking about their writing, sigh. :)

(And definitely, we're incorporating more writing and discussion of your writing into everything.)
posted by joycehealy at 5:55 PM on March 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: my understanding is that a few years ago somebody realized they were turning out graduates who could not write, so (at least in California) there was this big push to include writing assignments in every class

Often this is called "Writing Across the Curriculum."

One thing to remember is that most people who go through grad school, get PhDs, and become professors never receive any actual pedagogical instruction in how to effectively teach. It's assumed you'll learn it by osmosis or figure it out on your own. So not everyone is going to be equally good at knowing how to provide useful feedback. (The flip side to this is that a lot of students have a self-perception that they are good writers when they aren't actually, yet. I'm not saying you are in that category, but it is really common.)

Regardless, you are halfway through the class, I think you might as well finish it. You might never get feedback on your papers that you think is useful, but that doesn't mean you can't learn and grow anyway.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:17 PM on March 29, 2022 [6 favorites]

Likely they wouldn’t be receptive of criticism of the feedback you are getting, but they might be open to discussing your ideas, especially if you do so before you finish and turn in the paper. Why not try?

Another idea: your university may have a writing center where you can make appointments. They might be glad to discuss arguments, or they might focus on mechanics. But you could find out in advance.

But, in the bigger picture: the best way to act like you’re not in middle school is to approach your instructor, not with resentment, but with a request for more feedback.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:29 PM on March 29, 2022 [4 favorites]

Are you happy with your marks?

When I used to do essay marking (in History), an essay where I was doing this was usually one of the ones that hit all the right points of argument & evidence, well enough to not be remarkable, lacking obvious errors, and without being excellent enough to really remark on. It can be really difficult to make comment on an essay that's just Goldilocks-right.

I also recall being paid for ~10 marking minutes per 4,000 word essay, which reduced my motivation to elaborately comment as well...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:52 PM on March 29, 2022 [5 favorites]

In this context, comments about "writing style" usually emanate from people who a) are shit at writing and b) don't have the brains to engage with actual content. Don't worry about it.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:18 PM on March 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

Your writing could use improvement. I know this, because this statement applies to every undergraduate, graduate student, and yes, faculty too. We all have editors, thank goodness.

So the fact you are getting feedback on your writing doesn't strike me (a professor) as a problem, but what does seem odd is that you're getting no feedback on content/argument. For example, if I notice a student uses passive voice a lot, I will mention this, but in addition to evaluating their argument, use of evidence, etc.

So, this warrants a visit to office hours. bluedaisy is correct that the way to do this is to be as non-judgmental as you can, something like "I appreciate the feedback you've given me on my writing style, but I'm wondering what your thoughts are on my argument? This is a new field for me, so to be honest I was hoping you might help me refine it."

All that said - since you say this is a night/weekend course, I wonder if this means this is a community college course or a continuing education course taught by adjunct? Many adjuncts are wonderful and smart teachers, but they often have very large numbers of students, and really don't have time to give much feedback per student. Same for community college profs.
posted by coffeecat at 9:44 PM on March 29, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Weird perspective, but I (professor) would take it as a gift. My advisors never red-lined my dissertation and I wish I had kicked some bad prose style (er, what I really mean is.'prolix bullshitting') habits sooner. Took working with newspaper and magazine editors to realise close edits aren't middle school: they're just part of publishing. Is this prof a good editor? No, maybe not. But sustained close attention to the nuts and bolts of your writing? I DREAM ABOUT IT.

And, yes, go to office hours and explain your situation if you are a 'non traditional student' compared to the others taking this class.
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:00 PM on March 29, 2022 [5 favorites]

It's frankly weird to me that you're even complaining about this. From high school on (all the way through to not quite finishing a dissertation), I always had teachers or professors commenting on my writing choices. I did the same thing as a TA for my students. It's part of the education. Substance is not separable from style, particularly in the humanities. What kind of shockingly subpar institutions aren't doing this?
posted by praemunire at 10:44 PM on March 29, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone!

Raccoon409 - how did you know?! Thank you - this explains a lot!

I’m not US-based and this is an online course offered by a research institute. It’s a pass/fail course (I haven’t failed anything). I absolutely don’t mind getting feedback on my writing but I’m definitely frustrated that their feedback is limited to stylistic stuff. I’ll email them to ask for argument-based feedback but I genuinely believe their focus is on style not argument.
posted by bigyellowtaxi at 11:46 PM on March 29, 2022

Response by poster: Bluedaisy : I usually send over my essay plan before I start writing and their feedback is limited to “make sure you stick to 1-2 arguments and explore them” and not a critical examination of my arguments! Sigh.
posted by bigyellowtaxi at 12:08 AM on March 30, 2022

not a critical examination of my arguments! Sigh.

Your arguments are your arguments. It is not up to the teachers to become versed in your arguments so they can, um, argue with you. It is their job to help you present your arguments in the best way possible via improving your grammar, style, and academic rigour.
posted by Thella at 4:12 AM on March 30, 2022 [4 favorites]

Most professors (myself included) never give very detailed feedback on a paper draft/plan. There is a pedagogical reason for this - we want to see how well students can write/problem solve on their own. Any draft comments I give are more to serve as guardrails - so, if a student comes to me with a plan to cover way more material than is feasible in a five page paper, I might say "ok, good to see you've got lots of ideas, but make sure you stick to 1-2 arguments and explore them."

Even though it's an online course, can you have a Zoom meeting for office hours? I would do that rather than email about getting feedback on your arguments (for papers already marked).
posted by coffeecat at 8:22 AM on March 30, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Somehow Raccoon409 figured out what the issue was - I’m dealing with a different teaching style here. I’m used to argument-based feedback/some comments about the overall essay (even a line or two is more than enough) and not just stylistic stuff. It definitely boils down to a UK vs Francophone education system here. I probably should have specified that in my question - but I’ve learnt a lot about how feedback works in the US! :)
posted by bigyellowtaxi at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2022

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